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Ethnographic Connections: Reflections on Technology and the Maintenance of Relationships

September 18, 2018
Photograph by Daniel Bauer Photograph by Daniel Bauer

What happens when the people with whom we work in the field are increasingly connected with us via the internet, social media, and other means of communication?

I hear from Manuel at least once per week. The messages usually provide me with insight into how he and his family are doing, updates on his work, and news pertaining to life in his rural Ecuadorian village. Not only do I receive messages from Manuel, but I also receive messages from his brothers and other friends and acquaintances with whom I connected during my time doing ethnography in coastal Ecuador.

My experiences in Ecuador began in 2002, mostly in rural locations along the Pacific coast. I mention the year because the focus of this post is on change. Specifically, I want to share with you changes that I have experienced in the fifteen-plus years that I have practiced ethnography in a small coastal village. I have written about transitions in community politics, various forms of development, and the overall scope of life (Identity, Development, and the Politics of the Past: An Ethnography of Continuity and Change in a Coastal Ecuadorian Community, 2018). Here I want to focus on a different type of change. What does it mean when our consultants are increasingly connected with us via the internet, social media, and other means of communication? How do these changes affect our relationships to the individuals with whom we work while in the field? I endeavor to provide insights to some these questions as well as related queries associated with the changing scope of ethnographic interactions and the increasingly complex relationship between ethnographer and the individuals whom we work with in the field (our collaborators/consultants).

My earliest memory of a mobile phone comes from a road trip with a friend in 1993, from our hometown, a suburb of Chicago, to the training camp of the Chicago Bears in Platteville, Wisconsin. My friend’s father drove us. Just before we arrived, he made a call to a friend using a hulking device connected to a battery pack. The call was brief, just long enough to share with his friend the novelty of phoning him from his car. I also remember the first time that I saw cellular phones in rural coastal Ecuador. It was the spring of 2006, and the possession of cell phones preceded cell service. I encountered Juan, an acquaintance, on a provincial bus. Juan had a cell phone hanging from a cord around his neck. I asked him about it, and he explained to me that service “was coming” and that he had his phone in preparation. Service did indeed arrive, in August 2006. Community residents had been anticipating the installation of a cellular tower on the nearby island just off the coast. Manuel, his family members, and I were sitting outside of Manuel’s home enjoying a barbecue and cold beers in celebration of Manuel’s birthday. Most of us had cell phones laid out on the table, even though no signal was present at the time. We were anticipating a future of connectivity. While waiting for the meal, and a few beers in, full bars appeared on the phones on the table.

The initial bars signified little more than the ability to make calls and send texts throughout Ecuador. However, improvements in technology, specifically internet connections, have allowed Manuel and others to connect to friends and family in Ecuador and abroad. I can now communicate with Manuel, his family, and a variety of friends and acquaintances in a virtually instantaneous manner. The platforms are numerous: text, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and the extremely popular WhatsApp. While working on this post, I received notifications and photos from Manuel’s brother, Diego, about his wife and two young daughters leaving Ecuador to spend an extended time with family in the United States. Photos of Diego’s young daughter stepping off the school bus after her first day of school came in a follow-up message. This type of communication is now common. Diego sends me photos and videos of trips with tourists to the local island, and Manuel sends photos of his family enjoying a night out eating pizza, and of his children participating in a parade to commemorate a community anniversary. I obtain updates on important moments like these, as well as news of sorrows, joys, the mundane, and memes, gifs, videos, etc. I receive notifications of deaths of family and community members, news of economic hardships, as well as reports of birthdays and baptisms, and messages about daily life in a rural Ecuadorian village. I have instant communication with many of my consultants and friends in coastal Ecuador. This is unlike my early interactions with them, at a time when an unreliable landline was the only means of communication. Beyond interaction with people who I have close personal relationships with is an increased connectivity with acquaintances. I frequently receive “friend requests” on social media from teenagers and young adults whose families I have known since they were toddlers. I do not necessarily recognize their names. Instead, I know them as a cousin, child, or grandchild of someone with whom I have a close relationship.

Changes in type and frequency of connectivity bring about questions pertaining to the nature and scope of ethnographer/consultant relationships, the maintenance of privacy and protection of consultants, and the trajectory of future ethnographic research. We are simply far more connected to our sites of fieldwork and to our consultants than we were as few as ten years ago. This connectivity fundamentally alters the fieldwork process and the maintenance of post-fieldwork relationships. Numerous questions arise from this. What exactly does increased connectivity mean? Are there new responsibilities and/or new areas for concern?

My consultants have more accessibility to my professional and personal life than they would without access to the internet and various forms of social media. I am a strong proponent of sharing aspects of my life with consultants. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that I have not experienced moments of pause when contemplating how my consultants might interpret my life as viewed on the screen of a computer or a cell phone. Additionally, the relationships I have formed with consultants are not “put on hold” while I am away from the field, but are continually fostered and reinforced through consistent interactions. The maintenance of such relationships strengthens social bonds and obligations in a way that differs from what most ethnographers experienced as recently as twenty years ago. News of life tragedies and celebrations is now shared in real time. Professionally, I am able to contact my closest consultants when a question arises or when I am in need of additional information. For example, when researching tourism, I messaged Diego and asked him if he would send me a copy of documents relating to the founding of a local tourism cooperative. Similarly, I have messaged Manuel to ask if he would provide me with digital copies of old families photos. I received the requested items within a matter of hours. This is markedly different from what fieldwork entailed in the past. My research is not relegated to the time that I spend in the field, but instead occurs through a consistent stream of information and interaction that supplements knowledge gained from my time in Ecuador, while also presenting me with new questions and avenues for future inquiry.  I suspect that the future of ethnographic research will continue to follow this trajectory. Research will not be “field-bound” and it is likely that future research will be increasingly longitudinal with an increasing relevance of communication mediated by technology. Technology will not serve to create distance between the parties who are interacting, something akin to kids spending all day texting friends instead of engaging in face-to-face conversations, but will instead reduce the distance between ethnographers and consultants.

I heard from both Manuel and Diego this week. Each sent me numerous messages and we engaged in conversation (via WhatsApp) while sharing photos and videos with one another. Manuel sent me multiple videos of his children participating in a community parade, along with photos of his family enjoying two different birthday dinners. Diego sent me a message to inform me that don Pilay, an elderly friend of mine without family support, was dying. News comes in waves, both good and bad. Having consistent access to updates and information about consultants and field sites presents new avenues for inquiry and concern that did not exist in the not too distant past. While I do not have answers for all of the questions that arise from this brief post, I encourage reflection and discussion among academics and students regarding the implications for the types of connections nurtured by the advancement and availability of communication technologies. For many of us, our connection to the field is only as far away as our desk, pocket, or nightstand.

Daniel Bauer is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern Indiana. He has conducted ethnographic research in Ecuador since 2002 and has ongoing projects in coastal Ecuador and Amazonian Peru. He is the author of Identity, Development, and the Politics of the Past: An Ethnography of Continuity and Change in a Coastal Ecuadorian Community.


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