I spoke at the wonderful “Digital Ethnography Weekend” conference last month in Italy. There, I furthered my argument about what I call “digital dualism,” the fallacy that views the on and offline as separate spheres as opposed to my support of an “augmented reality” paradigm that views these spheres as always enmeshed and dialectically co-determining.
Because this was a “digital ethnography” conference, I applied the augmented reality framework to this methodology and argued that, instead, we should be doing “augmented ethnography”, an ethnography that takes as its unit of analysis a reality comprised of atoms as well as bits, always dialectically co-determining. Colleague Alessandro Caliandro and I debated these ideas in the question-and-answer portion of my talk (with much-appreciated thoughts from Adam Arvidsson, as well). Caliandro has posted his summary of my talk as well as his criticism here. I welcome this criticism and want to respond to it below.
First, Caliandro’s development of my argument is charitable. I also very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of the critique. However, I do need to make a correction to the way he summarized augmented reality, and this correction will be important for my response to the criticism. I do not think that the differences between the physical and digital are “irrelevant”; indeed, they are quite important and I’ve written about them before (e.g., here and here). Atoms and bits have very different properties (for instance, atoms tend to be scarce and bits more abundant). It is my contention that these very different spheres come together to form our augmented reality. In fact, as I argue here, it is only under the assumption of augmented reality that we can fully explicate the relevant differences between the physical and digital. With this correction in mind, let’s move forward.
Even if I completely agree with Nathan Jurgenson on a theoretical level, at the same time I disagree with him on a methodological level.
In short, my response will be that methods should follow theory, so an agreement with the latter should imply an agreement on the former.
I have had the impression that Jurgenson conflates ‘Digital Ethnography’ with ‘Virtual Ethnography
Instead, in my opinion, Digital Ethnography should be considered as specific branch of Ethnography, which takes advantages of digital tools (for example available on the Internet) in order to better understand the society as a whole, to reach out the world as a whole
All ethnography should take advantage of both digital and non-digital tools when appropriate. If one is looking at both the on and offline and how they intersect and are calling that “digital ethnography,” then my disagreement would only be semantic (why label that “digital”?). But I would be quite pleased that it takes on as its fundamental unit of analysis our augmented reality (comprised of atoms and bits). However, Caliandro goes on to support a digital-only ethnography (whatever label we decide to give this perspective). He states that,
we must be aware of the fact that the digital world is a very specific object: it is a domain which possess its specific rules, dynamics and constrains. That is why, I think, the idea of an ‘augmented reality’, in which digital and non-digital collapse, it’s methodologically and heuristically unhelpful.
This is the typical criticism of augmented reality and stems from the one correction I made of Caliandro’s development of my theory. Again: the digital and physical indeed have different properties, but the reality that we are studying (our unit of analysis) is one comprised of many domains with different “rules, dynamics and constraints.” We cannot begin to conceptualize the specific rules of the digital without doing so always aware of how they are fundamentally shaped by the physical (and vice versa). I expand a bit more on this point here.
To be very clear: to study only the digital, be it through observation, interviews and so on, without taking into account how all of this relates to the physical domain in a very rigorous way does not reveal the specific properties of the digital. Instead, it provides an unclear and less useful picture. One cannot simply “subtract out” the physical when doing an ethnography in the way statisticians “control for” other independent variables in their models. And, of course, I would make the same point to anyone supporting a “physical ethnography” that purposely ignores the digital domain in order to provide truths about the physical world.
Let’s pretend for a moment that a so-called physical ethnographer decided to study “how race is performed by youths in the physical world.” If that ethnographer ignored, say, Facebook, then that ethnographer would be missing plenty of data on how race is performed offline because Facebook does not just influence people when they are logged in but also when logged off and not in front of any glowing screens.
Again, we arrive at the general point that methods should follow theory. If one agrees with augmented reality conceptually, empirical methodology should follow suit.
In short, any ethnography that ignores the physical can never reveal the true working of the digital (and vice versa). Let’s look at one more criticism from Caliandro:
the manners in which social actors represent their identity online often have very little to do with the manners in which they do the same thing offline. Let us for example think about users chatting on an online forum: they basically construct their identities within a flux of narration, mainly writing about themselves and using just a rhetorical array to represent their Selves; that is, in a manner that does not occur in the everyday offline life.
Caliandro’s example does not demonstrate that the on and offline are completely separate, but just that they are different. And these differences can only be explicated by looking at how these individuals construct/perform identity both on and offline. Online chat forums do have an influence on identity, and that is something that flows both on and offline (remember, Caliandro agrees with this point). To only study the forum without making reference to the physical world would leave out how the physical world helps construct how textuality is experienced online in these chat forums. This point becomes even more important when studying online activities more typical than chat rooms like, for instance, Facebook, where the offline has an even more profound influence on the experience of digitality.
