In your flânography, how should we conceive the ‘field?’

Whilst discussing online ethnography in my thesis, I made reference to ‘the field’ on a number of occasions, and devoted a couple of paragraphs to outlining how it might be conceived. In this post from the series discussing potential viva questions, I want to return to that notion.

Ethnography offers the means through which to explore an interesting phenomenon or issue. For me, flânography was the approach which allowed me to explore teachers’ professional practices on Twitter. In classical anthropology, the field was the location you went to in order to learn about the ‘Other,’ by becoming immersed in their culture and practices. There was a sense of difference, of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of ‘the field’ and home. Notionally the field was a tightly bounded geographic space, but more recently this has been called into question (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). Researchers such as Marcus (2012) noted how studying aspects of life often involved being mobile and making connections across multiple sites as people and things move around. This multi-sited field did not precede the study, but emerged through ethnographic exploration; it is the outcome of ethnographic engagement, not some predetermined construct which preceded the research.It might be tempting to describe the ‘field’ for my research as Twitter, but since one of my research questions asks about teachers’ learning practices extending beyond Twitter, I clearly need to be more expansive. One could argue that if field is defined and bounded in advance, there are relevant and interesting practices you might never encounter. boyd (2008) notes the possible impact of failing to acknowledge the mobility of participants:

We do ourselves a disservice if we bound our fieldwork by spatial structures – physical or digital – when people move seamlessly between these spaces.

The approach I took was to follow the practices of teachers and the nonhuman actors with whom they intra-act. In Hine’s (2009) terms I sought:

…immersion, not necessarily through being in a particular field site, but by engaging in relevant practices wherever they might be found.

This might better be conceived as assemblage where the field becomes performed as I begin scrolling through my timeline, when I open Tweetdeck to monitor the search columns, when I join a #chat, follow a link to a blog site and ask a question, or capture a tweet exchange with Treeverse. Together they produce the field as a shifting, shimmering, expanding cloud in continual flux, where connections are continually made, broken and remade.

One might reasonable ask, if I turn off my computer or tablet, given that other participants are likely to be still engaged in their activities when I am absent, does the field continue? For the most part, other participants are not researchers (at least not on this project) and have no conception of the ‘field;’ that only emerges when I become associated within the assemblage to help perform it. However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, some people who are aware of my research do occasionally send things my way they think might be pertinent, or they comment on this blog, or respond to questions I’ve posed elsewhere, all during my absence. So there’s a temporal aspect to the field as my involvement and activity in sustaining it are better considered over time, rather than in the moment. That ongoing activity does leave traces however; all my tweets, retweets, and replies, together with comments on blog posts are still visible and potentially could be reactivated if someone responds. Those aspects of the field are dormant, rather than deceased. There have been occasions when I’ve attempted to capture snapshots in the form of visualisations; without them, the performative nature of the field makes it difficult for a non-participant to have a sense of it. Or alternately, as Mills and Morton (2013) suggest:

Perhaps it is best to think about the ‘field’ as an artefact of research – a thing to fully understand and comprehend only in retrospect.

boyd, d. (2008). Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. Berkeley, University of California Berkeley PhD Dissertation.
Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997). Discipline and practice:“The field” as site, method, and location in anthropology. Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science, 100, 1-47.
Hine, C. (2009). How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects. In A. N. Markham, & N. K. Baym (Eds.), Internet inquiry: Conversations about method (pp. 1-20) Sage.
Marcus, G. E. (2012). Multi-sited ethnography: Five or six things I know about it now. In Multi-sited ethnography (pp. 24-40). Routledge.
Mills, D., & Morton, M. Research Methods in Education: Ethnography in education (pp. 145-159). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446251201

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