January 30, 2023

Ethnography

Here is the second interview for our new blogpost series Media Ethnographer, and our guest is Emek Çaylı Rahte. Emek has a PhD in Radio Television Cinema program, and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Hacettepe University. Her research interests include media and identity, gender, and television dramas.

You recently published an article in Mülkiye Dergisi reviewing several ethnographic work on the media of Turkey which gained momentum starting in the 200os. You provide insight into the ethnographies of media produced in Turkish language. What are your findings and conclusion?

For a long while, I was thinking about the lack of an anthropological sight in ethnographic studies. In Turkey, communication and media studies programs are leading areas conducting ethnographic studies. Anthropology or sociology departments do not adequately take interest in the study of media and doing ethnographic fieldworks, I mean ethnographic works especially on media-related everyday life. That’s why visual anthropology and visual sociology needs more improving in Turkey’s academic climate to enrich the variety and interdisciplinarity of ethnographic works in Turkish academia. Most of the instances of ethnographic texts on media that I encounter are not including any ethnographic fieldworks or even an ethnographic perspective to everyday life as a whole. Most of all, it is because of the media-centred way of studying media cultures and most of the academic works sight theoretical l inspiration in traditional aspects of British cultural studies. In my article[1], I move forward with all these matters and questions in my mind to figure out what “good media ethnography” is. In google scholar, I made a literature review of Turkish articles doing ethnography or ethnographic researches, dating back from 1970 to 2018. I found out that most of the articles were discussing ethnography or some of them were pretending to make ethnographic researches but practically and actually they were not “doing ethnography”. This is the reason I embraced a separation between “doing ethnography” and “adopting and ethnographic perspective” in qualitative research. By all means, making fieldwork is not synonymous with “doing ethnography”. In most of the articles, ethnography is generally understood as a tool of data collecting. But ethnographic methodology is something more with its distinctive ethical principles and ways of seeing. In 4343 articles at google scholar, only 1% of them were in the eld of media ethnography. And making a detailed analysis of these articles in the eld of media ethnography, I found out that only 50% of them were including thorough fieldwork research. The number of eld studies who were “doing ethnography” was very limited. As a conclusion, I underlined again that “good media ethnography” means a “good eld study” with an anthropological aspect. It means any sort of “being there” to make thorough eld research, which means to “penetrate” and access the everyday life experiences; going deeper and looking closer to see and interpret the practices and social world of people, cultural groups or communities of any kind.

You know this area very well. Where are we going in terms of ethnographic studies about the media of Turkey? Are there any topical tendencies?

Parallel with global tendencies in ethnographic researches, after the 2000s, a remarkable increase in ethnographic studies on media is seen. The quantitative findings in my article show that, in the 2000s comparing to the 90s, ethnographic studies increased by ten times. By means of media ethnography, a notable increase happens between 2010 and 2018. Not surprisingly, the majority of the studies are using keywords such as netnography, online ethnography, virtual ethnography, cyber ethnography and etc. It reveals how social media boosted the interest in ethnography. But just like Tim Ingold’s considerations in his “That’s Enough About Ethnography[2]” we always need to be cautious when we call something ethnography. When we think of the ethnography of the internet, just like John Postill[3] argues, a “remote ethnography” is possible without “being there” physically. Or sometimes we can make “thin descriptions” instead of “thick descriptions.” But if the point with ethnography is to catch the emotion and access the life experiences in the eld there is a problem here. Some researchers only make textual analysis or quick participant observations online and call themselves ethnographic works. That is controversial. I supervise three Ph.D. dissertations. All of them make in-depth interviews but they do not call their research an ethnography. The same goes for my MA students as well. Among eight, only one of them is doing ethnography in her thesis. She wants to write the ethnography of YouTuber kids. In the beginning, I dissuaded her from writing an ethnographic thesis because it demands more time and experience in the eld. Also, it entails more effort to catch the gaze of the “native” to be able to make a “thick description”. These are not usually possible with an MA thesis. But we decided to give a try. And we will see.

Tell us about your ongoing projects these days.

I have very recently started writing on the ethical issues in ethnographic researches. Recently getting permission from the ethical committees of the Universities for the fieldwork studies is becoming more prevalent. Sometimes it takes too much time to get permission. For some fields, a written consent form risks the research. Or sometimes covert participant observations become a necessity. Thinking on all these points motivated me to write about the debates on the ethical issues in qualitative researches, particularly ethnography.

You have been working on diverse issues as a media scholar. Why do you use ethnography as a methodological toolkit to explore all these issues?

