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Digital Ethnography

Digital Ethnography
Anthropology, Narrative, and New Media

Here is a state-of-the-art primer on digital applications for social scientists, with explorations of the emerging field of hypermedia ethnography.

April 2013
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
127 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 12 b&w photos |

Digital ethnography can be understood as a method for representing real-life cultures through storytelling in digital media. Enabling audiences to go beyond absorbing facts, computer-based storytelling allows for immersion in the experience of another culture. A guide for anyone in the social sciences who seeks to enrich ethnographic techniques, Digital Ethnography offers a groundbreaking approach that utilizes interactive components to simulate cultural narratives.

Integrating insights from cultural anthropology, folklore, digital humanities, and digital heritage studies, this work brims with case studies that provide in-depth discussions of applied projects. Web links to multimedia examples are included as well, including projects, design documents, and other relevant materials related to the planning and execution of digital ethnography projects. In addition, new media tools such as database development and XML coding are explored and explained, bridging the literature on cyber-ethnography with inspiring examples such as blending cultural heritage with computer games.

One of the few books in its field to address the digital divide among researchers, Digital Ethnography guides readers through the extraordinary potential for enrichment offered by technological resources, far from restricting research to quantitative methods usually associated with technology. The authors powerfully remind us that the study of culture is as much about affective traits of feeling and sensing as it is about cognition—an approach facilitated (not hindered) by the digital age.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Rethinking Culture through Multimedia Ethnography
  • Chapter 2. Florida and Peru: Experiments in Ethnographic Representation
  • Chapter 3. Digital Tools for Anthropological Analysis
  • Chapter 4. Using the Extensible Markup Language in Cultural Analysis and Presentation
  • Natalie Underberg and Rudy McDaniel
  • Chapter 5. Using Features of Digital Environments to Enable Cultural Learning
  • Chapter 6. Cultural Heritage Video Game Design
  • Conclusion. Narratives and Critical Anthropology: Roles for New Media
  • Appendix: Guide to Web-Based Materials
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

Natalie M. Underberg is Associate Professor of Digital Media and Folklore in the University of Central Florida School of Visual Arts and Design.

Elayne Zorn (deceased) was Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida and author of Weaving a Future: Tourism, Cloth, and Culture on an Andean Island.


You open your eyes and take a look around the Plaza Francia in an old section of downtown Lima, Peru. Pivoting, you see a cerulean church with an elaborate rose window. Opposite this ecclesiastical structure you spot a man wearing an intricately woven vest that falls just below his mid-chest. He's standing next to a light green kiosk around which various books, flyers, and newspapers are stored. Intrigued, you walk up to him and he greets you:

Good day! I moved to Lima a while back but have fond memories of my home, Puno. Take a look at some of the materials in the kiosk to learn about the city of Puno and its many types of music and festivals. Our Virgin of Candelaria festival is renowned throughout the Americas!

Encouraged by such a friendly greeting, you pick up a copy of the kiosk newspaper La Semanal de Puno (The Puno Weekly), which announces the procession of the Mamita Candelaria. The headline is juxtaposed with a magnificent photo of the Virgin of Candlemas carried aloft on an elaborate pink float.

This initial encounter has whetted your curiosity. Walking away from the kiosk toward the other end of the Plaza Francia, you encounter a young woman sitting on one of the plaza's benches, holding a guitar. Under the shade of a palm tree, her hair lightly tossed by the breeze, she seems just a little sad, or maybe pensive. You think, maybe if I talk to her she'll tell me something about herself.

You're rewarded with this personal reflection: "Hello! I'm far from my hometown in northern Peru, but when I look at my guitar I remember my Morropón." She then tells you that a recording of her singing a tondero—a Spanish-derived musical and dance style that incorporates African percussion unique to her hometown—can be found in Peru's renowned Institute of Ethnomusicology, the offices of which, she thinks, are just on the other end of the plaza.

You are intrigued and decide to visit the institute's archive and see what you can learn about the experiences of the people you've just met. You see a police officer standing on the corner and ask him if he knows how to get to the archive; he gives you directions and encourages you to visit.

You make the quick trip to the ethnomusicology archives—and you encounter a gold mine of information. Searching first the contents of the desk in the ethnographer's office, you find a calendar with festival dates recorded on it. You look for paper on which to record this information and find a yellow spiral-bound notebook on the desk. Forgetting for the moment your initial reason you were looking for paper, you find yourself delving into what looks like ethnographic fieldwork notes on a variety of topics, including the tondero the young woman told you about. Looking behind you, you realize there's a screen hanging on the wall. Searching for the projector, you find it, push "play," and are amazed to see the very same woman from the plaza singing about her beloved hometown—and the lyrics are not without a certain biting humor.

