Article originally published on the GreenBook blog.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all aspects of life have been reframed, reimagined, or otherwise rearranged. Everything from business to pleasure, big events and routine minutia, have felt the impact. It should come as no surprise that in-person ethnography, so dependent on immersion in real life, has been put on hold. Understandably, many of those in innovation and research are asking themselves, “Is it worth doing research when life seems so unreal...and I can’t even do research the way I want to?”
The short answer is yes: change is happening and it’s real. Ethnographic approaches - even mediated through digital tools - are some of the best ways to map the shifting sands. As some industries change dramatically, and at an accelerated pace, research shouldn’t wait.
To explore this in full, first we need to review the goals and intent at the core of ethnographic methods. The first things that come to mind is in-person/in-home interviews and cultural immersions. Ethnography seeks to understand humans in their natural settings through qualitative observation and interaction. You might say, it captures how humans act and feel in the “real world.” To get to these natural settings, we go where the action is: the exact places, times, and spaces where decisions are made, lives are lived, or mindsets are influenced.
Alas, getting to where the action is not so easy right now. We can’t effortlessly hop on a plane to become guests in people’s homes or shadow them as they go about their days. So we can’t immerse ourselves in participants’ “there” when we are isolating in our own “here”. Or can we? A limitation does not have to be a negation; even a limited color palette can yield a richly detailed rendering of daily life.
Is this the real world?
No matter how you slice it, we are living in a moment of upheaval and alienation. Time and space seem warped and our real world feels more like an alternate reality. Most are struggling to connect with those they are used to being in close contact with and even feeling further from associations and networks which, while not closely held, did provide meaningful context or support.
To be sure, the pandemic is extreme and tragic, but life is always dynamic. Without downplaying the extent of the impact of COVID-19, we always do our research in front of a background of some form of change, be it macro-disruptions like economic downturns and racial tension to personal struggles or family crises. This is part of the real world and our methods need to be up to the task.
As we look to remote tools, are we losing some realness?
While the pandemic has pushed us to rely more on technology, whether research is being conducted in-person or not a social interaction is taking place, and those human interactions are still very real. This awareness is one of the things that defines ethnography. Anthropologists, ethnography’s inventors, have embraced that our face-to-face work is inherently social. While researchers and participants being in the same room certainly facilitates our work, distance and mediation through webcams and smartphones is not an insurmountable hurdle to a social engagement. So long as the complex layers and subtle nuances of human interaction are accounted for and nurtured, real life can be tapped remotely to get quality data and meaningful insights.
Here we share some considerations, observations and key takeaways important for transitioning in-person ethnographic work into the remote environment. As we look at some of the building blocks for social interactions, we find parallels between the in-person and the online. Taking care to consider these can both help prepare for ethnographic teams for remote research and better face-to-face work as social distancing restrictions life. In short, the real world is alive and well in the remote, it just may require a different level of effort and intention to rethink the social interactions required when mediating research through technology.
Breaking the Ice: Meetings and Greetings
Starting can be the hardest part, not to mention the most important. People are not inclined to jump into deep conversation with strangers without going through some formalities. Luckily for us, every culture has norms which make entering into an interaction and making initial connections smooth, efficient, and hopefully less awkward.
- How this Emerges in Person: Going into people’s homes as strangers is pretty weird when you think about it. It’s the participant’s space - they are the host and we are their guests. We all know the steps in the social dance - they invite us in, we offer to remove our shoes, they take ours coats and offer us a drink, we politely refuse (or accept as long as it’s no trouble at all), and the host offers to show us around. Finally, we settle in for our chat.
- How this Emerges Online: Handshakes or finding out where someone is from has clear parallels on line. Once we introduce ourselves by name, we naturally look to our virtual environments for common ground. Technological glitches and mute button mishaps are just as good as lamenting the weather for our purposes. Everyone has those experiences, but no one spends much time talking about them. So, just like that we find connection.
On the surface, little vital information is shared during these five or ten minutes. The story behind an interesting trinket in a participant’s living room or comparing the quirks of Zoom vs. FaceTime is basically never mission critical to a project. They are essential to the later success of the discussions. We need to navigate the accepted formulas of social interaction regardless of proximity.
Establishing Trust and Affirming Social Safety
Anyone can chat about the weather and mute buttons. That’s just a first step. Next we must build a stronger trust. Sometimes trust is about the basics of physical safety and respect. So much of this goes unspoken and unnoticed in our lives. Consider interactions as small as acknowledging another person as you pass on the sidewalk. Regardless of the length it lasts, a relationship has started. The sliver of rapport is built and you agree to not walk in their path, and instead trust the other to simply walk as socially prescribed. The work gets more involved when we want the participant to feel that “this is someone I can talk to.”
