I have started packing for my last long field work stint in Trinidad. It also might be because it’s the start of the year and I’m about to leave, doing the last social rounds in Melbourne for the year and packing up my apartment, that there is sort of a retrospective playing in my head on what I’ve needed to take to the field, how that has changed over the years and how doing offline and online ethnography has affected what I need to record data, both every day and on social media.
In 2009, for my first long fieldwork for my PhD, the only equipment I really needed was my camera, a voice recorder and a note book. The laptop for backing up notes was a luxury and I didn’t have or need the internet at home. That fieldwork was also based in Cambodia, where I was looking at people who worked with NGO programs, so sitting in people’s homes or in interviews with a new flash laptop or iPhone wasn’t really appropriate.
This year, I feel like I need a set of infrastructure set up in Melbourne, London and Trinidad to get and store all the data for my part of this comparative project. Trinidad also has a bit of a different feel from Cambodia in terms of what is appropriate to use when sitting in front of or in the homes of informants. Most people are in front of me with phones much better than mine, from which we end up looking at their WhatsApp, Facebook or BBM. The voice recorder on the phone is a more comfortable, less intrusive way of recording interviews as people are used to seeing phones on the table anyway (I still rely on a small voice recorder for back up nonetheless). A fast, small laptop and external hard drive is a must, and the first thing I look for in accommodation after a shower with good water pressure is a reliable internet connection. I’m pretty lucky because, in my town in Trinidad, 4G has just been introduced and there are also a number of public wifi hot spots. The local population’s desire to be connected greatly helps my research set up, even though the town itself is in the more underdeveloped part of the country.
I have two cameras ready, a small, every day point and shoot and my larger one for events. One cannot understand Trinidad without appreciating what visibility means in Trinidad, so being part of creating visibility in Trinidad has been an ‘in’ into networks I otherwise would not have been a part of (like documenting a hunger strike in protest of the building of a highway in front of the prime minister’s office and masqueraders at Carnival). My phone’s camera has also been a quick and easy documenting method on the spur of the moment, especially when someone says “I have a story for you for your Facebook research.” They can open their Facebook page and I can screen capture and record what they’re showing me then and there. Danny and I are starting to look more deeply at what people post and what others think about them. I’m using an easy visual format of photos on a tablet screen, so I could discuss them with informants anywhere, from inside a home, to the mall, to the beach, without the need of wifi.
But the most important research tool also reflects a massive theme in doing anthropological research. More than any of my technological bits and bobs, I need something that Levi Strauss, Malinowski and Strathern had a lot of. We need the trust of our informants so we can stick around long enough to understand their everyday lives. I then need my informants to trust me enough to accept me as a Facebook friend, WhatsApp contact, or BBM contact without restricting their privacy settings so I can see their everyday ‘online’ lives (something I suspect Levi Strauss et al. didn’t have much of a problem with). What makes our project different to other studies of social media as Danny has reminded us, is that this is not simply looking at social media. We then get to go back to the informants and contextualise the uses of social media in the wider context of ethnography. This points to a polymedia of doing research, where the choices of what media to use in what research situation is also framed by the relationships and rapport we have with informants. But for now-data first, theorise later.