She sings: "Ya que quiero regresarme no tengo quién me transporte . . . Yo quiero muerto mi cholo y no mi pobre burrito" [I want to go back home but I don't have anyone to take me . . . I wish my man would have died instead of my poor burro]. How can a song be funny and sad at the same time? What's so wonderful about her hometown that makes her nostalgic for it?

Turning to the right, you find a bookshelf filled with books. One is about the region of Piura, where she says she's from. Maybe you can start there. You think: There's so much to learn, and to do this I have to learn to ask the right questions of the people I meet, take notes on what I've learned, and consult the writings and recordings about the topics about which I'm curious. Got it. I'm playing the role of an ethnographer, virtually, in the PeruDigital website.

The Role of the Anthropologist in the New Media Landscape

Anthropologists have become increasingly concerned with the intersection between culture and technology in the twenty-first century. As the authors of this book, we were drawn to this emerging field based on our perspectives as anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnographers. Underberg develops and studies the use of digital media projects to preserve and represent folklore and cultural heritage, specializing in the literary side of cultural anthropology and the cultural studies side of literary theory. She uses her training to conceive of, design, manage, and study the production of digital media projects that deal with culture and folklore. Zorn was a cultural anthropologist interested in how indigenous peoples in the Andes cope with globalization, particularly in the area of traditional arts. Underberg and Zorn founded the Digital Ethnography Lab at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, Florida, to work with other scholars and members of the communities they research to examine the process of digital adaptation of cultural materials and to investigate the social impact of new technologies, with the goal of responsibly integrating technology into cultural representations. This research reaches across several areas related to the nexus of digital media and anthropology covered in this book: digital media as a tool for creative expression, anthropological research, and heritage-based education.

In this book, we focus on digital media in relation to cultural anthropology. Several projects have been developed—and new ones are being created at a rapid pace—that incorporate the use of new technologies into anthropology's other subfields: archaeology, physical (biological) anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. In addition, a growing number of projects present cultural heritage materials, such as the ChinaVine project ( Digitization projects make collections of objects, texts, and audio and visual recordings available to the world—or more properly, that part of the world with Internet access. Those without access, primarily in the Global South, face a serious problem that scholars need to address.

Anthropologists from all subfields collaborated to develop the widely praised RACE: Are We So Different? ( This website incorporates interviews, games, quizzes, and a variety of other approaches to reframe the discussion about race.

In anthropology, archaeologists (whose projects require specialists from many disciplines) are collaborating with colleagues to map and model ancient sites using digital technologies. The use of new technologies to assist traditional methods for mapping can result in the rapid identification of new features, as was the case at the Maya site of Caracol, Belize, where overflights using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) produced impressive results.

Biological anthropologists worked with computer scientists to scan the famous hominid fossil known as Lucy with a high-resolution CT to create a "virtual Lucy" to study. The Becoming Human website uses interactive media, including an interactive timeline, to help users learn about human evolution (

Linguistic anthropologists, increasingly working with source communities, are rushing to document oral literatures and local languages along with other materials collected in fieldwork sites. For example, the Digital Himalaya project website presents materials collected in the Himalayan region such as older ethnographic films, journals, map collections, rare books (in PDF format), archives of different forms of data about little-known ethnic groups (e.g., the Thangmi), and other materials (

As noted, digitization of museum and archival collections preserves fragile materials and expands access to them. One example of many such digitization projects is being carried out at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru–Lima. The institute, with support from a number of donors (such projects are extremely expensive), is digitizing all its audiovisual holdings to secure their preservation and increase access to its collections. Many other digitization projects can be found online, such as the Billie Jean Isbell Andean Collection: Images from the Andes; this site, created with support from the Cornell University Library, presents approximately 1,500 photographs taken during more than three decades of research, as well as song texts and publications, and also seeks to preserve this data and expand access to these materials beyond the ethnographer's office ( Many more examples could be given.

Anthropology, Digital Media, and Culture

As we discuss in this book, anthropologists were relatively slow to adopt the use of computers as well as to consider the effects of digital technology generally on their field (though as these websites and this book demonstrate, this is changing). Traditionally, most anthropologists do not receive computer science training in current anthropology curricula, at least in the United States. Yet, anthropologists themselves may be the best prepared to understand the impact of digital media on culture and to use their expertise in ethnographic methods to influence the use and even design of new technologies (see, for example, cultural anthropologists Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch's recent article in Anthropology News for a thoughtful discussion of digital media's impact on the wider field of anthropology). Digital technology is expanding at an exponential rate. With increased collaboration between technical experts and cultural experts, we have the opportunity—no, the obligation—to see that this technology is used in culturally responsible and responsive ways.

