Thursday, April 14

studying up & down...

[I didn't write this text, Anne Beaulieu did, reference here]

Subjectivity framed via ‘access’

An important approach to objectivity in ethnography focuses on establishing a particular kind of subjectivity of the ethnographer, which establishes her as able to know and speak about her object. This subjectivity can be expressed in ethnographic writing using widespread conventions, such as the use of first-person reporting of experiences. Another widespread convention is that of the arrival story, which sets the place of the ethnographer, the reader and the other (see (Pratt 1987). The ethnographer is the one who has travelled to far away places, unlike the reader who is ‘here’. The ethnographer has witnessed, first hand, the life of the object of study, and has come back to write about it, unlike those who have been the object of the ethnography and have remained ‘there’. A special subject position is thus created for the ethnographer. Hine (Hine 2000) notes that these arrival stories can be found in ethnographies of Internet and points to various examples (Baym 1995; Correll 1995). The issue of access as something exclusively available to the ethnographer may be a fiction that is more difficult to maintain in the context of the internet, if only in the face of the hype that defines the Internet in terms of its universal, unbounded ‘accessibility’[1] (more on this below).

There are also a number of ways in which access is argued to be a truly different issue with regards to the relation of readers, ethnographers and those studied, when the object of study is not set up as remote and far away. When studying scientists and the Internet as I do (or in looking at other science and technology contexts), those being studied usually already have other means of expression in the (scholarly) world than only via the ethnographic report. That is to say that the ethnographer’s account is not the ‘only’ text representing people or activities. Scientists have publications, webpages and media interventions, which may be more accessible or even better known to the reader than the ethnographer’s portrayal. This ‘studying up’[2] can challenge the position of the ethnographer as sole conduit to the exotic. This can lead to games of ‘whodunit’, where the ethnography is read as a roman a cle and the (famous) scientists are identified in various portraits of informants. It can also lead to the ethnographer to a conundrum as to how to use these written texts. It can be difficult to reconcile the conventions of providing anonymity to informants as far as possible, the presence and importance of these texts in the setting, and the academic conventions of providing citations.

Furthermore, the access that readers may have, not only to the people involved, but also to some of the phenomena witnessed, may also be different in the context of the internet. For example, a quotation from a posting to a newsgroup in an article can be quite easily traced using search engines. Given these multiple ways in which ‘access’ may be realized when dealing with mediated objects, the ethnographer as sole and privileged witness may be more difficult to uphold as a subject position and authorial voice.

To summarize, there are two main kinds of strategies relating to this theme. One is human-centered, in which the strategy of objectification then becomes one of recovering intersubjectivity in spite of the internet, of finding the people behind the webpages, or the colourful characters in the MUD. This approach can be quite sensitive to issues of mediated communication, and the agnostic standpoint in these accounts can be productive of interesting insights into the possibility of an internet sociality. Another set of strategies tries to explore, invest and draw benefits from alternative modes of intersubjectivity that can be enacted in internet contexts. The common implication of these strategies of objectifications is therefore a problematisation of the subjects as well as objects of ethnographic knowledge, or of the relations between them.

[1] The effects of such discourse about the radicality of new icts (including the democratic and open character of the Internet and its ability to level differences in ‘access’) are detailed in Steve Woolgar’s ‘five rules of virtuality’ in Woolgar, S. (2002). Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] This term denotes studying the more powerful, rather than those who are down, in relation to the ethnographer. Nader, L. (1972). Up the Anthropologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. Reinventing Anthropology. D. H. Hymes. New York, Pantheon Books: 284-311.


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