To conclude on a tangent: perhaps if digital dualist conceptual and methodological assumptions are done away with we will see a few less studies on chat rooms, virtual worlds and a few more on more popular activities such as sites like Facebook. At recent conferences I have been amazed by how many studies are still conducted on Second Life and chat rooms. To be clear: these are still important areas of study. The importance of a topic is not merely defined by the popularity of the activity being studied. However, my suspicion (and it is just that, not founded empirically in any way) is that digital dualist methodologies have made it much easier to study domains where the physical and digital are more separate (like chat rooms and Second Life; but, again, I think even these are part of our augmented reality). These methodologies perhaps made more sense before the rise of social media, however, these methodologies are increasingly inadequate when dealing with sites like Facebook where augmented reality is much more obvious. The result has been a disproportionately high number of studies on Second Life and disproportionately low number studying sites like Facebook. Augmented methodologies are better suited to capture what most people actually do online.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson
Chat: Debating Augmented Reality With Zeynep Tufekci » Cyborgology — October 11, 2011
[...] I am posting some of the debate that occurred over Twitter and another post responding to a critique of a talk I gave on the [...]
Ishmael — October 11, 2011
You're rather adamant in pushing this idea... even if it means "correcting" others. How might this be an essential issue to "correct?" As in what might be some detrimental ramifications of believing there is a drastic digital divide?
Elise — October 12, 2011
Nathan: You may want to read the work of Barry Wellman (at University of Toronto). He's been fighting this misconception since the 90s.
Augmented Reality: Responding to a Critique « n a t h a n j u r g e n s o n — October 19, 2011
[...] This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to re... [...]
Stephen Barnard — October 30, 2011
Let me first say that there is so much that I agree with in your work on how our reality is increasingly “augmented.” It is particularly important because it helps to push our thinking in a direction which most academics have been largely ignorant of for far too long.
That said, I have to take issue with the undercurrent of your overall approach, as seen in many of your posts on this blog, which imposes your view of reality—both implicitly and explicitly—in place of others’. I commend your attempt to get beyond digital dualism and to investigate the augmented nature of our reality. However, just because this focus is important to you (and many others) doesn’t mean that it is the only focus to which scholarship must attend. For example, in your blog post you state: “If one agrees with augmented reality conceptually, empirical methodology should follow suit.” Such a logical leap is problematic. It supposes that an agreement with your theoretical position, which is unavoidably bound to your own mode of inquiry, requires the adoption of your preferred (but so far under-explained) method.
If your question is to investigate this “augmented reality,” then sure, the approach you tout is especially appropriate. This is a fascinating research question, and one I think you and others should continue to pursue. However, you don’t get to decide what research questions other scholars investigate. We do, and as Adrienne Russel l (among countless others) pointed out in her talk at the Journalism Interactive conference, methods should fit research questions. For example, my dissertation investigates the impact of Twitter-based interactions on the structure, practices, and boundaries of the journalistic field. This has led me to conduct a “digital ethnography” of the journalistic field on twitter, a textual analysis of discourse from within this realm, and to compare what I’m seeing there with other researchers’ accounts of the F2F norms and standards. I don’t intend to “control for” or “hold constant” F2F happenings, but I do acknowledge them through secondary accounts.
As you well know, those people operating in the digital realm are at the same time standing in the F2F realm. In an ideal world I could stand next to them when they tweet. Unfortunately, I cannot be in two F2F places at once, nor do my financial, temporal, or physical locations permit me to be ‘there’. Of course, this is a limitation to my work, which I am glad to admit. But, it is far from a damning one, especially since I acknowledge my focus and work hard to consider issues I have not collected primary data on. (The fact that my dissertation committee—which consists of sociologists, media scholars, journalism experts, etc.—also see the value in the knowledge I am working to help create suggests that my work is valid despite your seemingly insatiable standard of validity.)
Why devalue the work of others (both implicitly and explicitly) because they don’t think exactly like you, don’t have the same expectations for what should be researched? Doing this is problematic on many levels, especially given that most of the knowledge that we have leaned on to get to this point doesn’t hold up to your grand standards. (How much scholarship actually does accomplish what you want it to, besides yours, that is?)
Your ‘rightness’ about the myth of digital dualism shouldn’t be contingent on others being ‘wrong’. As in,’ their methods don’t fit my theory, so they are wrong.’ There is room for lots of research on the dynamics unfolding as our lives are increasingly textured by digital and web-based interactions. Taking the time to point out the limitations in specific studies is not the same as painting a massive body of research with a broad brush that helps you make your (admittedly important) point. I see why this approach is tempting—because it is self affirming and will likely garner attention—but it is highly problematic.
