Drawing on our experience of conceptualising, curating, and organising a panel on possible futures for digital ethnographic methods for the Nordic STS conference 2023, we argue that careful organisation is a viable approach to fostering dialogue in academic knowledge production. We identify three modes of care as particularly relevant for facilitating academic exchange among a diverse group of participants.
Considering the organisation of panels as care work provides insights into the practicalities of creating more diverse spaces for knowledge exchange and inspiration. Using the lens of care work to reflect on our experiences of organising the panel has given us insights into the behind-the-scenes work required for fruitful exchange and into caring for methods by way of providing collaborative and diverse spaces for discussion.
Introduction and Context
From 7 to 9 June 2023, more than 400 STS scholars from the Nordic region and beyond met in Oslo, Norway, for the 6th Nordic STS conference on “Disruption and Repair in and beyond STS”. We took up the conference theme in our panel “Disrupted fieldwork and digital research encounters: Futures of digital ethnographic methods and interdisciplinary collaboration amidst global challenges”. Under the umbrella of “digital fieldwork” (Venturini and Rogers, 2019), we invited both scholars who have been working with qualitative digital research for a long time and those who have entered digital research as a necessary response to the pandemic.
In our discussion of the futures of digital ethnographic methods, we wanted to bring together these two groups of researchers. On the one hand, there are researchers with a dedicated interest in the digital and the methodological innovations it enables. They are involved in conversations around digital STS (Vertesi and Ribes, 2019), which are connected to interdisciplinary conversations around internet research, digital humanities, computational social sciences, and many more. On the other hand, some researchers encounter digital research as the digital seeps into their work through field sites and methods moving online, not least in the wake of the pandemic. They have become interested in virtual and digital methods out of pragmatic necessity. While there is some overlap between these conversations, they represent a variety of different entry points and experiences of digital research.
Our panel gave us the opportunity and challenge to bring these two discussions together. Anders Munk presented a reflection on digital methods related to generative artificial intelligence. Jarita Holbrook presented her use of videos to trace the careers and identities of astrophysicists. Marjo Kolehmainen commented on the screen as both a window into and a mask over various aspects of home environments in online counselling. Katharina Berr worked with observations of science communication on Facebook and reflected on the use of screenshots in her research. Chenchen Ma presented the digital practices of people with disabilities in China. Finally, Andreas Birkbak presented the division of labour between researchers who make, use, or criticise digital tools. After the presentations, we gave a summary of the presentations and held a joint question and answer session.
Our work in caring for the panel already started back in autumn 2022 with constructing our call for papers. We were “particularly interested in research exploring a) the concrete doings of digital ethnography and methodographic reflections on the performativity of our research methods, collaborations, and digital devices (Greiffenhagen et al., 2011; Lippert and Mewes, 2021), and/or b) reflections of the potential future implications for STS methods during global geopolitical, ecological, and health-related challenges.” (Mewes et al., 2023).
We intended the panel to be a collaborative space for STS researchers interested in ‘the digital’ – be it as an empirical, theoretical or methodological concern; and to gather experiences of digital fieldwork during the pandemic to inform future discussions on digital STS. As part of the collaborative space, we also contributed by formatting the space for interaction with a brief introduction to the panel and provided clear expectations for time management. We also took notes during presentations to summarise papers and make their connections and relationships visible, as a way of facilitating the collaborative Q&A at the end of the panel. These practices, we argue, need to be seen as the attentive care work of the organisers, understood as contextual work to coordinate the presentations and their messages, to allow the event to play out as a prepared, albeit playful, improvisation, which is only possible through careful planning and execution of the panel. We wanted to actively bring together the diversity of digital ethnographic approaches as a way of caring for methods.
Caring for methods through three modes of caring for the panel
We organised the panel around what we can, in retrospect, broadly categorise as three different modes of care. These are concerns that we have been working on in all parts of the process of making this panel happen: The care for an open call, the care for curating presentations, and the care for time and place of the event.
Caring for an Open Call: The work of cultivating this diverse panel and attempting to make connections between presentations began with a call for papers in which we gathered our own diverse encounters and experiences with the digital in STS research. Combining our own different backgrounds, we tinkered with the wording of the call to make it accessible to a wide range of participants, and actively sought to make our call fit into the context and theme of the overall conference, before circulating it through our respective networks. This preparatory work formatted the space for the curation of the panel event itself.
Caring for curation and storying: Once the final decision had been made about the participants joining the panel, we had to decide how to weave the presentations into a coherent overall story and how to give each of the presentations enough space in the limited time of a conference session. We decided on alternating between early career researchers and more experienced researchers, and on a joint discussion of all the presentations at the end of the panel, rather than questions after each individual presentation.
In order to tie the presentations together, we formulated overarching guiding questions as a framework for the whole panel, for participants to reflect upon, and to facilitate the concluding discussion:
- “How is ‘the digital’ discussed as an empirical, theoretical or methodical concern?”
