I finished Madden’s Being Ethnographic and ended a little confused. The final chapter Madden devotes to considering cyber-ethnographies and human-animal relationship. Eh? He connects them in. And I was left wondering if (and if so, why) ethnography necessarily has to be human centred.
Let me be clear: I'm not making a super-serious study of ethnography. I'm dabbling because I think there are parallels between ethnography and journalism and I can see myself using ethnographic concepts in digital storytelling.
At the start of the text Madden gives a working definition of Ethnography: “An ethnographic text is an interpretive and explanatory story about a group of people and their sociality, culture and behaviours, but it is not a fictionalised account; it is a narrative based on systemically gathered and analysed data.”
A few paragraphs later, “it is description and analysis coming together to answer questions and build theories.”
It’s funny, but this is a bit like I understand journalism: contextualising and curating a storied reality.
I must confess my idea of what ethnography is ― and indeed what any field researcher does― came from Star Trek’s prime directive: ‘observe and record but never interfere.’ But observe and record, what? How people live. Ok. “Behaviours” “culture” “systemically”. Ethnography looks at how systems interact, does it not?
When Madden moves to the discussion about whether or not animals should be considered as people in ethnographic research because of the way (if I understand his very truncated argument correctly) they have such agency over human’s actions and are placed in such a way that humans are reliant upon them, I started to wonder (and Madden gets at this) how important agency is to ethnographic study.
Madden takes the comparison to cyber-ethnography and asks whether it’s acceptable to use “technology-mediated sociality” (175) as primary resource.
VOIP kills body language but it was much with the telephone. Skype is video but the experience still detracts, and especially with the time delay as is common using internet relayed video-‘telephone’ interrupts communication.
I am looking at whether the form of digital documentary and social media communication can be separated from the content and I’m leaning towards that it can’t (will get back on this another time). I wonder if there should be questions around how much either the internet or the form of communication could or should be considered as agentic in ethnography in a similar sense to pets. If we consider the Bennett (2010)* as things as “vibrant matter”; that is, things have a “thingyness” (her word, really not kidding) about them that when they are placed in a network by humans enables them to have agentic capacities on humans via a feedback effect (much like social media? see previous post). That is, inanimate objects end up functioning in a way other than practically meant by humans.
“Animals as human are a different sort of ‘virtual’ human to those encountered in cyber societies. The intersubjective experience that lies at the heart of all good ethnographic encounters becomes problematic if one were to treat animals as fully fledged ethnographic participants.” (183)
If Ethnography is the study of systems of social interaction, cannot we do an ethnography of a network? Perhaps an ethnography of a network in which a human is a node?
Upcoming work: a day in the life of the mobile professional, pitched to WorkSnug. :D staytuned!
*she draws on older, much more established network theory