Panel 9

Digital fieldwork after the pandemic – a ‘new normal’ of researching the social?

Organizers: Julie Sascia Mewes (1); Frauke Rohden (2); Mace Ojala (1)

1: Ruhr University Bochum; 2: University of Oslo

Topics: Sociotechnologies of (in)secure worlds to come; Sociomaterial learning processes and/in digital worlds

Keywords: digital methods, digital fieldwork, methodics and methodography, ethnography of/in the digital, the ‘new normal’

This panel focuses on the ‘new normal’ of digital ethnographic fieldwork in post-pandemic STS research. During the COVID-19 pandemic, universities were among the first institutions to go into lockdown, moving academic work off-campus and limiting access to non-digital field sites. At the same time, digital solutions became integrated into various work practices and personal lives, moving field sites online at least partially or temporarily. This required ad hoc re-adjustments to suit the new social, material, and technological needs of remote research as much as the spatial configurations of ethnographic methods. Long-term effects included the increasing normalization of work-from-home and the (temporary) rise of digital methods in STS ethnography and beyond.

A widely shared collaborative online document for ‘doing fieldwork in a pandemic’ (Lupton, 2021) highlighted the potential of digital research methods, drawing on a range of fields such as critical data studies, media studies, platform studies, or digital sociology. Grappling with messy and complex datasets and intertwined technical and social effects, qualitative research traditions have much to offer, suggesting that reflexive ‘digital fieldwork’ (Lindgren 2019, Venturini & Rogers 2019) could be a valuable approach to dealing with digital field sites.

STS researchers have contributed to such discussions. For example, Moats (2019) explores the tensions of ‘following the medium’ and following controversies, and Ribes (2019) comments on the challenges and opportunities that can be found in the intersection of STS and data science, or Marres (2020) suggesting a ‘situational analytics’ to bring interpretative methodology into computational settings. Vertesi and Ribes (2019) collect an array of examples of digital STS scholarship in their book. Munk (2019) goes into detail on how qualitative and quantitative moments of analysis can be combined, distinguishing four styles of analysis: A complementary style using both side by side, a single-level analysis using the seamless nature of digital data, a curative approach using computational methods to select data for qualitative analysis, and algorithmic sensemaking to find patterns in data that are interesting to the researchers.

This panel invites papers concerned with the practicalities of conducting digital fieldwork along these four styles of analysis in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. We are particularly interested in research exploring a) the concrete doings of digital ethnography and methodographic reflections on how our research concerns, objects, techniques and textual representations are enacted through the respective devices in use (Greiffenhagen et al., 2011; Lippert and Mewes, 2021), and/or b) reflections of the potential future implications of the (at the time of writing ongoing) closure of the pandemic as a historical period. We ask panel contributions to critically reflect upon potential exclusions and limits, frictions as well as delights of digital fieldwork, its methods and methodologies, and the academic infrastructures they are embedded into.

The panel creates a collaborative space for STS researchers interested in ‘the digital’ as an empirical, theoretical, or methodical concern, field site and/or field device to gather the learnings of pandemic digital fieldwork and discuss the present and futures of digital STS.