Political Ethnography in Times of Mass Politicisation

By A. L. Heselgrave 

Political Ethnography faces a unique conceptual challenge in the era of Covid-19, a time in which all social interactions are now subject to political scrutiny. As governments and state actors across the world implement ever more invasive methods of social control and state intervention, practitioners of Political Ethnography need to give careful re-examination to some commonly used methodological approaches and their applicability to post-Covid research. The purpose of this post is to suggest some methods that may be of particular use in the field and that require further consideration.

Methods of study that are capable of unearthing new social phenomena are necessary in order to deal with the new social reality of the Covid-19 era. If methods of face-to-face interaction, social immersion etc. are no longer practicable, then how are we to create thick descriptive accounts of social phenomena? Ethnography is in unchartered waters when it comes to approaching data; Political Ethnography is in double jeopardy as it suffers not only from restricted research methods, but also from a social order that has mystified many of the fundamental methodological and theoretical distinctions (between the political, the social and the biological) that it has historically relied on. If we’re to gain insight into the new socio-politics of the Covid/post-Covid era, then we must first investigate two fundamental research questions: Which methodological tools from pre-Covid Political Ethnography are still applicable, and how are they to be used to uncover new political phenomena, peculiar to the post-Covid era?

A method of study that casts a broad net over large areas and diverse groups of respondents might be a way to start answering these questions. By creating networks of informants and participants from disparate social circumstances, this method will provide a wealth of qualitative data for both immediate study and posterity. Drawing on the tradition of projects and organisations such as Mass Observation, this form of diffuse ethnography, while it lacks analytical precision, may be a fecund way of identifying nascent political phenomena and subjecting them to scientific analysis. While approaches with specific sites, subjects and theoretical targets are helpful, this method of study can help to identify socio-political phenomena in their new and formative stages without overlooking related phenomena that may be missed by more targeted theoretical and methodological approaches. Drawing information from an array of individuals and communities, as well as diverse forms of data (field notes, letters, interviews, photographs etc.), provides starting points from which to develop hypotheses. Inevitably, this kind of approach will be unable to provide the level of detail and nuance that the practice of Ethnography traditionally has. It is, instead, a means of identifying potential new sites of inquiry. This method ultimately responds to mass politicisation by way of mixing methods en masse in order to ‘catch’ unanticipated emergent political realities.

Another avenue for social research is to put greater focus on autoethnography, turning the ethnographic gaze inward onto our own interactions. This method has the advantage of avoiding many of the problems attached to ethnographic research when it comes to social distancing. More importantly, studying what our bodily dynamics and social (non)interactions reveal about the political organisation of our lives may lead to a better comprehension of the minutiae of politics which inform socio-political structures and subjectivities. Better still would be the production of a considerable body of autoethnographic work through which it is possible to triangulate theoretical observations.

Much has already been said on the subject of technology and its role in the Covid crises, however, as a socio-political tool, the impact of technology, particularly communication technology, will need to be addressed in virtually all studies of socio-politics. Methods which draw on cyberethnography and STS will be crucial in determining how increased usage of video calls, messaging apps and biometric data influence political organisation and consciousness. How cyberspace shapes the politics of our bodies and interactions is going to change the nature of ethnographic data for the foreseeable future.

All of these methods are inherently exploratory in their approach; they intend not to create answers per se, but to survey the social landscape in search of new developments. For this reason practitioners of these kinds of observations must be mindful of their position in the division of academic labour that crises necessitate. The purpose of these approaches is not to produce “ground-breaking” research in the clichéd sense of vast, world-changing discoveries. Instead, the kind of exploratory Political Ethnography that mass politicisation calls for is one that creates fertile ground for the development of new theoretical and methodological understandings of the problems at hand. It is, essentially, a way of generating leads into new matrices of socio-politics.

L. Heselgrave is a Student of Political Sociology (MSc) at the London School of Economics.

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