One (dis)placed ethnographer’s movements during the pandemic: Is the on-line world a lesser ethnographic world?

– guest blog By Sarah Huxley –

The joys and pains of ethnography, as many an ethnographer might tell you, focus on the immersive, and experiential conundrums that ‘real life’ invariably spits up. That’s not to say that there is no/ little preparation, but rather to say that the very nature of the ethnographic methodology, that is– the ontology, allows for and acknowledges that, just as in life, research must have a space for the unknown, or uninvited dinner guest. What I mean is, quite simply, the opening up of unexpected ethnographic research possibilities, when original plans are closed off. My research during the pandemic has forced me to consider the possibilities and challenges of a completely online ethnography, using (mainly) synchronous video conferencing methods.

How do you react to your uninvited dinner guest? This will ideally be considered and justified in relation to your core purposes (research questions) and values (what kind of a researcher are you?) The challenge now during the pandemic is that, at times, it can feel as though there is a conveyor belt of uninvited dinner guests, and perhaps you must shift your dinner to another room, or perhaps you haven’t got enough plates, etc.  And so literally, you move your entire dinner on-line. But somehow, maybe that’s the point?

I see this extended on-line life as both an analogy for myself, a researcher (part of a wider research community), my own context (the blurring of home and work lives), as well as the vortex of wider conundrums that my research actants are also all living and contending with. All of us are decentred, spinning around, and in some senses of the word, displaced to varying degrees. But more than this, we are all collectively moved from our usual space-time positions, in many aspects of our lives. Yet, this is the experience. Researching from a chair is my experience: just as for my actants, working and living from their literal chairs, and restricted life worlds is their experience. Here, I’ll focus on my research.

My PhD research project was to have been a blended ethnography (Hine, 2000) about the learning and physical play-based games of a sport for social change charity called Coaches Across Continents. They have developed a ‘Purposeful Play’ methodology primarily using non-competitive football skills as a form of ‘education outside the classroom.’ I started with gusto in January of 2020 and planned this autumn/winter to move into ‘on field’ sites, which have involved running around football pitches, with my actants as part of an embodied and sensory interpretation of participant observation. This I had written up in my Upgrade report, pretentiously titled “Exploring the roles of fun and learning: an organisational ethnography.”

This was not to be. That room of my research house simply disappeared in the C-19 tornado. This forced me to confront my own assumptions about the nature of ethnography, and if/why I lean towards ‘on field’ ethnography as being of a higher value, than something done from a desk. Part of this is, I have realised, is due to historically inherited assumptions within anthropology and work in the last century that argues against ‘being an armchair anthropologist’ (see Sera-Shriar’s 2014 paper), but this also bleeds into my assumptions around sensory experience. Can video conferencing experiences really be sensory, and if so, in what ways?

These assumptions have started to be beautifully confronted and challenged by my participation in wider online educational experiences, among education and play communities that are not only using digital ‘participatory’ tools and technologies such as Jamboard (an online whiteboard), Kahoot (online quizzes) or Padlet (a virtual sticky note board), but are also provoking a more nuanced understanding of how we experience our mind-bodies in relation to the techno-materiality around us. In a way, my dining experience has necessitated the building of (extension if you will) of an online gaming room, and I am starting to develop my mind-body way around it. In essence, this means I am slowly sensing and thinking through what learning, movement and fun can mean and feel like using video conferencing as part of an online socio-material ethnography, with my actants.

Some of the thinking that is helping me get there– a methodological place closer to the reality of a virtual-online dinner experience– includes the work of Sarah Pink (2011) and what she calls ‘emplacement:’ the “relationship between embodiment and a wider ecology of things…by firstly bringing the biological body into the analysis; second to examine the relationship between the sensing body, movement and human perception; and third attending to a theory of place” (p.347). In doing so, this diffracts a shaft of light onto the temporality of social spaces, which is discussed further by Paolo Landri (2013). In referring to investigating the technologised (online) spaces of learning, he encourages researchers to consider new forms of educational relationship, that are nomadic (although he doesn’t use this term), and mediated by technology, so that an ethnographer cannot simply be understood as ‘being there,’ but rather becomes ‘here and there’ (p.246). Therefore, the emplacement of an ethnographer is in some ways also mirroring the turbulent movements of a ‘dinner chair’ participant (actant): both are trying to upskill in relation to the affordances of the technologies they are engaging with and trying to get their houses in order. But more than this, the current pandemic life worlds for my actants, has also been moved and shifted, and continues to move. Movements that are, to a much greater extent, relational to their new experiences of space-times, which are now from the vantage point of mainly sitting, rather than macro physical activities (running, jumping, etc.– whether on the football pitch or elsewhere). They too (among the privileged of us) have also become ‘armchair anthropologists’ in some ways. What I mean by this, is that they too are communicating and experiencing their lives now through smaller physical movements, and ways of knowing, but perhaps alongside an opening out of, larger performed online presences.

This takes me a few tentative steps closer towards shaking off the normative assumption that to engage in a “totally online ethnography,” may somehow be ‘lesser than’ a blended ethnography. Somehow that seat behind my computer has become my “on-field” as much as running around a football pitch would have been. I invite in my ‘lesser than’ shadow; a shadow of ethnographic vulnerability. I can acknowledge her moved, and continually moved, as part of the emplacement of ethnography in a time of pandemic.

Side notes:

Part of embodying the type of online research I am doing, means that I also don’t have a fixed blog… I like to move about… drop in, as it were… into other colleagues green and grassy virtual patches. This is a huge privilege, for which I am very grateful.

I do realise the analogy of an uninvited dinner guest is wickedly ironic in these times of ‘lockdown’, but I hope you will be open to it: the analogy is unashamedly grounded in a belief of active hope.

Photo credit: by Juliette F on Unsplash







Hine, C (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Landri, P (2013). Mobilising ethnographers investigating technologised learning. In Ethnography and Education, 8:2, 239-254, DOI: 10.1080/17457823.2013.792512

Pink, S. (2011). From embodiment to emplacement: re-thinking competing bodies, senses and spatialities. In Sport, Education and Society, 16:3, 343-355, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2011.565965

Sera-Shriar E. (2014). What is armchair anthropology? Observational practices in 19th-century British human sciences. History of the Human Sciences. 27(2):26-40. doi:10.1177/0952695113512490

Sarah Huxley is a second year PhD student at the Open University, UK. Her interdisciplinary research is focused on non-formal learning and personal and social change. You can reach Sarah: @AidHoover.