Writing Research Online: Personal or Public?

~ Research by the Sea in PG ~
Photo from Belize by douglas reeser.
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by douglas reeser on July 3, 2013
Regular readers know that I've spent two of the last three years in southern Belize, where I was engaged in anthropological fieldwork that will be the basis for my PhD dissertation. Early on in my fieldwork, I agreed to write a column for the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News, called Notes from the Field. The column appeared monthly, and included a range of topics related to my fieldwork. I also used my fieldwork as a source of inspiration to write frequent columns for Recycled Minds. Each of these commitments to write about my fieldwork for a wide audience led to fairly constant questions of what was ok to write about, and who I was writing for. Other questions included: How much detail about my research should I share publicly at such an early stage? What would people find interesting? Who would be reading? What will Belizeans think? There are few (if any) guides about writing online while in the field, so I used my own judgement in trying to answer these and other questions while writing about my fieldwork.

Now returned from the field and working on my dissertation, I am still writing for both forums, and so I still grapple with some of those same questions. With a column due to Anthropology News, I saw that Popular Anthropology Magazine, an open access publication that aims to raise public awareness of anthropology and anthropological perspectives, just released their latest issue, which contains three articles about blogging from the field. I eagerly downloaded the articles in hopes that they might offer some new inspiration for my continued writing about my fieldwork.

I quickly dove into the three short articles, starting with "Field-fresh Blog Notes Straight from the Action," in which Cicilie Fagerlid offers a reflection on what she describes as the rewards and challenges of blogging about her research while she was in the field. Fagerlid wrote 60 posts for her blog, Cicilie among the Parisians, hosted by antropologi.info. She writes that blogging helped her develop a voice through which to talk about her research to a wider public, although her audience was primarily an academic one, interested in her topic, performance poetry. Her blog did not gain much attention in Paris, mainly because it was written in English, and not the native French, but still, blogging, she claims, made her sharpen her attention while in the field, and helped her to make some sense of her field site. She found that little of what she blogged about ended up in her dissertation, however returning to her blog helped her reconnect to the experience of being in the field while she was writing. The benefits of blogging, as described by Fagerlid, are mostly personal, yet valuable enough that she has started a new blog about her latest research.

Caitlin O'Grady, in "Blogging in the Field," writes how she decided to blog very little about her actual research due to the practical concern of sharing too much sensitive information in a public forum. Her research with HIV-positive women was a potentially contentious topic, and writing about it may have had repercussions for her and her research participants. Instead, her blog, My Indian Summer, evolved into more of a travelogue or diary of her experiences while living in the field during research. The blog was a means for her to keep her friends, family, and colleagues updated while she was away from home. She posted on some things related to her specific research, but she found the most value in being able to share the challenges of everyday life in a foreign environment, something she posits would be useful for young and new students of anthropology.

In "Video Blogging Ethnographic Field Notes," Lene Pettersen writes about video blogging her research. Pettersen video recorded her thoughts, insights, and questions about her research multiple times daily, and posted them to a private blog that she shared with a research colleague. This innovative means to record fieldnotes may prove useful to other researchers, but it offers little to the public, since it is not openly available. Here, blogging is used as a research tool that aids in more fully recording, reflecting on, and understanding fieldwork, but again, there is little direct value for the general public.

And so my hopes were left somewhat dashed, as none of the three articles offered much insight into my own questions about writing online for the public. However, all three revealed something about blogging during fieldwork that is not often discussed: in each of the cases above, the use of a blog during fieldwork served primarily as an outlet for the researcher. Blogging is praised for its benefits to the writer/research, but in each case the use of a blog largely failed to bring the research to a wider audience, and in the case of the video blog, was never meant for public consumption at all. So what, then, is the point?

For me, writing about my research has been just one part of the ongoing evolution of how I see online writing. I began writing online for Recycled Minds in 2005 when it was what could be described a blog. It was a site that shared news that received little attention from major news outlets, and sometimes included our reflections and thoughts. It has since become more of an online magazine, with original content, and a wider circle of contributors. So before I ever went to the field, I saw my columns with Recycled Minds and Anthropology News as opportunities to write about my research and anthropological fieldwork more generally, in a way that is accessible to the public.

While I too have benefited personally from writing throughout my fieldwork - for instance, I have been able to write about and more thoroughly reflect on a number of anthropological topics not directly related to my research - my primary motivation for writing online is to reach a wider audience. I see writing for these outlets (and others like them) as a way for anthropology to infiltrate the public consciousness. Anthropologists generally agree that we are especially well situated to comment on issues important to the public interest, yet many complain that our voice is not heard. Having been active in the online environment, I would argue that the voice of anthropology is already quite loud, and our volume is growing.

It is in this spirit that I have written (and continue to write) about my fieldwork and anthropology. My work and insights can be read by a wide global audience, including those with whom I worked in Belize. I shared and promoted my work on different online forums for Belizeans, a public that I feel should specifically be able to access my work. My columns with Recycled Minds have resulted in some critical discussions with Belizeans, and I believe they are discussions that may not have otherwise occurred. In my case, the anthropologist is no longer someone that comes and lives with you, and then goes home to write a book (that is sometimes shared). The online environment has allowed our relationship to expand in content and in time and space.

So today the anthropologist is someone who can research important topics in communities, and use online resources like blogs or magazines to share that work directly and in real time. Doing so provides people, especially in the communities in which we work, an important window into what we do, and why we do it. It can lead to disagreement or argument, but most importantly, it can lead to discussion, which will only further strengthen the value of our work and insight. In my experience, whether people disagree with my writings or not, a certain respect is earned simply by my willingness to share. This type of dialogue will go far in demonstrating the importance of anthropology not only to our research communities, but to the public writ large.
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1 comment:

  1. Thomas6:57 PM

    Wonderful piece. You make very good points about the benefits of making your research and thoughts accessible to a wide audience.


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