Week 7 Readings: Digital Ethnography and HiPSTAS

Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework by Wendy F. Hsu demonstrates the importance of digital practice in the study of cultures in the modern world. Hsu, who is a professional ethnographer with the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, writes that technology, such as with social media, allows for ethnographers to discover various discrepancies of different experiences within cultures as well as allow for a greater connection to the communities they are looking at. Hsu states that scholarship on digital ethnography balances between practical theory and methodology, with more researchers using digital methods as only a small piece of their overall analysis. Because of this, Hsu argues that the methodological use of technology in the field is far underdeveloped and attempts to expand the definition of digital ethnography in her article and “shift the focus of the digital form from a subject to a method of research.”

Hsu highlights scalability and intermodality (or multimodality) as two ways computers excel at capturing information for an ethnological purpose. Scaling, or the collection of information to reveal patterns, allows for greater insight into a culture that otherwise would be difficult to perceive relying solely on cognition. This allows for a deeper look into patterns within and between different sets of information. Multimodality, or the act of looking at multiple different sets and types of data, allows ethnographers to further engage in cultural study while also exploring relations between two separate datasets. Hsu argues that the combined use of scalability and multimodality allows for augmented empiricism, a new perspective on micro and macro data sets, thus extending field observations. This allows for a more accurate depiction of variables and inconsistencies. Augmented empiricism allows for empirical immersion in ethnographic depictions of culture.

Hsu uses her own personal experiences of digital ethnography as examples of finding scalability and multimodality in online data. These experiences include the use of mapping and visualizing soundwaves through audio programming in ethnographic studies. She leaves several questions, both through her discussion of her personal use of digital methods and by questioning her reading, for discussion throughout her article.

  1. Hsu mentions that computers are ill-equiped in understanding meaning in expressions and emotion. How can ethnographers account for this when engaging with digital methods?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of deploying software in an ethnological project?
  3. How does geography play a role in digital ethnology, both in Hsu’s personal experiences and in general? How does this open and expand on conversations of place and space within culture?
  4. How are maps powerful tools in exploring the influence of cultures and subcultures? How does zooming in and out of mapped geographical data change the story told? Think of Hsu’s use of maps in her exploration of Asian partipation in the punk rock music scene through webscrapping MySpace.
  5. Hsu writes that she primarily works with sound. How does close listening through looking at soundwaves (with Audacity or other audio recording programs) reveal further stories within music production?
  6. How do visual aids such as the use of mapping or soundwave imaging expand the inquiry of ethnographers?

Next, I looked at the High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS) website and project grant with the National Endowment for the Humanities. HiPSTAS is an excellent example of how technology plays a large role within historic preservation in the digital age. The HiPSTAS project, started by the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin (and assisted by Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Urbana-Champaign) intended to create a virtual research environment to analyze and create access to sound archives using digital resources. Hosted in 2013 and 2014, the HiPSTAS Institute brought together both sound scholars and computer scientists to discuss how to advance the scholarship around voice and sound recordings. This has led way towards developing specific programs through later grants, such as ARLO, as open-source tools for use in archives and special collections.

The main focus of HiPSTAS is preservation in conjunction with technology. HiPSTAS notes in its program introduction the correlation between scholarly use and preservation by citing a 2010 Library of Congress study on the conversation of sound recordings. As such, HiPSTAS encourages the use of these recordings in scholarly study and has supported projects relating to sound archives. These recordings, dating as far back as the 19th century, include oral histories, interviews, poetry readings, and speeches. HiPSTAS asks several important questions within its proposal:

  1. How is perservation related to digital technology? How have specific programs led to the perservation of media that otherwise might’ve been lost?
  2. How can research lead to a greater desire to perserve media such as sound files?
  3. In what ways are sound recordings critical to humanities-based scholarship? What do we gain from using historic sound recordings?

— Claudia Faith Santa Anna

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