ARITHMUS Method Workshop: Doing Screen Work Ethnographies, 1-2 June 2015

On June 2nd, 2015, the first ARITHMUS method workshop took place at Goldsmiths, University of London. The workshop, titled ‘Doing screen work ethnographies’, addressed the problem of doing ethnographies of screen-mediated environments. It kicked off with the Goldsmiths Sociology Annual Lecture by Professor Lucy Suchman: ‘Digital Practices: Some Methodological Reflections’ on June 1.

Ethnographic fieldwork typically combines a variety of methods, including interviewing and observation. However, as fieldwork sites become more screen-mediated environments inventive and new approaches are required. This is a problem shared by many researchers interested in following and understanding contemporary knowledge practices.

Participating in the workshop were fourteen researchers from various social science disciplines with an expertise in doing ethnographic fieldwork in screen-mediated environments. The topic of screenwork was addressed from the position that screens are a relevant, but not the only, characteristic of our field sites and as such may or may not be central to our fieldwork. Three examples of outcomes are:

  1. Screens do not passively transmit information. We can view them as active participants in a situation as they invite our attention, position individuals, connect sites, and much more.
  1. Studying screenwork requires attention to: transitions between online and offline practices; the different components of screens, such as interfaces and databases; usage of workarounds (alternatives to the actions prescribed by interfaces); economies of invisible labour.
  1. Ethnographers may consider different forms of engagement. Forms mentioned in this workshop are: asking for a software demonstration; asking for explanations of interfaces and systems using other media, for instance a simple piece of paper; participating in and contributing to ongoing projects of the organisation; and experiencing the research object as part of your personal life world (auto-ethnography).

We conclude that screens urge us to rethink where and how we position ourselves in the field and how we immerse ourselves in our field of study. Even if ethnographic approaches are never definitive, the day allowed the ARITHMUS researchers and workshop participants to rethink their own positions in the field and to take into account pitfalls and practical possibilities in the field. A final task for the ARITHMUS researchers therefore is to reflect on our own methods. Now that we have increased our awareness of screens, how will this affect our outcomes?