Written by: Jasmin Katharina Shokoui
Lessons learned about accepting limits and questioning our research interests
Digital technologies surround us constantly. The smartwatch on our wrist tells us that our heart rate is just a little faster than usual while we enter an important meeting at work. Our phone tells us that we received a new e-mail from our boss at 11 p.m., while we wanted to head to bed. Our computer captures our attention eight hours a day during office hours, and our smart TV brings Hollywood into our bed at 8 p.m. It is these and many more situations in which digital technologies catch our attention. Sometimes we are aware of this, and often we are not. This intimate relationship many people living in our society have with digital technologies has enabled progress and comfort. Our fast-paced way of life is by now deeply ingrained in our social structures. Keeping up with this is part of the plethora of modern-day social expectations on us (Sutton 2020; Syvertsen 2020).
During the Covid-19 lockdowns in Denmark, digital technologies helped sustain many workspaces and personal contacts while distancing socially. As Denmark is returning from covid restrictions, more and more people seem to feel the need to limit their exposure to digital technologies by practising digital detox or digital self-care. It seems as though there is a double strain put onto the individual who has to keep up with the digital expectations but also take part in the offline world again. A prime example of this is the feeling of having to decide whether we want to attend an interesting online event or go to an analogue gathering.
Learning by doing ethnographic research
A fun idea
During my internship at ETHOS Lab, I witnessed this return to the office, and the strain it has produced. This directed me to carry out a research project on ‘digital detox’ practices and imaginaries. As ETHOS Lab was organising events about practising digital self-care, I decided to use the opportunity to conduct a participant observation. It seemed fun to participate in exciting events and use the observations as the data for my research project. Mostly, though, I wanted to learn more about ethnographic fieldwork by experiencing the research process first-hand. As you can probably guess, lessons were learned, and I learned the hard way.
Full transparency, the last time I heard about participant observation was in the third semester lecture on Qualitative Methods of my Sociology Bachelor, three years ago. Being familiar with other qualitative research methods, like semi-structured or narrative interviews or discourse analysis, I thought, how hard can it be. I knew that participant observation is an ethnographic method requiring the researcher to dive into a setting and observe the social situation while participating. A challenge for the researchers is engaging fully in the situation while also withdrawing from it to reflect on it from time to time. This process involves a constant change in roles from a participant to the researcher (Honer 1995). While conducting ethnographic research, the participating observer should remain open-minded and be present in the situation.
A theoretical basis of participant observation is phenomenology, which dates back to Edmund Husserl. Everything can be of importance and worthy of acknowledgement. The findings are noted down in jottings and fieldnotes. In a second step, the observer regains distance. The observations are then depicted in detail and analysed. A helpful tool to note thoughts and conclusions leading to the analysis are memos. (Honer 1995; Bakewell 2018) What I did not know was how to treat the data gathered while gaining distance from the research objects.
Reality check: Messy data diaries
In September and October, I took part in the events on digital self-care, and I also conducted some internet ethnography, observing talks and events that were accessible to me. Soon, I ended up with pages full of detailed descriptions of observations, which partially conflicted and led me in different directions. Overwhelmed with messy data, I had no idea how to make sense of the findings in a concise research project or a blog post. I will dive deeper into mapping the empirical material in my second blog post, but for now, I will focus on two of the outcomes of my initial readings and research to illustrate how divergent the results were.
As Theodora Sutton has argued (Sutton 2020), digital detox communities claim that the use of technology needs to be limited to prevent this. As she showed in her ethnographic research on digital detoxers in Silicon Valley, a frequently used argument is that technology “re-wires our brain” (Sutton 2020: 5). Hence the usage of technology needs to be limited to prevent this. Digital detox communities build on ideas borrowed from neuroscience to make claims about “the brain”, attempting to connect their experiences to research (Sutton 2020). A different frequently used argument is that digital technologies impact our social ability to communicate effectively. Scholars argue that we practice less and less face-to-face communication due to the emergence of digital technologies while we face an increasing amount of communication via e-mail or texts. The difference is that we do not need to respond immediately within a few seconds of reaction time when we reply to a written message. Other digital detox communities argue that we should limit our exposure to these technologies to maintain the skill of engaging spontaneously in the respective situation (Sutton 2020; Kampel 2020).
To sum up, the first idea is based on something I would call pseudo-neuroscience. The second idea can probably be located between the disciplines of sociology and communication science. As you can tell, these argumentations lead in entirely different theoretical directions, which can sometimes be hard to combine. How do you deal with that as an ethnographic researcher?
First, I tried to follow all the directions to include the diversity of the findings in my research project. However, I struggled to find a research question that would enable me to present my research condensed and meaningful with this approach. Second, I needed a theoretical foundation that would connect my research to an established field of research. But how do you find one theoretical concept that allows a framework for an extensive array of factors that partially contradict each other or head into different objectives?
