[article] The digital identity of the ethnographer
In its latest issue, the journal Terminal devotes a thematic dossier to the theme “Exploring online methods for offline fields”. I am pleased to participate with an article entitled: The digital identity of the ethnographer. Reflexive analysis and strategies of enquiry in multiplexed fields.
Orientated towards methodology, this article should be of interest to those who are concerned with the possible ways of conducting fieldwork using digital tools. It is based on a case study of my fieldwork in the National Assembly, a context that poses specific and confusing relational challenges for ethnographers.
On the notion of digital identity
At the centre of my argument is the notion of digital identity, i.e. all the content that we scatter on the Internet more or less intentionally, which is archived, quantified and made visible by the various web platforms. Ethnographers are no different in this respect; in their personal or professional activities, they themselves produce numerous online traces. Yet, these traces are visible to everyone, especially to the people they are destined to meet in the field. And the latter have no reason not to ask the search engines about those who come to meet and interview them, in order to form an opinion about them and anticipate their interactions with them.
If the traces that ethnographers leave online can shape the fieldwork relationships, then they also shape the data collected. This is true whether or not their research focuses on digital issues, as learning about others online has become a relatively common practice. In reaction, ethnographers who are aware of these issues tend to erase their digital traces as much as possible, either by limiting their presence or by adopting pseudonyms, in order to make their visible presence on the internet disappear.
But sometimes this cautious strategy can work against the investigation. This is the case, for example, in a field where being invisible arouses distrust, so that having a visible online presence greatly simplifies meetings. Another strategy is therefore to fully assume the latter, to try to control what it shows in order to take advantage of it as much as possible.
To present this reflection, I draw on my field experience at the French National Assembly between 2007 and 2019, where I had to develop online sociabilities before being able to access off-line sociabilities in the Palais Bourbon itself. During this investigation, I was thus led to continually analyse the adequacy between my investigation objectives and what I was showing about myself online. Gradually, I learnt to play with this identity to highlight this or that aspect of my project, in order to facilitate this or that meeting.
On the notion of multiplexity
More broadly, dealing with the digital identity of ethnographers allows me to raise a methodological paradox that researchers working on online or partially online survey fields tend to encounter today (and in my opinion, more and more frequently in the future). On the one hand, we are indeed obliged not to take for granted the distinction in nature between online and offline spaces of sociability as common sense does, as the scientific literature has now amply demonstrated how both are merely different facets of interpersonal sociability. On the other hand, however, there are fields where this distinction is deeply naturalised, due to specific political stakes and within the framework of linked social representations, which the ethnographer must nevertheless be able to account for.
How then can we both not take this distinction of nature seriously (for reasons of scientific positioning) and not take it seriously (for reasons of scientific methodology)? Moreover, how can we position ourselves in a field where this online/offline distinction is the subject of permanent controversy and therefore of power issues?
I suggest here as a solution to make this online/offline boundary an object of study in its own right, which should always be approached in a contextual and comprehensive way. This is where the notion of ‘multiplexity’ comes in handy. Borrowed from the historical sociology of social networks, it allows us to describe more precisely the plural and dynamic character of social relations in a given social world, and thus to clarify the values and norms locally associated with these two types of sociability spaces.
I will not say any more, I let you discover the text by yourself. It is freely available at the following address: https://journals.openedition.org/terminal/6883.
Enjoy reading it!