I do not here wish to present yet another argument about the need for cultural critique in the social sciences. I hope that the social sciences have gotten past the idea they cannot or should not be so engaged. After all, the peoples under study do this all of the time, and it is their reflexive critiques (or their lack), in and of the practices they do that makes up much of what social science might well consider one of its primary objects of study.
We commonly use their critiques (or the lack of these) to make our academic points. Realizing that we obligated to them for the use of this, perhaps the best way to repay this obligation is to then develop other critiques that are not available to the communities where we go as ethnographers, and to return these to the communities in some fashion. And here the “digital age” offers new conduits that connect in two directions: to and from the field. For example, by linking webpages ethnographers and communities can join into a common network of action and critique.
This brings us to perhaps the most important aspect of digital ethnography: the increasing overlap between here and there, between the field and the classroom, in late modernity. This is not news: the time/space distanciation effects of globalizing modernity have been discussed for decades now. But here I want to comment on the effect of these for the task of writing ethnography. Although the metaphor of a “global village” obscures the power effects of who gets to write and who gets written about in the ethnographic process, it does suggest that as much as we can now never completely “leave home” when we go to the field, we are also never that far from the field upon our return (Through the World Wide Web and email, I can keep in contact with members of the group back in Kyoto.)
The work of ethnography in the age of digital reproduction includes staying in pace with the space-time distanciation of late-modernity in order to merge the field (the old “there”) and the ethnography (the former “here”) in an engaged conversation.
The terms of engagement between the ethnographer and individuals within the group under study expand to include the group’s study of the ethnographer, with digital connections into the ethnographer’s locale 1 . These links are also made to symbolize a shared outcome from the work performed by the ethnographer.
This work includes critiques of some of the practices of the group, or of practices in the locale that affect the group—critiques that not only echo those available within the group, but that expand the entire arena for self-critique. By the same token, the group receives these critiques with counter critiques of their own directed at the critiques within the ethnography (and sometimes at the person or the background of the ethnographer). As long as the lines of engagement are kept open, then the work continues. When either the ethnographer or the group closes down these links, then the ethnography stops.
There are also individual,personaleffects of working in this manner over time. For the field is not some place that can be left behind as the career of the ethnographer moves forward. There is a joint investment between the group and the ethnographer. The practice of ethnography in the age of digital reproduction requires the ethnographer to share an (imagined) identity with the group being studied. This means that the ethnographer must admit an internalized (or -izeable) affiliation with the group under study, and vice versa. This sharing reflects the intimate engagement between the group and the ethnographer that goes beyond what was always there: the proximal sharing of the space of the field site.
In late modernity this connection means much more than “eating with the natives:” particularly where the meal being shared includes a Big Mac™. Both the group and the ethnographer need to find a space where identities and interests overlap. Much of the communication will happen within this overlapping arena, and so the ethnographer (for whom communication with the group is crucial) generally works to widen this overlap as far as possible.
Today the differences between the ethnographer and those living at the field-site can mostly be reduced to a differential in their Ken —in their percept-abilities of the situation at hand. There are many places where the ken of individuals in the group exceeds that of the ethnographer (this is why and where we learn from them), and there are a few places where the reverse holds: where the ethnographer brings new information to the situation at hand. There is not a “transcendental” perspective on either side; these kens are very simply different. And a main outcome of ethnography is to expand the kens of both the ethnographer (and her readers) and also of the group, through the practice of ethnographic engagement. When this happens, then the critiques of the group and the critiques of the ethnographer become mutually comprehensible and also mutually critique-able. And so the process continues.