One of the arguments that regularly crops up in my work is to call for the integration of various ‘traces’ in ethnographic research. This seemingly simple point actually poses a number of quite intricate challenges to the ways in which ethnography is traditionally practiced. One of the strands of this exploration of the potential of traces, the consideration of hyperlinks, leads to the wild and wonderful jungle of maps and mapping tool.
Among the many fruitful discussions begun during our visit to Barcelona, one had to do with the use of various mapping tools in our analysis of networking practices in women’s studies, as addressed in our lecture ‘Sisterhood, EU Funding and Networked Research: a virtual ethnography of the making of the Athena Thematic Network in Women’s Studies’. There are several aspects to this exchange, such as the point raised by Adolfo Estallela in a working session, about the use by his informants of certain types of maps. What does it mean when analysts and informants use similar tools? This question is especially interesting if they are not using them in the same way! What is then the ‘privileged’ position of the analyst? Is the analyst supposed to deconstruct (or debunk?!) the transparency of the tools and their representations?
Another related topic is the extent to which ethnographers, as analysts, can use these maps in constituting their objects. Elisenda Ardevol raised this issue in relation to a presentation about issue crawler, at the recent EUROQUAL meeting on digital qualitative methods in Cardiff. Elisenda describes, if I follow correctly, her relation to this mapping tool as ultimately disappointing for her purposes. The specifics of that disappointment are what I find so fascinating and useful in reflecting on virtual ethnography.
In our work on ATHENA (together with my colleague Johannes von Engelhardt) , we went several rounds with various tools. The joint effort had the beneficial effects of not only of pooling our complimentary expertise (Johannes delights in the exquisite statistical modulations of formal analysis), but also the added effect that since every decision needed to be communicated and coordinated between us, we hashed things out rather thoroughly.
Where disillusion threatened, we sometimes (though not always) came to a shared appreciation of the possibilities offered by various tools. One of the fruitful motifs that was repeated across these exchanges had to do with the notion of the ‘black box’. Can one hold against a mapping tool that it is a black box? It would seem disingenuous to do so… In doing ethnographic work, one works with black boxes all the time! Furthermore, I’m one of the black boxes too! The point is that at certain points, we all readily accept black boxes. No tool is entirely transparent. The question is not ‘is this a black box or not’, but rather, what do we find acceptable to find black boxed or not.
Different tools allow different angles of scrutiny and have different kinds of transparency, and as researchers, we have different demands for the accountability of tools. Whether we require published algorithms, easy to use/non command-line interfaces, stable databases, evocative forms of output, or tolerance for messiness, all these criteria have to do with the particular purposes we want these maps to fulfill, and the relative (privileged) place we want to grant them in constituting our object. Mapping tools as key informants really…