Doing ethnography is hard work. Because of some very practical reasons and institutional, financial and political restrictions, making ethnographic fieldwork research becomes something you challenge. Years ago, I was very lucky when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation[4]. My supervisor Asker Kartarı always encouraged me to do ethnography. Even, the school management those days did not make any difficulties for me in being away for about three months in another city to do my eld research. My research was about daytime TV shows. I spent several times in studios with the audiences. Also made interviews in the houses of the participants of the programs. For another more recent eld research, I had to spend four months in Kosovo. That time, my Faculty and also my University supported me leaving for a full spring term. In that research[5], I wanted to figure out how and why the Turkish TV series make meaning in the everyday life of people in Prizren, Kosovo. You know, Balkans have strong ties with Turkey, culturally and politically. Also, Turkish TV series are watched considerably in Balkans, like in the Middle East. Using an ethnographic approach, I could hear the personal stories about Turkey, going to Turkey, watching Turkey from the Prizren people of different origins: Turks, Albanians, Bosnians, and Serbians. We could have a chance to watch some series together in their houses. Or in cafes, we could have a chance to discuss serial characters, scripts, casts. I was letting them make comparisons with their own lives For instance, we could discuss the violence against women in the series and what was the situation in Kosovo and in their own life worlds. The interviews were not limited to these for sure. A holistic perspective to see the everyday life of people, and by means of media ethnography, to go deeper in their everyday media and cultural experiences as a whole makes ethnographic research. A dialogical aspect to make people speak in their own words, encourage them to tell their own stories and a reflexive sight for a mutual interaction in the eld are what I try to make out in most of my researches. But most of the time, I leave the eld with a feeling that I need to spend more time in the eld, speak to more and more people etc. There is always the possibility for any sort of ethnographical writing to turn into an incomplete story.

Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?

[1] Çaylı Rahte E (2018). Türkiye’de Medya Etnograsi Yapmak: Alanın Gelişimi ve Seyrine Eleştirel Bir Bakış. Mülkiye Dergisi, 42 (4), 593-637.

[2] Ingold, T. (2014) “That’s Enough About Ethnography!”, HAU-Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4 (1): 383-395. Available online at https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau4.1.021. For the Turkish translation, see http://www.momentdergi.org/index.php/momentdergi/article/view/246/466

[3] Postill J (2017b). “Remote Ethnography: Studying Culture from Afar. Hjorth, Larissa et al (eds.) The Routledge Companion To Digital Ethnography. London: Routledge.

[4] Çaylı Rahte E (2009). Kamusallık, Mahremiyet ve Medya: ‘Kadın Tartışma Programları’ Üzerine Etnograk Bir Araştırma. Yayımlanmamış Doktora Tezi. Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü.

[5] Çaylı Rahte E (2017a). Medya ve Kültürün Küresel Akışı: Türk Dizilerinin Kosova’da Alımlanması. Milli Folklor. 29 (114). 66-78. [6] https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/les/BAR32-09-Ingold.pdf

Media Ethnographer
Media Ethnographer


New wave of Anthropology!

“I used ethnography because I was very much interested in how love for one’s work looked like in the everyday lives of game developers,” says media studies scholar Ergin Bulut. Ergin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University. He received his PhD from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He researches media industries and cultural production from a political-economic and ethnographic perspective. Currently, he continues his work on the videogames industry and is also examining Turkish dramas. We talked with Ergin about his book A Precarious Game: The Illusion of Dream Jobs in the Video Game Industry.

You recently published your first book “A Precarious Game” with Cornell University Press. It is an ethnography of the video game industry in the US. What are your findings and conclusion?

First, thank you for your interest in my work. For my book, I ethnographically researched a medium-sized videogame studio in the United States Midwest. I wanted to understand how the labor of love looks like in this industry through this studio. The game studio I examined in my book was producing triple-A video games for consoles and PCs. When I was completing my three-year ethnographic research in 2013, a publicly-traded game publisher owned it. This publisher would then declare bankruptcy.

There has been a lot of enthusiasm about creative industries. They have been positioned as utopian workplaces where one can fulfill his/her career dreams. In fact, this was not true. This finding may not be surprising. However, the studio I was doing research was the flagship studio of a major game publisher. One game developer, for instance, made an analogy between their parent company and Titanic. That is to say, your job is not safe even when you’re working at the flagship studio of a major publisher in the video game market. In sum, a major finding in the book is that innovative work is intrinsically precarious.

If I were to refine this finding and say more, I would emphasize how multiple forms of inequalities exist in the industry. The core inequality is between the studio and its parent company. In this case, the studio got punished when the parent company declared bankruptcy due to its bad business decisions. The kind of inequality I am pointing to here is at the level of the contract. Once a game developer signs a contract, what s/he produces as intellectual property belongs to the parent company. And yet, despite the valuable work that these game developers put in, some of them were not able to avoid precarious employment or unemployment.

