A digital mode of inquiry during ‘lockdown’
by Tomás S. Criado and Adolfo Estalella
Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded into a major health and social crisis in Spain – first leading to, and later due to, severe lockdown measures – we have been taking part in a messaging group. Since mid-March onwards this space has turned into our main source of news, links, experiences, appreciations, reflections and collective debates or, put shortly, collaborative inquiries in these strange pandemic times. The group was originally set up by some of our ethnographic acquaintances in the last years, a loose group of architects, designers and cultural workers with the goal of developing a ‘virus-emergency-version-conversation’ (their terms) of a podcast radio show based in Madrid, originally devoted to exploring manifold forms of urban collaboration in the city for the last two decades. It was a continuation, or perhaps we could say a ‘remediation,’ of a previous podcast show broadcasted on the Internet, funded by a main cultural institution in Madrid. The former show gathered squat activists, architects, artists, and other professionals to debate on the topic of collaboration. However, once the pandemic broke loose, the original radio team opened up a messaging group using the Telegram application (quite similar in functionality to, for instance, Whatsapp) and invited some of the people who had taken part in the previous shows to address the unfolding practices the coronavirus crisis has inspired. Adolfo was first invited and he later included Tomás.
In this short piece, we would like to reflect on the methodological inspiration we draw from this peculiar use of a regular off-the-shelf collaborative digital platform for our work as social scientists. In particular, to contribute to the growing debate on how to undertake ethnographic work during the current lockdown, we would like to highlight the affordances of this particular ‘telegrammatic’ correspondence, which has allowed us (and our counterparts in this conversation) to inquire into the uncertainty of these strange times. The measures to contain the pandemic have indeed caused challenges for ‘participant observation’ approaches, prompting many to imagine remote forms of ethnographic work, put together specialized archives of COVID-related digital ethnography, and to imagine other distributed forms of multimodal and networked collaborative work (Collins and Durington, 2017) together with epistemic partners in lockdown. Indeed, as Collins (2020) has aptly put it, ‘just because we are not in situ doesn’t mean that people in the communities where we work aren’t in situ.’
Our argument resonates with these reflections, being interested ourselves in experimental forms of collaborative ethnographic work and their devices over the last decade (Estalella and Criado, 2018). In particular, we wish to explore how this use of a Telegram messaging group (although we guess it could have also happened with similar applications) afforded a telegrammatic mode of communication, which turned into what we wish to call a method of ‘correspondence:’ a mode of inquiry devised when instead of searching for ways to continue undertaking ethnography, we partake in creating careful conditions to respond together (co-respond) to an uncertain situation. Indeed, ‘Cor on collaboration’ – as the group was named – sought to articulate a reflection on the collaborative challenges the pandemic was causing. Invited to join by some acquaintances from our ethnographic projects in the last years, we joined a collective of architects and designers, cultural professionals, health and social care practitioners, writers and social science scholars (among others). From the initial 20 people by mid-March, in two weeks the number of participants rose (through personal invitations to people in our networks whom we thought might contribute to such a conversation) to the actual 84. Although predominantly Spanish-speaking, the geographical scope of the group expanded including colleagues in our networks living in Hong Kong, London, Dakar, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bilbao or Southern France. The group soon became a frantic and lively space where all participants have been sharing personal experiences, commenting media articles, discussing specialized papers and pre-prints or analysing collectively anything relevant to understand the unfolding of the COVID crisis.
But Cor on Collaboration (CoC) is just one of the many self-organised collective initiatives that have started to blossom in the last months in Spain (as well as in many other countries). In the confined distance of lockdown we have witnessed how acquaintances have attempted to get together in different digital initiatives: existing WhatsApp groups started having other functions; then somebody organized a Telegram group to make mutual support easier; others set up a website to archive and gather resources of all types (from music for children to tips for online teaching); whilst yet another one, together with some peers, commenced frantically compiling, analyzing and offering visualisations of current metrics of the pandemic outbreak.
Ever since the indignados uprisings and subsequent mobilisations in the early 2010s – in which we intensely took part as ethnographers and collaborators in a wide variety of endeavours – Telegram developed into a regular digital platform to jointly take notes or write minutes from meetings or assemblies, as well as to stay in touch and engage in heated debates. The messaging app – similar in many functionalities to WhatsApp and Signal – is very popular amongst leftist activists and cultural practitioners in Spain. Together with Twitter and open pads it could be considered part of the regular free/open-source digital activist toolkit. Beyond its open-source code, many stress its stronger end-to-end privacy features (allowing to edit and delete messages), but also its smartphone and desktop functionalities: beyond the use of channels to broadcast information, in its group functions it allows not only to chat but also to record audios or videos, as well as store links pre-visualising some of their contents.
In the first weeks of CoC, for instance, videos were shared showing how to play Bingo in between buildings; regular comparative discussions on data and policy measures have regularly emerged, such as the reasons for a lower mortality rate in Germany; or a collection of reflections on family readjustments to the now crowded interior spaces at the hinges of liveability; one day we also sought to create a sound archive of our cities in lockdown. But another interesting affordance of the application is its function as a digital archive, making very easy to retrieve ‘text’, ‘media’, ‘links’ and ‘audio’ files. This feature was also used by the convening team, who started retrieving audio messages to compile and edit them, together with other audio material compiled for the occasion, as episodes for radio that could reach a wider public beyond the group.
