Our fourth and fifth project publications

Photo by Ivan Babydov from Pexels

A fourth publication from the ‘Living with Personal Data’ project has been published in Visual Studies. This article authored by Ash Watson, Deborah Lupton and Mike Michael is titled ‘The presence and perceptibility of personal digital data: Findings from a participant map drawing method‘. In this, we discuss findings from the map-making component of our project, where we asked participants to hand draw maps of the digital devices located within their homes. These maps represented the devices people have, where these devices usually live and move to, how and by whom they are used, and the flows of digital data emitting from them. Due especially to the COVID lockdowns which impacted our project, the map-making afforded rich and interesting insights into the contexts and materialities of personal data generation which were otherwise hard to get a sense of when we could not visit participants’ homes in person.

The abstract reads:

Personal digital data are often imagined and experienced as invisible and immaterial phenomena, albeit with increasingly powerful impacts on people’s lives. In this article we discuss findings from an ethnographic project involving 30 participants in Sydney, Australia, directed at identifying their practices and understandings concerning their home-based digital device use and the personal data generated with and through engagements with these technologies. As well as engaging in a video-recorded home tour, we asked participants to hand draw maps of the digital devices located within their homes and the flows of digital data emitting from the devices. These maps mark the presence, interconnections and mobilities of digital technologies and the digitised details generated by their sociomaterial entanglements. The maps were also used to spark further discussion with the participants about their devices and data, seeking to understand their sense-making practices. Working with our concept of ‘digital scaffolding’, we explore what these participant-generated maps can reveal and make visible about digital technologies and data in relation to the domestic environment as well as the world outside the home. We consider what the maps themselves show in terms of digital presence, and what the mapping activity made perceptible within the research encounter.

The fifth publication from our project has also been published in International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Titled ‘Remote Fieldwork in Homes During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Video-Call Ethnography and Map Drawing Methods‘ and authored by Ash Watson and Deborah Lupton, this open access methodological article reflects on the challenges and opportunities that arose when we shifted the in-person ethnographic part of the study online. It details the adjusted video ‘home tour’ method we employed, and discusses how this approach was designed to (and amended to still) elicit the sensory, affective and relational elements of people’s digital device and personal data use at home.

The abstract for this article reads:

Restrictions on physical movements and in-person encounters during the COVID-19 crisis confronted many qualitative researchers with challenges in conducting and completing projects requiring face-to-face fieldwork. An exploration of engaging in what we term ‘agile research’ in such circumstances can offer novel methodological insights for researching the social world. In this article, we discuss the changes we made to our ethnographic fieldwork in response to the introduction of a national lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The ‘Living with Personal Data’ project, based in Sydney, Australia, and designed well before the advent of COVID-19, explores a diverse range of people’s feelings, practices and understandings concerning home-based digital devices and the personal digital data generated with their use. Using a video ethnography ‘home tour’ and an elicitation technique involving hand-drawn maps of people’s homes, digital devices and the personal data generated with and through these devices, this approach was designed to elicit the sensory, affective and relational elements of people’s digital device and personal data use at home. The fieldwork had just commenced when stay-at-home and physical distancing orders were suddenly introduced. Our article builds on and extends a growing body of literature on conducting fieldwork in the difficult conditions of the extended COVID-19 crisis by detailing our experiences of very quickly converting an ethnographic study that was planned to be in-person to a remote approach. We describe the adaptations we made to the project using video-call software and discuss the limits and opportunities presented by this significant modification.

As with all publications, please do email us if you cannot access a copy via the links above.

Published by Ash Watson

Sociologist and writer

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