There are also inequalities between core creative team (artists, programmers, designers) and extremely precarious game testers as a support team. The former group of workers have better offices. They can internationally travel for work. They are better able to take advantage of the studio’s flexible work environment policy. The latter group, i.e. the testers, are contract-workers, who feel like “serfs” or “second-class citizens.”

There is also a racial level to workplace inequalities in this industry that disguises itself within a discourse of fun. Game developers love pushing the limits of technology and producing offensive game content. However, those libertarian practices can and will often hurt racial minorities. By coding subversive game content through a discourse of fun, game developers are exerting a particular form of symbolic inequality on minorities.

Finally, a fourth level of inequality foregrounds the question of the domestic sphere. The creative game developers are able to pursue their dreams mainly because somebody else is taking care of their families. Here, a major finding concerns gender that my book tackles at its intersection with class since these are mostly middle class women.

I conclude the book by making a call to become killjoys. Love at work sounds all good but it is just not sustainable. It legitimizes self-exploitation. It creates tons of doubt on the side of the workers in that one feels inadequate in terms of doing performance. Therefore, I highlight the need to be more cautious against the celebration of love at work because capital is more than happy to provide the ludic infrastructures for digital labor so that it can consolidate property relations.

Why did you use ethnography as a methodological toolkit to explore a company that develops video games? 

I used ethnography because I was very much interested in how love for one’s work looked like in the everyday lives of game developers. I am quite inspired by political economy but at the same time, I want to know how those broader forces unfold in the everyday. There is also something about ethnography where it will push you to ask novel questions that you weren’t planning to pursue in the first place. Similarly, it will force you to come to terms with your own subject position. For instance, I wasn’t initially planning to talk to game developers’ partners. Perhaps, I too had that romantic view of creative work. And yet, upon my observations and encounters in the field, I ended up talking to developers’ partners and now I can document how the digital is far from erasing gender-based inequalities at the domestic level.

In the book, you describe your ethnographic field as a transnational and networked production setting where over 200 employees were working via email, forums, spreadsheets, conference calls, Skype, and VPN (virtual private network). What difficulties and challenges did you face while engaging in such a field, and how did you deal with them?

It’s an extremely fragmented and digital workplace. And I have a particular obsession about grasping social totality. So, because I wasn’t able to work at the studio, it took some time for me to get a grasp of work terminology. Participant observation and interviews were my main tools. Yet, this profession involves a lot of immaterial exchanges and the mobilization of feelings. So, I first convinced myself that I had to let some things go. I knew I wasn’t able to interview people in California or China. I would rely on the accounts of my research participants. As far as feelings are concerned, I resorted to photo elicitation and asked my informants to show me how it feels to work in that game studio. They took photographs of a particular object or space to discuss the meaning of their work and its emotional aspects. I wasn’t able to use these photos in the book but it was useful for me. I anticipate this method will gain more attention during the pandemic.

Do you think that ethnographic research yields insights into the relationship between love and work, which cannot be obtained by any other means of research? And why?

I do. Attending meetings where game developers had heated debates about the value of work is essential in understanding how love unfolds in the workplace. I am sure there would be other means to have access to this. But at the same time, without ethnography, I wouldn’t be able to observe those heated debates between creative teams. I wouldn’t be able to see the heart symbol that a recently laid off worker had put next to her name as she signed the visitors’ sheet at the lobby of the studio. I wouldn’t be able to see drunk game developers playing the very game they just launched. In sum, if you want to witness the messiness of everyday life and tell that kind of a story, ethnography is just vital.

In your research, you put critical political economy, feminist theory and autonomist Marxism in dialogue with one another. How did they theoretically inform your participant observation of the game industry?

