An AAAAI Post-Mortem: What’s my method again?

AAAAI was an incredible experience. I met an amazing group of tweeting allergists and scientists. I had in-depth conversations with folks I had previously only met in passing, and met several more whom I’ve long admired from afar. Many other bloggers have covered the major presentations in depth. Most notable were the results of the LEAP study which you can read about here and here.

For my post-mortem of AAAAI, I want to continue the thread I began before the meeting: what are my research methods and what are they allowing me to learn? To get started, here are some notes I wrote in the airport as I was waiting for my flight and following the LEAP study presentations on Twitter:

An ethnographic moment that challenges methodological strategies… Sitting in airport, terminal A, gate A15, waiting to board. Laptop on my lap and, miraculously, with a stable free wifi connection. I’m following Twitter where tweets are focused on an immunology pres[entation] about ebola vaccine and, simultaneously, the results of the LEAP study testing consequences of early incorp[oration] of peanut into diet. I’m following along: RT key findings, faving insightful comments, laughing at “Eat peanuts and dirt,” expressing gratitude to tweeters, and saying farewell to the [city] crew. (Instead of reading for tomorrow a.m. class…)

 What is the method here? I guess it’s literally multi-sited, in real time! I’m here, participants are elsewhere. It’s not “virtual” strictly speaking – I was just there talking to [person] from [an organization]. “Networked ethnography,” perhaps? Latour’s use of “network” emphasized the low-friction transfer of knowledge + technique. Others have emphasized  the materiality of networked infrastructures which is a useful corrective. Digital scholars like Boellstorff have noted the phenom[enological] aspects of “virtual” life, and the affective dimensions of those experiences. This is something to look into. 

What do I call my method??

The background here, as I’ve been reminded this week by re-reading Hugh Raffles’ essay “Intimate Knowledge,” is that ethnographic methods, the main research methodology of anthropology, were originally conceived as based in one specific place. By going to a particular place, living there for an extended period, and becoming embedded in everyday life in that place, anthropologists (and, later, sociologists and other social scientists) hoped to be able to learn about the hopes, fears, aspirations, beliefs, environments, kinship networks, symbolic systems, and ritual practices of a group of people. Beginning as it did in the late 19th and early 20th century, the specificity of place was important to the development of ethnographic methods. It was harder to travel around the world then, especially to the remote locales that ethnographers preferred in the early decades of the field. Once you got somewhere – once you marshaled the time, money, staff, and will to travel to the other side of the globe (usually from global north to global south) – you wanted to stay put and learn as much as you could before leaving.

But now we have the internet, and rapid, relatively affordable air travel, and granting agencies and corporations that recognize the usefulness of travel for understanding the perspectives, wants, and needs of different social groups around the world. It’s easy to jet off for a weekend to a meeting to learn about what allergists are studying and what’s exciting, important, and troubling to them. It’s even easier to join scientific, professional, and advocacy conversations via public, online networks, like Twitter.

But you still learn things from being among people, which is why I went to the meeting in the first place. There is a degree of authenticity that you get from feeling excitement among a real group of people that is more verifiable than the messages you often get online. You can walk around and ask people their opinions of things. You can listen to the questions and complaints that people spontaneously come up with during lectures or at lunch. Yet online tools allow people to add layers of connection to their in-person experiences – tweeting during a meeting, for example, so that attendees in other sessions as well as people across the globe can follow along in real time. They also allow the network of “experts” to reach people traditionally outside those networks and to foster interdisciplinary conversations with an immediacy that is probably relatively novel.

So this is where I am: using a place-based research methodology to research how “place-less” scientific knowledge travels within the food allergy community, a heterogeneous, spatially distributed group with ill-defined social “borders.” I think I’m not alone in this. I get the sense that many young ethnographers of science and teechnology are starting to ask these questions and build upon the previous generation’s notion of “multi-sited ethnography.” But the addition of online registers to in-person interactions in real time seems to be something to grapple with, methodologically speaking.

So, to finish, let me echo my notes to my future self: What do I call my method?

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