- Digital Ethnography: Anthropology, Narrative, and New Media by Natalie M. Underberg and Elayne Zorn
There is a curious semantic ambiguity that seems to permeate much of the emerging humanities and social science scholarship on digital technology. The meaning of terms like “digital ethnography” or “digital humanities” can run the gamut from the study of cultures in digital spaces, to the application of digital technology as a tool for data organization or analysis, to the process of digitally representing offline cultures. At its root, this range of meanings seems to be based on a running together of the many possible uses of digital technologies. While certain usages suggest that digital technologies should be seen as forms of communication or mass media, extensions perhaps of the telephone or television, other applications of these same pieces of hardware or software suggest that digital technology should rather be viewed as platforms that create new social and cultural spaces in which communicative and/or expressive interactions can take place. Of course, digital technology can usefully be understood as all of these things; however, this variegation is obscured by the fact that this wide range of technological devices and platforms, from iPhones to Facebook, is collectively referred to under the heading of “new media,” “digital media,” or, more accurately but still very blandly, as “digital technology.” Hence, scholarship classified under the heading of “digital media,” “new media,” “digital ethnography,” or “digital humanities” encompasses a very broad swath of research, from historical work that has made use of GIS mapping in its analysis of historical events, to classic participant ethnography carried out in digital spaces.
This semantic imprecision is a useful starting point for discussing Natalie M. Underberg and Elayne Zorn’s Digital Ethnography: Anthropology, Narrative, and New Media, since their title falls victim to the vagueness in the existing terms. The authors’ intentions for this text are different in kind from similarly titled works, such as Christine Hine’s now classic Virtual Ethnography (Sage, 2000) or Tom Boellstorf, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T. L. Taylor’s more recent Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012). Rather than seeking to develop a methodological framework for the study of culture in digital spaces, Underberg and Zorn define “digital ethnography” as “a method for representing real-life cultures through combining the characteristic features of digital media with elements of story.” Merging these elements, the authors argue, will “enable audiences to go beyond absorbing facts about another culture to entering into the experience of culture” (p. 10). Accordingly, while they discuss some of the scholarship on ethnography in digital spaces, the authors’ main concern is to explore the applications of digital technologies in analyzing cultural data and creating sensitive and engaging representations of this data in digital spaces.
In a certain broad sense then, as the authors acknowledge at several points in the book, Underberg and Zorn’s discussion mirrors some of the discussions among scholars in the early twentieth century about the role that film should play in ethnographic work. While representational and analytical uses were sometimes seen as mutually exclusive by early ethnographic filmmakers, Underberg and Zorn see a range of possibilities as equally significant in the application of digital technology to ethnographic work. Ultimately, they argue that “digital media and anthropology can usefully complement each other in digital ethnography” (p. 85).
In their first two chapters, they argue that anthropologists can employ “digital media as an expressive tool for creative cultural representation” [End Page 100] (pp. 85–6). Expanding on this idea, they observe that the sensitive production of this kind of representation involves both “engaging in ethnographic storytelling” and “employing collaborative methods” that can link together the work of ethnographers, digital technical professionals, and community stakeholders. Digital media, Underberg and Zorn argue throughout the text, is especially wellsuited to this type of work because of its potential for interactivity, multivocality, and immersion, most especially in the form of spatialized representations of narrative. To illustrate these...