“Flânography? Isn’t it just an ethnography?”

For this post on potential viva questions, I want to pick up a question one of my supervisors rather provocatively posed during one of our meetings. Although I might not be asked this in such a direct manner, I do have to have a defence prepared which is able to articulate how flânography is different from ethnography. I began to thrash this out in an earlier post, but I now need to prepare a more succinct response.

Firstly I need to acknowledge their similarity: both can be process and product; both involve immersion within a culture; both involve careful observation and chronicling; both might involve following actors and action; and both will attend to materiality. As a consequence, I don’t offer flânography as a completely different methodology, but instead as a form of ethnography. I suggest that there are subtle differences which allow me to do that:

  • Immersion for the flânographer is different from that for ethnographer. It’s less about prolonged and intense experience and more about accumulated encounters over a period of time and through a range of activities.
  • Mobility and movement are different for the flânographer. It’s conducted at a casual leisurely pace involving strolling or wandering, though not aimlessly in the way of flâneurs of old, but with purpose. Careful scrolling through a timeline and following leads which arise, similar to the way a flâneur might turn down a side-street or into an arcade.
  • The flânographer has the capacity to move not only through space, but also through time. Scrolling through the timeline is just that, as is viewing retweets, reading older blog posts or conducting an asynchronous exchange over several days.
  • Flânography for me was very much about mapping my activity and tracing out pathways of experience through the use of visualisations. Sometimes this was manually and sometimes using applications. Although producing visualisations could be used to re-present those pathways, it was more as a thinking tool to help understand and appreciate the nature of that activity.
  • Visibility, or rather invisibility, is somewhat different for the flânographer. Whilst an ethnographer might be present amongst a group of people, but be notionally invisible if she has not declared her status as a researcher, the flânographer as a lurker could remain completely hidden from participants.
  • Finally, the principles of flânography – of purposeful strolling, noticing and chronicling – are applied consistently throughout the study during data gathering, analysis and in the summative text.

Although I’ve briefly mentioned my proposal of flânography during a couple of conference presentations, my thesis will be the first time it’s been opened to robust scrutiny. My slight concern is that my lack of experience with ethnography might mean I’m making false assumptions about how flânography is different.

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