In the early days of the developing collaboration between computer science and anthropology, the main question was, How much computer science do anthropologists need to know? A related question has arisen with the increased ubiquity and "user-friendliness" of digital technology (such as video-editing software programs like iMovie and instant web page templates like blogs and wikis): How much technology does the public (or, in older anthropological parlance, do informants) need to know to create their own self-representations? The popularity of digital storytelling, for example (see the website of the Center for Digital Storytelling:, has advanced the idea that ordinary members of the public can learn the technology for self-expression sufficiently well to create their own films—with no need for the documentarian (or ethnographic filmmaker, for that matter). If, similarly, everyone can make her or his own website, what is the role of the ethnographer?

This question is still being explored, but we suggest that the anthropologist-as-translator (of culture but not as critic; see Asad 1986) is still essential in the new media environment, at least to enable certain visually and technologically sophisticated representations of culture. It takes someone years to learn how to use software such as Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and Flash, which are some of the principal programs used to build complex websites like ( or PeruDigital ( Commensurate understanding of game design and programming is required to create a game mod such as the Turkey Maiden Educational Computer Game.

And it is not, as some digital media students believe, just the software that needs to be learned. Digital media study involves learning principles of visual design and interactivity, among others. Just as there are technological experts, so there are cultural experts—not only in the sense of understanding a culture but also in understanding how to understand a culture and how to communicate that information to nonmembers. Increasingly, we believe, this may be the role of the anthropologist in the new technological landscape: understanding and communicating between different groups to accomplish culturally responsible aims. We argue that this holds true whether the anthropologist is, as has historically been the case, from outside the culture or, increasingly, native anthropologists (people from the cultures they study) with particular insight into the culture.

Anthropologists, we argue, have an important role to play in new media design and development. Their commitment to understanding the impact of computer technology on culture compels much-needed attention to considerations of power, embodiment, and identity markers in digital culture. One particular area in which the expertise of anthropologists is needed concerns developing collaborative methodologies for digital media work. Forte, for example, discusses engaging in online action research—a variant of action research in which ethnographers work with research partners on the creation of websites about their culture. Moore and Hennessey, meanwhile, conduct research into how indigenous people use digital technologies for self-representation.

This work resonates well with the field of participatory design (PD) in human-computer interaction (HCI) studies, which involves potential users as well as multidisciplinary scholars working together. Ethnographers working on a digital media project would make an important contribution by transforming the research process through collaborative partnerships. Their expertise is needed, for example, in advising on how to carry out new media projects in a way that is consistent with traditional forms of social interaction and in building the so-called social infrastructure of such projects to ensure community participation.

In addition to advising on and managing relationships with community participants in the development of new media projects, anthropologists with additional training in digital media design and production (such as in the areas of transmedia story creation, digital media production, and game design) are necessary to ensure proper communication between ethnographers and cultural consultants on the one hand and research and technical production teams on the other. This would lead to increased communication and collaboration between scholars, technical experts, and community members. Just as ethnographers need to learn the culture of the community in which they live in order to function in it and convey this knowledge to an audience, so digital ethnographers need to learn the culture of digital media production and design in order to communicate and work successfully with technical experts and ensure that the new media work in which they participate reflects the voices and values of the cultures they study. For example, given the potential in humanities computing to design searchable databases that reflect categories and search models important to humanities scholars, anthropologists are able to engage in database design projects based on indigenous and other non-Western ways of thinking and organizing the world.

Another important role for anthropologists in the field of new media concerns using their expertise to advise on the creation of virtual representations of cultural experience, including the ethnographic encounter itself. In participatory design (PD) terms, this would refer to prototyping and evaluating the use of new media to represent cultures. Ethnographers working in multidisciplinary teams of scholars and technical experts can collaborate with artists and communities to conceive of an exploratory and experiential way to present cultural ideas and to identify how to integrate key cultural ideas into project design. As new media scholars know, new opportunities are emerging for a form of digital cultural representation that simulates cultural ideas, values, and experience, and anthropologists should be at the forefront of such work. In this way, anthropologists could serve an important function in such digital media projects by opening up the interpretive process and production experience.

Digital Ethnography

Digital ethnography, as we define it in this book, is a method for representing real-life cultures through combining the characteristic features of digital media with the elements of story. These projects use the expressive and procedural potential of computer-based storytelling to enable audiences to go beyond absorbing facts about another culture to entering into the experience of that culture. Through interactivity and immersion, we believe, digital media can enable anthropologists and folklorists to tell innovative cultural stories and re-create aspects of ethnographic methodology for a diverse audience. This book focuses on the methods of designing the layout and navigation of new media forms like websites and computer games to embed both cultural context and interpretation into the user experience.

This approach emerged out of an interest in employing new media as an expressive medium for ethnographic storytelling. Contemporary cultural anthropologists have come to understand their work to be as much a narrative as a scientific undertaking. Digital ethnography involves adapting and transforming these ethnographic storytelling techniques across multiple forms of new media.