- “Which implications does this have to the present and futures of digital STS and STS ethnography?”
Before opening the discussion, Sylvia Irene Lysgård provided a commentary that linked the presentations and noted common tendencies and themes mentioned by several panellists.
Caring for time and place: The materialities and temporalities of collaborative spaces are important in creating welcoming, friendly and diverse contexts for engagement. To ensure the right pacing and a good balance of presentations and discussions, we used clear communication of our planned schedule and defined roles for introducing the panel, keeping time, and summarising our observations of the presentations (made possible by our three-person collaboration, which allowed us to share different aspects of caring for the panel). As one of the presenters was unable to attend in-person, we tested the video and audio set-up for the pre-recorded presentation in advance to ensure a smooth transition during the panel. Similarly, we had asked the panellists to share their presentations in advance to avoid any technical hiccups when switching between presentations. The panellists, in turn, returned the favour by following our suggestions and keeping to the agreed timings for their presentations. Despite the tight schedule, we made room for a five-minute bio-break. This staple of virtual meetings was also useful in this in-person event, allowing everyone to take care of their physical needs, such as having a drink, opening the windows for fresh air, or stretching, without disrupting the presentations.
Caring for methods as context work
Seeing our organization of the panel as care work links to long-standing STS interests in context (Asdal and Moser, 2012) and to considering STS itself as method (Law, 2016). Turning STS’s attention to practice to our own experiences with the panel, we have used the framing of care work to examine our ambitions, intentions and experiences with the panel.
The notion of care has proven to be a useful analytical lens in a number of areas in recent years, including researchers’ care practices for their methods (Mewes and Lippert, forthcoming). In the case of digital and digital methods, which encompass a wide and diverse range of methods and materials, care is crucial to discussions around these methods.
One of the questions that arose during the panel discussion was whether there is a collective “we” in the discussion of digital ethnographic methods, or whether novel computational approaches and digitised or virtual approaches based on traditional ethnographic methods need separate arenas for discussion.
In our preparation and execution of the panel, we wanted to provide a context for this discussion, a facilitation that would allow different experiences of the digital to fit into the same context – to make the digital a shared space or boundary object that is fluid enough to connect different experiences.
Panellists and organisers as well as the audience of the panel were concerned with methods in this setting. With different practices and roles, together we produced a context in which care for methods was possible through careful preparation and facilitation. However, rather than a planned choreography, our approach left room for interaction and improvisation based on the care work that everyone had put in beforehand.
Conclusion and Outlook
We believe that those of us who are discovering the full impact of the digital for the first time, and those more experienced in digital research, have much to learn from each other. The question remains unresolved on whether there is an all-encompassing ‘we’ in digital methods, or a need for separate discussions. Nevertheless, the interactions during the panel were fruitful. The mutual exchange across a diverse set of experiences prompted reflections on how we talk about and draw boundaries around not just the objects of our research, but also the methods we use to study them. As the digital was held at the core of our collaborative discussion, it became obvious that it is a highly multifaceted object. Furthermore, to care for methods being diverse also in the digital realm is vital, as long as we believe methods are involved in constructing social realities, not merely describing them.
Organising and facilitating this panel has shown us the importance of behind-the-scenes work in academic conferences and the value of organising panels as a relevant academic service. The positive feedback we received from both the participants and the audience has shown that the work we put into organising the panel was well received, and especially that the diversity of approaches presented was appreciated. At the same time, the panel has been a place of intellectual inspiration and collaboration among us panel organisers. We hope to continue the conversations that were sparked by the panel both among ourselves and with the panellists in future events and projects.
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Mewes J, Rohden F and Lysgård SI (2023) Disrupted fieldwork and digital research encounters: Futures of digital ethnographic methods and interdisciplinary collaboration amidst global challenges. In: 6th Nordic STS Conference 2023 “Disruption and Repair in and beyond STS”, TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, Norway, 2023. Available at: https://www.sv.uio.no/tik/english/research/news-and-events/events/conferences/2023/nordic-sts/accepted-panels.html.
Mewes JS and Lippert I (forthcoming) Caring for Methods: “Care-Ful Method Practice” through Methodography. In: Ethical and Methodological Dilemmas in Social Science Interventions – Careful Engagements in Healthcare, Museums, Design and Beyond. Springer, p. 20.
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Frauke Rohden, University of Oslo
Frauke Rohden is a researcher in science and technology studies with an interest in internet research and digital methods. Her research topics include digital methods, science communication, online communities, content moderation, and artificial intelligence.
Julie Sascia Mewes, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Institution
Julie Mewes is a social anthropologist and science and technology studies scholar with a particular interest in ethnographic and participatory methods, currently researching epistemic practices of/in Citizen Science.
Sylvia Irene Lysgård, Oslo Metropolitan University
Sylvia Lysgård is a science and technology studies scholar with a specific interest in methods and narrative practices. Lysgård also has a background in communications, design and consulting services from the ICT industry.