Thoughts on "Confronting the Digital: Doing Ethnography in Modern Organizational Settings "

@hugi suggested we look up this paper he had come across in Beirut. I did, and here are my thoughts.

1. Are online interactions legitimate ethno data? (TL,dr: yes)

Organizational ethnographers who rely principally on interviewing and ocular observation are unlikely to obtain firsthand access to their informants’ language, actions, and perceptions of organizational life because these are digitally mediated and not amenable to observation (Barley & Kunda, 2001; Beaulieu, 2010; Czarniawska, 2008; Knorr Cetina & Bruegger, 2002). In turn, the researchers’ ability to convey the vitality of organizational life is diminished, threatening their claim to ethnographic authenticity (Golden-Biddle & Locke, 1993).

This is a rather tall claim. I have no idea about organizational ethnography, but we who live important parts of our lives online have become apt at navigating digital interactions using the equivalent of body language (emoticons, choice of words, choice of omissions, frequency of connecting…). @howard_rheingold chronicled the deep human emotions and emerging culture at work in online communities already in 1993; his work shows clearly that these emotions and that culture is accessible through purely digital interaction – no need to be looking over the shoulder of the people typing on their keyboards.

Is there really support for this “ocular” stuff, @amelia? Does this mean that there can be no blind ethnographers? It does not sound reasonable. In fact, later in the paper it seems the opposite claim is made: if you don’t pay attention to digital, you record insufficient diversity (in organizational ethnography, maybe, the meeting room is policed more attentively by senior management than most email threads):

Ethnographers who rely on interviews and direct observation within an organization’s offices may miss out on important interactions.

The paper has a nice discussion of the “archivability” of digital ethnographic raw data:

For instance, in a systematic review of online ethnography, Tunçalp and Lê (2014), argue that online ethnography “is entirely mediated by multimedia artifacts such as texts, pictures, videos, etc.” (p. 64). From this perspective, digital data are omnipresent and “temporally suspended.” Digital data are thus considered quasi-permanent and distinct from social action. According to Tunçalp and Lê, the implication for researchers is that synchronous observation of the processes of creating digital data is equivalent to ex post analysis of digital archives.

I would problematize this, because dynamic data are quite difficult. Even if every action on a digital platform is timestamped, plenty of unobserved events complicate the picture. If Alice writes a post in a thread at 16.03, and Bob writes another post in the same thread at 16:07, can we assume that Bob has read Alice’s post and is reacting to it? Under which circumstances? In my own work I had to make a lot of assumptions to get to a well-defined model of interaction online.

Later in the paper, the authors make the claim that such data are objective, because “unobtrusive”. This seems to support our (@amelia’s, @melancon’s, @markomanka’s and mine) that it makes sense to do ethno work on the automatically recorded interactions on online platforms such as Edgeryders. Yes, I am aware Figures 1 and 2 represent pure social networks, with no semantics at all. But the faith in the server log as a legitimate source of ethno raw data is there.

Since the employees’ digital traces were unobtrusively recorded (without my agency), they were objective, allowing me to balance perspectives of politically motivated gatekeepers like Ai. Accessing the company’s email logs would enable me to be co-present (Bate, 1997; Beaulieu, 2010) to observe the digital interactions by which my informants conducted a significant amount of work. In the process, I could improve authenticity and multivocality of my research.

2. The guidelines

Guideline 1: Follow Participants’ Digital Interactions

No argument.

Here, the paper has a nice discussion on ethics, though it is not directly relevant to what we do. Reason: the privacy implications of reading people’s emails from the company server are not the same as reading people’s post on a public forum, as we do.

Guideline 2: Exploit Opportunities to Digitally Discover and Represent Marginalized Voices

The authors claim that SNA is a good fit for this, as it allows to discover peripheral people and amplify their voices.

Guideline 3: Broaden the Evidentiary Approach

This seems to mean two things:

  1. Exercise judgment when applying a method. For example: does more frequent exchange of email really map to stringer social connections in this context?

  2. Apply “methodological pluralism”. Use different methods on the same data (example: participant observation + SNA). If the two methods tell the same story, you are on to something.

Again (mostly) no argument from me.


I suppose results from co-occurrence analysis of SSNA are one way of supporting ethnographic claims, so adding that to the toolbox of digital ethnography seems to fit nicely with this guideline.

Yes, I imagine so. Though the paper never once mentions the semantic side of social networks: the authors extract meaning from participant observation, and then use SNA to buttress analysis on the founding employees of the company being central (in case 1 in the paper).