I’m an ethnographer/blogger.
My dissertation research investigates the social and musical lives of American rock musicians of Asian descent. On the one hand, I follow the conventional methods of participant observation as I travel to ‘field sites’ such as nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops to witness live performances and hang out with musicians. On the other hand, I participate in the indie music scene by blogging (on yellowbuzz.org) about my field research experiences. My online participation, however disembodied and virtual, is significant due to the centrality of user-produced or independent media in the indie rock music scenes. For the most part, these research methods take on two distinct lives. Sometimes they intersect and yield interesting results.
Ethnographic work on performing arts can sometimes be logistically challenging in our intensely mediated worlds. Typically I carry a number of recording devices including a digital SLR camera, a mini-DV recorder, a handheld digital audio recorder, a laptop computer, and a notebook. This list can be extended or shortened depending on the nature of activities (interviews vs. live performances). Sometimes it is contingent upon whether I expect to make music during my visits.
Early this fall, I took a series of field research trips to New York City. On one of these trips, I doubled (well, actually tripled) my identity: field researcher, musician, and scholar. I was invited to perform and speak with students at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. I took the chance to double-dip this visit by scheduling some interviews and making plans to attend shows in New York. So I had a four-bag system: a backpack (my laptop, notebook, show flyers, The Village Voice, other paper products), a carry-on suitcase (audio-visual recording devices and clothes), an electric guitar case, and a guitar pedalboard (assorted guitar effect pedals).
After the mini-residency at Wheaton College, I took the Amtrak to New York City. Long story short, my case of guitar effect pedals (worth $1500!) got stolen on the train a few stops north of New York Penn Station. I frantically filed a report with the Amtrak Police. No recovery prevailed. Bummed out as I was, I dragged myself to a midtown bar for an interview with Johnnie Wang of the band A Black China. After I told Johnnie about my misfortunes, he offered to buy me a beer. That was the beginning of our friendship. We bonded over being musicians first, then being Americans of Taiwanese/Asian heritage.
My meeting with Johnnie invigorated me and reminded me of the purpose of my dissertation research. I went to a show the following night in New Jersey and had an interview meeting with Joe Kim of Kite Operations right before my flight back to Charlottesville, with one bag short.
It took me a while to figure out the educational values and perhaps the theoretical fruitfulness of this experience. This experience can be seen in light of a few issues: methodological approaches to technology, empathy (and relationship) with informants, and researcher’s ‘field identity.’ So, does technology enhance or hinder field research? Frankly, I didn’t end up using most of my recording devices on this trip. During interviews and other exchanges, my informants and I chatted away while I took mental notes. My field-note-taking took place only after the meetings ended.
But oddly, (the loss of) technology brought me closer to my informants. The story of losing my guitar gear generated a sense of empathy from my informants. I share with them an intimate engagement with music-making technology. They too often travel with gear for both music-making and recording purposes and some have encountered experiences, personally or vicariously, with gear problems. In many ways, it’s not strange at all that I carry so much gear with me. The physical and social attachment to technology is a central part of being and moving around in this media-blasted world. In this case, technological gear adorns me as a tech-media savvy researcher and blogger. This kind of ‘digital credibility’ has helped me earn not only access to, but also empathy and respect from my field informants.
Excess technological devices can weigh down users. But this is not only an academic concern specific to field research methods, as it is a more pervasive issue in the digital age. My responsibility is to figure out the best logistical and theoretical approaches to both online and offline interactions in my field research. I’m still working on it.