Urban Digital Ethnography in Milan & Beyond
By Shireen Walton, on 27 November 2020
As part of the ASSA project, I carried out ethnographic research an inner-city neighbourhood in Milan, where I lived for 16 months. During this time, I became involved in a range of local activities where I came to meet and know people over time, experiencing different aspects of daily life, offline and online. This included joining a Multicultural Centre that carries out social activities and provides social support in the area, a multigenerational women’s choir, and attending social events such as collective meals where people bring food and drinks to share together. During this time I lived in a casa di ringhiera apartment building, a type of popular housing built around the turn of the 20th century, and this formed a socially rich and immersive way of experiencing daily life, and sharing time with neighbours. The friendships I developed over time came to inform my ethnographic research on ageing, and my unfolding understanding of care and community in this context, which is the subject of my forthcoming monograph with the ASSA book series with UCL Press, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond.
The urban and digital ethnographic research methodology developed during my research builds upon scholarship that highlights the interrelatedness of urban life and digital media and communications (e.g. Georgiou 2013, Lane 2019). ‘Following the thing’ (Marcus 1995) with the smartphone and its related social and digital networks and infrastructures, I came to learn more about multiscalar networks in and across the city (Caglar and Glick Schiller 2018), the country, and transnationally, while looking at social media, maps, bespoke apps, and photo-sharing. I also keenly observed the smartphone as a material object, curious as to why some people adorned the object with physical stickers or photographs of grandchildren, or personalised their screensavers in certain ways, engaged with the smartphone, photos or apps with particular attitudes or in light of various moral or socio-ethical frameworks. Looking further at and inside the smartphone with research participants provided an opportunity for elicitation in interviews and discussion with research participants concerning practices, attitudes and evaluations, as part of a broader discussion of everyday lives, relationships, and experiences.
In short, the smartphone was both an object of study and contained within it multiple site(s) of study. Spending time on my own smartphone ultimately formed a significant part of how I engaged with urban digital ethnography in practice[i] – both sited in place and virtually augmented, all the while keeping present over months of research (and continuing to be connected during the present times of the Covid-19 pandemic), with research participants and friends in Milan and various ‘affective economies[ii]’ within variously distributed physical and virtual spaces and places.
Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.
Caglar, Ayse, and Glick-Schiller, Nina (2018). Migrants and City-Making: Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration. Durham: Duke University Press.
Georgiou, Myria (2013). Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference. Cambridge: Polity.
Lane, Jeffrey (2019). The Digital Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levitt , P and Glick Schiller, N. (2004). ‘Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society’. The International Migration Review 38:3. pp. 1002-1039.
Marcus, George, E. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography’ in Annual Review of Anthropology 24, pp. 95-117
[i] For further discussion of this kind of approach, see also Jeffrey Lane’s (2019) urban digital ethnography with young people and about social media in a Harlem neighbourhood in The Digital Street.
[ii] Affective economies is a term used by Sara Ahmed to describe how emotions do things, such as align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments. See Ahmed, Sara. 2004. ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 22 (2): 117–39.