A lack of mess?
On navigating becoming an online ethnographer
Ea Høg Utoft, EHU*
The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University, Denmark,
Anna-Kathrine Bendtsen, AKB
The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University, Denmark, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mie Kusk Søndergaard, MKS
The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University, Denmark,
Given the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘traditional’ ethnographers have found themselves becoming virtual ethnographers, as research
projects are moved online. In this paper, we discuss our ongoing struggles while learning-by-doing online observations with an
ambition of aiding fellow novice virtual ethnographers. Based on our experiences of constantly adapting while trying to not let the
set-backs produced by the pandemic prevent our research, we ask the question of whether the mediation of our observations
through in particular the application Zoom, risks preventing the ‘mess’ with which face-to-face observations are so ripe. We anchor
our methodology in the premise that ‘messiness’ is desirable as it is an inevitable consequence of the embodied field relationships
we build, filled with emotions and politics. In this paper, we highlight three encountered challenges pertaining to this possible lack
of mess, namely, how 1) online observations shift our focus from actions and context to dialogue; 2) hybrid-formats (i.e., research
participants are physically co-located, while the ethnographer observes via Zoom) present their own set of limitations; and 3)
ongoing access negotiations require much more proactivity and persistence on the researcher’s part than in physical observations.
Once unfolded, these experienced challenges show that virtual formats for observations do not prevent embodiment, however,
we are only just beginning to understand how they change our experiences of embodiment in ethnographic research. In
conclusion, the mess may not have disappeared entirely, however, as ethnographers, we have to work hard to incite as well as
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced researchers in many fields to rapidly adapt ongoing research projects to
fundamentally changing conditions. Virtual ethnography (Hine, 2008; 2020), netnography (Kozinets, 2020), and
digital anthropology (Horst & Miller, 2012) have histories and traditions as disciplines and methods in their own
right. However, with much of everyone’s work and personal lives moving online due to Covid-19, ‘traditional’
ethnographers (i.e., those who employ face-to-face observations) have found themselves becoming participant
observers through technology as much as ethnographers of online interactions and virtual spaces – whether
they wanted to or not.
In this paper, we discuss our own ongoing process of learning to navigate virtual observations within the context
of a study, which was intended to be realised through face-to-face observations. Anchored in qualitative-
interpretivist methodology, the project is anchored in the view that ethnographies constitute embodied
(Haraway, 1988; Koning & Ooi, 2013; Vincett, 2018) and relational research methods (Gosovic, 2018; Nycyk,
2018) and, thus, that ethnographic knowledge is inter-subjectively produced between researcher and
participants (Pink & Morgan, 2013). Given these complex interpersonal premises, the project embraces that
* Corresponding author
PEER-REVIEWED VERSION: https://doi.org/10.1108/JOE-07-2021-0037
ethnographies will inevitably be ‘messy’ (Lambotte & Meunier, 2013; Donnelly, Gabriel & Özkazanç‐Pan, 2013);
that is, characterised by obstacles, back-and-forth, screw-ups, relationships, emotions, politics, self-doubt and
vulnerability, and that this mess is key to achieving rich empirical material and interesting analyses (Utoft, 2020).
In being thrown into doing online ethnography, we have experienced the mediation of our observations through
especially Zoom as an obstacle to participation, ongoing informal interactions, and, thus, building those
relationships with our participants (ripe with emotions, politics, etc.) that the quality of our project to a large
extent depends on. We believe that there may be many novice virtual ethnographers, like us, struggling in their
learning-by-doing while trying to find the time to catch up on almost two decades of methods texts. Therefore,
we offer this paper to our fellow virtual ethnography ‘newbies’ based on our practical experiences of constantly
adapting in our efforts to not let the set-backs produced by the pandemic prevent our research. Below, we
autoethnographically unfold a selection of the problems we have encountered which all fall under the overall
research question of this paper:
If messiness contributes to ensuring the methodological quality of ethnographic research, how do we deal
with the lack of mess associated with converting observations to fully virtual and/or hybrid formats?
