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Online Ethnography Training Cycle: C-Urge Edition 2024



Organized by KU Leuven, this seminar series will explore pressing ethical, theoretical and methodological quandaries in digital ethnography. We are delighted to welcome the speakers of these six sessions who will present their expert insights and experience on topics such as collaborative and participatory research, digital tools, power dynamics, and more. Drawing from these reflective dialogues, the C-Urge PhDs will launch their own research projects in light of accelerating socio-environmental change and climatic urgency around the globe.

Conveners: Katrien Pype and Erin Quigley

Re-examining Power and Positionality within Digital Participatory Methods 

Aparajita Bhandari (University of Waterloo) 

Participatory research is a form of research inquiry that integrates, “investigation, educational work, and action”. Within this framework people are not merely the subjects of analysis; instead, they are–ideally–principal actors in the creation, collection, analysis and dissemination of the data. Although participatory research approaches have gained popularity across varying spheres of research—governmental, academia, non-profit—there are still limitations. While participatory research aims to “empower” community members and create a more equal power relationship between researchers and the people that they are studying, many participatory research projects still do not seriously and critically take into account larger matrices of power outside of the specific issue being studied.  In this seminar the focus is on interrogating and understanding the complex contours of power that exist between, within and among communities and research actors. We will discuss the varying challenges and limitations–theoretical, material, and ethical–that researchers may come up against when engaging in participatory research, especially within the realm of digital studies and work together to map out solutions and imagine more just alternatives 

Infrastructuring Collaborative Hermeneutics: Databasing Double Binds while Pursuing PECE 

Mike Fortun (UC Irvine), Kim Fortun (UC Irvine), Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and Lindsay Poirier (Smith College) 

In this presentation we discuss digital infrastructures as an "experimental system" for producing, curating, communicating and politically activating ethnographic knowledge.  We focus on our design, development, and use of the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), open source software supporting virtual research environments for cultural anthropologists, historians, cultural heritage scholars, and community organizations that working with–and openly share– diverse data (including extensive “unstructured” data) largely through interpretive methods. We present the multiple uses and ends of PECE: as a practical project to technically infrastructure ethnographic data sharing and collaboration; as a research project to explore and understand the limits and valences of digital space for archivization and knowledge production; as an inquiry into the intellectual, social, and political consequences of different data cultures and language (semiotic) ideologies; and as an experiment in counter-hegemonic forms of scholarly work, from community archives (such as the Formosa Plastics Global Archive, focused on activist data collection in highly polluted fenceline communities) to new forms of peer review and open access publication. 

The intelligent termination of the stupid human civilization 

Franco Berardi 

Journalists and scientists discuss about the dangers of unbridled application of Artificial Intelligence and about the need of ethical regulation, but military figures are not detained by this kind of doubts and hesitation. They cannot hesitate because of the fundamental rule of competition: the enemy might implement this technological possibility, so I cannot renounce to develop it. This is why the talk about developing or not certain applications of AI is nonsense. This why all the talk about ethical development of intelligent technology is bullshit. Intelligent technologies will be developed exactly because they are dangerous, exactly because they are deadly. The general function of the inorganic intelligent entity is to introduce the information order into the drive organism. The automaton has an ordering mission, but it encounters a factor of chaos on its way: the organic drive, irreducible to numerical order. The automaton extends its dominion into ever new fields of social action, but fails to complete its mission as long as its expansion is limited by the persistence of the human chaotic factor. 

Now the possibility arises that at some point the automaton will be able to eliminate the chaotic factor in the only possible way: by terminating human society. 

We can distinguish three dimensions of Reality: the existing, the possible and the necessary. The existing (or contingent) has the characteristics of chaos. The evolution of the existing follows the lines of the possible, or those of the necessary. The possible is a projection of will and imagination. The necessary is implicit in the strength of biology, and now also in the strength of the logical machine. The cognitive automaton allows us to foresee the extermination of the contingent by the necessary, which naturally implies an annulment of the possible, because there is no possible without the contingency of the existent. 

Whatever works: digital ethnography as a flat methodology 

John Postill (RMIT) 

In this talk I draw from twenty years practising digital ethnography in the UK, Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain and Australia to appraise this methodology, with social movement research as the focus. I start with a brief overview of digital ethnography as a fuzzy, free-spirited variant of qualitative research. I then compare two projects of mine separated by a decade: a hybrid (online/offline) study of Spain’s indignados movement in the early 2010s (Postill 2018) and a recent online ‘lurking’ study of the anti-woke movement. I argue for the versatility of digital ethnography as a ‘flat methodology’ that need not elevate any one method above others, not even participant observation (Postill in press). This agnosticism gives researchers a license to do ‘whatever works’ – if they can overcome, that is, the epistemological and institutional anxieties that often go with this seemingly anarchic way of doing things.

Social (Media) Distancing:  On digital espionage and ethics in the field 

Jennifer Cearns (UCL)

While anthropology has long privileged physical proximity and presence as a central tenet of ethnographic method, digital methods can also afford a certain sense of social distance, which in fact can be beneficial to the research process. This talk will draw on my experiences of fieldwork both online and offline amongst marginalised groups in Cuba and its diaspora in Miami to explore the ways in which digital distance can level the relationship between researcher and researched, and ultimately lead to a more ethical way of carrying out fieldwork amongst vulnerable communities.

Researching Materiality Digitally 

Hannah Knox (UCL) 

In this seminar we will explore methods and approaches for understanding material relations using digital tools. Many anthropologists have turned their attention in recent years to analysing social life through a materialist lens. Drawing on approaches from STS, material culture studies, environmental anthropology and the anthropology of infrastructure, anthropologists have become well versed in analysing how social relations are produced, challenged and mediated through materials – from concrete to sand, mould to dust, water, heat or energy. But our experience of materials is not only immediate and embodied but is frequently itself mediated through digital systems of analysis and representation. Climate is a perfect of example of this, an aggregate of traces collected around the world, modelled through statistical analysis and formed into computational projections. How as anthropologists should we make sense of such materialities in their digital mediation? 

In this seminar we will explore how digital systems are mediating materialities and with what social effects? We will consider some of the approaches that have been taken to digital materiality – from critical analyses of power and control, to collaborative practices of digital activism. We will then have the opportunity to discuss how you anticipate digital materiality might manifest in your research, with a discussion about ethnographic and collaborative possibilities for analysing and engaging these processes. 

To prepare for this seminar I would like you to think about how materiality figures in your own PhD project. What kinds of materials are people you are doing research with focused on? What are they trying to do with or on these materials? In what ways are these materialities digitally mediated? Who are the actors involved in the mediation (people, platforms, devices, methods)? Who is included/excluded by these digital mediations? Do you think ethnography could contribute to making these mediations better? How would this be done in practice? 

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