Ethnography and Digital History – A Historian’s Take

Before reading “Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework” I did a quick google search for Wendy Hsu, and found their website: beingwendyhsu.info/

In the about section, it explains that W.F. “writes here to reflect on the intersection among ethnography, civic innovation, and the arts, and on their research of urban sounds and music.” The website is essentially a blog, complete with a “tags” section referring to the content of the posts on the page.

This should look familiar!

I had heard of ethnography, but did a quick Google search “what is ethnography” just to be sure and found the definition “the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.” Ethnography has a long history in sociology, but as Hsu’s article suggests, it also holds potential for public historians and researchers in general.

Hsu’s overarching question is “How do digital technologies deepen ethnographic practices?” To answer this, Hsu breaks down their dissertation project to hone in on the methodology of digital ethnography and promote the usefulness of both physical and digital material. The introduction certainly made me think about Jocker’s Macroanalysis with the discussion of close and distant readings of material.

Hsu defines two key terms – scalability and intermodality. Scalability encourages “us” to rethink how we sample culture, the close and distant reading of material referenced above. Intermodality is the relational exploration “we” can do with material. Hsu’s project focuses on the relationship between music and place, but goes beyond the physical by using software to survey Myspace. (major throwback!)

Please tell me you all remember dial up internet….

This leads into a discussion of software methods for data gathering, one of which is called “webscraping”. A basic definition is that webscraping “bots”, which are further defined in the article, extract targeted information from web pages. This allows the researcher to go beyond default user interaction with the website. When reading this I was curious if this is how Facebook and other sites collect data to sell to other companies, and Hsu somewhat confirmed this with their discussion of Amazon.com.

Hsu used webscraping to create a form of mapping, which contained many, many layers of information. A large focus in this article is the role of quantitative data, and that researchers have to be careful to not rely on data alone. Ethnographers, and certainly historians, can use data to reinforce an idea or trend, or even use data to find a new line of inquiry. Hsu suggests layering information, similar to the close and distant reading approach previously mentioned, in order to better “see” the story.

Digital historians, ethnographers, and even journalists alike should take serious note of Hsu’s methodology, especially when it comes to their use of digital audio workstations (DAW). In this case, Hsu used audacity to peel back the layers of a recording to make sense, and eventually meaning, of an old cassette tape. With little information on the tape, Hsu was able to make use of digital resources to break down the historical context and content stored.

W.F. Hsu includes the term ‘augmented empiricism’ in the title of the article, which “describes the goal of finding and documenting social and cultural processes with empirical specificity and precision.” I’m sure this is a term commonly used in ethnography, but the process and goal seem applicable to everyone! This article helps make digital history a little more accessible to me, and encourages my curiosity of asking interconnected questions that may have answers in the digital world!

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