Rethinking Digital Ethnography: A Qualitative Approach to Understanding Interfaces

Christian Ritter

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Contemporary everyday cultures are increasingly pervaded by digital platforms, making a rethinking of observational research into sociocultural phenomena necessary. Observational practices that remain confined to physical localities face various impasses in the era of digital platforms. Combining participant observation in workplaces where digital platforms are accessed with technical walkthroughs of their interfaces, I make a case for renewing interface ethnography. On one hand, technical walkthroughs reveal the sociocultural assumptions embedded in interfaces and the ways in which their affordances generate symbolic meanings. However, on the other hand, participant observation foregrounds emic perspectives on digital platforms within communities of practice. Based on an ethnographic study of a Norwegian software firm, I argue that the integration of the walkthrough method with participant observation enables researchers to trace the twofold meaning construction inherent in communities of practice whose skilled labor is orientated toward digital platforms. This fusion of methods expands the scope of ethnographic knowledge across the digital-physical continuum.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalQualitative Research
Early online date24 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 24 Mar 2021

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