During my current academic placement with RMIT in Melbourne, Australia I have the chance to network with colleagues from the School of Business, attend talks and seminars and collaborate with other departments and researchers from different fields!

One example is the summer school led by the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) [https://digital-ethnography.com] here at RMIT Melbourne which I attended at the end of February. During the summer school Early Career Researchers (mostly PhDs) from all over the world got together to learn from Annette Markham and Larissa Hjorth about “Digital Ethnography Fieldwork and Analysis: Studying hybrid contexts of human+ non-human+ more-than-human entanglements.

What is Digital Ethnography?

Attending a Digital Ethnography summer school in Australia

Slide from the summer school (Source: picture taken by C. Leeb).

Digital ethnography encompasses a lot of things. In general, it means investigating how digital technology impacts humans and society by using ethnographic tools. For example, how people use and interact in the digital space (e.g., on social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter, online forums, games, etc.) and trying to understand how this impacts the end-user. Just like the EINST4INE researchers, digital ethnographers investigate digital transformation. They are taking a very human-centred approach to this and are interested in the lived experience and feelings of the people using digital tools. I was lucky enough to be able to participate in this summer school, and I can only say: What an amazing summer school and what a great fit to my research!


The Summer School

The summer school lasted a week, plus an extra day for PhDs to present their work.

We heard lectures on various topics, such as how to do ethical research or on important themes in fieldwork (e.g., immersion, continuous documentation, using “what’s at hand” to generate material). Further, a penal discussion of former PhD students doing Digital Ethnography gave us insights about the possibilities in this research area. We heard from Marissa Willcox (University of Amsterdam), Zöe Glatt (London School of Economics), Kelly Chan (RMIT University) and Jess Hardley (RMIT University). We also had workshops in which we did our first ethnographic fieldwork, we learned how to write field notes and how to use video and photos to document our experiences.

Halfway through the summer school, we did one day of fieldwork out in the public space. We were divided into 6 groups. Half of the groups observed the interactions inside the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the other half on Federation Square in Melbourne. But – this was not all!

We actually observed something very specific, as we had another participant joining us: Boston Dynamic’s robot Spot!

Attending a Digital Ethnography summer school in Australia

Spot on Federation Square (Source: picture credits to Alison Starr).

The focus of our observation and field day was to see how people of the public react and interact with Spot. This day was very insightful and lots of fun!

After that, we started reflecting on our experiences as a group and heard lectures on some useful tools for the analytical processing of the data, namely on Situational Mapping and Critical Making techniques. Then, each group put together two presentations to share with the other participants: one on our initial reflections of the field day and one on initial findings from the first attempts of analysing some data.

Personal key take-aways

I will very shortly touch upon 3 key take-aways from this summer school:

  • Ethical considerations: Before, during, and after doing research.

It was great to discuss this central topic in research again: how important it is for a researcher to constantly reflect on ethical considerations.

Before the research this seems obvious to most: often simply because you need to obtain ethical approval to do your study. But it doesn’t end there, continuously throughout your data collection time – you need to be aware of your positionality (am I an outsider, an insider?), what effect your research or your presence in the field could have on others, and that you will always bring in subjectivity when entering a field. The more you reflect on these things, the better and the more you can ensure that your research will be ethical. Ethics is not simply an approval to obtain – it is there to support you to do the right thing. It helps you to reflect on possible issues that might arise and to plan ahead on how you will react to them.

  • Looking at the data in a group: Surprises can emerge.

During the analysis stage, we had access to the data we collected ourselves and the data from all other researchers. A key take-away for me here is that looking at data in a group can lead to many different insights and surprising themes! It enriches the analysis process greatly as every member brings a unique point of view into the discussion.

It was exciting to see all the interesting themes that emerged during the analysis process with my group. We talked about the agency of oneself and how we ascribe agency to others (e.g., Spot). While I wasn’t too surprised that participants seemed to struggle to categorize Spot (Is it a dog? A horse? A spider?), I was intrigued by the fact that most people really wanted to categorize it. They either asked a lot of questions or started treating it in a certain way (e.g., petting it etc). Other interesting topics that emerged were control (people started giving Spot commands) and embodiment (participants reflected on their feelings in a bodily sensation).

Attending a Digital Ethnography summer school in Australia

About half of the participants of the summer school + Spot at Federation Square. (Picture credits to Haryo Jiwandono).

  • Not just valuable learnings: Good company & good food.

The last key take-away is clearly that I learned a lot and enjoyed the summer school greatly. I met fascinating people from all (literally every continent except Antarctica was represented) over the world from various disciplines (architecture, urban studies, anthropology, design, journalism, organisational studies…). Actually – one of them, Kateryna Kryzhanivska, who is also a visiting PhD researcher at RMIT, and she is from LUT University, Business School! (which shows again that the world can be really small as well).
Who knows – maybe some of these connections will last and result in future collaborations!

Further, good food is a great plus in any event.

Attending a Digital Ethnography summer school in Australia

The desert at the Welcome Dinner provided by “Piecurious” run by Helen Addison-Smith (picture taken by Constanze Leeb).

All in all I can say:

It was intense, insightful and amazing – a week well spent!

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