See You Later, Thick Data – Part 1

See You Later, Thick Data – Part 1

This blogpost is part of the methodological series “See You Later, Thick Data – How we experimented with doing collaborative fieldwork as part of an interdisciplinary research project”. In this series, we, a group of anthropologically trained junior scholars, discuss some of the opportunities and challenges we faced when collecting ethnographic data in a week-long, interdisciplinary case study of the Danish democratic festival “The People’s Meeting”. We took on a somewhat different approach to the classic anthropological fieldwork, and in this series, we share our experiences with a highly preplanned, systematic, and collaborative way of collecting ethnographic data that is integrable with other data types.

Interdisciplinary Data Collection at a Political Festival 

Under a gleaming tent canvas by the shores of a small Danish island, a panel of speakers discuss the current housing facilities for elders in Denmark. They interchangeably laugh, argue gravely, gesticulate, look at each other, look at the debate facilitator, look at the audience. Some spectators follow the discussion with great interest; some react to the country tunes that flow from the direction of the main stage; others look at their phones; one fumbles for mints in her handbag; and yet, one has surrendered to the persuasive drowsiness of his hungover body, eyes closed and head resting on his shoulder… And there you are, an ethnographer in the midst of it all. What do you note down? The presence of six colleagues jotting down notes at other stages around the festival site reminds you that the words and numbers you write have a purpose. And a very specific one. They must be understood and interpreted by other researchers as well as machines…

In June 2021, we ventured to the Danish Island of Bornholm to conduct a week-long interdisciplinary case-study of the political festival The People’s Meeting. This is an annual three-day festival involving public and private stakeholders organizing events for common civilians and decision-makers to participate in and discuss current issues. We were a total of 10 researchers all part of the SODAS[1]based and ERC-funded research project, DISTRACT, which sets out to study political attention economy in Denmark, and The People’s Meeting was the perfect setup to do so.

A key goal of DISTRACT is bringing together theories and methods from different social science disciplines and data science. We were a handful of anthropologists in an otherwise interdisciplinary team who wanted to collect data about attention-related behavior among audiences at events around the festival site. This was complicated as the ethnographic data had to meet the interdisciplinary aims of the study and be integrable with other types of data such as register data, survey data, and data from the festival website and social media. On top of that, we wanted to utilize the programming muscles of some of our team members to computationally process the collected ethnographic data. While such aspirations excited the team, they also came with a one-million-dollar question to be answered: “How does one produce ethnographic data which is both comparable across researchers, compatible with other data types collected in the project, while also holding potential to be computationally processed?”  We were in dire need of a much more structured approach to the classical ethnographic data collection than what we previously had embarked upon if we wanted to answer this question.

An Untraditional Approach

As anthropologically trained junior scholars we have been taught to gather thick descriptions of what we encounter as advised by Clifford Geertz. While we value this approach to the field, our aims as an interdisciplinary team called for a diversion from this notion of “thick” data. Departing from traditional approaches at first seemed like making cracks in our own disciplinary backbone. However, the setting of a chaotic festival site in addition to our interdisciplinary aspirations called for a more preplanned and structured approach if we wanted to collect ethnographic data which would fulfill our ambitions. Of course, this diversion has its costs as collaborative and formalized fieldwork requires the ethnographer to constrain themselves to a common focus dismissing potentially important situations in the field. We’ll delve much deeper into this in a discussion of pros and cons towards the end of the series. For now, we’ll just emphasize that with this piece we don’t wish to suggest a reformation of thick, ethnographic data as we know it and say definitively “goodbye”. Instead, we say “See you later, thick data”, as we merely intend to set aside the classical anthropological approaches temporarily to present a different and more structured take, involving a shift from thick to what we term broad data. By broad data, we mean ethnographic data that fit an interdisciplinary collaborative setting by fulfilling the following qualities (the three Cs): namely, that data can be Compiled in a common format, Compared between researchers, and holds a potential for Computational processing.

Analytical Constructs had to be Considered

Before diving further into our methodology, let us briefly introduce you to what we ventured out to study. Our analytical framework for studying attention flows at the political festival was inspired by the body of micro-sociological theory concerning interaction rituals. In this piece, we won’t dwell so much on the content of these theories, but for the purpose of explaining our methodological approach we’ll provide a brief description: this literature draws on insights from Émile Durkheim and Erving Goffman, and scholars like Randall Collins, Thomas Scheff, and Jonathan Turner are highlighted as main contributors. These theorists formulate general rules for human interaction. The central claim is that if a number of circumstances are at play in an interaction between two or more people, the encounter will result in a common bond of solidarity and flows of emotional energy in the persons who are present. One of the key ingredients for a successful interaction ritual is a common focus of attention. This was our main interest, and methodologically, this meant looking closely at how people interact in micro-situations, e.g., their bodily gestures, and where their visual and auditory attention were oriented. To pick up this type of behavior required a great deal of preplanning and team briefing if everyone was to adopt the same analytical focus when entering the field individually. This will, hopefully, be clear through some of the examples from the field and the methodological considerations that we present in the following sections. But in the meantime, we hope you’ve got your appetite awakened as we’ve only just begun to unfold our journey.

In the coming posts, we will introduce you to our so-called Ethno-platform, a self-developed digital platform for writing field observations. You will dabble further with the notion of broad data as we take you through a discussion of each of the three Cs. Lastly, we will discuss what is lost and what is gained when one diverts from more traditional ethnographic data collection methods. Stay tuned.


[1] SODAS is the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen