ethnographic skype

pith helmetOftentimes there is a confusion about what anthropological ‘fieldwork’ actually is. Following the dear, self-created myths of the profession the term ‘fieldwork’ (which—as a term and as a concept— has a longer tradition in sociology than in anthropology) is mixed up with the Riversian/Malinowskian paradigm: at least one year abroad + participant observation (roughly sketched). This is not fieldwork in general, but already one specific version of it. Things are made even worse by an utter uncertainty about what ‘participant observation’ (another dear myth of the profession) actually is. For seeing more clearly in this matter I only can recommend Spradley 1980 (sometimes not recommended by colleagues, but I think it to be a good book nevertheless) and Spittler 2001. Me personally, I am an ardent believer in Spittler’s radicalised form of ‘participant observation’, which he calls ‘thick participation’. But in order not to create yet another myth of the profession, one has to follow Spittler’s advice: complement participation by other methods. Systematic observation, quantitative methods like the ethnographic census, running-wild and structured interviews, and whatyouhave—everything the particular context dictates (see this online-available bibliography of anthropological research methods Dow 1992). Especially the ‘ethnographic interview’ is a strong instrument (Spradley 1979—highly recommended by almost every colleague I know). The whole bundle of all the methods used to gather data and insight while sojourning in the field constitutes ‘fieldwork’. Nothing less.

One aim of my project is to transpose anthropology’s rich and powerful methodology to the terra nova online: thick participation plus its weaknesses compensated by other methods like the ethnographic interview.

skypeQuite a number of papers on cyberculture tell us that computer-mediated communication (CMC) is ‘text’ to be read—obviously influenced by interpretative/postmodern currents. This seems plausible, especially as CMC oftentimes manifests itself as the exchange of the written word. But this all too obvious correllation is misleading. Life online has another quality to which the term ‘communication’ does not necessarily hint: action and interaction, the stuff anthropologists embrace. Furthermore is it not true that only text—in the literal sense—finds its way through the Internet-infrastructure. Images, both still and moving, sounds and music, software-applications, and code himself are exchanged lively via a multitude of channels—at least among ‘my people’. This bulk of exchange does not merely constitute communication. It is action. Despite of that, I confess, it is true that the larger part of communication between the members of my community happens through the written word. Set aside the occasional phone calls. But there is skype, a ‘voice over IP’ aka ‘Internet telephony’ no-cost long-distance service.

Phil Shapiro, who “takes an interest in how rich media on the Internet can assist in the creation of social fabric” published Using Skype as a Community Media Production Tool:

Among my favorite public television programs is the Charlie Rose Show. Host Charlie Rose has a knack for getting his interview subjects to share their ideas and views in a way that illuminates the matters at hand. But did you ever stop to think that the only people who appear on his show are celebrities? And that 99 percent of the interesting people in this world are not celebrities?

So, who is going to interview all those people? Answer: the people [and anthropologists!] will interview the people. What tool will they use to create high-quality interviews that can be widely distributed? Skype. How will these interviews be shared? Using all forms of media: the Internet, public access television stations, podcasting and various computer media. […]

As Damien Stolarz has put it, Shapiro provides us with a “Simple hack using Skype as an audio interviewing and archive tool. Instead of needing phone interview recording hardware (which you might not have) you can use computer tools (which you have in abundance).” This contains tremendous possibilities for every trustworthy cyberanthropologist. And if one agrees, that the theory-based generation of new forms of representing anthropological findings and knowledge indeed is a part of cyberanthropology, even more opportunities arise.
via Damien Stolarz‘s entry at o’reilly weblogs