Word Circuits


Forepaper by Bella Dicks and Bruce Mason
for Messenger Morphs the Media 99


The Production of Hypermedia Ethnography.


There is a world beyond hyperfiction.  We hope.

Dicks and Mason are one year into a two year research project to investigate the usefulness of hypertext/media in ethnography.   Our remit covers both the usefulness of hypertext in helping to analyse social science research and its ability to communicate that research in novel ways to others.  In this presentation we will briefly outline some of the challenges we face and the opportunities we perceive.  We will also consider some of the implications for hypertext scholarship that our work seems to be engendering.

So what exactly is ethnography?

At it's simplest ethnography is the "thick" description of culture.  As an active process it is the act of the researcher participating in/observing some self defined community in order to understand it.  As a product it is a, written, text of the ethnographer's findings.  Unlike statistical analyses produced through quantitative research, ethnography focuses on the more implicitly interpretative, and subjective, interpretations derived from qualitative research.  Unsurprisingly ethnographic texts share as much in common with travelogs and novels as they do with academic reports....

    Nyakanjata is weary after twenty-two episodes as Bill has counted them.  Her very weariness dissociates her, makes her quit her superficial efforts... and lets the deep effect, impelled by the accumulative power of the medicines and the communications with the spirit, take place.  The Sakutoha tooth slips quietly out into the horn, and is safely held by Singleton."  (Edith Turner, Experiencing Ritual, p.105.  The end of chapter 5.)

 Unsurprisingly also, ethnography has been taken to task by the same post-modern, post-structuralist critiques that fiction has.  (If you really want to know more read our article in Sociological Research Online, particularly sections 2.2 - 2.5.) One response to this has been to widen the range of rhetorical forms, so we see ethnographic poetry, montages, fragments, performance art and so on.  Our intent is to investigate the possibilities of ethnographic hypertexts, our to coin a term, Ethnographic Hypermedia Environments (EHEs).

So where is this going?

The questions we are exploring deal with how do we use a hypertext environment to adequately portray ethnographic findings?  The exploratory rhetoric of hyper fiction can be quite usefully adapted to ethnography.  To quote ourselves:

Hypermedia potentially favours an expanded and more complex object of study, as well as inviting an experimental mode of authoring. These potentialities are enshrined in two principal advantages that hypermedia can offer the ethnographer. Firstly, there is the possibility of creating all kinds of multiple links between both the data assembled and the interpretative texts which comment upon these data (Howard, 1988). This facility allows the object of study to breach the boundaries of the research setting itself, since connections can be made with all kinds of intertextual resonances in mind. Different types of interpretation can be accommodated, so that both the voices of participants and the author's commentary can be more creatively integrated. For example, most hypertexts allow the creation of 'paths' through the hypertext with appropriate labelling, so that the linkages and ruptures between interpretation, the data presented and the potential 'intertexts' of the ethnography itself can be more explicitly foregrounded. Whilst these pathways are designed to guide the reader in the direction of authorial argumentation and/or suggestion, the very accessibility and 'proximity' of the data  texts may open up channels for innovative interpretation and reinterpretation - both in the analytic phase and in the presentational phase.

Secondly, there is the provision for readers to trace their own paths through these chains of links. As soon as one introduces multiple links into a hypertextual document (rather than merely having a linear sequential link from one 'page' to the next), the author can no longer control how a reader will progress through the environment created, and which directions s/he will choose to pursue (although the hidden hand of the author can be somewhat heavier than the reader realizes). Associations and lines of enquiry can thereby emerge in the act of reading that may not be predicted in advance by the author. Although there is nothing inherent to the provision of multiple pathways or trails in EHEs that will push the reader into constructing pathways of their own, the presentation of interlinking avenues of enquiry and the facility for switching among them aims to encourage readers to approach the ethnographic environment as a shifting matrix of connections rather than a fixed grid of self-contained narratives. However, the actual usage that readers make of such potential remains a matter for empirical investigation, and we hope to make use of technical facilities for mapping and recording the directions that actual readers take.

Thus, hypermedia, potentially, enables both the complexity of the object of study and the mode of its representation to be more fully and flexibly articulated. Of course, a writer can never control how a reader will interact with a traditional printed book either, so we are not suggesting here that a radically new form of communication is enabled by hypermedia environments. Any text is capable of being read in a non-linear mode. In fact, one can  argue that a computer-based hypertext is more limiting than a written text. With the latter, one can physically 'link' from any word in the text to any word in any other text whereas a reader of a computer-based hypertext can only follow the links created by the author, rendering the reader less free to create  their own interpretations (see Aarseth, 1997: pp. 77 - 78). What is innovative about ethnographic hypermedia environments (EHEs), however, is that the potential for cross-referencing and for multiple linkages is integral to the medium itself, and can inform all phases of the research process. (Dicks and Mason 3.4 - 3.6)

So what's the problem?

We are encountering several difficulties.  Firstly there is no adequate software that does what we want.  Part of the aim is to develop hypertexts that require the minimum in technological competence from author and reader.  Currently we are building the links in StorySpace which does not handle any media but text and basic images.  Yet our interest is in integrating various media, we have over 25 hours of video footage to include.  So we will need to convert the whole package over to Authorware at a later date, a clunky solution at best.  Then, having chosen StorySpace for its ease of use and sophisticated linking we discovered that it's most advanced feature, the "path browser" does not support "text links."  This is crucial because....

EHEs have big, big nodes. 

The major part of our EHE is the data.  It contains 55 transcribed interviews (over 1500 paper pages) in addition to the video footage we would like to include, specifically about 10 hours of documentary style "fly on the wall footage" which is untranscribable.  Naturally we need each transcript to be a node, as the represent single, whole, entities.  However our longest are nearly 200K in size as plain text files, which means that StorySpace needs six nodes to hold them.  The question is how do we make such big nodes easy to navigate for the reader?  Rather than excerpt quotes from people and including it in interpretative text we would like the reader to follow trails which take them directly to the relevant part of interview so that the reader may then choose how much of the interview to read.  However a 200K long plain text file is a nightmare on a computer screen.  Handling big nodes is proving one of the more problematic aspects of the endeavour.

Finally, how do you author academically rigorous hypertexts?  A simple question, with a difficult answer.  It is a question of academic rhetoric and the construction of argumentation in hypertext.  Academic argumentation follows 2000 years of linear disputation.  How do we, as academics, present non-linear argumentation.  We do not want to fall into the limiting Computer Assisted Learning paradigm that seems to have dominated non-fiction hypertexts, rather we want to explore the innovative, if not always successful, fictions that have attempted to push the boundaries of hypertext.

Our interest then is in learning how other hypertext authors have dealt with cognate issues.  From our perspective, we suspect that some of the issues we have to deal with in authoring EHEs will be of interest to those authoring hypertext fictions..



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