Blogpost by Tea Meineche, Junior Researcher in ETHOS Lab and student in MSc Digital innovation & Management >>>
How to observe a phenomenon in virtual settings, through search engines or social media is a much-contested topic in STS (e.g. Marres 2015). This blogpost, however, argues that our online experiences and habitus shapes us as researchers outside the digital realm too.
This blogpost is based on my experience as an intern with a software company in autumn 2019. As many university interns, my purpose was two-fold: explore the labour market and build competencies and secondly make use of the academic skills set acquired through 4+ years of high education to examine a new organisation.
This process has been referred to as “going native”; you plunge into the field and absorb characteristics from it (Szulevicz 2015). Methodologically, it has been questioned whether this personal involvement with the field is beneficial to the scientific process (ibid.). Another interjection is whether the researcher can ask the right questions and bring forth localised knowledge and practices once immersed in this daily life (ibid.)
Inspiration on how to handle this dual position might be drawn from Ho (2009) who conducted three years of ethnographic research on Wall Street. Ho (2009) describes her entrance into the field as being “trained and immersed in the perspectives and mores of financial practices” (p.14) while reflecting on managing her immersion as such:
“My goal for the first year was to imbibe the general, taken-for-granted language and landscape of Wall Street, usually gathered through intense participant observation” (ibid)
These were the kind of reflections I had when I started my internship in autumn 2019. Interning with a company building software for political organisations, I set out to examine digitisation practices and the inherently contradictory statement of optimising and democratising political work by making it data-driven. A problem, I would need a language of the field site and an understanding of the taken-for-granted to explore.
What I, however, realised was, that shortly after getting my access card, the ultimate marker of my now inside position, I struggled to explain my observations to my peers and fellow STS’ers. There was no, to use Ho’s (2009) words, “awakening” or “surprising ethnographic encounters” (ibid). I seemed to have skipped the immersive step and jumped straight in struggling to explain the local. As an example, I presented a quote from an employee about how they believed their software would combat hierarchy in political organisations. When I was asked to explain why this was a problem in the first place, I could not.
This, I argue, is because my participation in this field did not start on September 1st 2019 but about eight years prior.
I, like Karen Ho, made use of certain connections to get this internship; connections from my years in youth politics. Specifically, the people I talked to about the internship were not people I knew personally but names I had seen frequently on the social media platforms of the party I joined.
The relationship between political engagement and social media has grown increasingly intertwined and contested the past decade (e.g. Karlsen et al. 2017). Since the Obama campaign in 2008, social media presence has been a pinnacle of political campaigns (Hong and Nadler 2012). One informant with extensive experience in politics explained it this way:
“I was on [candidate’s] campaign during the local elections in 2017. And actually, I ended up heading the HQ during that election. What I learnt was a lot about how to coordinate. There are so many people doing different things and really interesting, pioneering things too. Campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat, video material for the election, putting up posters. You have to keep up” (Field notes)
What this quote shows is first of all the extensive use of social media in today’s campaign work, but also a certain culture around social media use. A culture where “keeping up” and being plugged in and coordinated are idealised. This informant was not the only employee at the company in question with this background.
Working in the field of digitisation and politics, this social media culture was, to some extent the apex of this company; both in terms of the domain they worked in but also the social media content they would see in their personal feeds.
I too was a part of this. Having joined a political youth party, political work and my social media presence have co-constituted one another. The tweets of people I met in my early youth politics who have since been elected to parliament fill my twitter feed; campaign pictures make up a substantial part of my Instagram and messages on debate Facebook groups make every other notification I get.
This was the domain I set out to study in my internship. Little did I know I was already a participant. How do we translate ethical and methodological considerations on your participation in the field affects your study to a time when many fields also play out online? Much like Ho’s (2009) decision to live in a neighbourhood inhabited by a very different demographic than the investment banks she was studying, my use of social media changed during my fieldwork. I abandoned Facebook and Instagram completely and started following many non-political twitter users. While these decisions were made more as a reaction to looking at political social media presence professionally, it did also help me see the work and field in a new light.
The word echo-chambers has been used both academically and colloquially to describe how we increasingly find and only interact with like-minded people online (e.g. Sunstein 2007). Setting aside the critique this conceptualisation has received, I found that my field extended into my echo chamber.
Ho, K. Z. (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Duke University Press.
Hong, S., & Nadler, D. (2012). Which candidates do the public discuss online in an election campaign?: The use of social media by 2012 presidential candidates and its impact on candidate salience. Government Information Quarterly, 29(4), 455–461. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2012.06.004
Karlsen, R., Steen-Johnsen, K., Wollebæk, D., & Enjolras, B. (2017). Echo chamber and trench warfare dynamics in online debates. European Journal of Communication, 32(3), 257–273. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323117695734
Marres, N. (2015). Why Map Issues? On Controversy Analysis as a Digital Method. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 40(5), 655–686. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243915574602
Marres—2015—Why Map Issues On Controversy Analysis as a Digit.pdf. (n.d.).
Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Republic.com 2.0 (1. pbk. print). Princeton Univ. Press.
Szulevicz, T. (2015). Deltagerobservation. I S. Brinkmann, & L. Tanggaard (red.), Kvalitative metoder: En grundbog (2 udg., s. 81-96). Hans Reitzels Forlag.