As I said, I am embedded within political economy and autonomist Marxism. As far as political economy is concerned, I would be pursuing questions about the power inequalities between the corporation and the game workers. As far as autonomist Marxism is concerned, I am interested in the blurring distinction between waged time and leisure time. I am interested in how the most intimate aspects of human subjectivity are commodified through networked technologies. I am similarly interested in how, for instance, the game company I researched was constructing flexible work environment policies and humane workplaces (drinking beer at work, playing video games at work, open workspaces, being able to shower in the workplace etc.) in order to maximize value extraction. Here, the question becomes tricky because on the one hand, I find Autonomist theory useful (especially in relation to alternative concepts such as creative labor or cultural work) because it the dialectical struggle between capital and labor is still there. On the other hand, I do raise come criticism about some of the Autonomist concepts such as immaterial labor. At the center of my critique stands the very question of materiality. I suggest in the book that the prefix “im” flashes on and off thanks to the work of hardware workers, recycling workers, spouses and partners of game developers, and mining workers that make the gaming experience possible. That is where, for instance, I draw from feminist theorists such as Kylie Jarett (her book Digital Housewife is excellent) who has pointed to the relationship between the mutually constitutive relationship between production and reproduction or between economic and social organization. That is how I propose to materialize immaterial production through the case of videogame production. As far as feminist theory is concerned, it not only pushed me to pursue questions in the domestic space but also reframe the whole project around the question of social reproduction. The main question thus became: Who can play and who has to work in this industry? Once I framed the project around this question, the empirical focus shifted from the workplace to life itself. But to answer your question, I resorted to photo elicitation to reveal the emotional and subjective investments that game developers were making within their labor processes. If the soul is at work as scholars like Bifo Berardi argues, then I had to use photographs to visualize labor-related emotions. I think that theories of immaterial labor have quite remained at an abstract level. I wanted to empirically demonstrate the material and affective dimensions of this particular kind of labor.

Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?

Our son was born in late December 2019 and since March, we are living a pandemic. So, I will be honest. I wasn’t able to read entire ethnographic monographs or even if I did, I cannot remember! I did read novels though. Murat Uyurkulak’s Delibo was extremely enjoyable. Similarly, Latife Tekin’s Manves City reads like an ethnographic novel. Yet, I can recommend Angela Mitropoulos’s and Donatella Di Cesare’s studies (not ethnographic!) if one is to understand the pandemic. I have been long meaning to read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design. Maybe I’ll do that during the semester break. But if you have recommendations on exciting ethnographic research, I am happy to hear.

Media Ethnographer<br>
Media Ethnographer

New wave of anthropology!

Compared to the past, media anthropology has become much more comprehensive in Turkey. Works produced in this eld follow both the global trends in media anthropology but they also come up with their own unique angles of study based on Turkey’s dynamics.” says media anthropologist Nazlı Özkan. Nazlı is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University. She recieved her PhD in Anthropology at Northwestern University and is currently working on a project on the history of new media technologies in Turkey. We talked with Nazlı about her trajectory to anthropology and reections on conducting interdisciplinary research as an anthropologist.

Can you tell us about the road that merged you with anthropology?

I decided to become an anthropologist in my second year at college after taking the Political Anthropology class. I was majoring in Guidance and Psychological Counseling and took the class as an elective from the Sociology Department. I had no idea about what anthropology was and the syllabus, which included readings from theorists such as Gramsci and Foucault, seemed unfamiliar, if not intimidating. Contrary to my initial perception, however, anthropology turned out to be a way of thinking that is very easy to familiarize myself with (Here, I should also thank Ayfer Bartu Candan, the instructor of the class, for her well-structured and clear lectures). When applied to understand the daily interactions that we usually take for granted, all these unfamiliar theorists turned out to be useful guides that provide a fascinating vantage point to understand the relation of one’s very intimate interactions with power and inequality. I was fascinated by ethnography’s power as a methodology to bring into discussion minute details of everyday life and show how these details usually reproduce and are shaped by various socio-economic disparities. As a young university student concerned about social and political injustices, I got convinced that anthropology could be a way for me to pursue a more social-justice oriented life and decided to pursue a PhD in this field.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge/opportunity in conducting interdisciplinary research as an ethnographer who is trained in anthropology?

I will start with the challenge part as this is something I frequently think about. Ethnography or participant observation is a very popular methodology that is widely used across disciplines. The ethnographic methods class I took during my PhD studies had students from various departments and it could be one of the most interdisciplinary courses I attended in graduate school.This popularity is great for us as anthropologists since it usually facilitates enriching conversations with scholars from other disciplines. Such popularity, however, also leads to a common misconception that conducting participant observation is enough to produce an anthropological study. This kind of approach usually ignores that ethnography is a methodology that is at the heart of anthropology because contemporary anthropology, as a discipline, aims to challenge dominant or taken-for-granted frameworks of knowledge production, including the positivist framework. Ethnographic methodology requires the researcher to learn the language of their interlocutors and spend at least a year and sometimes two years in the field because it is through such extensive engagement that anthropologists develop this alternative framework of knowledge. Anthropologists tend to criticize doing participant observation with an analytical approach that is produced elsewhere (not in the field) and I think this is one of the most important challenges faced by anthropologists when doing interdisciplinary work.