Advice: So that you will not have to repeat my mistakes
It was only in Mid-November that I had an insightful conversation with Rachel Douglas-Jones and Marisa Cohn, the co-heads of ETHOS Lab. Discussing my research activities with Rachel and Marisa, I have come to reflect on insights about the ethnographic research process, particularly relevant to digital detox scenarios, which are global in scope and draw in multiple bodies of literature.
1. Acknowledge your limits, and do not make lists
First, it is important to know your limits and prioritise what you would like to include in your empirical findings. Ethnographic research outcomes are not about including every aspect you observe in the field. It is not about making lists and sharing them with the readers. It is ok to acknowledge that you have a limited scope and time and work within these limits and boundaries. Practising ethnographic research within the given limits also means that it is ok to pick from your findings and take the space and the time to describe them detailed and thoroughly. Ethnographic work thereby lives on describing the journey of how you arrive at your findings by taking the readers to the scenery and the situations that you observed. (Fortun 2009)
2. Which kind of researcher do you want to be?
For my project, this meant that I had to start scoping the material and deciding which stories I would like to tell. I began by asking a question that I could actually answer. So far, my current research question has been: “What are the socio-technical imaginaries that drive the digital detox trend in Denmark?”. Without reflecting on it, I had used a vocabulary that could indicate a quantitative study. The words trend and drive suggested that I had conducted a longitudinal study based on statistical figures, which demonstrated how the ‘trend’ of digital detox has been evolving over the last couple of years. As a trained sociologist, I had always felt compelled to aspire to the stars and ask questions that could have been answered in five PhD projects and seven books. Often, the questions I posed required more knowledge about causalities and correlations that necessitate quantitative analysis.
The strength of ethnography is though to make situated observations about local scenarios. It is more about describing the environment than explaining why things are the way they are and how they relate to other phenomena. “You have to decide which kind of researcher you want to be”, is what Rachel advised me to question myself. I am still not sure how to answer that question. What I know, though, is that I would love to explore it further. Taking an ethnomethodological stance while looking at the phenomenon of digital detox and asking how I can understand it seems to be an excellent place to start.
Following this advice, I started by asking a more descriptive research question. Instead of trying to find out how socio-technical imaginaries drive the digital detox trend in Denmark, I asked how we can understand the practices of digital detox since that is what I have observed in practice. Leaving the theoretical concept of socio-technical imaginaries out of the research question, so it was available in my analytical vocabulary, also enabled me to apply more than one theory to the material without explaining why I included one of them in the research question and the other one not.
3. Ethnography – not only a fun methodology but a key to lived experience
Finally, having arrived at a feasible research question and being able to limit the scope of the findings that I will include in my report, I can enjoy the benefits of taking an ethnographic approach to studying the phenomena of digital detox. This method is especially useful and appropriate in this setting as digital detox is a phenomenon that highly relies on personal experiences. For example, members beginning a digital detox often described finding themselves in emotional states like being “overwhelmed with all this exposure to digital technologies” and feeling the need to “find a vessel” in the rather extreme form of complete withdrawal.
Digital detox movements often strive to achieve a bodily re-enchantment by creating lived experiences of presence and mindfulness in the analogue world. These processes can best be understood by participating in the movements and becoming part of the communities of subjects of the research. Instead of relying on another person to talk about their experiences with digital detox or on quantitative surveys painting an abstract picture on the scope of the phenomenon, ethnography and especially participant observation allowed me to join digital detox communities and observe their and my own journey first-hand. I did not only have access to the tools used to detox and the resources people committed to, but also to the personal experiences people made practising digital detox and their emotional states. I generated valuable data from this, which I can rely on for my final report and these blog posts.
Bakewell, S. 2018. Das Café Der Existenzialisten. 8. Aufl. München: C.H. Beck. Accessed September 27, 2021. https://www.chbeck.de/bakewell-cafe-existenzialisten/product/16551096.
Fortun, K. 2009. “Scaling and Visualizing Multi-Sited Ethnography: Chapter 3.” In Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, edited by M.-A. Falzon, 73–85: Ashgate.
Honer, A. 1995. “Das Perspektivenproblem in Der Sozialforschung: Bemerkungen Zur Lebensweltlichen Ethnographie.” In “Wirklichkeit” Im Deutungsprozess: Verstehen Und Methoden in Den Kultur- Und Sozialwissenschaften, edited by T. Jung and S. Müller-Doohm. 2. Aufl. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Kampel, L. 2020. “Digitised Mindfulness Project: Exploring the Potential of Digital Mindfulness for Improving the Mental Health of University Students.” Thesis to require a Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Medicine, School of Psychiatry, The University of New South Wales. Accessed September 15, 2021. http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/fapi/datastream/unsworks:77100/SOURCE02?view=true.
Sutton, T. 2020. “Digital Re-Enchantment: Tribal Belonging, New Age Science and the Search for Happiness in a Digital Detoxing Community.” Oxford Internet Institute; Mansfield College, University of Oxford.
Syvertsen, T. 2020. Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting. Society Now. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://ebookcentral-1proquest-1com-1008395r6011e.emedia1.bsb-muenchen.de/lib/bsb/reader.action?docID=6134603.