ABRAHAM, HILLARY: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: MILLER, DANIEL AND SINANAN, JOLYNNA: WEBCAM

Text

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually? 

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it? 

How is the text structured and performed? 

How can it circulate? 

 

 

What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

The book explores the use of the webcam and its implications for human communication, specifically its social role in Trinidadian (and to a lesser extent, London student) life and relationships

 

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

The individuals are located in Trinidad and (somewhat) students living in London, but the phenomenon is located within the webcam itself - not the physical manifestation of the webcam, but the actions and communications that it enables

 

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

Miller and Sinanan emphasize the webcam’s predecessors, primarily its digital predecessors (e.g. phone). More conceptually, they situation the phenomenon with current and past conversations surrounding technological determinism and post-humanism

 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

 Meta - the authors pay significant attention to what other authors and popular culture say about webcam-mediated communication. They also focus on the micro level, discussion communication practices and how webcam-mediated communication mediates relationships. Some attention is paid to the techno level, as the authors discuss the ways in which webcams have changed with more widespread infrastructure.

 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

Trinidadians, both local and abroad, and the ways in which the webcam has mediated their relationships

 

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

The early days of the webcam, but after it became more standardized and the early “bugs” were worked out - 2012-2013

 

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

Trinidad-ness, kinship, immigration, place, transnationalism

 

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

Using technology to “attaining” communication practices or behaviors inherent in being a community member

 

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

Science and technology are the phenomenon - the Trinidadian use of webcam is the focus of analysis

 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Miller and Sinanan discuss the nationalism of Trinidadians and keeping this sense of nationalism even when physically located across the globe via the webcam

 

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

Webcam use by people in a position of social power develops an expectation of use. This expectation forces others to use the webcam or be left out of social interactions. Power dynamics of recording webcam sessions (and sharing these sessions) without consent are touched upon, but not the focus.

 

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

Miller and Sinanan focus on the phenomenon as it relates to Trinidad, but attempt to situate the phenomenon with a smaller pilot ethnography that took place with London. They note that due to the increasing globalization, 

 

 

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

Miller and Sinanan begin with the theoretical claim that all communication is mediated, and verify that by demonstrating how webcams are just as mediated as in-person communication. They challenge assertions that tech-mediated communication is somehow less human / less authentic.

 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

Miller and Sinanan argue against technology as post-human and towards “a theory of attainment.” This theory stems from two arguments. The first, that all communication is mediated; communication via new media technologies is not more mediated than face-to-face communication, it is just mediated in a different way. The second, that new media technologies both allow humans to do things that have always been fundamentally human, simply in different or new ways, and that new media technologies can themselves generate the capacity to do something that had not yet been imagined.

 

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

The webcam as a medium for maintaining kinship and intimacy, the webcam as a tool for self-reflection or self-consciousness, the webcam as superceding place, polymedia

 

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? 

Communications via the webcam are compared to in-person communication. Miller and Sinanan demonstrate how the webcam affords ways of communicating that were always desired, yet not previously possible - for example, webcams afford an awareness of how one presents one’s self to another which helps ensure one is outwardly representing what they inwardly believe they are representing, which was not otherwise possible (or at least, common) before the webcam. 

 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

Generally the main argument is sound - communicating via new media technologies are not less human or less authentic than communicating in person. I personally don’t understand / buy into the authors’ distinction between technologies generating capacities for new human conditions and the concept of post-humanism; they seem very similar to me, and Miller & Sinanan could have spent more time clarifying this distinction.

 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?

 There could be a much more detailed discussion surrounding the webcam and shifting conceptualizations of space and place

 

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

 The belief that technology makes us beyond human or non-human - Miller and Sinanan seek to complicate (or even disprove) this belief

 

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

Miller and Sinanan use extreme examples to demonstrate the more generalizable patterns within their informants, assuming that the extremes are extensions of the more basic behaviors rather than something separate

 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

Ethnographic - some participant observation, but primarily interview data and recorded webcam sessions,  which the authors extensively defend as adequately ethnographic

 

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

The bulk of the analysis focused on the interviews. The authors appeared to ask questions surrounding informants’ uses of webcams, their relationships, where they look while on webcam, webcam etiquette, and violations of or deviations from that etiquette

 

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

Not explicit - inferring some sort of grounded theory-like analysis of recorded interview transcriptions and field notes

 

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

Local Trinidadians, Trinidians abroad, and students in London

 

What additional data would strengthen the text? 