Although none of us are Human Computer Interaction (HCI) scholars, we have almost inadvertently become
so. In face-to-face ethnographies, our bodily, sensory impressions constitute our research ‘apparatus’; in virtual
ethnography, Zoom seems to have, to a significant degree, taken their place. Furthermore, we cannot perceive
of Zoom as simply a neutral medium through which observations take place. Longstanding communication
scholarship would reject such simplistic ‘conduit’ conceptions and ascertain that communication channels shape
the information they convey (Krippendorff, 1993; see also e.g. Heath & Luff, 1992; Saatçi, Rädle, Rintel, O’Hara
& Klokmose, 2019). Therefore, as virtual ethnographers, we cannot study solely what goes on and is said ‘on
the other side(s)’ of the cameras of those we observe. Rather, we must constantly study the Zoom frame as a
focus of our observations in itself, as well as reflexively consider how Zoom affects ourselves, as observers in
a scene, and how participants relate to us (differently?) through this medium.
To be clear, Zoom is not a villain. It enables the continuation of research projects despite a pandemic. However,
this ability comes with undeniable limitations, on which we reflect below.
2 CONTEXTUALIZING THE BIOMEDICAL DESIGN FELLOWSHIP PROJECT
The reflections of this paper stem from the authors’ ongoing research on the BioMedical Design Fellowship
Programme (BMD Programme), which is a unique training scheme aimed at developing future leaders of
healthcare innovation. Central to the programme is the goal of identifying critical needs, inventing, and
implementing new health technologies. The programme is an intensive, full-time practice-oriented education
over 10 months. In the project, we study how the organisation of the BMD Programme, and the specificities of
the teaching and mentoring performed by the staff, affect and shape the fellows’ individual learning, group
dynamics and, through these, the innovation processes and outcomes.
The BMD Programme is currently educating its second cohort of 19 fellows across two locations in Denmark.
The fellows come from diverse professional backgrounds, incl. designers, doctors, nurses, and researchers
from both the medical and technical sciences. From September to December 2020, we conducted on-site
participant observations in selected events of the Programme’s initial phases. Unfortunately, in mid-December,
Denmark went into its second extensive lockdown due to Covid-19, requiring the Programme to convert all
activities into online formats. Since then, we have therefore carried out observations from the confinement of
our homes and from behind our laptop screens via mainly Zoom. In the teaching of the Programme, the staff
facilitates the content and activities. In other instances, the fellows (in teams) plan innovation sessions and self-
organise formats and agendas. Some teams are fully online, while others are physically together in one
member’s home, while we – as observers – are watching through Zoom.
In sum, both the BMD Programme and our research on it were designed to be face-to-face, based on the
assumption that physical co-presence is ideal for interpersonal innovation processes as well as for ensuring a
thorough understanding of them. In other words, for all, the virtual format is second choice due to the limitations
it poses. Below, we exemplify the methodological limitations we encountered before presenting our lessons
learned and ways forward.
3 ENCOUNTERED PROBLEMS
3.1 Verbal interactions and ‘resting zoom face’
Moving observations online has shifted the focus of our observations as well as changed our ability to use the
ethnographic tools we otherwise rely on. Firstly, in our observations we are noting an increased focus on verbal
statements and interactions. Whereas ethnography is usually applauded for capturing not only what people say,
but also their actions and interactions (Jerolmack & Khan, 2014), moving observations online has reduced our
access to the everyday happenings of our field. We now observe meetings and discussions between the fellows,
or between fellows and staff, but not much of what they do, as much activity happens outside of the frame
captured by the webcam. The fellows venture out into the world to innovate health technologies, while we are
left behind to only later hear of their adventures. Further, verbal interactions and statements are emphasized,
as we lack access to the fellows’ lived experiences vis-à-vis their social contexts. Thus, we are bereft of many
of the tools that would otherwise make up our messy ethnographies. Interpreting tone of voice is still possible
during online observations, but body language and facial expressions are changed by the online format. It is
hard to determine whether a furrowed brow is due to irritation, or simply how participants appear when staring
at a computer screen with strained eyes for hours. These obstacles pose questions about the character of the
data we produce: do we know what the fellows in the program are doing, or do we know what they want to
convey verbally to others (group members, researchers, staff) about their doings? How is the fact that online
formats only allow access to some bodily expressions potentially skewing how we see our participants – and
how they see each other?
