Bella Dicks and Bruce Mason
(1998) 'Hypermedia and Ethnography: Reflections on the Construction of a
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/3/3/3.html>
To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary
Received: 4/6/98 Accepted: 29/9/98 Published: 30/9/98
Hypertexts are non-linear. Several writing spaces can appear on the screen simultaneously.... In a hypertext, the reader is always offered multiple pathways through the information, and the reading will be different depending on which pathways are chosen and what is read and not read. (Titon, 1995: p. 441)
[One] of the most important features of Hypertext applications results in the blurring of the boundaries between 'data' and 'analysis' on the one hand, and between both of those and 'representation' on the other. There is no need in a fully developed hypertext environment, for instance, to force the 'analysis' into the straightjacket of a single, monologic and linear textual format. ...The use of Hypertext software to 'author' materials as well as to undertake analytic tasks, means that a highly flexible set of relationships can be facilitated: between the ethnographer and the data (and other materials) on the one hand, and between the 'reader' and the ethnography on the other. (Weaver and Atkinson, 1995: p. 165).
In other words, a radical possibility offered by EHEs is that they can be constructed in such a way as to enable both analysis and presentation in the same medium. In order to make this point clearer, let us first clarify what are the procedures of analysis facilitated by hypertextual approaches.
All these assumptions will have their implications for how the object of study is conceived. In particular, we can postulate that a more deterritorialised and multi-layered field of meaning can emerge as the object of study.
The potential for making texts more complex and less contained is clearly already with us.
2 The project is funded by the ESRC. For a brief introduction to the project see our homepage on http://www.cf.ac.uk/uwcc/socas/research/hyper/.
3 There is a deep irony involved in writing about hypertext in this medium that is exemplified by the nature of an 'electronic' journal such as this. Academic status is print-based and grounded in the convention of linear argumentation; consequently this journal is formatted as a virtual paper journal with each article as a separate file with scholastic endnotes and a reference list. In addition each article, ours included, is composed as a linear exposition. Essentially, this article is a recreation of standard text in a hypertext environment that deals with the advantages of hypertext. We recognise that this is a far from ideal position; however, rather than trying to disguise this we have decided to remain within a conventional scholastic format in the presentation of our ideas. Experiments with scholarly articles as hypertexts will be essayed at a different time.
4 Although, particularly in anthropology, these new critiques have not gone uncontested (see Roth, 1988; Sangren, 1988).
5 For an example of such an 'auto-ethnographic' approach, see the rather unusual, and - in our opinion not very successful - article by the unnamed authors Communication Studies 298, 'Fragments of Self at the Postmodern Bar', (Communication Studies 298, 1997).
6 We tend to work within a paradigm of ethnographic investigation that can be identified as critical ethnography and our exploration of hypertext is, naturally, biased to that end. We do not think, however, that reflexivity and an exploration of multivocality are excluded from such a project.
7 We do not mean to suggest that the ethnographic viewpoint has been confined to the manifest visible/audible ephemera of social life. In sociology, participant observation is not seen as a cardinal tenet of ethnography in the same way that it has been in anthropology (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983). Anthropology, too, has grappled with the problems of the boundaries of 'the field'. Interpretative anthropology, in particular, has stressed how observed behaviour and discourse 'in' the field have to be related quite systematically to other contextual aspects of the culture under study in order to produce 'thick description' (Geertz, 1975). However, this approach still sees observed behaviour as an index of 'wider culture', in that the observed field 'contains' the local manifestation of these wider rules and systems. It does not, thereby, invite the kind of eclectic attention to non-visible practices and discourses that have recently been called for, which may not be coterminous with the categories of observed behaviour.
8 Interested readers can select the following link from which they can attempt to download an animated example of a memex for Windows or Macintosh systems: http://www.dynamicdiagrams.com/new/demos.htm. Be aware that this site has bandwidth problems and we have never successfully downloaded the demonstration.
9 Nelson's system, called Xanadu is proposed as a method for storing every text ever published along with every alteration, comment or annotation to that text in a hypertextual format. This is intended to create a 'docuverse'.
10 George Landow's home page has extensive information about the Intermedia project. Follow this link for more detailed information. http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/HTatBrown/Intermedia.html.