I think media anthropology is a field that is very conducive to interdisciplinary study. In my own work, I frequently use the communication literature and am currently working at an interdisciplinary department that also includes communication scholars. I mostly benefit from the rich conceptual framework of the communication scholarship. Also, engaging with studies on media in other disciplines help me better locate my observations in relation to what is going on elsewhere in the world. In my work with journalists, I am also interested in how digital technologies transform journalistic production. When studies from other disciplines, conducted in other countries using different methodologies, such as statistics, yield to similar results to my observations, I became more curious about the parallel dynamics that might have caused the similarity. These resonances help me to see the global trends better. And they are also useful because the richness of anthropological data may sometimes make it hard to choose what to focus on so interdisciplinary engagement is one way of putting my data into perspective.   

In a recent article published in PoLar [hyperlink], you present an alternative perspective on minority media and argue that “minority media producers can also be strategic in their alignments with their communities and may use this alignment as a façade when securing their ties with states” (p. 317). The article provides an in-depth understanding of an Alevi-run television in Turkey, which is possible only through good ethnography. And such deep ethnographic engagement often comes with its unique uneasiness and fragilities. Can you tell us about your positionality as an ethnographer and a media producer and the complex ways in which you enacted this positionality in the field?

The article you mention was based on the preliminary fieldwork I conducted back in the early 2000s for my larger dissertation project so it belongs to a period when I was getting more familiar with my field site but also with my own position as an anthropologist. The fieldwork that I conducted for two months during that period was very teaching for me to reflect upon my positionality in the field as an anthropologist. If you are doing ethnography in a setting such as news production, it is very easy to conflate different roles as data collectors, as you also mention in the question. During the research of the PoLAR piece, I became more aware of these roles—as an anthropologist and as a reporter. Depending on the institution they worked at, reporters or news producers usually have certain red lines when covering events. But as anthropologists, we usually focus on those very red lines and analyze them openly. In my case, my opinion about the incident and the network’s coverage strategy was in conflict so I tried to navigate this tension during my stay at the network. Of course, there is no specific formula to handle this situation so I can say that I tried ways to communicate my unique positionality in the field both as an ethnographer and as a reporter. One of those ways was asking some of the questions that I knew I would ask when analyzing the incident. I asked very straightforward and sometimes critical questions about the specific coverage strategy that I knew I would not be able to ask as a reporter employed by the network. Here, one walks a fine a line between being open and not making people uncomfortable. I must say that later, when I was doing my longer fieldwork, I learned to be less straightforward with my questions because even if I do not agree with the ways in which things are done, I am there to understand the reasons and obviously do not want to make people uncomfortable. Staying in the field longer is also helpful to navigate such tensions better because it gives much more insight into people’s actions and the events that they are part of. Also, people get to know you better, eventually you become friends and friendship provides a flexibility that not sharing the same viewpoint is not always a problem. This deeper relationship also made it easier for me to navigate my positionality but even then, fieldwork is full of these moments when you are not happy with the way you acted and the way things are carried out. You slowly learn how to sit through the discomfort and continue showing up despite that discomfort. I think I accepted that the fragility will be there as long as I continue researching and writing and that it is part of being an anthropologist. One can definitely get more talented at navigating the fragility while also knowing that it is not possible to fully overcome it.

What is your take when you look at the ethnographic/anthropological studies about media of Turkey? Do you observe any common tendencies or foci? Where do you think anthropological/ethnographic studies of media in Turkey are going?

I think we are in a time when media anthropology in Turkey is thriving and I am sincerely thankful that your initiative is helping this flourishment while also recording it. Compared to the past, media anthropology has become much more comprehensive in Turkey. Works produced in this field follow both the global trends in media anthropology but they also come up with their own unique angles of study based on Turkey’s dynamics. There are ethnographies on Turkey’s religious and Islamist media, which is an important subfield in media anthropology in general. There are also ethnographies on Turkey’s journalistic production—again another popular subfield of ethnographic studies on media. Yet, in Turkey, in addition to works that focus on mainstream journalism, there are also studies that explore minority news production such as Kurdish women’s practices of news production. Hence, in Turkey, there is an emerging trend to explore minorities’ engagement with journalism. I think this is an enriching contribution to the anthropological studies of news media in the world in general.

As for the future, in line with what’s happening in the world, I think there will be more ethnographies on digital media in Turkey. We already started seeing some examples of this shift. As the media environment got more intensely populated by digital media platforms, we also observe how people shift between different media tools—watching television while Tweeting about the program they are watching. Both in Turkey and also in the world, ethnographers are paying more attention to the simultaneous use of these multiple media tools. I think we are in the process of an anthropological shift, a shift from examining how people consume one medium or produce via one medium—such as the famous ethnographies on television production and viewership—to exploring the use of and production via multiple mediums and how people shift between different mediums and platforms. I think we will be seeing the fruits of this shift in anthropological studies on media in Turkey.

