C.N. Le of Asian-Nation has graciously invited me to contribute to his blog, which was one of the first (if not the first) sociology blog looking specifically at Asian Americans. I remember reading Asian-Nation in high school and college and being awed by the kind of things that sociologists did. Little did I know that I would end up in graduate school for sociology and writing for that blog!
Fellow ethnographers, how do you use technology in the field? I have only had a smartphone for the past three months and a tablet for two weeks, but so far I have found both of them indispensable for collecting data in my field sites (two Chinese language schools in the Los Angeles area).
I am drawn to Tricia Wang’s idea of writing “live fieldnotes” but the way she uses technology in her work is not feasible for me because I work with minors. For privacy and other ethical reasons, I cannot and do not upload pictures of students or the school sites to the Internet, and I do not feel comfortable sharing accounts of what happened in the field so openly on the Internet.
Instead of documenting and sharing as widely as Wang does, I use technological tools to facilitate the types of data collection that ethnographers have been doing for decades.
1. A smartphone
I was too frugal to get a smartphone until I realized how valuable it could be for the type of work that I do. I use it to take “jottings” in the field, snap quick pictures of scenes to jog my memory, and record interviews. I have an iPhone 4S but a cheaper Android phone with a fast processor will do perfectly. A phone that is too slow will just bog you down, especially if you work in a fast-paced, constantly-changing environment like a school.
Using a smartphone in public is not always appropriate. For example, I wouldn’t use a smartphone if I were sleeping in a homeless encampment, but if I were researching youth culture in the San Gabriel Valley I’d be on Instagram all day.
My two field sites serve communities on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and the appropriateness of typing away on a smartphone varies accordingly. In the middle-class site, pretty much everyone is on their smartphone (even some of the students) and I blend right into the background. In the working-class site, however, whipping out an iPhone in the middle of class makes me look both inattentive and conspicuously wealthy, so I try to use my phone as little as possible.
2. A tablet computer
I used to think that a tablet computer was a frivolous luxury, but since acquiring one I’ve found it to be indispensable for my life as a graduate student. Reading PDFs on the iPad 3 is a joy, and the limited multitasking abilities help me stay focused on the task at hand. In field situations where it does not stick out too much, it can also be extremely useful. Recently, I was at an administrative meeting at the middle class school site where I could sit down and take detailed notes with the iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. The iPad and keyboard combination is much lighter than my laptop (which was under repair, in any case) and with wi-fi will sync to the cloud.
1. A cloud-based mobile backup solution
A cloud-based mobile backup solution is essential for everything I do, since I work on a number of different devices that I own as well as campus computers and borrowed laptops. Dropbox (free, with the option to pay for more space) helps keep everything in sync, and has been especially helpful this weekend when my computer was in the shop. I was able to borrow my sister’s laptop, scan some documents I collected in the field, upload them to Dropbox, and annotate them on my iPad.