12 April 2010

[Literature] The field site as a network

In The field site as a network: A strategy for locating ethnographic research from 2009, Burell explores a variety of strategies devised by researchers to map social research onto spatial terrain. She relies on her work in Ghana to suggest considering the field as a network rather than a traditional physical place, particularly for Internet-related studies.

Traditional anthropology in remote villages assumed that external influences were minor to the field site, and the ethnographer could discover the terrain as the study went. In contemporary ethnography, the vision of the place in which the study takes place influences the results of the study. Hence an ethnographer should ponder wisely which stance to take on the field. In doing so, the researcher simultaneously acknowledges the limitations of the study and builds the field site.

Burell mentions Marcus' paper when she explains that he (and other anthropologists) shifted from a notion of culture as essentially stationary to culture as constituted by intersection and flow. In the light of his paper, we know that Marcus mentioned the follow the people/objects/metaphor. She singles out Marcus' paper for being the only one in her survey to explain how fieldwork may be located in ethnographic studies.

Some ethnographers - such as Mitchell - argue that the Internet is not a physical place at all: profoundly antispatial... you can not say where it is … you can find things in it without knowing where they are. However, other researchers, particularly those conducting virtual ethnography, showed that some individuals experienced the Internet as profoundly spatial and social. T.L. Taylor underlined the duality of Internet users: a physical body facing a computer and an online avatar in a virtual world. Another disagreement among the ethnography community came with the question of the sharp division between offline and online spaces. Some argued the technologically-mediated rupture did not allow for connections between real- and virtual-lives. Others such as Miller and Slater, based on their Trinidad field study in 2003, put forward that Internet is continuous to other social spaces. Real configurations can influence virtual ones. The network framework proposed by Burell in her article adopts this view as it tries to escape strong offline-online divisions.

To introduce her network framework, Burell raises what she calls a logistics issue: if interactions and events relevant to the field study happen everywhere in the system, how can the researcher be sure to know anything? How and when does the ethnographer know he/she has enough data to know what is actually happening on the field? I found Marcus argued that ethnographers could validly dig only parts of the whole system provided they show which stance they take. However, he did not really explain why. Burell explains this limitation is a logistical accommodation. Indeed, Internet is too wide to be studied as a whole. Moreover, she relies on her 8-month Internet-use field study in Ghana to illustrate her point more precisely.

Ghana marketers include international into their business names to make them sound more prestigious, and at the same time pretend products are local while they come from abroad. Local and global are not meaningful or discernable as distinct categories. Moreover, she found quickly that cybercafés customers came irregularly, from many different places and for different reasons, making it difficult for her to find any satisfying result. Her dynamic network framework helped her solve this issue: the continuity (through connections) of networks let her link people, places, objects and so on.

The framework attempts to render concrete some of Marcus' suggestions for multi-sited ethnography. It describes six steps to build a proper field site.

  1. Following a trail (through what she calls an entry point) brings a more meaningful social-spatial mapping than choosing people randomly for instance. Example: A is interviewed, B comes by car to pick A up. The researcher asking if B can be interviewed as well is what I call following a trail, the entry point being A.
  2. The trails can be of various kinds: telecommunication, transportation, road and social networks are examples given by Burell.
  3. Studying a current site does not mean not being aware of other places. For instance, in the Ghanaian Internet cafés she studied, she realized that customers communicated to people from many other countries. She saw the café as a point of intersection and in doing so, she avoided having to spend time to know what happens in those other countries.
  4. The multi-sited ethnographer should react to what is said in interviews before the end of the field study. In doing so, the researcher can establish early connections between places, people or objects mentioned during those interviews and eventually investigate those while he/she is on the field.
  5. When people do not know some places, they imagine them spatially: the Internet or foreign countries for example. The real-life Ghanaian popular imagination influences how they perceive the virtual spaces. Interviews can reveal such popular perceptions.
  6. One simple way to determine when to stop is when time runs out. In fact, there comes a time in the fieldwork when nothing new emerges. Meaning saturation … does not rely on spatial boundaries to define the ending point of research.

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