Tell us about your ongoing projects these days.

I recently received a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship for my project on the history of new media technologies in Turkey. In the next two years, I will be doing research on public and official reactions to radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and mobile devices in the 2000s. With the rise of digital media, we are in the middle of another “new media” moment. One of the most exciting angles for me to better understand this moment is by going back in history to similar “new media” moments, such as the ones that emerged with radio and television and examining how people reacted in similar and/or different ways to these new media technologies of their period. Analyzing how people’s responses to new media changes is a well-established method of studying media in the communication literature—and here is another benefit for anthropology to engage in interdisciplinary work. I think it is a useful one to adopt because not only inventors or tech producers but also users play an important role in constructing the newness of technology. In my project, I will specifically look at how technological newness is constructed in relation to a country’s dominant mode of economic production such as industrial-developmentalist or neoliberal. For example, newspaper coverage of the reactions to television as a new medium reveals that, during the 1950s, when industrialization and development were the dominant modes of economic order, people were worried that television would harm labor productivity by requiring “both the ear’s and eye’s attention” (Milliyet). When we look at reactions to digital devices, the new media of the neoliberal 2000s, this time, we see that people embrace it as an item of conspicuous consumption. There are many studies highlighting that it is important for lower classes to own the most recent version of the smart phones as a sign of upward mobility. In a way then, reactions to new media change in line with the mantra of the economic systems of their era: concerns over labor productivity in the industrial 1950s shift todesires for conspicuous consumption in the consumption-oriented neoliberal times. By conducting archival work in the magazines and newspapers of the 1920s and 1950s that covered technological developments and by conducting ethnography with digital media users, my project will try to examine how these shifting political economic trends inform how users play a role in constructing the newness of technology.

Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?

The last ethnographic work I enjoyed reading is Gabriella Coleman’s book titled Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I liked Coleman’s work because it focuses on hackers as a community in order to assess the limits of liberal ideas and liberal law in neoliberal times. I think by focusing on hackers, a role that emerged with the very rise of digital media, it provides a new vantage point to study transformations brought by digital technologies. It is not an ethnographic study but I also very much recommend Tarek El-Ariss’ book named Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age. This is another study on leaks and hacks and I like this book because it asks very important theoretical questions about media study that address issues unique to our contemporary moment. El-Ariss rephrases some of the questions we frequently ask about old media technologies—such as media circulation and public formation—in a way that almost updates them for a moment when leaks and hacks are a common mode of information sharing.

Doç. Dr. Suncem Koçer Çamurdan<br>
Doç. Dr. Suncem Koçer Çamurdan

Media and communication anthropologist Assoc. Dr. Suncem Koçer works as a faculty member at Kadir Has University, Faculty of Communication. Koçer’s academic specialties include media ethnography, political communication, news and journalism culture, digital media discourses, and cultural politics in Turkey.

We are starting a new section titled Media Ethnographer on the blog. In this section we will talk with media ethnographers of Turkey about their work, their perceptions about the field both in Turkey and globally, and especially the things that excite them the most in this area. Hopefully, Media Ethnographer will help us connect as ethnographers of Turkey and reach out to each other’s work now and in the future.

In an article published in 2014[1], you write that new media technologies brought out many opportunities for media ethnographers of Turkey. What were those opportunities back then and what do you think about doing new media ethnography in Turkey today?

Interestingly we are now left behind as users from Turkey but at that time, the beginning of 2000s, Turkish users were among the most productive and prolific ones globally in internet usage. Because of broader developments in the country such as increasing censorship, economic crisis, and growing authoritarianism, we do not encounter many interesting projects in the last few years. This is a generalization, of course, but there is a sort of drought in good new media projects at the moment. This also has a reflection on the possibilities of internet studies and ethnographies. One of the trends or buzzwords these days is algorithms, for instance. It is very hard to do an ethnography on algorithms in Turkey. How can you study algorithms here? We don’t have such high technology or corporations here. Turkey is in the periphery in that sense. Of course there are many other areas to study here. I am currently working on crypto-currency cultures. Interestingly, crypto-currency users in Turkey are among the most frequent ones in the world. I feel like there is an opportunity to be connected to the global current. I can’t say the same for algorithm studies.