In fact, continuing with the idea of their previous project, the team that initiated the group started producing podcast episodes to be aired on another off-the-shelf digital podcast platform: iVoox. As a result, besides chatting and sharing videos, more than 500 audio messages (between 1 and 7 minutes each) have already circulated, documenting a variety of topics and situations of the lives in lockdown: from the sound of a water drop, recorded by Maria, a renowned artist, to a lecture-like reconstruction of the history of hygienist city planning recounted by Alberto (an anthropologist mate), also including the seasoned practice of Hongkongers dealing with pandemic outbreaks as narrated by Marta. So far, the volume of audio files has been enough to put together nine episodes around topics such as ‘urbanism’, ‘feminism and care practices’, ‘collective intelligences’ (including an episode on mutual aid initiatives, and another one on DIY maker responses to the lack of protective equipment), ‘futurity and ecologies’, or ‘the domestic routines of the quarantine’, with at least three others in the pipeline.
Shocked and perplexed by the present situation, we (as the rest of our companions) have found in ‘Cor on collaboration’ a resource to navigate uncertain times. Not just a place for solidarity, debate and contact, but a place to care for our modes of inquiry, driven by the shared effort to problematize the present situation: A pod(cast), we would suggest, to navigate the uncertain times we’re living. This particular form of correspondence might be described as a trans and a-disciplinary plexus of activities of what we have elsewhere called ‘joint problem-making’: a shared research activity of probing into the uncertain contours of COVID-19 sociality and its urban life. Literally, the telegrammatic correspondence of CoC resonates with other experiments searching to remediate ethnographic work from correspondence – such as Gugganig and Schor’s (2020) uses of postcards. In this use, it allows participants to document, share and discuss the many nuances of lives in this situation of strange inter-connected confinement. Besides the literal reading, we believe these exercises of audio messaging also open up a space for correspondence as a form of inquiry. As beautifully conceptualized by anthropologist Tim Ingold, correspondence is a hopeful method ‘not to describe the world, or to represent it, but to open up our perception to what is going on there so that we, in turn, can respond to it’ (2013: 7). Following Ingold again, corresponding with this form of audio messaging, hence, could be considered to be a way of setting up a relation with the world; one that gropes for the appropriate collaborative response (or co-response) to a period of crisis.
We have been unsettled by this question too: how to respond as ethnographers in a situation of the like? What could ethnography turn into in this situation of confinement? Should we plunge in the hermeneutics of online documentary analysis? Are we to engage in ‘grounded’ (pun intended) self-exploratory meditations: a new form of digital auto-ethnography? In particular, we have been pondering a lot about how we might document the many different situations arising in the Spanish case. Take for instance public hospitals, some of the most hard-hit health infrastructures (particularly intensive care units) that were saturated in the first weeks of the crisis. The situation was debated in ‘Cor on Collaboration’: thorny cases of triage and medical bioethics led to a heated debate, together with other topics, such as: equipment shortage, DIY inventiveness as a response (with different makers engaging in the collaborative production of masks, protective equipment or artificial ventilators), or the spatial reorderings of hospitals – improvised rearrangements, with campaign hospitals being created to make space for more beds. Certainly, many health practitioners using social media have worked to open up windows to what was happening there. But how can anthropologists keep undertaking ethnographic work even when access to hospitals might be out of reach?
For us ‘Cor on Collaboration’ has become more than just a relevant source of inspiration. What if we re-designed our arts of ethnography from what we had recently learned there? Perhaps a collaborative ethnographic platform could be developed to collect audio messages that health professionals enrolled in the project would record and share so that we could engage in a public debate about what has happened? The same could apply to many scenarios under lockdown. In this vein, ‘Cor on collaboration’ evokes the experiences of our previous ethnographic fieldwork periods in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Then as now, the economic collapse was also a moment of epistemic crisis that forced upon us the need to re-learn how to practice ethnography (Estalella and Criado, 2018). At that time, we relearned from DIY urbanism, free culture activism and activist design (and their modes of auto-inscriptive sociality, in locales where fieldnotes seem to write themselves, as Nardi  put it) how to perform ethnography by putting together ecologies of open documentation, expanding if not fully redistributing the who and how of accounting. Now as then, the inspiration on how to cultivate inventive gestures in our inquiries keeps coming from our companions in the field. Perhaps the mundane practice of putting together a form of telegrammatic correspondence might serve other social scientists to re-learn how to devise careful modes that (co-)respond to the unexpected challenges of the day.
This post originally appeared on Solidarity and Care, a public platform supported and produced by The Sociological Review that documents and reports on the lived experiences, caring strategies and solidarity initiatives of diverse people and groups across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tomás S. Criado is a Senior Researcher at the Chair of Urban Anthropology, Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or https://tscriado.org/.
Adolfo Estalella is an Assistant Professor (Profesor Ayudante Doctor) at the Department of Social Anthropology and Social Psychology Department, Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). Contact: email@example.com or http://www.estalella.eu/.