Beyond bringing together primary data with scholarly interpretation, this approach seeks to creatively exploit the immersive and interactive qualities of new media environments to simulate aspects of ethnographic methodology and cultural narratives. Such work takes a cue from the emerging subfield of multimedia ethnography and, in particular, multisensory multimedia ethnography. This work powerfully reminds us that ethnography is both process and product, and culture is as much about feelings and the senses as it is a matter of thinking and being. For example, Sarah Pink's work is particularly instructive here. Writing about what she terms "sensory ethnography," Pink points to the potential of hypermedia to provide new forms of interlinking and configuring ethnographic video, film, and writing. Emerging media forms like hypermedia, she asserts, are as yet still finding their particular niche within ethnography.

In addition to visual, literary, and multimedia ethnography, digital ethnography takes a cue from hypertext theory and digital heritage work in the humanities and virtual heritage studies. For example, Murray's now classic discussion of the characteristics of digital environments in relation to storytelling offers ethnographers myriad ideas for developing innovative new media projects. According to Murray, interactive and immersive digital environments are made possible by the following four properties of the computer as medium: the procedural (able to carry out a series of rules), participatory (interactive), spatial (representing a user-navigated space), and encyclopedic (capable of storing and retrieving large quantities of data). Ideas for how to exploit the characteristic features of new media for creative cultural expression will be discussed throughout the book. In particular, through projects like Nicario Jiménez's website on PeruDigital, we explore how ethnographic insights about ways of seeing and being in a culture can be conveyed using immersion, interaction, and the kinds of virtual embodiment new media enables.

Electronic culture, in general, reconfigures the behaviors and interrelationships of authors, audiences, and texts. Bolter, for example, outlines several defining characteristics of electronic text that distinguish it from the long history of print culture that preceded it. These include electronic text's capacity for flexibility, interactivity, creating multiple paths and voices, simulating a sense of space, and enabling readers to act like authors. In place of linear and single-author texts delivered in a static medium, digital media creates a spatially inflected nonlinear presentation that brings together disparate voices and empowers audiences to affect their encounters with texts.

The capacity of the computer to enable new forms of data analysis has inspired some anthropologists to develop new tools to facilitate the coding and contextualization of their fieldwork findings. The Cardiff University website Hypermedia Ethnography(, for example, offers information on three projects that use hypermedia in ethnographic research: the Production of Hypermedia Ethnography, Ethnography for the Digital Age, and Methodological Issues in Qualitative Data Sharing and Archiving. Using digital media to advance data analysis and manipulation aims, to be discussed in more detail in Chapter 3, allows anthropologists to produce richer ethnographic documents as well as potentially offering new ways to interpret the data itself. Digital anthropology projects, such as the excellent Digital Ethnography Project (, consist of digitized ethnographic data and the application of markup languages that enable processing, definition, and presentation of data. This is in addition to efforts to use hypertext to present anthropological scholarship itself, such as iNtergraph: Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (

These features of electronic culture as they apply to digital ethnography will be explored throughout this book. For example, Underberg and Rudy McDaniel (coauthor of Chapter 4) have attempted to leverage the flexibility and manipulability of digital information in the design of several digital cultural heritage projects using a metadata classification system known as the extensible markup language (XML).

Digital ethnography, then, uses new media's defining characteristics to represent the narrative trend in contemporary cultural anthropology. Multilinearity, immersion, and imitation enable audiences to better understand cultural knowledge by means of virtual experience.

The digital ethnography approach to conveying cultural knowledge through digital media is also informed by recent work in digital cultural heritage studies. The spatial and immersive capacities of digital media enable the representation of a sense of place so often linked to cultural heritage and history. Through interactivity and the juxtaposition of multiple voices, so-called dialogic spaces can be created to allow students and the public to engage in formal and informal cultural heritage education.

Such work, of course, takes a cue from the research of anthropologists and others who have examined the culture of the contemporary Internet and virtual worlds, such as Wesch's work on the culture of the contemporary Internet and other forms of digital culture (mediated and Boellstorff's work on the ethnography of Second Life. While an exhaustive review of the literature on cyberethnography is outside the scope of this book, mention should be made of a handful of the ethnographic studies of online cultures and online resources that have attended to the characteristic forms of representation and interaction in cyberspace, such as Hine, Paccagnella, Miller and Slater, Cyber Anthropology (, and the Cyber Anthropology Page ( The work of these scholars and others reminds us to attend to the effects of computer technology on human culture and to consider the ways in which virtual spaces can have their own culture.