One thing that I was anxious when I was writing that article you refer to was the increasing talk of censorship related to the rise of authoritarianism and how it would occupy most of the discussions around media in Turkey. And yes it has become a fact. When I get a call from international media for commentary, for instance, they always ask about the censorship issues, which, of course, is very critical to talk about. But at the same time, this is a very limited picture. Unfortunately this has been an ongoing biased interest in Turkish media.

You have been working on diverse issues as a media scholar. Why do you use ethnography as a methodological toolkit to explore all these issues?

I never claim that one method is better than another. There are many ways to get knowledge about these questions. New media studies is, however, occupied by more quantitative studies and methodologies. I don’t criticize that but just say that such approach is limited. I believe that with ethnography you can reach out to many other dimensions of knowledge. I am an anthropologist and there is real potential here, deconstructing cultural codes around new media, for instance. Today although big data sounds very mathematical and very certain because it is related to positive sciences etc. in fact, big data is culturally constructed. Supposedly universal and non-biased notions of algorithms have all these biases in terms of race, gender, and other types. We need to see all the cultural and social codes behind algorithms, big data, etc. Think of all these fake news studies and information studies now. It is not very productive to study these issues just by surveys or to create soft wares to prevent fake news. We need to do ethnography to understand how audiences grasp and use these fake news. We need ethnography in many fields of new media. Doing ethnography is not easy. You know discussions of ethnography never end. We are now in an open-ended space and this is very exciting. I am excited to experiment methodologically in this space.

You have just come back from a yearlong visiting scholarship in the USA. What are your observations about the trends and tendencies in media ethnography there?

I expected that people would be working on digital issues but I was surprised to see a backlash instead. I was in UC Irvine Anthropology and MIT Science, Technology, and Society. In UC Irvine, most of the grad students were working on social inequalities and environmental issues but not digital issues. Not that they ignore it but Digital is not central to they work. May be because digital is so embedded in social life now and they don’t need to study it. But also I think there is being tired of all these buzzwords. May be we need a break. Well, I don’t need a break. I like working on this stuff. Also in MIT most graduate studies were not directly about digital and also media. Apart from this observation, there are of course more and more publications about digital media. A theory oriented journal Theory, Culture and Society, for instance, published a special issue on crypto-currency. Cultural Anthropology also had a special issue on algorithms. I try to follow all the algorithms literature. And Cultural Anthropology’s special issue has been more influential than many others I have read and I was happy to see that ethnographer’s touch is very important. It brings out new dimensions in new media research which is now so broad and embedded with other forms of media. It is hard to talk in generalities. By the way, as another example, I believe studies on social TV may increase. I have already read several books on Netflix alone. And because of Trump, the fake news stuff and also trolls. When I was writing the article you cited at the beginning, it was nascent not so converged. Now there are so many issues. You don’t need to define in anymore.

Where are we going in terms of ethnographic/anthropological studies about media of Turkey?

Now you see more and more publications and theses about new media related issues but most of them are repetitive and not exciting at all. So many of them are based on limited methodology. I do not oppose quantitative studies, as I said. But this way of usage is misleading, in fact. In many studies, the claim is to do ethnography but then it switches to netnography and sometimes it is not even netnography. I believe ethnographic engagement is very limited. One reason is that ethnography demands more time. Also the teaching of ethnography is very limited here. Scholars who are trained as anthropologists are able conduct ethnographies. Sometimes people with cultural studies background produce good ones. At the end of the day, good ethnographies of media are in minority in Turkey. The number of fieldworks conducted ten years ago, probably, is not less than the ethnographic projects going on right now. I feel a bit upset about this. It seems like the talk of media ethnography has become mainstream but when you look at the actual works there are not many good works. One thing is the easiness of producing articles by relying on quantitative methods and they are fancy also with all this visualization but you miss the ethnography there. Information verification issues might still have potential in Turkey. All these social media usage and circulation of information are very fruitful. I am also personally interested in blockchain based projects might have a potential in Turkey. In fact, in all the countries which have a currency crisis crypto-currency projects are relevant and then comes many ethnographic opportunities.

Tell us about your ongoing projects these days.

I am currently working on crypto-currency cultures in Turkey. I am hoping to have a yearlong fieldwork. I might also become an advisor in one of the projects so that I may have an insider’s perspective. My ongoing work about information verification and political trolls will also continue. I am a bit bored with that but there is no escape from these topics. And I am already involved with digital activism so I may produce ethnographic work on that as well.

Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?

The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life is an ethnographic work I have read and got excited about recently. And on Turkey Social Media in Southeast Turkey[2] is by far my favorite.