As Marx famously stated: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Of course, we know this true. Applying it to this discussion provides us an opportunity to explicitly acknowledge this reality as it relates to the (all-too-common) fuzziness of the research process. The work we all do is bounded by many factors, some of which I mentioned above. What matters most is how one acknowledges and works to thrive within these constraints. I would argue that the quality of focused, empirical research should be primarily determined on the basis of internal validity—how well does the work answer its stated research questions—rather than overzealous expectations for external validity and generalizability. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see the value in grander, more generalizeable research. I truly do. But it is a mistake to theorize and criticize with an implicit premise that all work should fit this mold.
Overall, you are correct in your supposition that research would benefit from conducting both digital and F2F ethnography. However, all research and knowledge is bounded, and we mustn’t confuse your view of reality for the view of reality. This is a dualism all its own. Perhaps there will come a time when a solid body of research holds up to your standards. But until then—and even after—be reminded that there are other questions, other methods, and other epistemologies that are comparably commendable to your own. I hope that, over time, you see the problems inherent in this dualism so you can work to overcome them. In the meantime, please keep fighting this important fight. Just try not to discount all the rest of us who also continue to do so in ways that are a bit different from your own.
PJ Patella-Rey — October 30, 2011
At times, it seems like you are arguing in favor of nominalism here (i.e., theory is never generalizable across cases), though I'm sure this is not your intent. You also seem to be saying "I agree with the augmented reality perspective, just not for my (and others) case(s)." I'm interested in hearing more about what makes the case you are studying distinct. Are these distinction practical or theoretical?
I agree that the idea of "augmented ethnography" is underdeveloped and that it may be impractical. Perhaps, "virtual ethnography" (or, simple content analysis) supplemented with other information may be the best proxy for an augmented ethnography in certain situations. Though saying that digital ethnography is the best approximation of an ideal type is far different than saying that virtual ethnography is theoretically justified in its own right.
Stephen Barnard — October 30, 2011
You are right that my critique does sound a bit like nominalism, even though it wasn't intentional. I do think generalizability is important and possible, but I also think it is largely bound to one's mode of inquiry. While cases can and should be compared when appropriate, I would argue that the topic of discussion should dictate what comparisons are relevant.
I don't think my case is distinct in the sense that reality is augmented an a drastically different way--although I'll admit I haven't given that question enough thought as of yet. The distinction is primarily theoretical, although I stated in my initial response how it is also practical. The augmented model and it's subsequent epistemology simply doesn't fit my current research project, which draws on Bourdieu's field theory to understand the role of Twitter in journalism. While my research questions could focus on how augmented reality is changing journalism, they do not, which is the primary theoretical & methodological reason why I haven't taken an augmented approach to ethnography. I do, however, see the value in such an approach and would love to see it done well, regardless of whether it is something I get around to or not.
sally — November 1, 2011
Hey guys, why not embrace PolySocial Reality? We're inclusive! We subsume Dual Reality!
Applin and Fischer 2011 From the IEEE Conference IE'11 on Intelligent Environments, July 2011
"The future Internet will not only encompass a single person and their laptop, computer or mobile phone, but will reside as an intermediary between whatever virtual and 'real' (culturally constructed and experienced) worlds a person happens to be multiplexing at any given time. Because of this, within the context of the Future Internet, using terms like 'Augmented reality', 'Dual Reality', 'Blended Reality', and 'Mixed Reality' ('Virtual Reality' is omitted for lacking interactivity with other worlds) may be limiting in scope. Those terms do not currently address the multiplexing scenario that is commonplace amongst groups of people using the Internet simultaneously, each with a different multiplexed set of 'mixed' realities. The complete set of those multiplexed 'mixed realities' connected through the social net- works that they reside within, we refer to by the name of PolySocial Reality (PoSR). These rapidly compounding realities create great potential for confusion. In many cases a major part of the context for interpreting a given person's behavior is not observable by others."
Trayvon Martin, Racism and Social Media :: racismreview.com — March 29, 2012
[...] inequality. In other language, our material reality is augmented by digital, social media as Nathan Jurgenson contends. When it comes to race, that means we have to see the face-to-face racism that took [...]
The Hole in Our Thinking about Augmented Reality » Cyborgology — August 30, 2012
[...] used to describe ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ is spheres. These spheres are “very different,” but absolutely “not separate [.pdf],” and thoroughly “enmeshed”—but if we’re going [...]
Strong and Mild Digital Dualism » Cyborgology — October 29, 2012
[...] dualism. And my critique has itself been counter-critiqued. I’ve responded to criticisms here, here, and here. Recently, observing this dialogue, Whitney Erin Boesel and Giorgio Fontana have [...]
Augmented Mobilization at the People’s Climate March - Treat Them Better — March 9, 2015
[…] affirms what others at Cyborgology have called the digital dualism fallacy, which has been taken to task many times before. Nathan Jurgenson and others have proposed in its place the notion of augmented […]