Miller and Slater, for example, argue that ethnographers need to resist a placeless, culture-less notion of cyberspace, and instead focus their attention on the myriad ways new technologies are actually used by real people in diverse real-world communities. They focus on the dynamics by which Trinidadians have integrated—and adapted—the Internet into their lives and identities, but their insights are useful to ethnographers working in a variety of cultural contexts. This area of research is also informed by the work of media ethnographers such as S. Elizabeth Bird, who conducted research with focus groups to determine how different ethnic groups would design a hypothetical television show about Native Americans, and Rhonda Fair, who examined how the design of Native Americans' websites was affected by their perceptions of white beliefs about their ethnic group. Considerations of how real-world culture and identity can be embedded in virtual spaces will be further discussed throughout the book.

Outline of this Book

The book focuses on specific projects in order to review the literature in the field and suggest future directions. Chapters 1 and 2 consider the potential of digital media to represent anthropological research and interpretation creatively. Chapter 1, "Rethinking Culture through Multimedia Ethnography," discusses how such research combines insights from diverse traditions including visual anthropology (pioneered by such scholars as Heider 2006), an area of human-computer interaction studies known as participatory design, and hypertext studies.

Chapter 2, "Florida and Peru: Experiments in Ethnographic Representation," explores the application of these principles to recent examples of website design. In its use of narrative principles, we see this area of work as a descendant of the tradition of literary ethnography, pioneered by such anthropologists as Oliver La Farge in Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story (2004 [1929]), Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa (1930), Laura Bohannan in Return to Laughter: An Anthropological Novel (1964; published under the pen name of Elenore Smith Bowen), and Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1998 [1937]). This tradition was later developed in such ethnographies as Barbara Myerhoff's Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto (1980), Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (2001), and Ruth Behar's Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (2003 [1993]), as well as in experimental ethnographies (what Kirin Narayan [1999] calls "faction") such as Billie Jean Isbell's Finding Cholita (2009).

The next two chapters examine the use of computer technology to aid anthropologists in gathering, storing, analyzing, and sharing data, as well as to present research and scholarship. Chapter 3, "Digital Tools for Anthropological Analysis," explores how new technology impacts data collection. As new media scholars point out, the so-called network culture enables the creation of a more dialogical, participatory approach to presenting and interpreting cultural heritage.

Chapter 4, "Using the Extensible Markup Language in Cultural Analysis and Presentation," explores the use of the extensible markup language (XML) in three culture-oriented projects developed at UCF. XML is important to such projects because it can allow for more relevant searches within a database. These searches can go beyond simple keyword searches (as readers would be familiar with from using, say, an online library catalog), to enable users to search for content based on the usage of the keyword in a particular context. This enables users (cultural experts or consultants, for example) to code the data according to more sophisticated research parameters. As many anthropologists and folklorists are not trained in computer science (a trend that began to change as of 2009, when the first graduate degree in digital anthropology was launched in the United Kingdom), collaboration with technical experts is necessary. This can be structured in several ways; at UCF, the digital media faculty themselves are a mixture of technical experts, artists, and humanities scholars, and their students learn essential skills in digital media as part of the curriculum. This enables student-driven projects and research project collaborations between different faculty. These projects, linked to cultural heritage preservation aims, are explored in Chapter 4, including joint work over the last few years by Underberg and Rudy McDaniel (McDaniel has a background in computer science and literature).

Chapters 5 and 6 explore the use of digital media as a tool for teaching about culture. Chapter 5, "Using Features of Digital Environments to Enable Cultural Learning," explores how the characteristics of digital environments can facilitate cultural learning. Taking a cue from the literature on cyberspace and virtual heritage work, the chapter considers how the spatial and interactive trend in digital heritage creates new possibilities for cultural representation and simulation.

Chapter 6, "Cultural Heritage Video Game Design," focuses on an educational computer game project designed to teach about cultural heritage. The Turkey Maiden Educational Computer Game mod introduces students to the history and culture of Depression-era Ybor City, Florida, known for its historic cigar industry and Latin immigrant population. As we discuss in this chapter, creating navigable virtual environments based on cultural and historical materials requires understanding how spatial storytelling operates in computer games and how the game space itself can be imbued with cultural meaning.

This book concludes with "Narratives and Critical Anthropology: Roles for New Media." With this final chapter we seek to bring together several strands that have been woven throughout the book and indicate possible directions for future work in the emerging field of digital ethnography.

Periodically throughout the book, the reader will see a parenthetical boldface letter (A, B, C, etc.); these letters are keyed to the web-based materials listed in the appendix. We encourage readers to toggle back and forth between the book and website to more fully explore the field of digital ethnography.

Rethinking Culture through Multimedia Ethnography

Multimedia Ethnography

Multimedia ethnography, as a conceptual and creative descendant of literary and visual ethnography, clearly demonstrates the boundary crossing that increasingly characterizes academic practice. We see this in the pioneering visual anthropology of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead starting in the 1940s, as well as the interpretive work that encouraged literary anthropology, starting with Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures.

