The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy

A lack of mess? Advice on undertaking video-mediated participant observations

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  • Ea Høg Utoft
  • ,
  • Mie Kusk Søndergaard
  • ,
  • Anna-Kathrine Bendtsen

This article offers practical advice to ethnographers venturing into doing participant observations through, but not about, videoconferencing applications such as Zoom, for which the methods literature offers little guidance.

The article stems from a research project about a BioMedical Design Fellowship. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Fellowship converted all teaching activities to online learning via Zoom, and the participant observations followed along. Taking an autoethnographic approach, the authors present and discuss concrete examples of encountered obstacles produced by the video-mediated format, such as limited access and interactions, technical glitches and changing experiences of embodiment.

Changing embodiment in particular initially led the authors to believe that the “messiness” of ethnography (i.e. misunderstandings, emotions, politics, self-doubts etc.) was lost online. However, over time the authors realized that the mess was still there, albeit in new manifestations, because Zoom shaped the interactions of the people the authors observed, the observations the authors could make and how the authors related to research participants and vice versa.

Practical implications
The article succinctly summarizes the key advice offered by the researchers (see Section 5) based on their experiences of converting on-site ethnographic observations into video-mediated observations enabling easy use by other researchers in relation to other projects and contexts.

The article positions video-mediated observations, via e.g. Zoom, which are distinctly characterised by happening in real time and having an object of study other than the online sphere itself, vis-à-vis other “online ethnography” methods. The article further aims to enable researchers to more rapidly rediscover and re-incite the new manifestations of the messiness of ethnography online, which is key to ensuring high-quality research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Organizational Ethnography
Pages (from-to)243-258
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022

    Research areas

  • BioMedical design, COVID-19, Embodiment, Messiness, Methodological advice, Video-mediated observation

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