“Today we are living through the emergence of a ‘triple revolution’ of online social networking, mobile communication, and always-on connectivity, and as a result, scholars studying the urban poor -- seeking to understand neighborhood gang violence, homelessness, and digital inequality -- must adapt their ethnographic field methods and ask different questions,” Assistant Professor Jeffrey Lane said.
In a chapter published in the new “Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital Media,” titled “Networked Street Life,” Lane and his co-author Will Marler “identify networked street life as an emergent area of research that links the inequality concerns of urban sociologists and digital scholars . . . and we provide advice to ethnographers and scholars who are studying inequality, and particularly digital inequality, in urban neighborhoods,” Lane said.
Succeeding in such work can lead to future research that “can expand on the intersectional nature of networked street life, the tensions of physical place and digital networks, and the mass recording of police violence to grow this burgeoning area of study,” Lane and Marler wrote.
The chapter suggests ways researchers can update their ethnographic field research methods, successfully distinguish themselves from others trying to extract information from the poor, and build long-term, caring relationships with subjects.
One of the ways inequality researchers can update their methods is to consider using ethnographic insights to shape survey questions, as well as using ethnography in place of survey research. Lane said, “Understanding some of what the poor are going through with technology would be hard to capture in advance through survey measures. While surveying is really useful, it involves asking research subjects questions at the individual level, and a lot of what is happening with technology is a multilevel, collective process. Whether it’s sharing phones, or using technology in a way that pools resources or advances a collective interest, it’s hard to understand these issues by only talking to one person – you have to see someone’s life as embedded in social relationships in a community and a neighborhood.
“In addition, a lot of inequality research has been done through surveys with normative ideas about what people should be doing with technology and how technology can help the poor. Some of what I think the poor are doing with technology would be very hard to pick up in a survey because that use relates to issues of respect and dignity, pleasure and inspiration. You have to get to know people where they are in their communities and in their day to day lives and in their relationships. When you do that, you start to see all of the important ways that technology is being used that the people you are talking to might not think is relevant, and questions about that would be hard to ask about in advance.”
Finding ways to distinguish themselves from the police, people trying to extract money from them, or to punish them, is also important for researchers to do when reaching out to research subjects, Lane said. “For example, we explain in the chapter that it’s best to bring the people you are studying into the process of analysis, and work directly with them, side by side in person or by zoom, to look together at their digital traces and ask them what they are doing online so the meaning comes from that process and not the researcher’s own assumptions.”
Building lasting and authentic relationships with the people ethnographers are studying is also critical for research success, Lane said, and “caring for the people you are studying sometimes means helping them with some of their immediate issues, such as the need for food or services. “For example, if someone a researcher is working with is having a problem within their neighborhood, a researcher could act by connecting the person to someone who could help. In other words, this type of research requires a long-term commitment to the welfare of the study subjects.”
Explaining to research subjects about the ways they will benefit from the results of the research is also important, even if these benefits are not always direct, Lane said. “My research has helped inform judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys about the implications of understanding Black teenagers on the internet, and legal issues with treating content on social media as reliable evidence.”
A second way research subjects benefit from the scholarly work they help produce, Lane said, is the centering of their voices. “Through our work, the voices and concerns of the urban poor will be heard. We have to ask: whose stories and experiences are being told in books, and in our classes, in the material we use to teach our students about the internet and society? It’s critically important that as educators we don’t just include the voices of the people who are most accessible to us, such as college students, or those who already have the most status and privilege.”