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.

One Comment

  • Daniel on Apr 19, 2015 Reply

    ‪#‎CodedPublics‬ ‪#‎DigitalCitizens‬ ‪#‎BigData‬ ‪#‎HypermobileRealities‬ ‪#‎DigitalRevolutions‬. Are you conducting anthropological research in these fields, and want to share your insights, critiques, analysis or fieldnotes with a broader audience? Get in touch with us :-) Read more here:…/digital-anthropology/.

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