 The authors defend their non-use of observed webcam sessions as difficult to obtain, and that participants would not be their authentic selves during a webcam session - however, this data would be beneficial.

 

 

Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

The introduction presents the concluding arguments as well as provides a theoretical backdrop for the research. 

 

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

 Theory is discussed in the introduction/conclusion, and included at the beginning of each chapter to provide a backdrop for the upcoming evidence. Some theory is explained, but it is assumed the reader has a baseline knowledge of key STS authors (e.g. Goffman)

 

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

 In each chapter, Miller and Sinanan return to their theory of attainment. They walk a line between technologies affording attainment of a communication practice, technologies creating a communication practice to be attained, and technologies allowing for the realization of a communication practice that had been attained, but is not possible with webcam

 

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

 Historical context is provided for the development of the webcam and how new media technologies are believed by some to have changed communication practices. However, the text focuses on the webcam as it is “now,” with “now” referring to the point in time Miller and Sinanan conducted their fieldwork.

 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

Discussions of the webcam “now” are explicitly discussed with references to pre-”technology” communication and some arbitrary point in the distant future

 

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

Trinidadian, London students, nationalism

 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

Their use of webcam is the focus of the analysis - direct quotations from informants are used widely, and their summarized perspectives are used as the bases for each chapter

 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

New media technology, specifically the webcam, is the focus of the text. Its societal use is described in-depth, as well as its relation to previous (and potential future) communication technologies.

 

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

Extensive quotes of varying length and vignettes support the argument and provide relief from the extensive theoretical commentary

 

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

Miller and Sinanan call their introduction a conclusion. They put forth their claim and use the remaining chapters as evidence for their claim. This structure invites ongoing critique of the conceptual argument, as one understands the argument and its weaknesses as evidence is presented.

 

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

None. The analysis centers around the affordance of webcam as a dual-visual communication medium - individuals can see their conversation partner, but also themselves. The lack of visuals in the text prevents additional analysis from the reader

 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

There are no footnotes, only parentheticals and direction to external references

 

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

The text defends itself from methodological critics and experienced anthropologists as the research is ethnographic but not a traditional ethnography

 

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

 Miller and Sinanan are explicitly reflexive - Miller discusses his extensive past work with Trinidadians, and Sinanan describes her need to rely on webcam as a resource for her dissertation work due to personal circumstance

 

Circulation?

Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

Digital anthropologists and media studies scholars- the arguments are fairly academic, and laypeople may struggle with some of the references

 

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

 Pro-technology scholars (e.g. boyd), lay audiences that have extensively used the webcam for personal reasons, potentially Trinidadian readers, though the text focuses less on Trinidad and more on the webcam with Trinidadian users as a case study

 

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

 Miller and Sinanan put forth a theory of attainment. They build on the anthropological theory that all communication is mediated, using it along with their empirical evidence to suggest that technologies do not reduce the “authenticity” of communication, but rather allow communication to be in some ways more authentic.

 

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

 The main argument might be generalizable. Miller and Sinanan note that their Trinidadians place emphasis on the “True” self being that which is outwardly visible, which could make the main argument generalizable only toward other cultures who also have this emphasis, as the webcam affords the self-awareness of one’s outward presentation. However, they attempt to make their argument more generalizable by including a small case study of London students who have the belief that the “True” self is located deep inward, and the outward presentation is not at all representative of the self. More broadly, the argument provides an alternate perspective with which to examine other new media technologies, not just the webcam. Additionally, Miller and Sinanan preface the text with a note that this is a small portion of a much broader (and more traditional) research project studying the town of El Mirador.

 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

Continue researching new media technologies through the lens of the social sciences, as well as treating new media technologies not as enabling the post-human, but as manifestations of human-ness



Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

I feel like this would be a great documentary, because you could play around with showing the webcam (and how it shapes communication practices) through a camera. A shared museum exhibit might be cool too, where you have a live stream between two exhibits at different museums and patrons at one museum can sit and chat with patrons at the partner museum.

 

License

Creative Commons Licence

Contributors

Created date

October 13, 2019

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019