Home > context, Ethnography, Process > Old school ethnographers moving to online research

Old school ethnographers moving to online research

In early 2019, one of our clients asked us to do an interview and video diary study for them entirely online. We were open to the idea but a little skeptical. We had never done online research before and it seemed almost sacrilege to go against the long tradition of ethnographers immersing themselves, physically, in the research setting. We wondered exactly how far removed it would it be from our typical work. The interviews would lack much of the context of an in-person interview, and that is a real sacrifice. Still, we reasoned that if we weren’t getting much contextual, observational data from the interviews, we’d still be getting it through online video diaries. We had done similar video diaries for years where we send our participants cameras and ask them to document their lives, and we never doubted the soundness of these diaries. After all, Sol Worth and his colleagues were doing similar work over 50 years ago, handing their film cameras over to their participants to make movies. It isn’t much of a stretch to argue that video diaries, whether you’re using film, a camcorder, or a mobile phone, is an established ethnographic method.

After a little hemming and hawing, we decided that although nothing beats doing research in context, we could still get great data online by approaching it ethnographically. Once we actually got the project up and running, we were pleasantly surprised at just how good that data could be. This article will explore some of the practical and methodological challenges we experienced during our first foray into online research, and why we believe that ethnography online is a great option when in-person research may not be practical.

Diving in

Diving into this new way of doing research was a little stressful. With ethnography you want to feel like you’re at least in control of the process since what we’re studying, real life, is often so chaotic. Some of the transition to online research was easy. Participants typically go through a screener prior to the research so we can make sure they’re a good fit for the project. With our in-person research, we do this over the phone and often, at least parts of it, through an online questionnaire. Moving this screener entirely online was just a matter of learning the ins and outs of this new platform’s questionnaire tool. Transitioning to online interviewing was fairly easy too. Some nonverbal cues are different when talking to someone online, but being longtime users of Facetime, Skype, and the like, we adapted quickly.

Other aspects of moving our process online proved a little more challenging. Creating the video diary guide required a reset in our thinking. Where we typically could ask anything in a video diary guide, we had to be a little choosier—the particular platform we were using allowed only a certain number of open-ended video questions so we had to design the questions carefully make sure our data was as rich and as ethnographic as possible. We could fill in the blanks with text-based questions for the more straightforward data, but it took some consideration to construct the guide in a way that produced data that was as full of the vitality we’re accustomed to and that our clients expect from us.

There was a learning curve with the technology too. The vast majority of our sample had never used the platform and despite its general ease of use, tech issues did arise. When participants ran into a snag, they tended to come to us and not the platform’s official support channels. This was fine, but it caused a shift in our communication with participants. Typically, our interactions with diary participants are mostly about what they should be recording and when they should be sending back their memory cards. Although we were still having conversations about content and timing, we also were spending more time providing tech support. We relied on our contact at the platform to help with tech issues at first, but after a while we were able to address most questions ourselves.

The limitations

With the platform we used, each video that participants recorded could only be two minutes long. This limitation can be problematic and was a main reason we had strayed from online video diaries in the past. Our video diaries typically include activities like, “Show us every time you do this,” and this project was no exception. Luckily doing “this” was using our client’s device—something that would typically take less than two minutes to do. In contrast, if we wanted them to show us how they prepare dinner, we might have had an issue (unless a frozen pizza was on the menu). Other online platforms allow you to record more than two minutes at a time, but if we needed a diary that included long stretches of recording whole acts, sending participants camcorders might be the better option.

The other major limitation with doing research online is obvious—you’re not there. Here, having the observational data from the video diaries is a life saver, but if you are just doing online interviews? You can still collect a little contextual data by having your participant do a “show and tell” or take you on a house tour if you’re using a platform that supports mobile devices. There’s also no harm in just relying more on interview data. It’s hard to argue against the value of observational research, but there is a lot of insight to be gained through interviews alone.

The benefits

After getting past the learning curve and getting a handle on some of the limitations, we believe online research provides incredible value. Here are a few of its advantages.

Speed. In theory you could decide to do research in the morning and have data coming in by that afternoon, compared to a traditional, camcorder diary where it takes a participant a couple of days to get a camera, they record for a period of time and then we only get their recordings back a couple of days after they drop their memory cards off at FedEx. Online research is much faster.

Participant progression. Since you can see data as it comes in, you can give participants direction if they aren’t recording the quantity or types of entries you need. You can send them a friendly note offering advice and reminding them to stay on track. Online research also allows for in-the-moment follow-ups on their recordings to dig deeper.

Although ethnographers aren’t inclined to like set, structured questions, the structure of online research is another way that ensures that participants are progressing and recording the kinds of data you need them to. These platforms typically have a series of questions for the participants to complete, and the researcher can tell exactly what they’ve done and what they still need to do. It might lead the participant to mentally tick off a box and not record more than they might have otherwise, but it also ensures they tick off that box to begin with.

Client involvement. Clients can be more involved in online studies. Attending in-person research might not always be practical, but online research is more accessible since no travel is required. The data from online video diaries is also immediately available to clients, and they can interact directly with diary participants if that’s something they want to do. As insiders to their business, they’ll have different perspectives and questions than we do as ethnographers. They might see participants use their products in ways or contexts they’ve never seen before and want to learn more about their motives and rationales. Online research makes that easy.

Although nothing can replace in-person research for us, old school ethnographers, we see tremendous value in doing research online. You can still meet real people, hear their stories, and observe them going about their daily lives, even if it might come in shorter snippets. We always say that ethnography is more of an approach to understanding than a specific method, and if online platforms allow us to get a real-life, inductive glimpse into people’s lives, isn’t that the point?

Categories: context, Ethnography, Process
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