Going Virtual: The ethnographic gaze in pandemic times

by Sophia Rossmann

What happens to the ethnographic gaze when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? In this essay, I reflect on my personal experiences of doing a virtual lab ethnography as a result of the enduring corona pandemic. By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision I trace the specific, situated and partial ways of seeing something when a laptop and its screen become the most important visual technology in doing lab ethnography. I reflect on what we can learn from thinking with ethnographic vision for the research process when going virtual.

Under non-COVID-19 circumstances, I would currently be in one of the vibrant cities of Spain. I would start my second lab ethnography for my PhD project, carefully organised months ago. I would be fully immersed into a foreign research culture, exploring the worlds of epigenetic research in an institute for public health and epidemiology. I would use the breaks between observations, meetings, and talks for a little chit-chat, getting to know new people, their work, their motivations, their day-to-day hopes, struggles and concerns. Instead, I stare absently out of my window and watch cars reversing into parking spaces right in front of my flat in Germany while waiting for the next video call. 

After postponing my ethnographic stay several times, I started to play around with the idea of a “virtual ethnography”. Virtual, online, or cyber-ethnography is not a new method but has been around since the early 1990s to study online communities and their social interactions in (predominantly) virtual environments (e.g. gamer communities) (Hine, 2008). The corona measures have suddenly transformed my field site, an institute for public health and epidemiology, into such an (temporary) online community. I started to wonder if there was also a virtual way to conduct a lab ethnography.

A few months into this virtual endeavour, I ask myself: what happens to the ethnographic gaze – besides staring absently out of windows – when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision in “Situated Knowledges” I explore how to see as an STS scholar when a laptop becomes the most important visual technology for a lab ethnography in pandemic times. Haraway articulates vision as an embodied, partial, and situated way of seeing something. She argues that “[v]ision requires instruments of vision” and that “optics is a politics of positioning” (Haraway, 1988: 586). These instruments of vision are not only our own eyes as an “active perceptual system,” building on the brain to translate what we see (Haraway, 1988: 583). They also include visualising technologies, prosthetic devices that render specific aspects of life and not others visible: the microscopes in the labs, the ultrasounds in the clinics, or – in my case – the computer screens mediating images from a different place. 

In this essay, I do not attempt to make claims on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but to consider my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online. I will reflect on my partial vision that is unavoidably intertwined with the COVID-19 pandemic as it was less a deliberate choice than a means to an end to move things virtually. If we understand ethnographic vision as affected by bodily movements, a sensing that is as much part of assembling knowledge as it is seeing (cf. Ingold, 2000), I ask myself: how will physical distance affect the knowledge gathering process in the long run? Proceeding from these reflections, I will trace which specific version of vision emerges in my virtual lab ethnography by exploring three interrelated aspects: technology, immediacy and location. As I’m still in the midst of field work, this essay can only provide a temporary snapshot of my ongoing reflections on this approach.


Technology: screens as prosthetic devices

How does the technical object of a screen interact with the knowledge I’m gathering? Albrecht Dürer’s famous “Draughtsman Drawing a Nude” comes to my mind, which Lynch and Woolgar (1990) featured on the cover of their anthology “Representation in Scientific Practice”. This painting from the sixteenth century shows a male painter drawing a voluptuous, reclining nude woman by using a perspective grid. The painter divided the sight of the women into geometric coordinates in an attempt of an objective and true transmission onto paper. However, as feminist studies have shown at length such an objective practice is the god trick as this example not only shows how representations construct objects, but also “[t]he gendering of this kind of vision” (Haraway, 1997: 180). Analogously, my laptop and its screen have become my perspective grid positioned between myself and scenes at the institute. They become a prosthetic device – ironically equipped with what a big tech player calls a Retina display. While this device allows me to see into worlds that momentarily seem far away, similar to the painting it prompts the question what kind of different object these visual representations construct and the role of my positioning in this construction.

