In earlier posts, including this one, I’ve attempted articulate what flânerie involves. Like the urban wanderer, explorer, observer and chronicler of city life, I’ve approached my research as flâneur. Initially, that was in attempting to find an alternative way of describing my ‘ethnographic’ approach to Twitter. Initially, only somewhat playfully, I called this a ‘flanography.’ More recently, I included it within my thesis; it had become a ‘thing!’ What struck me at the time, and what was recently reinforced during a supervisory meeting, was that I need to articulate clearly what distinguishes flanography from ethnography. In this post I want to thrash around a few thoughts how that might be done.
Perhaps a good place to start would be with a brief reminder of what ethnography involves. At its most fundamental, ethnography is both a process and a product. Firstly, it is about being with people, becoming immersed in a culture, in the ‘thick of it,’ so to speak. At its core this involves participant observation; not just watching what people are doing, but becoming involved so that you can experience the world as they do. Secondly, an ethnography is also the output, the textual, narrative account which describes and explains the participants’ world, their behaviours and practices. So far, so flanographic. As Baudelaire (1964: 9) termed it, in his unfortunately gendered way:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world …
Although in here there is little mention of the flâneur as author, that is perhaps better conveyed in the title of the work from which it is drawn.
So if the ethnographer and the flâneur are so similar, why bother trying to carve out new territory? I think that began for me when I read the caution Annette Markham (2013) provided, claiming that
Attempting to transfer participant observation from physical contexts to a mediated social space like Twitter simply doesn’t work.
Who am I to argue with one of the acknowledged early pioneers of digital ethnography? What I wanted from flanography then was to stake out some territory which generates clear ground between it and ethnography. In so doing, I might side-step some of the online ethnographic banana skins, but also attempt to bolster my PhD’s ‘contribution to knowledge.’ In what follows, I’ll attempt to set out what is distinctive about flanography.
In my, albeit limited experience, conventional ethnographies tend to foreground the process and product mentioned earlier. Analysis and interpretation tend to feature less prominently, and often consist of conventional coding, categorisation and theme development. Whilst analysis may overlap data collection during fieldwork, it is inherently different from participant observation. When findings are written, the structure often follows the themes which emerged. So, even if there is some crossover, data collection, analysis and presentation are generally different. A flanography on the other hand attempts to bring the flâneur’s sensibility to the different stages, thereby maintaining a consistent strategy across each.
Firstly, flanography is characterised by movement in a way that ethnography might not be. Yes an ethnographer might follow the action of her participants from place to place, but she might equally find herself in a single location over a protracted period of time. Movement and mobility are inevitable for the flanographer, who will not only be traversing online spaces, but also be shifting through time as they navigate tweets and blog posts authored minutes, hours, days or months ago. This also seems consistent with the approach of Latour’s (2005: 9) ANT-infused researcher as a ‘workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler,’ (if we ignore the ‘blind, myopic’ aspects for a moment). Each ‘stroll’ the flanographer takes (I’m desperately seeking a more appropriate term to describe the journeys the flanographer takes when she steps out) may only render a partial account, yet each contributes cumulatively to the emerging picture.
Secondly, the mobility of the flanographer traces out pathways of experience. Observation, ongoing sense-making and mapping during the course of these perambulations are manifest in each of the three phases – data collection, analysis and presentation. It’s about following and making interconnections and associations. The flâneur’s sensibility means applying the same strategy consistently across the study. And thirdly, the mobility of the flanographer is captured through visualisations which attempt to render visible the traversals, whether through the ‘field,’ through the data, or in the findings. For example, in composing field notes, rather than flat, extended textual passages describing and reflecting on the observations, I used MindView to couple together data and the traversal which produced them, but within a visual form (see Fig 1).
Treeverse performed a similar task by pulling together contributions within a Twitter exchange, allowing movement between data fragments and assisting in analysis. Although visualisations can be offered as representations, they were also important to me as thinking tools to support analysis and interpretation, so I would argue become part of the flanography itself. I’ve also attempted to apply the same principles in my ‘findings’ chapters, presenting each as an interconnected pathway, rather than in the more conventional thematic form.
To me, these three factors set flanography apart, but I worry that my inexperience with ethnography means that I’m lacking a fully informed view from which to make my assertions. I clearly need to continue to think on this, refine my arguments and prepare for defending my claims in the viva. Oh my! Here I am writing about the viva when it only seems two minutes since I wrote my opening post. Eeek!
Baudelaire, C. P., & Mayne, J. (1964). The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays… Translated and Edited by Jonathan Mayne. London.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press.
Markham, A. N. (2013). Fieldwork in social media: What would malinowski do? Qualitative Communication Research, 2(4), 434-446