11 For an interesting counter-argument to claims by Landow et al that hypertexts constitute a form of post-structuralist authoring see the online article Hypertext and Reading Cognition by Alec McHoul and Phil Roe http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~cntinuum/VID/cognition.html.
12 For example, in one case study we investigated, an outside consultant in environmental risk management was asked to generate an Environmental Management System (EMS) for an aluminium producer. European Union policy requires that the company must possess a quantifiable training system for workers at the plant about the EMS. The consultant decided to produce a hypermedia tutorial - with associated tests built in - on the grounds that, unlike a book which a worker could simply ignore, a hypertext requires the worker to sit down at a computer. In addition, by continually asking the user to press keys to continue as well as answering regular questions the user had to interact with the computer in order to get to the end. Because the hypertext used timed speech files the user was unable to skip past sections and was forced to plough through each section. Even the 'back' button option, which allows a user to return to a previous section, was removed. Supervisors were always on hand to ensure that the user was proceeding through the package in an orderly and attentive manner.
13 Not all pedagogical uses of hypermedia are, however, constraining. There appears to be a movement in literary pedagogics that encourages the creative use of collaborative hypermedia environments, inspired by the likes of George Landow and Michael Joyce.
14 The most popular of the currently available packages are:
Macromedia 'Authorware' and Assymetrix 'Toolbook': Used primarily for computer-based training (CBT) and computer-based learning (CBL), these programs tend to define user-computer interaction within an interactive question and answer format. http://www.macromedia.com/software/authorware/ and http://www.asymetrix.com/products/toolbook2/ for the respective products.15 Creative writing applications are a rather special case, since they are not concerned with communicating knowledge as such but with the manipulation of language for creative purposes.
Macromedia 'Director': This has been very popular in the field of corporate presentations and in graphic design. It focuses on synchronising different media to enable slick demonstrations. http://www.macromedia.com/software/director/
Scolari 'Atlas-Ti': This program acts more as a theory developer in a similar vein to CAQDAS products such as NUDIST and the Ethnograph. It focuses on enabling hypertext mark-ups to code data in various media. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/scolari/atlas.html
Eastgate 'StorySpace': This program has emerged from literary research into hypertext; one of its lead designers is Michael Joyce the noted author of avant-garde hypertexts, and its focus is on enabling writers to create literary hypertexts. http://www.Eastgate.com/Storyspace.html
16 An exception is Saskia Kersenboom, whose 1995 text Word, Sound, Image: the Life of the Tamil Text has an accompanying CD-ROM. However, this CD-ROM is not claimed to be fully hypertextual, and is rather conceived as being illustrative of the various conventions of Tamil dance and music with which the book is concerned.
17 Although, as noted above, this is still a largely unrealised potential.
18 This project comprises Dicks' PhD thesis (Dicks, 1997). This was the study of a coalmining heritage park in South Wales and offers a three-pronged account of the site's significance: an investigation of how it came to be set up and its relation to local definitions of historical knowledge (encoding), an analysis of its displays and narrative structure (text), and a small scale interview/focus-group based investigation of readings made by its audiences/visitors (decoding). This was conceived as a multi-layered study requiring an eclectic range of methods and strategies of enquiry.
19 That said there are huge issues surrounding this point. For example our fieldwork has generated about twenty hours of video footage to date which would require about twenty CD-ROMs to store in digital video format. Our current estimate is that if we produce an EHE capable of fitting on a single CD then we will be able to include a maximum of 30-35 minutes of video footage. Even with the emergence of new media storage devices (eg. DVD) it is unlikely that in the near future it will be possible to make all the data of an ethnographic project available in an easily accessible form for the reader. Nor is it necessarily desirable to make all data available due to issues of confidentiality and so on.
20 Again this is more of a potential than a realised ability. For example all commercial hypertext authoring programs permit the distribution of hypertexts with a 'reader's' version of the authoring program which allows the reading of the hypertext but not its authoring. Although programs such as StorySpace do allow readers to save annotated 'readings' of the hypertext the author can never make new links, add or delete material unless in possession of a full version of the program, StorySpace.
21 For example, one of the debates surrounding StorySpace is in the appropriateness and usefulness of the 'document web' overview that each hypertext generates.
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