In our work, we have found that cultural experiences and ideas can be represented by digital media through digital culture projects. In this way we seek to re-create cultures online by combining collaborative methodologies with digital technologies. These projects involve using our narrative and new media skills to design creative interactive story experiences that transform facts and figures into a creative expression. If it is true that anthropologists are as much storytellers as scientists, and given the centrality of narratives in our lives (and the realization that facts are so often presented in narrative form), we are inspired—no, compelled—to work with artists and communities in ways that involve them in the creation of those narratives.

Multisensory ethnography, or ethnography that uses a diverse set of media such as video, photographs, or digital media to communicate multisensory experience and knowledge, was the subject of a recent issue of Anthropology News that featured the PeruDigital project, among a dozen other digital media projects, including Bridget McDonnell's collaborative visual work with the Somali Lenses photographic exhibition and Susanne Kuehling's project on capturing scent through visual documentation in communicating Oceanic domestic experiences. Multimedia and multisensory ethnography, then, acknowledges that ethnography is both process and product, and that culture itself is about more than being or thinking; it is also a matter of feeling and sensory engagement. Other evidence of the future of anthropological research as rooted in experiential digital media is the recent establishment of a new series from an academic press devoted to multisensory ethnography (noted on the Society for Visual Anthropology's website:

The emerging research agenda outlined in this section concerns the intersection of narrative, ethnography, and new media, which includes digital and networked information and communication technologies. This approach involves two related activities: engaging in ethnographic storytelling using digital media and employing collaborative methods of using new technology. Specifically, this research involves studying the process of adapting materials collected in one medium (such as ethnographic photographs, film, or a traditional folktale) into another (the Internet, a computer game) in order to present cultural information using the techniques of narrative, as well as considering the social impact of new technologies through investigating new ways to integrate technology into cultural representation.

In this work, anthropologists and new media scholars employ digital media to turn historical and cultural materials into "storied places" that can engage audiences through interactivity (where user choices affect the outcome of the narrative or experience in digital media), immersion (the re-creation of the sense of a three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional one), and multivocality (the inclusion of multiple voices or perspectives in a way that subverts the traditional hierarchy between a singular, powerful author and a passive audience or reader). The goal is to develop interpretive approaches that use the distinctive features of the digital environment to reflect recent reflexive, narrative, and collaborative developments in folklore and anthropology.

When we began the projects under discussion in this section, we had just established the Digital Ethnography Lab at the University of Central Florida (UCF) as a partnership between anthropology and digital media faculty. Intended to allow artists, anthropologists, folklorists, and others to express new insights into culture, the lab has focused on three projects: PeruDigital, a website about Peruvian festivals; Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, 1940s–1980s: A History, an oral history and digital media project; and the Turkey Maiden Educational Computer Game, a game mod designed to teach about 1930s history and culture of Ybor City, Florida. On the basis of Underberg's earlier work at the UCF Cultural Heritage Alliance, where she developed the East Mims Oral History Project ( and served as folklorist and later project director for the project, we had reason to believe that what we had learned about the intersection between culture and technology might be useful to an anthropological audience.

Digital Ethnographic Storytelling

Understanding the potential for digital ethnographic storytelling involves grappling with new media's ability to tell a story. As we discussed in the introduction, digital ethnography takes a creative cue from the tradition of literary ethnography—the attempt to convey the experience of learning and living in a culture through literary and narrative techniques. Mitchell and Charmaz (1998) offer a useful overview of the techniques of literary ethnography that anthropologists use in transforming facts into narratives based on those facts. In their chapter "Telling Tales and Writing Stories: Postmodernist Visions and Realist Images in Ethnographic Writing," they explain that such techniques include "(a) pulling the reader into the story, (b) re-creating experiential moods within the writing, (c) adding elements of surprise, (d) reconstructing the experience through written images, and (e) creating closure on the story while simultaneously recognizing it as part of an ongoing process".

Using Mitchell's creative nonfiction work, based on fieldwork with survivalists (people who believe seriously in the possibility of, and prepare for, serious social disruption), Charmaz analyzes the literary techniques used in relating ethnographic experience in story form. Literary ethnographers draw readers into their tales by establishing context and building anticipation about what will come next. For example, Mitchell shows images of a white supremacist magazine, piquing readers' interest by noting that it arrived at just the right moment—which raises the question, why?

Other techniques for effective ethnographic storytelling include re-creating experiential moods, adding elements of surprise, and reconstructing the experience through description. Mitchell and Charmaz suggest considering how an event or experience reflects a particular mood and then integrating this impression into the description. Charmaz points out that Mitchell combines such elements as interview quotes, an account of his own internal monologue, and reflections on the scene as it is unfolding. By shifting the mood as the story develops, they point out, suspense is created and the reader is better able to identify with the situation and the ethnographer's point of view. As Charmaz explains, Mitchell places the reader in the scene with him, allowing the reader to imagine adopting the role of the ethnographer and the interviewee.

