Ethnography in Hypermobile Fields

Ethnography in Hypermobile Fields

Networked Urban Mobilities

On the last day of the Networked Urban Mobilities Conference in Copenhagen we talked to Seraina Müller and Daniel Kunzelmann, who organized three sessions themed around ethnography in hypermobile fields together with pH.d.-student Emma Hill. The presentations during the sessions dealt with topics ranging from disaster management, drones and urban surveillance and ethnography of alterglobalization movements to the mobility of the super-rich yacht owners of Monaco.

Daniel Kunzelmann: Hypermobility was the notion that linked all of the sessions together. Hyper means hypertext but also hyper in the sense of “faster, faster, more!”. We were trying to connect the physical movement of things and people with virtual space. And we were interested in methodological questions: How can we research these spheres? How are they connected? How do we connect with them? That was our idea of mobility. We thought about mobility, while always thinking about hyperspace, hypertext, virtuality and how these connect.

The format of the sessions was often short, seven minute presentations of papers followed by discussions among the panel and the audience. A sense of curiosity and will to share and experiment with methods led to lively discussions about engagement and the ethics of coding and the use of social media as a research tool. Although the sessions spanned a wide range of research areas, a common interest in methodology and digital ethnography tied discussions together.

Daniel Kunzelmann: We were surprised because methodology might not seem like a sexy topic but a lot of people were interested in these issues. From a personal point of view, these issues are there in our everyday life and we use them as researchers. So how can we connect being a hyper mobile researcher and being a hyper mobile citizen? And I think that we are not the only ones to think about these questions.

Seraina Müller: I think [methodology] was the trigger that enabled us to talk about one of the oldest questions in ethnography; “how can you follow people?” in a digital age. How do you combine online and offline research? Is it different spheres or is it all the same? These questions were part of our initial motivation. The question of how to do online research touches almost everyone who does ethnography today because you can’t ignore it anymore. The interesting thing about our panel is that it did not only address social anthropologists, the field where we come from, but also geographers, and more technically oriented researches and coders – and they all think about the same questions.

Several of the research problems presented crossed disciplinary boundaries between mobility, technology and environmental studies, such as the 2007 San Diego wildfires studied by Katrina Petersen from Lancaster University. She followed the process of gathering and mapping information from different sources in order to respond to a disaster. Along with other presentations about networked technologies in disaster responses, it brought forward the overlap between science and technology studies and mobility studies. A question that came up during the discussions was the notion of ‘black boxing’ technological processes and problems; Will coding still be black boxed in 20 years with the spreading of Raspberry Pi and similar technologies?. And is it necessary for researchers doing digital ethnography to understand coding?

Daniel Kunzelmann: The question of black boxing did come up in previous discussions. We thought about whether it is enough to use the accessible part of the internet to do research, such as using Facebook and Twitter? Or whether there is a whole different infrastructure behind it that might be really interesting to understand, how it works? And how it structures the behavior of people? These notions came up now after we talked about the power of algorithms and the power of code during the sessions.

The two organizers, Daniel Kunzelmann and Seraina Müller edit a blog called Transformations where many of the themes from the discussions are explored further.

More Experimentation in mobilities studies

Interview with Monika Büscher

During the Cosmobilities conference in Copenhagen November of 2014 we caught up with Dr. Monika Büscher from Lancaster University. She calls for more experiments in research methodology within mobilities research. Quite a few discussions during Networked Urban Mobilities Conference emphasized that the field is already well underway in achieving this goal.

Her own research centers around disaster management and the network of technologies that enable and mediate this. The paper she presented together with Michael Liegl and Katrina Petersen, Disclosing Disaster? A Study of Ethics and Phenomenology in a Mobile World, illustrate the multitudes of methodological approaches and different understandings of mobility within mobilities research. We had a few words with Monika after the last session of the conference in Copenhagen where she pointed to the vast variety of methods available to mobilities researchers today.

For me mobility is an analytical orientation that looks at how everything is mobilized or immobilized. Looking at the world through this mobility perspective makes you see social structures in their enactment rather than as artifacts or determining things. To be able to see that requires the researcher to be mobile but that doesn’t necessarily means in a ‘go-along’ or ‘shop-along’ way. It can also be a mobile archival work, code archeology or database work, where you sit at your desk and in detail figure out the sequence of things and follow things retrospectively.

Her work also involves an inquiry into the ethics of the design of mobile technologies when applied in disaster situations and into the politics of information sharing in what she has called ‘informationalization of every day life’. As a result Monika sees herself as a designer as well as a researcher.

Mobile researcher is in my understanding always part of the design or the changes of the phenomenon. So being mobile is also a matter of design and interference – it is inventive. For me an important intersection is between inventive methods and design, speculative design, critical design and art.

In order to investigate the networked technologies applied in disaster response Monika Büscher have experimented with collaborative design and research approaches. When asked what she takes away from the conference the answer is clear: experiments.

Experiments, that is something that I am interested in anyway. More experimental engagement in the making of futures. I am more interested in life and everyday life politics and the shape of the world and research is only a tool to play a role in that and take some responsibility.