Digital ethnography in a time of social unrest


Originally from the US, Dr. Heidi Hasbrouck is a UK based ethnographer with a sociological lens who works at Ipsos in the Ethnographic Centre of Excellence (ECE). Heidi writes about her first learning of the murder of George Floyd through her weekly interview with her Black American research participant and what followed. 

My team traditionally conducts face-to-face ethnographic research around the globe for both private and public sector clients. With some of our projects based in China, we were early in recognising the implications of a lockdown and the need to be adaptable with our methods. We developed a digital ethnographic methodology utilising our in-house app for online research. We also felt, as cultural analysts, we needed to respond to the global pandemic and try to understand the immediate and long term implications of the pandemic and lockdown. This led to our team to develop a six nation global syndicated study on different household’s experiences of lockdown that we named CovidWatch. 

Our study started off with five households but three weeks into the study we recognised there was something important missing: Black American voices. While we have a diversity of voices amongst our original five  households including a multi-ethnic family, a queer participant, Republican and Democrat voices, and regional differences, we lacked a black male perspective. With the growing news and research into the disproportionate effect Covid-19 was having on Black Americans our study felt lacking. So we recruited Jordan, a millennial Black American gay man that was watching his theatre career crumble in New York City while worrying about the health of his older parents. 
The first I heard about George Floyd’s murder was during my weekly video call with Jordan. He asked me if I had watched ‘the video’, and I asked ‘which video?’ thinking he might be alluding to Amy Cooper in Central Park, NYC. Then he went on to describe, in tears, his experience of watching George Floyd’s murder. I cried with him.
As ethnographers we speak a lot about how our methods can be a medium to bring an empathetic view of people and culture. As a visual ethnographer, I aim to bring to life the say and do of people’s lives and how the cultural context of our actions, thoughts, and feelings interweave to create a larger story. I often feel humbled by the privilege of gaining such access into people’s homes and lives, whether in person or digitally, and their trust that I will then analyse my observations into edited down films, presentations, and reports that will reflect their complicated lives. But, truth be told, I have never had to analyse this level of anger and grief while also processing my own. 

Needless to say my discussion guide went out the window for that interview. Instead he spoke about his life, experiences, and feelings as a black man in America. He spoke to me about how he doesn’t think he will ever be welcomed in the US and thinks about emigrating. As a white American woman (who emigrated to the UK during the Bush era) I listened. 

In the following days the Black Lives Matter protests began. April Jeffries, global head of Ipsos Ethnography based in the US, speaks about the step from emotional empathy to cognitive empathy we must take. In the simplest form, this is the move from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to bringing your resources to help the problem. I had listened and cried with Jordan, but what could I do? What was my role and more broadly my team’s role in this? By Monday our team decided we needed to go off-plan and use our resources to make a special film about the protests. Our participants sent us self-filmed footage of their thoughts and feelings. In fact, one participant’s son, who is black, sent us a video he had made of the riots in Atlanta. 

I found myself having to unpack that intersection between the personal feelings, thoughts and actions of my Black American participant and the culture in which he exists. I then had to weave his narrative into the lives of my other American participants, most of whom are white and some of whom are on the opposing political spectrum. 

What felt different about this film and the analysis we could bring was the length of time we had spent with our participants. I had spent 8 weeks editing their lives together into short films to understand their shopping habits, their finances, and their feelings on health and wellbeing. 

Our clients watched our republican mother coddle her young son, tease her daughter, cook dinner for her family, and comfort her husband while he moaned from boredom. They watched our liberal family use puppets to corral their three young children, sneak a cheeky cigarette, and lament about their loss of personal space. They watched our nearly retired nurse show off her smart fridge, stress about her 401k plan, and cry and pray for an elderly couple saying goodbye in hospital. So to hear their feelings and thoughts on systemic racism, white privilege, and violent protest was not out of context. And because of this I felt assured they would listen with an empathetic ear, even if they did not agree. 

We chose to share the video we made with our participants. I felt this was important because I was editing down long, complicated, important feelings into short soundbites and I wanted to ensure I was best representing them. I am glad I did because the dialogue has continued.

I am now editing week two of the protests with new footage and feedback from my participants. One participant worries she came off as racist and clarified more of her thoughts which will go into this weeks edit. Jordan has sent me videos of the BLM protest he went to over the weekend after telling me on our most recent call how scared he was to be in a crowd but how connected and invigorated he felt after. 

So what does all of this mean? In many ways I am still working that out as it unfolds. But my early conclusions are;

  1. Diverse samples matter, even when you think they don’t. We often set up our sample frame to reflect narrow research questions and through that process more marginalised voices can be left out. Going into the lockdown we were focused on ensuring we had voices of precarious workers, frontline staff and older people because these were the groups considered to be most affected by the pandemic and lockdown. In our haste to get the project going we didn’t consider how the pandemic might confound other social and cultural tensions that already exist in the culture. 
  2. We need to be flexible and admit when we don’t get it right the first time. Often budgets and time restrict our ability to change our methods or sample. Working in market research we can find ourselves fearful that our clients will think we failed when we admit we change our study or sample. By admitting we got our sample wrong and adding another participant our study was able to take a different, more robust turn. Ethnography is an opportunity to see not just big culture but the cultures that exist within the wider one.
  3. We would not have gained the trust from participants and insight into the lived experience of American culture without the longitudinal aspect of our research. Our team has historically only done face to face ethnographic research, priding ourselves in immersing ourselves in people’s homes and communities around the world. With lockdown we were forced to adjust our methodology. But through adjusting it we gained insight and depth in relation to both the lockdown and the history-making Black Lives Matter protests in the US.
  4. Documentation is so important, both from us as ethnographers and the people out there with phones filming injustice and police brutality. The protests could easily be considered outside the scope of the study but as ethnographers we encouraged our participants to document their lives and the world around them. Through documenting we are building a larger context and tell a bigger story.
  5. The lockdown initially had a blitz style ‘we are all in it together’ mentality. The world (and our clients) kept asking ‘what is the new normal?’ and in many ways people hoped it would close a chapter on rising issues in their countries and the world. But these issues have not gone away. We are seeing the disproportionate effect the lockdown is having on marginalised communities. The US and China/Hong Kong perhaps being the first to break in these tensions but others may follow. I hope our ethnographic study over this period is helping to understand these tensions and the lived realities of citizens with an empathetic eye. 
  6. On a personal note, this research has taken an emotional toll on me. My team has been an insurmountable support network during these times (both the pandemic and the racial tensions in the US) but we could use support.  More could be done to support researchers when tackling particularly hard or personal issues. 

AUTHOR BIO: Dr Heidi Hasbrouck is an experienced social researcher with a specialism in creative methodologies (particularly film and visual methods). She recently joined the Ethnographic Centre of Excellence (ECE) at Ipsos as an Associate Director. Heidi has a practice-based PhD in Media and Communications and Sociology (Goldsmiths) and an MA in Screen Documentary (Goldsmiths).