Mitchell and Charmaz also point out that part of the objective is to "distill the experience," meaning that the storyteller must selectively choose which interview excerpts and images to include and how to frame them. Mitchell, they note, provides the shape and form of the story, providing readers with enough distilled content to evoke the experience and elucidate the authors' interpretations.

Finally, ethnographic storytelling involves creating closure on the story while simultaneously recognizing it as part of an ongoing process. Charmaz observes that Mitchell offers readers a simultaneously intriguing yet haunting ending. While the piece as a whole holds together well, the ending suggests that the drama will continue to unfold.

Translating such insights into new media development involves attempting to "show rather than tell" events as they unfold and seeking to give the audience a taste of the overall experience rather than just presenting factual details. Hypermedia's interactive and nonlinear characteristics lend themselves well to conveying cultural information. Packer and Jordan outline five defining features of multimedia: integration (combining artistic forms and technology into hybrid expressive forms), interactivity (users' ability to directly manipulate and communicate through the media experience), hypermedia (linking media elements together to create an associative trail), immersion (the simulation of a three-dimensional environment), and narrativity (the use of the above features to create nonlinear story and media). These features structure the design logic and navigation experience of digital ethnographic storytelling.

Underberg has written on the creative use of digital media to enact ethnographic storytelling in the East Mims Oral History Project website. The project, funded by a UCF research grant on which Underberg was project director, told the story of East Mims, Florida, a historically African American community on the east coast of Central Florida. The project combined oral history and archive research by Underberg, local historians, and community members into an explorable virtual map of East Mims filled with digital stories and multimedia exhibits. The Folkvine project, an interdisciplinary effort across several departments at UCF, presented Central Florida folk artists and their art through the Internet.

Integration was used to accomplish the ethnographic storytelling aim of drawing readers into the story of both sites. For example, in the East Mims project, Underberg wanted to re-create the experience of "firing the grove," which citrus workers engaged in when a freeze was coming. To bring this experience to life, two UCF undergraduate digital media students created an animated piece that illustrated the process, which was narrated by an informant in one of the oral histories.

In the same project, the ability of new media to create explorable environments provided the rationale for the design of the section on the historic Clifton Colored School. Interactivity and nonlinear narrativity enable this aspect of the community's story to be told. The visitor can enter a virtual re-creation of the historic school—built by early African American residents—and navigate through the desks inside to discover aspects of this important landmark.

The potential of new media to bring audiences inside cultural experiences and stories provides anthropologists—as it has others—with a powerful incentive to consider not only the possibilities offered by but also the potential costs of engaging in such work. Since the very beginning of the field, digital humanities scholars have focused their attention on the potential risks as well as benefits of using digital technology as a means for expressing human creativity. Murray, for example, frames the debate in terms of the so-called utopic versus dystopic paradigms:

The holonovel [a form of virtual reality fiction] offers a model of an art form that is based on the most powerful technology of sensory illusion imaginable but is nevertheless continuous with the larger human tradition of storytelling, stretching from the heroic bards through the nineteenth-century novelists. The feely [an interactive movie with sensations and smells] . . . offers an opposing image of a sensation-based storytelling medium that is intrinsically degrading, fragmenting, and destructive of meaning, a medium whose success implies the death of the great traditions of humanism, or even a fundamental shift in human nature itself.

Ethnographers, of course, are particularly sensitive to the potential and risks of new technology, and have developed insights and methodologies related to new media design and practice.

Collaborative New Media Design

As an emerging area of what Silver refers to as critical cyberculture studies, digital design studies technological decision and design processes that create the interface between network and users. In the past, the kinds of communities and identities found on the Internet were studied but less so the equally important ways in which the digital design of networked spaces creates—and restricts—particular forms of interaction. In general, digital design includes (1) hypertext studies, or how hypertext reconfigures text, writer, and reader (discussed earlier); (2) human-computer interaction (HCI), which studies interface design and its effects; and (3) participatory design (PD), in which people destined to use the system play a critical role in designing it.

Forte locates the process of working with informants to create websites about their culture as a variant of action research—online action research. Focusing on efforts to conduct both real-world and virtual research (such as website creation) with the Santa Rosa Carib Community of Arima, Trinidad, Forte discusses how website development was used as part of a program of collaborative research. Forte argues for the use of website development as a component of collaborative research itself. Such work creates partnerships between ethnographer and research collaborators, which in turn transforms the research process. Forte notes that Hine and Paccagnella are concerned with the research ethics questions raised by so-called virtual ethnography. Hine concludes that researchers need to reconceptualize research ethics as a collaborative effort between researchers and research collaborators, rather than a simple procedure in which researchers "take" and participants "give".

