Ethnographic Research in Remote Spaces: Overcoming Practical Obstacles and Embracing Change

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by CHLOE EVANS, Spotify

As an ethnographer and user researcher in industry a lot of my work depends on speaking to people face to face, understanding how they live their lives on their own terms and in their own spaces. Since the onset of Covid-19 both academic and industry researchers alike have been recalibrating how they conduct research in non-physical spaces by relying on remote tools and technology. Conducting research in a non-physical space has unexpected benefits as well as some challenges.

The Importance of "Being There"

The time corporate ethnographers have in the field is incredibly valuable; compared to academic ethnographers, we are able to spend far less time with people. Being in the same space is vital for us to understand how people use products and services for the companies we work for. For example, in a past role, I would have not understood the intricacies of how people experience pet store spaces in the US if I had not physically traveled there, spoken with dog owners, and followed them around the stores. Likewise, without ‘hanging out’ with people in New York about their music habits, I would have not been able to distinguish the cultural nuances in urban US from urban UK. "Being there" is also establishing connection with people and is necessary for us to tell the stories of people to our stakeholders to build empathy grounded in lived-in experience.

Some of my most rewarding research experiences have been in shared space with research participants—and not just any space, like a research lab, but their spaces. Their homes, places of work, their worlds. In these spaces we could gather richer data; for example, the kind of decorations people have on the walls speaks to  their aesthetic sensitivities, which is very useful when working in the music technology industry, as all these things paint a more nuanced picture.

Since March, Covid-19 has completely obliterated our approach to face to face interviews. We have repurposed video conferencing, and relied more heavily on remote research tools, such as diary study tools, online surveys and participant made videos. This transition into research completely undertaken in a non physical remote space has brought about some unexpected benefits as well as some challenges in data collection.

Unexpected Benefits of Remote Research

I was able to concurrently set up remote multiple online studies at the same time. By removing myself from ‘being there’ and travelling to field sites, I streamlined my time and overcame the barrier of distance. In the space of one week I was able to conduct interviews with people all over the UK as well as set up multiple studies internationally. Pre-Covid my international research would have been conducted more in-depth, but more narrowly, within a particular field site. Consequently, the depth of research is being counteracted by the breadth of research sites I can reach conducting remote research from my own home. I now take the advantage of being able to collect data from multiple sites simultaneously, which has in turn made my analyses more robust, as it takes into account cultural nuances.

Another unexpected benefit of remote research may be greater attention to misrepresentation. An ethical and epistemological benefit from participant-made videos, for example, is that this approach can help us address some of the issues of representation[1] and the power dynamics of the ethnographer having the privilege to describe another person’s lived experience. By relying on the videos sent to me by participants rather than filming them, they have more control in how they want to present themselves to the world.

Problems with Remote Research

While participant-made videos have important benefits, this approach has brought about another set of issues. As they participate in interviews via remote video software and record videos themselves, I have found that participants often assume certain parts of their lives are not that interesting or useful to the researcher and eras them. This self erasure happens in a number of ways. For example, during a remote video interview a parent is likely to tell a child to get out of the room, whereas in a home session the child would be there in the background or even take part in the interview itself. Similarly, in diary studies participants will only show what they think is interesting, such as a curated collection of CDs. As a researcher, of course, I would also look at what is surrounding the CDs and how it is interacting with the rest of their things—but I can’t make that choice.

On a practical level one of the biggest issues I have come across is internet connectivity. By conducting research online I am overlooking a large part of the population who do not have good access to the internet because of cost, technical information or coverage. In the past I have overcome this by visiting people in their homes and speaking to them in person. By conducting research solely online we face a difficult issue of erasing a whole set of demographic of people.

Overcoming obstacles

From conducting surveys, diary studies and user interviews during the Covid period I have learnt a few lessons that I think would be valuable for both academic and industry researchers:

Find the least data heavy video conferencing and research tools

Even participants who have decent wifi connections still have issues with connectivity due to other people using the connection in the home and uneven signals. Therefore, using remote tools that do not take as much bandwidth is necessary. If an interactive prototype tool is not absolutely necessary then use a lower bandwidth alternative like a video conferencing tool with screen share instead. This will allow you to conduct the interview without any drops in connection, which wastes time and disrupts the flow of the interview. Be also prepared to have a backup tool in case you have issues with a more data demanding tool.

Become more prescriptive in your questions for participant-made videos

Allow the participants to be a co-ethnographer in your projects by asking for more information when setting tasks. Rather than asking ‘tell me’ questions, ask ‘show me’, this gives you more richer data to work with when it comes to analysis. To get a more nuanced understanding of family life, be prescriptive of asking more than one member of a household to be part of the interview. Having multiple people from the same household made the conversations feel more natural and relaxed and produces richer insights than if it was one person alone.

Practice self-reflexivity in your research

One of the main things to remember is that whatever study you are conducting during this time, data will not be reflective of ‘pre-Covid’ times. From the macro themes to the intricacies of people’s everyday lives Covid has penetrated how people are interacting with the world and with each other which we need to be aware of when writing. On top of this we also need to remind ourselves that the data collected from the percentage of those with good internet connections should not be representative of the entire population.

Balance your data with other sources of insights

If possible use other data sources to strengthen your own data, this can be through other research studies conducted by ethnographers and researchers at the same time, through quantitative surveys and marketing insights.

While Covid-19 has changed how ethnographic research is being conducted in the absence of space it has propelled the field of remote research and has shown the resilience and creativity of researchers trying to carry on in the absence of “being there”.

Editor's note: Spotify is an EPIC2020 Sponsor. Sponsor support enables our annual conference program that is curated by independent committees and invites diverse, critical perspectives.

[1] The crisis of representation came about in the 1980s as a result of academics and practitioners questioning ethnography’s validity of being a true objective reflection of reality, rather than an interpretation of the researcher’s perception of events. (Marcus & Fischer, 1986)

References

Collier Jennings, Jennifer & Rita Denny. Where Is Remote Research? Ethnographic Positioning in Shifting Spaces. EPIC Perspectives, https://www.epicpeople.org/where-is-remote-research-ethnographic-positioning-in-shifting-spaces/

Faulkner, Susan & Alexandra Zafiroglu. The Power of Partcipant-Made Video: Intimacy and Engagement with Corporate Ethnographic Video. 2010 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 113–121. https://www.epicpeople.org/the-power-of-participant-made-videos-intimacy-and-engagement-with-corporate-ethnographic-video/

Marcus, George E., and Michael M. J. Fischer. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Image: Blaue Lamellenbeschläge by Kai C. Schwarzer via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Chloe is currently a user researcher at Spotify specialising in visual methods to tell people's stories. Chloe has a background in Anthropology and has a MSc in Visual Anthropology from the University of Oxford. She has also produced, filmed and edited documentary films that have won and have been shortlisted in film festivals.

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