New Ways of Looking at Digital Ethnography: Methodological Rule-Breaking in the Digital Age

David Schutzbach (University of Frankfurt)

As with traditional ethnography, digital ethnography is a research method closely linked to the phenomena it seeks to study. In a broad sense, ethnography could be described as "a way of practicing research" (Pink et al. 2015: 2), furthering its breach with conventional qualitative empirical methods and underlining its focus on openness, reflexivity and proceduralism in research. Nonetheless, when it comes to the field of digital ethnography, certain rules or suggestions of "best practice" come to mind, one of which will play a bigger role in my elaborations on (digital) communication and co-operation: non-digital-centric-ness (Pink et al. 2015: 9-11).

I would like to contribute to the Methodenstreit regarding ethnology, which has been going on within the respective disciplines themselves but also between quantitative and qualitative empirical methodology as a whole. In response to this quarrel between subdisciplines in the social sciences, Strübing et al. (2018) proposed new criteria for qualitative research that are modeled after standards traditionally rooted in quantitative empirical research. I would like to take a closer look at one pre-existing standard for ethnology to transport this discussion into the theory of science.
When studying digital phenomena, non-digital-centric-ness stresses the importance of localizing the research subject outside the digital realm. The underlying logic of this approach presupposes the embeddedness of digital (research) objects in pre-existing social practices and orders. Detaching research from these real-life features would mean to lose focus on just this embeddedness and lose touch with the larger scale of traditional social science research. Therefore, the digital ought to be looked at indirectly, always aware of the fact that even primarily digital practices are not entirely digital. This enables researchers to locate the digital realm within a wider network of social structures and processes.

I would like to object to non-digital-centric-ness within digital ethnography for reasons that can be drawn from the research subject itself: the digital must not be seen as a set of regulative practices, merely (re-)shaping pre-existing social constructs, but as a generator of constitutive rules themselves. The surge of digital communication software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that modes of digital communication do not just transfer pre-existing everyday ways of interaction into the digital space; instead, they create a whole new caste of social situations and modes of interaction, each of which develop their own set of pathologies. A differentiated, digital-centric approach to digital ethnography enables us to not merely look at what might happen behind (or in front of) the screen, but to further investigate digital spaces as contorting mediums of the social.

Working From Home, Exploitation, and Alienation: Thinking the Future of Work in Digital Spaces

Lukas Schutzbach (University of Heidelberg)

During the sustained lockdowns and COVID-related social distancing, digital tools for communication and cooperation have become ubiquitous. Companies such as Facebook and Amazon even announced to maintain and extend remote working solutions after the pandemic. They promise benefits such as more freedom, flexibility, and self-management for their employees, although the flaws and exploitative potentials of these measures seem obvious. As Naomi Klein (2020) claims, a digitized "no-touch future" only increases isolation and alienation of workers, leaving them unprotected from hyper-exploitation while simultaneously rendering the individual worker's conditions invisible. At first glance, the relocation of work into the home appears to be an encroaching intrusion of work into private spaces, undermining the distinction of the spheres of leisure and labor accompanied by the insertion of technologies of isolation and surveillance. However, in line with an idea introduced by Slavoj Zizek (2014: 173-8), I would like to suggest that thinking about the inverse might result in a promising methodological opposition: the result of the increasing translation of work-related processes into digital spaces marks not only the dissolution of the boundaries between labor and leisure, but also the privatization of originally public spaces. Digital technologies aimed at connecting and maintaining collaborative relationships between workers during times of social distancing can be understood to paradoxically contribute to and amplify their isolation and alienation instead.

Communication via video conferences and digital meeting spaces, for instance, is rooted in the digitalization of the self, the insertion of the subject as surface into a liminal "hyperspace." The communicative medium detaches itself as a space not of communication but of digital re-construction of a decentered subject. Therefore, digital communication constitutes a simulacrum of public space, a detached simulation of cooperation and interaction which only serves to augment the digital alienation characteristic of our late modern societies even prior to the digital offensive during the pandemic.

No doubt, these technologies can be a temporary fix for the immediate hardships of social distancing; my interest, however, lies in the long-term effects, the naturalization of these structures beyond the current "state of emergency" could have on the future of work, regarding the stabilization of exploitative formations, and more broadly the configuration of intersubjective relationships, community, and solidarity.

About Digital Americas

Conference Countdown

[powr-countdown-timer id="a432407f_1622094608714"]

Social Media


If you'd like to get in touch, reach out on social media or send us an email.