Some of these scenes that I virtually visit are various meetings: one-on-one interview situations, small project meetings with a handful of people, scientific seminars or consortia meetings with over 100 participants. The cameras that capture these meetings and broadcast them onto my screen offer a specific way of seeing: they mediate curated shots where one only sees the parts of a scene actively made visible. Yet, what about the moments that literally stay invisible, e.g. the aspects of the institutional life that cannot be mediated and escape the video frames? Going virtual creates a mobile world that promises to become accessible from everywhere. Simultaneously, certain activities continue outside the online space, such as carrying out laboratory work even if more restricted by COVID-19 measures. This yields inaccessible spaces where one cannot actively go to if not physically present. 


Immediacy: seeing and sensing with screen sharing 

Virtual ethnographies need to work with curated shots of institutional life. But they also engender a new kind of immediacy, one where I click on links and instantly become part of a meeting without travelling thousands of kilometres to somewhere. Especially the practice of screen sharing allows us to explore the notion of immediacy and its role for vision in more detail. For instance, one of the central steps in doing epigenetic research in institutes of epidemiology is the statistical analysis supported by computer programs. Researchers use epigenetic data collected in the human cohorts they work with to find answers to their research questions, such as: how does air pollution impact health outcomes via epigenetic mechanisms? Screen sharing allowed me to take part in this practice in at least two ways. Firstly, I attended the institutes’ practical hands-on online workshops to better understand how to do statistical analysis for answering these questions. Secondly, I asked my interlocutors to take me with them through their own work flow. Following them step by step through their analysis, I observed how they filled the generic code with life: adding variables such as sex, age, environmental exposures and other data. 

This technical accessory mediates the epidemiologists’ vision onto my screen, that is, their ways of seeing and interpreting their material. It allows me to engage with their research practice and corresponding tools, to follow their movements, and to verbally point to things that caught my eye. Screen sharing creates immediacy and thereby intimate moments between my interlocutors and me at physical distance. But it is a touch without touching; an experience of the other person’s screen and its content by sensing differently than one would if physically present. How does this sensing without touching impact the knowledge I assemble? – I’m not sure yet.


Location: multiple vision in pandemic times

COVID-19 has not only physically impacted my ethnographic work moving it into an online space, but it has also influenced the conversations I have with the epidemiologists and how they need to adjust their research. My interlocutors frequently address issues such as what happens to the regular visits of the cohort’s participants to take biological samples and to check their air sensors in the house? How will they recruit new participants when there are more pressing health questions at stake? Asides from concerns over the practicalities of data collection, the pandemic also affects the epidemiologists’ own vision, that is, their specific ways of seeing and articulating research and problem definitions. For instance, when talking to a scientist about a project on epigenetic changes through metal exposure she referred to the peculiarity that people living in the same household with a person infected with COVID-19 might not get infected themselves. She explained how thinking with this example helps to make sense of her own observation why some people would be more susceptible to toxic exposure than others. Looking at the infection patterns during the pandemic allowed her to understand the virus and exposure not as discrete entities but as being in relation with social position and experiences, age, gender, health status, and genetic makeup, among many other dimensions.


Closing remarks

These brief examples show how going virtual yields multiple visions from various locations: from Germany to Spain, from my own position as an early career STS scholar, from scientists trained in public health issues, and from the perspective of an ongoing global health crisis. They allowed for reflections not on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but on my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online due to COVID-19, in which an important space – the lab – stayed invisible. Thus, doing virtual lab ethnography engenders a specific way of seeing and gathering data. Yet it does not create material that is more or less ‘true’ or ‘real’ than in the physical world. It yields a way of seeing that challenges the ethnographer who has reoriented their vision from a corporeal to a virtual world: how to see (mediated)? What and who becomes visible on the screens? Who gets to talk, who stays invisible? Where to see from? How is virtual seeing affected by the ethnographer’s position? What are the limits of virtual vision? What cannot be virtually mediated? How to (physically) sense from distance? And how does virtual seeing translate into written production? While some of these still incomplete questions could also be asked in an on-site ethnography, the need for a prosthetic device, to see with something, makes reflections on vision in pandemic times even more imperative.




Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 12(3): 575–599.

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Ingold T (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Lynch M and Woolgar S (1990) Representation in scientific practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.