3.2 ‘Hybrid’ observations
We have further found hybrid observations challenging, i.e., when teams are co-located whereas the
researcher, as the only one, is participating virtually. The hybrid format requires the team to set up a laptop
close to them, which emphasizes the researcher’s dependence on the assistance of research participants. With
the team sitting around a table in an analogue creative session, with the laptop placed to one side, the
ethnographer is unable to see, for example, what participants are drawing by hand, and occasionally misses
utterances if the microphone is weak. In one instance, Zoom kept crashing at the participants’ end, so that they
had to continuously log back on. Subsequently, one very helpful participant kept a constant eye on Zoom,
distracting him from the activity he was involved in, until the researcher ended the observations. The low quality
of the very fragmented observations, did not offset the amount of effort it demanded from participants. Thus,
our use of unfamiliar observational techniques and experimentation with hybrid interactions, increased our
reliance on the fellows’ ability and willingness to involve us in their doings. Especially when technologies are
uncooperative, it negatively affects the quality of our data. However, an increased reliance on cooperation with
our participants – through and around technology – may also forge new ways for research co-creation.
3.3 Informal interactions and access negotiations
Compared with on-site observations, where researchers socialize informally with research participants in coffee
or lunch breaks, virtual observations are almost deprived of such interactions. When the Zoom call is on, fellows
and staff act formally in accordance with the scheduled agenda, and during breaks people mostly mute
themselves and leave the screen. Normally, we can approach people at the coffee machine in breaks, but no
such thing exists virtually. The transition to the virtual meeting spaces also hampers negotiations of access to
further observations. Time-consuming email correspondences with the fellows about when and where we can
join their activities have replaced the spontaneous ‘can I come with you?’ during on-site observations. We have
had varying success in ensuring access via email. Some teams respond immediately whether and when we
may observe them, while others require several reminders before they reply. Further, in our access negotiations,
we often promise to mute ourselves and turn off our cameras. Our efforts to not disturb in this way, also deprive
us the opportunity to interact with the fellows during observations, such as asking clarifying questions about
their activities etc. In on-site observations, these informal interactions gave access to insights into the staff and
fellows’ sense-making of ongoing activities ensuring rich empirical material. In the virtual space, however, we
need to find ways of re-establishing those haphazard, informal, interpersonal interactions to restore some of the
rich messiness in our material. So, how can we utilize the technologies at hand to do so, when channels such
as email and Zoom are traditionally sites for formalised communication?
4 LESSONS LEARNED AND WAYS FORWARD
We initiated this paper stating that the ‘messiness’ produced by embodied and relational research methods is
key to ensuring rich, interesting ethnographies. Above, we outlined three central challenges we have
encountered, in an effort to aid fellow ‘newbie’ virtual ethnographers addressing the ‘lack of mess’ associated
with doing online observations.
Demands on our persistence in constantly ‘pushing’ for access to online meetings or innovations sessions have
certainly increased. When ongoing access negotiations disappear, because we are not simply present in the
context we study, we are unable to spontaneously join activities. We are therefore forced to send multiple emails
asking for access and for research participants’ time (e.g., to debrief on sessions we have observed) although
we may feel, we are asking for too much. Van Maanen (2011) has called fieldwork ‘one of the most impressive
ways yet invented to make ourselves uncomfortable’ (p. 219). Feeling uncomfortable when writing that third
follow-up email to arrange observations reminds us that although communications may be online, they are still
relational and very much embodied. As ethnographers, we feel their effects, speaking to the mess we may feel
has all but disappeared.