How this Emerges in Person: You are probably not aware of it, but when people get together in the same physical space, we use a complex set of cues to confirm that we can trust each other. As strangers come together in a research setting, the informal interaction before things get started are a dance for connection and comfort. Even the check-in process of a research study leverages participants’ mental checklists for judging if an interaction is safe and can be trusted.
As they enter and are greeted, they have a verification process engaged:
√ Yes, this is the right place.
√ Yes, this is a research study.
√ No, this is not a ruse to get me to a location where I’m going to be murdered. (or more simply, I am safe)
√ Yes, I agree to participate in exchange for this incentive.
√ Phew, there are snacks!
How this Emerges Online: The technology for bringing these remote research interactions online does not change the human need for connection, trust, safety and relationship-building. In fact they become more essential and require more effort to reproduce in digital environments. In virtual spaces, there is just as much complexity in how we interact with each other and how we confirm that we can trust each other.
A participants’ virtual checklist for verification is not that different:
- Yes, this is the right place.
- No, my home address and videos are not being displayed to others. (my information and identity is safe)
- Oh, neat, there are real researchers here to interact with and share with, how cool. I was expecting a boring survey.
- Perhaps we can share a anecdote about our Zoom backgrounds before getting started
The Roles and Responsibilities of Ethnographer and Participant
Humans are wired for pattern recognition. We are always asking ourselves, albeit subconsciously, “How should I act in this situation?” Humans look to context in order to understand how to behave, speak, and interact with others. How we act and how we speak is incredibly tied with our familiarity of the format of interaction. As we will see that means giving control to the participant by undoing any sense that we are experts just because we know how to do ethnography.
How this Emerges in Person: As social animals, we cannot feel comfortable when we don’t know how to act towards others in a given situation. In person, we use contextual clues to figure out the goal of the interaction and what our roles should be. Take an everyday transactional experience: walking up to a counter in a store. We all know that the goal of the interaction is a purchase and one of us is the customer and the other is cashier. We have played out this scene thousands of times and go on “auto-pilot.” We inherently know what to do, say, ask, and even how long the interaction should last.
We have internalized countless such social protocols from habit and repetition from boarding a plane to chatting with a dental hygienist. Ethnographers, however, have to pull an extra trick. We need to take the fact that participants often see us as professionals or experts and flip that to make the participant feel in control. In effect, this makes the participant high status in the interaction and will encourage them to show us their view of the world instead of deferring to ours.
How this Emerges Online: In the digital world, this can be tricky, especially among strangers. Context clues are limited. We don’t have our physical presence, body language, or shared space to draw on. Since technology continues to evolve rapidly, protocols of the kind we use with cashiers simply aren’t as widely recognized. Furthermore, using a computer to surf the internet or stream content makes some people feel like an audience member rather than an active contributor (though this may be changing generationally). With remote ethnography, however, participants find themselves to be the subject matter, and the researchers become the audience. This is an unfamiliar format at first, and the onus is on the research moderators to help participants orient to this new context.
With expectations so dynamic, the challenge becomes: how do we leverage the medium to elicit raw experience and emotion? A good example of magically unscripted moments happen with unboxing experiences. Normally, when someone opens a gift there are heavy expectations of social politeness. We all draw from scripted feigns of surprise, delight or awe in order to please the giver of the gift. But when research participants are encouraged and allowed to be candid in an unboxing or unveiling moment, their brains are actually overriding many social constructs which would normally not allow them to say or show what they are feeling or thinking. Ultimately, as these experiences become more of a social vernacular, much like the selfie has become, anthropologists and researchers will have to again fully consider the layers of prescribed behavior which is done in person and will be different when done online.
If you are sensing a pattern: remote research, just like in-person work, is still a social interaction, and a very real one.
Online, just as in person, you cannot push out stimuli blindly to respondents and expect true, rich data without acknowledging the layers of subtle and complex systems that need to happen. When online research removes the "niceties,” what they really lose are the critical layers that facilitate social interaction and therefore that real life data we so need. Humans by nature need these foundational elements to orient themselves, foster feelings of safety and trust, and to ultimately share openly. Virtual research platforms that claim to be “plug and play” may automate some of our labor, but they can’t forget that human interaction is anything but “plug and play”. Regardless of proximity, active moderation, communication and fostering social relationships with your participants is actually essential to successful research.
So back to the question: Is this the real world?”
The initial dismissal of what happens online as not a part of the “real world” is understandable in that it is a different experience for humans. But it is no less real than any other human experience. Ethnographers seek to understand humans in their own environments and there are few humans not experiencing an online component to their existence. The truth is, no matter where you meet humans - in person or online - you can be assured it is a real world.