The Field Site as a Network: A strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research
image courtesy of Daxi
As I am beginning to conceptualize my research site, I have had a number of worries from previous sites where I worked. In terms of limiting my sites to encompassing a certain physical space, or bound around a certain artifact, I felt like I was only engaging with fragments of the stories. Reading Jenna Burrell’s articles helped me devise strategies on how to map social research onto spatial terrain. She suggests looking at a field site as a network that that incorporates the physical, virtual, and imagined spaces.
A field site, in definition, is the stage on which the social processes under study take place. It is an important activity that takes place in the early stages of fieldwork, where the researcher should be based as a participant observer. She expresses how it is an important realization, in contemporary ethnographies, to acknowledge that the field site is constructed, as opposed to “discovered”, in many ways. However this “construction” she accedes, is not often discussed.
In her discussion of the ethnographic tradition she invokes the ideas of Marcus (Marcus, 1998) where field site configuration can happen in several possible modes: “follow the person”, “follow the object”, and “follow the metaphor” – lending to an overarching “cohesion to ‘multisited’ ethnographies” (Burrell, 2009, p. 183). In this “newer conception, the movement of objects, of individuals, of ideas, of media, and of the fieldworker is attended to, uncovering insights and objects of inquiry that were not visible in studies that assumed culture was spatially fixed.” (Burrell, 2009, p. 183) She argues that is becomes clear that site selection is something that is selected in a continuous process of evaluation through data gathering.
Including the internet in the research space needs new methodological approaches. How does one define the field site? Navigate the relationship between the social phenomena and space? The internet is “profoundly antispacial” (Mitchell, 1996). In order to evaluate these vastly different spatial sites, Burrell advocates seeking a “mobile, multisited and virtual” (Burrell, 2009, p. 187) ethnography.
In her ethnography of internet café’s in Accra, Burrell found that her anticipation of the site itself somehow having some form of social cohesion was misguided. There were very few “regulars” and interaction in the café was limited. For this reason, in relation to what was going on on-line, the café itself became muted. In response, she started following Marcus’ suggestion configuration of a field site and followed her subjects. Through this process of investigation she was taken all over Accra – to bars, churches, homes, schools, etc. All of a sudden the “site” of her research became a problematic entity: “the city was paradoxically both too complexly heterogeneous (too inclusive a field site) and simultaneously too geographically limited (too exclusive) as a unit of analysis” (Burrell, 2009, p. 189). In response, she conceived her field site as a “network composed of fixed and moving points including spaces, people and objects” (189).
In this networked configuration of a site, Burrell found that she could develop a unconventional understanding of social processes – constructed from the “observable connections performed by participants.” (189) Burrell proffers steps for field site construction:
- Seek entry points rather than sites. Although Burrell started her study in internet cafes, she followed users if she felt that meaningful connections were made. This gave her a greater sense of how the internet slotted into and complemented her subjects’ lives.
- Consider multiple types of networks: by looking at which networks are in place, you can foreground these existing networks according to their limitations, possibilities, as constraining or facilitating.
- Follow, but also intercept: some of the unfolding locations are at times, ambigious. When participants are in conversation with family or friends in other countries, or if the origin of messages are unknown. Burrell remained aware of the multisited context of her field site, but used the internet café as the stationary position to observe how meaning was made at this intersection of information flow.
- Attend to what is indexed in interviews: Burrel found that language was instrumental in providing clues about what things to follow – as speakers would construct meaning through association to and between spaces.
- Incorporate uninhabitable spaces: imagined spaces “social imaginaries” ( (Anderson, 1983)) are constructed by people through social interactions, especially in regards to the internet. In my experience, oftentimes young people have mythologized aspects of the internet to such an extent they they believe having, for example, a music video displayed on youtube of their band equals instant fame and wealth. The imagined possibilities of the vast anonymity of the internet, and a deeply rooted perception of what the internet is, makes such speculation and imagination commonplace. Similarly to Burrell’s findings, Fantasies of overseas countries are made up of fragments from music videos, movies, TV shows, etc and greatly desirable as a place to live and work. These mythologized spaces are frequently treated “real and correspondingly acted on” (Burrell, 2009, p. 194).
- Know when and where to stop: a simple way of knowing the end of the rabbit hole so-to-speak is for example time. If we accept that we are not studying cultural wholes, the question of completeness becomes unproblematic. For example, when more research with more people, places, spaces start to yield repetitive themes, it might be a sign that the research has reached it’s natural conclusion. Yet, when less is found in common, perhaps it is a good idea to return to the initial starting point to find similar networks.
Looking at the research site as a network also allows the researcher to adequately locate themselves in this network. Not merely as an outsider looking on, but as an oftentimes exotic influence that changes and affects the network and its outcomes.