Exploring the Digital Information Experiences of Ethnographers

Dr Faye Miller

Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Over the past year I have had the privilege of being involved in the development of the open access journal Global Ethnographic. So far the work-in-progress has been a virtual collaboration between the editorial team in Japan, Australia and the USA. I have learned that developing an international publication across several different time zones has as many benefits as it has challenges. The following piece contains my ‘notes from the field’ including reflections and observations during my time with Global Ethnographic. Although in my case, my experience is an interdisciplinary one that crosses between two fields: my own discipline of information ecology and the field of applied ethnography, which interests me greatly as a generalist qualitative researcher.

There are two main reasons I chose to be involved in the development of Global Ethnographic:

1) GE is truly passionate about supporting and embodying innovative publishing for theoretical and practical aspects of ethnography/anthropology; and

2) GE is committed to making high quality ethnographic research more accessible and engaging for readers from both academia and industry.

When I accepted the position of Knowledge Strategist for GE, my main aims were:

–       to facilitate the leveraging of existing knowledge by building the team through regular monthly meetings and recruiting volunteers with relevant expertise, and

–       to discover new knowledge by identifying relevant networks and individuals, and promoting the journal to expand our readership and encourage quality submissions to a popular platform for anyone interested in ethnography.

In support of these aims, I have been developing a research project that has grown from informal discussions with the GE team. In order to design and provide the most relevant and useful digital open access platform, we need a better understanding of how different types of ethnographers experience using information in digital spaces. This research issue can be divided into several research questions about the users and their digital spaces, including:

–       Who are the ethnographers using or potentially using the content on our website?

–       What are ethnographers’ specific needs from an open access ethnographic journal?

–       How and why are they interacting/not interacting with our content?

–       What is unique or interesting about GE?

–       What are the digital spaces most important to ethnographers and their work and why are they important?

The following sections contain early observations to begin answering some of the above questions, based on this year’s experiences through GE initiatives and exploration of the current ethnographic landscape.

Who are the ethnographers and what are their specific needs from GE?

I have identified several types of ethnographers who could potentially be readers of, and contributors to the publication. These are:

Students (Bachelor, Honours, Masters and PhDs) – some are specialising in anthropology, some are qualitative researchers from a range of other disciplines like health, education, business, information and humanities. Early career researchers from this group potentially submit ethnographic research findings as a way of building their research profiles and impact through social media promotion, and gaining feedback from other ethnographers on early stages of projects. Students are usually eager to learn from other ethnographers about their varied fieldwork experiences, application of methodology and current debates in the field. Many, but not all students, are active users of social media for receiving and sharing research information. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Academia.edu, blogs and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) are becoming acceptable forms of scholarly communication with broad impact and research utilization now key goals when considering where to publish work, alongside the traditional commercial journals.

Academics (Lecturers, Postdoctoral Researchers and Professors) – some are specialising in anthropology, ethnography or other qualitative disciplines. Established academics potentially submit alternative versions of published works for promoting their ethnographies to a wider readership. While it is likely that established academics interact within their own developed networks, the challenge remains to help promote GE as a current and future space for balanced open access research that combines quality peer reviewed processes and social media impact.

Industry Professionals (Industry Researchers and Popular Media) – come from a wide range of backgrounds and use ethnography as a research methodology to make recommendations on experience design for developing new products and services. For example, Silicon Valley technology giants as well as marketing and design firms worldwide are increasingly employing ethnographers to gain deep insight into the digital terrain and more broadly, the everyday worlds of their users. Industry ethnographers are generally interested in keeping up to date with ethnographic methods and issues, particularly how they can be applied in various contexts.

In the popular media, for example writers, journalists and documentary makers, while not usually referred to as ‘ethnographers’, sometimes use ‘researcher as participant’ ethnographic interview and periodical observation methods. Popular writers may interact with GE through social media on topics of interest (i.e. Twitter and Facebook), or in some cases may submit articles or collaborate with academic or multimedia ethnographers.

How will the data be collected and analysed?

Research data would be collected using methods of ethnographic observation and semi-structured interviews with six participants, two from each user group: students, academics and industry. Participants will be selected based on their interest/commitment to contributing to ongoing development of Global Ethnographic and their capacity to be ‘observed’ during a four week period as they develop an ethnographic project of their choice. During this period, each participant will be interviewed twice a week (30 minutes per week) and may participate in video conferencing for potential visual observation of project. Conversations will be informal and questions will be based around the main research questions as previously mentioned.

Data analysis will involve content analysis of dialogue and visuals generated from the series of interviews. This will allow us to begin to gain a more in-depth understanding of the lived experiences of different types of ethnographers and their needs within a digital landscape and how they interact with digital information in both online and offline worlds. Findings from this research will be used to improve our digital platform and social media strategies for everyone with an interest in ethnography.

If you are interested in participating in this research, please email info@globalethnographic.com with a short introduction letter outlining your background, why you are interested in participating, which user group category you are in (student, academic or industry professional) and your pitch for an ethnographic project you would like to be observed developing over the 4 week period.

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