[1] ‘Türkiye’de Yeni Medya Etnografisi Yapmak’ Sınırları Aşmak: Türkiye’de Sosyo-Kültürel Antropoloji ve Disiplinlerarası Yaklaşımlar, editör Ramazan Aras

[2] Costa, Elisabetta. Social Media in Southeast Turkey. 1st ed. Vol. 3. UCL Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1g69z14.

K. Zeynep Sarıaslan
K. Zeynep Sarıaslan

Developing trusting relationships with study participants mounts a serious challenge for any researcher – but especially for those in their ethnographic encounters with media professionals. When it comes to the “sideways” study of journalists this challenge becomes more pronounced, as journalists are inherently likely to mask their authentic interpretations and genuine feelings – and to do so more skillfully than do other categories of media practitioners.

There is a significant parallelism between ethnography and journalistic activity. Both require the development of rapport with targeted persons, and the ‘extraction’ of true information from them. The issue is that if you study journalists, you have to be ready to deal with people who have already reached the highest level in the same job by working as journalists for ten or fifteen years.

Journalists tend to avoid and even dislike researchers, which stems from a general hesitance to make their newsroom accessible to outsiders. The newsroom is an intimate and exclusive sphere; a space of “dirty linen”. In the everyday setting of news production, journalists articulate their dissident political views, self-denigration, professional embarrassment, and damaging assessment of news culture. That’s exactly why such a research environment is likely to be a minefield for the researcher, who can easily fall into the trap of doing not ethnographic fieldwork but investigative journalism. But you can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. If you are interested in extracting sensitive and “spicy” information that makes for more interesting findings, regardless of such information’s relevance to your research topic, don’t be surprised if the willingness of journalists to help you evaporates rather sooner than you might expect.

Journalists can easily manipulate you. If you don’t apply the methodological principles and sensibility of ethnography to your fieldwork, you may fool yourself into thinking that you have extracted some accurate information from simply having conducted a few in-depth interviews and participant observation for a short period. Unfortunately, however, the validity of such findings is liable to be highly questionable. In all likelihood, what would actually happen is that you would return home with untrue or insignificant information – and all this without you even knowing.

So, why should a journalist stop treating an ethnographer as a “nuisance”, and instead, take time out of their extremely busy schedule, while working at the speed of a racehorse, and help you?

Whilst accepting that we probably cannot change the basic nature of engagement between a journalist and a researcher, there may nevertheless exist (an albeit limited) space of possibility for fruitful ethnographic research on journalists, in which journalists embrace our project, or at least collaborate to some extent.

A good place to start is to show a genuine interest in grasping their everyday lives and basically understanding the way they work and why. Second, to gain their trust, you might consider exercising a ‘full disclosure’ policy: never hiding your identity as a researcher or your objectives, and sometimes being comfortable answering sensitive and personal questions, such as which party you voted for at the last election, or to which sex you are attracted.

When you work with journalists, you are constantly under interrogation. This is in their nature; this is what they do for a living. And they can be pretty good at questioning you, and finding gaps in the researcher prole you try to construct and present. No matter how professional you look as a researcher, you should not be surprised to see their eagerness to capture what is going in your actual life. Expect them to keep pushing the boundaries you set between the ethnographic ‘eld’ and ‘home’. So if you want to have access to their ‘journalistic home’, such as the newsroom, then you may need to open the doors of your ‘ethnographic home’ to them. And of course, this kind of approach to fieldwork can create ethical complications. My suggestion is not to give up the perpetual negotiation of concealment and revelation in attempts to ‘go native’ and claim a measure of insiderhood. Rather, it is simply to maintain an open and consistent image.

Last but not least, you might like to leave that tape-recorder at home. True, recording interviews and conversations purely through handwritten notes runs the possibility of missing an important point or evocative detail, or not having enough time to think about what the interviewee says and probe accordingly. But journalists, in particular, those working for mainstream media, tend to reframe their thoughts to suit politically and culturally most convenient standpoint. As such, if they are aware that their voice is being recorded, they will adopt an innocuous perspective.

For my part, when I was conducting my eldwork on Turkish journalists, a political correspondent told me that when all the journalists working on the same beat gather in the national parliament to discuss news stories, everyone sits on their mobile phones to assure others that they are not secretly recording the conversations. A cautious attitude towards voice-recording among study participants is not unknown to ethnographers, but it appears worse in journalists. This is partly due to a wider distrust among journalists and is partly a result of growing distrust between journalists and the public, and between journalists and politicians. It is against this challenging backdrop that the ethnographer of journalism, if she is to be successful, must thrive.

Ozan Aşık
Ozan Aşık

Lecturer in Sociology at Uludağ University (Bursa, Turkey). PhD from University of Cambridge