Digital Ethnography (Review)

NATALIE UNDERBERG & ELAYNE ZORN. Digital Ethnography: Anthropology, Narrative, and New Media. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013, 109 p.

While digital media attract increasing attention in anthropology (see Miller & Horst’s recent volume, Digital Anthropology), few writings examine in detail how digital media can offer helpful methodological tools in anthropological research. Underberg & Zorn’s Digital Ethnography contributes to this endeavour, with a focus on ‘designing the layout and navigation of new media forms like websites and computer games to embed both cultural context and interpretation into the user experience’ (10). The book contains six short chapters, divided in three sections, each dealing with a different methodological question. Chapters 1-2 explore how digital media can be used in ‘representing culture’; chapters 3-4 explore how digital media can improve anthropological analysis; and, finally, chapters 5-6 explore how digital game-design can enable ‘heritage-based education’ (86).

Chapters 1-2 situate the book in a very broad theoretical legacy, including visual anthropology, literary anthropology, and multisensory ethnography. Underberg & Zorn engage with a common question within this legacy: that is, in what way and to what extent can anthropologists represent the cultures that they study? According to the authors, digital media provide yet another means of cultural representation – vs. ethnographic writing, photography, or film – while improving community participation in anthropological knowledge-making. In this view, digital representations are created in collaboration among anthropologists, computer technicians, and community members, as exemplified in several heritage-based website projects presented in the book. One such project, led by Underberg & Zorn, is an interactive website called PeruDigital, whose aim is to ‘present and interpret Peruvian festivals and folklore through the medium of the Internet’ (33). The project, which engaged students, artists, and community members in its design, purports to illustrate an innovative, immersive, interactive, and ethically responsible way of engaging with ‘Andean culture’, based on archival and ethnographic data.

Chapters 3-4 argue for an increased use of digital media in anthropological analysis. The authors seem fascinated by digital media’s ability to store, search, retrieve, and distribute ethnographic data. In particular, chapter 4 (which is co-written with Rudy McDaniel) advances a forceful argument in favor of Extensible Markup Language (XML), a meta-data coding tool, which is said to improve presentation and analysis of ethnographic data in digital form. Three online projects are given as examples, showing how XML can improve reading of digitized folktales; how it can assist in data searches for digital humanities scholars; or even how it can create an accessible database, shared among anthropologists and community members, where one can learn about aspects of Puerto Rican identity in Florida. Chapters 5-6, finally, argue for using online video-games for ‘cultural learning’. The argument, briefly, is that videogames offer an innovative way to represent cultural narratives for whoever wants to learn about them, since videogames allow for (virtual) spatial exploration, thereby creating an embodied, interactive sensation of a given culture.

The book contains a good amount of examples (not all well detailed, unfortunately) of existing websites or videogames representing a given community or ‘culture’. And indeed, the reader is encouraged to visit these online locations, whose URL addresses are included in appendix. Given its very short size (only 89 pages of text), however, it is unfortunately plagued with analytical shortcomings, which a slightly larger volume might have addressed. The most obvious shortcoming is contained within the book’s very title. ‘Digital ethnography’ is defined, in introduction, as ‘a method for representing real-life cultures’ by combining ‘digital media with the elements of story’ (10). There is, throughout the book, a systematic conflation of narrative and digital technologies. If clearly influenced by a tradition of literary anthropology emerging from Clifford & Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986), the conflation remains astonishingly impervious to the difference between writing techniques, associated with textual forms of narrative, and digital technologies, whose ‘immersive’, ‘interactive’, or ‘multivocal’ qualities, as highlighted by the authors themselves (18-19), are far from inherently related to narrative. In fact, the first step in a book considering the viability of digital ethnography as a way of representing ‘culture’ should have been, precisely, to question the very possibility of a digital ethnography, understood as a ‘writing-about-culture’, since digital means are neither inherently nor obviously related to written, narrative representation.

Furthermore, the idea that ‘through interactivity and immersion (…) digital media can enable anthropologists and folklorists to tell innovative cultural stories (…) for a diverse audience’ (10) seems to carry a cartload of surreptitious assumptions. There is, as indicated earlier, the assumption that digital technologies are inherently commensurable with narrative; but there is also the idea that the intended audience is inherently more likely to engage with so-called ‘experience-based, affectively interactive, immersive’ digital forms (68). The book is often unclear about what target audience is envisaged for digital representations: are they intended for students, for community members, for researchers, for general audiences? This is not to say that the authors ought to have identified specific target audiences in all given examples. It means, rather, that the absence of any reflection about audiences witnessing cultural representations leads to a de facto deterministic view whereby, apparently, anyone would love to engage with ‘culture’ online, instead of opening a book.

A few last words: digital media are systematically elevated onto an ideal plane where collaboration among academics, computer technicians, and communities is suddenly made more vibrant – when, as such, digital media do neither necessarily nor especially favor such collaboration. This is arguably tied to an implicit claim about the anthropologist’s continuing relevance in ‘representing culture’, even after the communities s/he studies have appropriated digital means for self-representation. The anthropologist, no longer an expert in cultural representation, now becomes an expert in assessing ‘the potential and risk of new technology’ (23-24) – which is, at face value, a doubtful statement. Such a statement is indeed symptomatic of the book’s general inability to address fundamental analytical issues. The book’s usefulness, if any, lays in its list of concrete examples for what might be, whatever is, ‘digital ethnography’ – a method of representing live communities in digital form, albeit a method insufficiently expounded in analytical detail.

This review was initially published in 2013 by the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, vol. V, no. 1, pp. 94-95