“Like an ongoing online seminar”: How internet tools can improve fieldwork

How to collaborate in a research project when your collegues are spread across five continents? Email? Skype? Facebook? The Overheating-team found something intellectually more rewarding.

"A continuous feedback loop correcting, improving and commenting on what you said": Screenshot from one one of the Podio-workspaces by the Overheating-team. Discussions on the left, documents on the right

The internet provides many tools that can help scholars during their research. But methodology literature on this issue is hard to find. In this interview, Thomas Hylland Eriksen shares his experiences with the internet platform Podio that the Overheating-team has used for internal communication during their fieldwork in Canada, Australia, South Korea, Sierra Leone and Peru.

How would you describe Podio? It looks a bit like Facebook?

– Yes. Initially, we were planning to use Skype for group discussions during fieldwork, but this turned out to be impractical for two reasons: time zones and variable, sometimes poor Internet connections. With Podio, my initial intentions for Skype have been fulfilled, short of seeing people physically, and it is in some ways superior since the format is written and enables people to enter and leave at will. It has been like an ongoing seminar, with elements of the field diary and the ethnographic presentation, the discussion about research ethics, the debate about comparative concepts and the reading group. 

– It has a user-friendly interface where it is easy to start threads by posting an initial comment or a short essay. Pictures and even film clips can easily be attached, and there are onscreen areas where one may place texts or links to texts in Dropbox. We’ve divided our Podio into a number of distinct workspaces, making it easier to find posts and to navigate between areas. For obvious reasons, “Writings from the field” has been the most vibrant workspace in the last few months, but it will presumably be overtaken in the coming months by “Planned conferences and workshops” or even “Writing in progress”.

An ongoing conversation across continents

Some examples of inspiring discussions that you would like to mention?

– Well, I could mention many. One of the most recent discussions, on very practical issues, concerns how to remunerate field assistants without creating embarrassment. Payment for services which are provided under the aegis of friendship is always difficult, but for many of us, it has been necessary. In the event, that discussion led not only to some comparative data about collaboration with assistants and paying them, but also about the role of money and reciprocity in our respective field sites more generally.

– Another discussion that comes to mind is the one about property rights de jure and de facto, where especially Elisabeth Schober and Astrid Stensrud provided much of the initial input: this is a hugely important field of research in its own right and one that also lends itself in interesting ways to comparative analysis. What it means, and what it implies in practice, to own a piece of land can turn out to be different, sometimes more insidious, than you tend to expect.

It seems like, that you because of Podio communicated more with each other when you were thousands km apart than if you had stayed at home?

– Yes, this is — paradoxically — true. At home, there may be weeks when we don’t see that much of each other and do not discuss each other’s work, while on Podio we’ve been having this ongoing conversation, open-ended in terms of time, and I believe we have got to know each other better, intellectually speaking, as a result.

Have you found some differences in ways of communicating and discussing between online (Podio) and offline (face-to-face seminar)?

– Yes. There is a very large literature on the relationship between the written and the oral — in anthropology associated with the work of Walter Ong and Jack Goody, among others, and in philosophy, Jacques Derrida is the obvious place to start — and the difference is very pronounced here as well. The non-verbal aspects of communication are obliterated on Podio, as are the “phatic” (Malinowski’s term) aspects of communication, i.e. those little conversational snippets that are not really meant to convey information.

– This is largely an advantage, however, since you get straight to the point on Podio. The intellectual exchange becomes more naked, more refined, if you like. On the other hand, instantaneous response becomes less feasible, of course. But on the upside again, we can always go back to earlier posts and threads on Podio, unlike in the seminar room; it is as if someone had taken minutes from a discussion in the seminar room and distributed them to everybody.

Was it easy to motivate your colleagues to use Podio?

– Yes; we’re all in this together, you might say. So it is more a question of us motivating each other. It is not, luckily, a one-way street.

"The point is the practice of collective, electronic communication on the fly during and not after fieldwork"

Any concrete results from using Podio?

– We will doubtless write, probably collectively, about this experience in the context of anthropological methodology. I am not aware of a methodology literature on this. It is not as if we’ll shamelessly advertise the virtues of this particular platform; surely, there are others, but the point is the practice of collective, electronic communication on the fly during and not after fieldwork.

Is this something you realised during fieldwork, that this is so important?

– Well, not really; we did know all along that talking about your fieldwork while still in the field would be different due to the rawness of the material and the immediacy of the experiences, and let me add that the processual dimension to this is really important — how your work takes shape, as you write about it and read others’ accounts of theirs, as you go along, in a more dynamic and versatile way than what would have been possible with a different methodology.

That reminds me of Cicilie Fagerlid and others who stressed how useful blogging during fieldwork has been for them?

– Yes and no. The similarity concerns the use of an intermediate platform — the blog, the online discussion — as a stepping-stone in the evolution of your research; but the difference concerns the importance of communication on Podio, where there is a continuous feedback loop correcting, improving and commenting on what you said just now or a week ago.

You know of other research projects who have been working this way as well?

– None that I am aware of, not in this way. But surely they exist.

– Why did you choose Podio? You checked some alternatives? 

– Yes, we - or rather I - did look at some other pieces of software meant for collaborative, group-based work. However, most of them were best suited for sales and marketing. Podio was the most versatile and flexible, and most text-based, of the alternatives we looked at. It was Lena Gross who initially suggested it, as she had been using Podio recently in a different context.

Only the beginning of the democratisation of knowledge

Something like Podio became necessary because your team went simultaneously on fieldwork on five continents?

– It did, and as we had to scrap our initial plans to communicate via Skype (which would have been less intellectually rewarding anyway), we really needed this, or something like this. Email would not have done the job for us, nor a closed group on Facebook. Even with those who are doing fieldwork later — Wim van Daele, and the new postdoc, possibly others as well — I hope that Podio can be a similarly useful tool.

Was doing simultaneous fieldwork a good idea? Did you and the project profit from it in some ways?

– Well, already at this stage, I would conclude that the answer is yes, I can only hope that the rest of the team will agree. There has been considerable mutual stimulation and inspiration, and we’ve pushed each other more deeply into particular areas and alerted each other to topics that might otherwise have been less well studied. This goes for anything from local responses to Nelson Mandela’s death to the significance of water (Astrid Stensrud is our main woman here, but Queensland has droughts and the Philippines occasionally have devastating rainstorms), trade unions and the cost of living in boomtowns and hotspots. So to conclude, it has been a successful experience for us.

In which other (novel) ways could anthropologists use internet during research / fieldwork? Some apps/services you wish somebody would invent?

– Hmmm … not sure about apps, but I am in contact with a young Serbian anthropologist called Lazar Veljkovic, who has some very creative and potentially important ideas about collaborative uses of ethnography online. If these visions are realised, it may make a difference about the way we think about the distinction between fieldnotes and published work. But it is too early to tell.

– On the whole, however, the Internet enables a democratisation of knowledge which is very fundamental, and we have only seen the beginning so far; we still have a lot to unlearn about the ways in which knowledge can be shared and disseminated. The templates of the pre-Internet communication platforms remain implicit and tacit premises for the way we tend to think about knowledge and communication.


By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published June 2, 2014 4:08 PM - Last modified Sep. 17, 2020 12:24 PM