If being pushy does not pay off, we may have to rely increasingly on the access ensured by gatekeepers and
sponsors. In our case, the key gatekeeper is the Programme director who commissioned the BMD project, and
she may demand the fellows cooperate with us to set up observations. However, there are evident
disadvantages to a top-down, coercive approach. We further find that our sponsors, that is, several of the staff
and the director, are very diligent in remembering to include us in general emails sent out to the fellows. These
emails have been enormously helpful in getting information about the activities that the fellows must participate
in, scheduled by the Programme, when getting information from the fellows themselves has been difficult. Our
final suggestion concerning access is to increase reliance on those individuals or teams who show more
willingness to cooperate, inviting us to observe on their own initiative, and pursue in-depth observations with
those few teams rather than to pursue breadth trough observations of all teams if this is unfeasible.
Another way in which we experience that our embodiment is changing through new technological options
presented by especially Zoom, is our ability to turn cameras off and mute our microphones, in an attempt to not
disrupt the scenes we are observing. In on-site observations, we accept that ‘disappearing’ is not an option.
Therefore, it is interesting that we use the camera/microphone off option online, presumably just because it is
there, which somewhat undermines our own methodological premise; namely, that embodiment and
relationships produce the ethnographical mess we desire. Especially, when we repeatedly experience that the
fellows do not forget about our presence. They remain aware of and orient towards us, although they can neither
see nor hear us. Consequently, we are only gradually beginning to understand how the technological means
we employ pose new kinds of demands on our ability to put ourselves forth in observations. Therefore, in
situations in which it is suitable, we recommend keeping the camera and microphone on, and testing whether the
research participants welcome comments and questions or not. If we do not at least test this, we may miss
valuable insights and dialogues. To ensure more dialogue, it may also be helpful to take on an active role in the
scene, for example, by participating in the ongoing activity or by offering to take minutes in the meeting.
New technology-mediated and -initiated observations further offer the opportunity to give back ownership over
the research process and results to research participants. In classic ethnographies, the researcher will
determine ‘how to frame the shot’ - in other words, which interactions are of interest, and which are not. When
technologies increase the researcher’s dependence on the goodwill of participants, it seems only fair – and
perhaps this was always fair – that they can, literally, pick the frame. Letting participants choose what we can
see, gives us valuable insights into their framing of their own experiences. There is undoubtedly a risk that this
framing may skew the way we perceive research participants. Nevertheless, their performances of the identities
of an ‘innovator’, ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘fellow’ are highly relevant to our study. That Zoom enables us to see
ourselves on camera may have exacerbated everyone’s awareness of how we come off to others (researcher
included). Such ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1990) reminds us that, while interactions are virtual and
mediated when online, they still take place between people and that relationships between researcher and
subjects are complicated (e.g. Beech, Hibbert, MacIntosh & McInnes, 2009; Gosovic, 2018). Thus, the ‘mess’
may not have disappeared entirely, but it has changed, and we, as ethnographers, may have to work hard to
incite as well as expose it.
In sum, the above reflections prompt us to reconcile ourselves with the new realities of doing ethnographies.
Virtual formats for observations do not prevent embodiment. However, in trying to retain focus on the objectives
of our research project, we constantly orient as much to the interactions and activities we observe, as to the
medium through which the observations occur. We have outlined undeniable limitations to mediated, virtual
observations. Still, technology allows us to continue our research, despite the pandemic, and offers many new
possibilities – such as returning to recordings of meetings we may have missed – which, for us at least, remain
yet to be explored.
DECLARATION OF FUNDING
This research is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. Grant number: NNF18SA0034896.
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