Querying the nature of relationships in the ethnographic encounter
The “digital space” has opened up new platforms for interaction within and without the “academic community”. Whereas previously, the access to other researchers’ primary data was limited to the financial security of the individual researcher, allowing him to travel and consult these in physical spaces – the archives -, now most of the physical spaces have found their virtual counterpart online, through the process of digitisation of data.
While this change has corresponded to a process of democratisation in the access to data – at least within the UK academic context -, on the other hand, this shift to the virtual has also implemented a reconfiguration of research relations, which was already at stake and a demystification of the related assumption of vulnerability pending on the research subjects, thus calling for their creative involvement as agents in the production of meaning.
But what are the major, possible implications of such a phenomenon?
One of the outcomes might be a potential increase of the difficulties for researchers to author their work, after having shared findings with their participants.
However, there are other ways to let reciprocity enter the framework of the research encounter. Feminist researchers have been using intimacy as a resource for decades, to establish rapport with their participants, by first of all relating to them as persons, rather than discrete objects of analysis and secondly, by openly sharing information about their lives, when asked by their participants. They have been using intimacy as a provocation, in order to highlight the structuralisation which used to inform sociological and anthropological approaches alike.
An additional issue in following too closely the impact of a virtual shift in qualitative research is represented by technological determinism, where the risk of obsolescence manifests every time that a new set of electronic devices is introduced as “the way forward”, forgetting the lesson of reflexivity and leaving the relationships of the field untheorised.
The attention needs to shift to the ways it is possible to share these relationships, finding connections between discourse and subjectivities without imposing the former on the latter. Reflexivity can also be a resource at the level of analysis, opening up our accounts to the way we perceive as embodied and sensed subjects and exploring our affective responses to field situations, without forgetting our positionality as subjects in the intersectional terms of ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, gender, etc… but maintaining the pressure of mobilising these positions at the same time.
And given that the data linger, the presence of the researcher on site in more or less significant moments is as crucial as maintaining relationships with the informants after the “end of the fieldwork”. Nevertheless, it is important not to forget that further investments in the sites render all the likelier the possibility for these to be recognised through affiliations that the researcher does not necessarily suspect of, while being immersed in the fieldwork. Institutional sites such as NGOs, as well as in completely different ways, virtual platforms such as Facebook, render the frame even more complicated, by gate-keeping access which not necessarily leads to individual consent.
Therefore, rather than a shift from the analog to the virtual, there rather seems to be an overlap of different layers, analog, virtual or both. These overlaps render the research encounter a complex field of power relations and epistemological positions: between the participants who produce knowledge within the field, the scholars who produce findings in academia and those figures producing knowledge between these fields, aspiring to implement change in the lives of real people while disseminating knowledge in macro-contexts. However, the process of feeding back findings to the research participants is not a neutral act but it is permeated by different ethical frames: once again the analog and the virtual, but also more crucially, the ethics of the market, where dynamics of power expand to research teams, funders and institutions. In this frame, an important tool of awareness can be derived from the interdisciplinary discussion of competing ethical traditions in qualitative research (the dichotomies of the social sciences/humanities, or of feminist scholarship/activism, or of studying/making culture) whose focus differs in: ownership and value of data, consent and copyright as ethical deliberation, politics of privacy in digital technologies, politics of consequentiality. From different focuses, in fact, also follow different approaches to envision research relationships and their value.
However, collaboration, rather than competition, has also resulted to be possible between these different traditions, especially through an embracement of a shared responsibility towards the participants’ safety, towards their ownership of the data and a renegotiation of the roles in the field. This tension between experimentation and responsibility in fact reminds us one again of the issues around ethics but it also elucidates on it as a situated practice, by distinguishing between collaborative and non-collaborative, authority-centred frameworks.
Therefore, the multimodality – or the turn to the analysis of abstract, non-material resources of meaning in qualitative research – emerging from collaborative approaches still has to work its way through the same issues around ethics, consent and confidentiality, but over a variety of different semiotic layers: the research settings, their representations, their records and the findings resulting from their exploration. In conclusion, notwithstanding “shifts to the virtual” and “multimodal turns”, qualitative research still appears to be focused on the social interaction and communication amongst people and people and the environments, but it gains in the awareness of the ways different layers of meanings are assembled in/through the relationships of the field.