Such work may involve considerations of indigenous rights in relation to the use of digital technologies to represent indigenous culture, which was the subject of a 2001 report, "Indigenous Identities: Oral, Written Expressions and New Technologies" (UNESCO 2001). This report contained a section entitled "New Technology, Anthropology, Museology and Indigenous Knowledge," which included protocols for collaboration, use of multimedia for teaching and research, and the relation between transmission of traditional knowledge and ethical issues. The report outlines the mandate to provide developing countries with the information technology they need to participate actively. The report advocates the position that emerging media should help establish closer collaborations, rather than further dividing them, and that results of research should be made readily available. Among the findings of the report was the admonition to develop computer programs and databases in a language (technical and cultural) relevant to the indigenous people themselves (UNESCO 2001).

Moore and Hennessey's work with the Tagish FirstVoices Project provides a useful contemporary example of how new media work with native communities can be formulated. The project is an examination of the ways indigenous communities use digital technologies for self-representation. Moore and Hennessey analyze the development of an indigenous language ideology by the website team. They argue that new media has enabled community management of the project in a way that allows for community control over self-representation. The language ideology they developed is based on an ethic of local control over language resource development. Specifically, they pursue this goal through acknowledging the authority of elders in matters of language and culture, teaching youth to become language documenters, integrating cultural traditions like the potlatch into language use and cultural representations, and making project resources free and readily available to the community. The ready availability of digital technology facilitates the production of these community-based projects because of the increasing user friendliness of computer software and the facilitation of the interactions between community members and technical specialists.

Moore and Hennessey identify three themes at the heart of the Tagish FirstVoices language ideology, including a belief in the holistic nature of language and culture, a preference for traditional interaction styles, and the importance of acknowledging the wisdom of elders. The holistic nature of nature and culture is reflected in their project in a number of ways, including strategies of website design. The splash page shows an image of the largest Tagish-Tlingit community and features an introduction by a native Tagish speaker who refers to her lineage.

In addition, the Tagish FirstVoices team has made an attempt to carry out their website project in a way that is consistent with traditional forms of social interaction. For example, the Tagish team emphasized consensus building and continuous dialogue, which are practices in keeping with cultural ideals emphasizing the importance of cooperation. In addition, project team members were integrated into the digital project in a way consistent with "offline" forms of social interaction. They note, for instance, that the way young people participate in the project represents a return to their traditional role as messengers to neighboring areas—with the difference that their message relay is now lightning-quick due to the Internet. The third principle, the centrality of elders' knowledge, is integrated into the project through returning control over Tagish-Tlingit cultural representation to community elders, thus reaffirming their social worth.

As we note in the introduction to this book, the ubiquity and relative ease of use of computer technology has enabled new levels of empowerment for communities in managing their own self-representations. The ethic of "reciprocal technology" strives to enable communities to have an equal say in how their culture is portrayed by bringing them into discussion and negotiation regarding new media representation.

In our experience, the identification of key cultural ideas that can be used to structure new media design and interaction experiences emerges out of a process of research, listening, and dialogue. For example, in working with Puerto Rican artist Lilly Carrasquillo, an Orlando, Florida, folk artist, the Folkvine team portrayed her as a member of what sociologist Jorge Duany calls "the nation on the move" ("la nación en vaivén") through acknowledgment, rather than denial, of the hybrid and nonterritorial notions of identity that folk artists who create art in a multicultural and transnational context may have. In other words, rather than trying to make her story fit into established notions of "authentic" folklore, in which a folk artist only makes authentic traditional art when he or she learns it from another via informal face-to-face interaction and passes it on to other folk group members in an unbroken chain, the team worked with the artist to conceive of an exploratory and experiential way to present the key cultural ideas of border crossing and memory landscapes.

The integration of this key cultural idea can be seen, for example, in the design of the website's splash page. The splash page features a Mexican-style sun mask merged with mosaic tiles based on Puerto Rican Taíno Indian petroglyphs. When the user mouses over the sides of the mask, more Taíno imagery appears, providing links to the rest of the website. In this way, ancient and modern Puerto Rican and Mexican culture and artistic influences are digitally merged in a way that imitates Carrasquillo's work.

With this brief background in mind, we turn to two case studies that combine new media with anthropological interpretation. In the next chapter we present two recent projects, and PeruDigital, in order to open up the interpretive process and production experience.


“This important, original work is a major contribution to contemporary cultural anthropology. The book charts new territory for ethnographic investigations, rather than merely reporting on already completed methods for presenting anthropological data that was collected in other (usually pre-digital) ways. The chapters are very stimulating. I constantly found myself stopping because the ideas made me think about new venues for conducting and presenting research.”
Blenda Femenías, Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Catholic University of America


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