The lure of ethnography is often the lure of being in the field, of being steeped within an empirical context laden with rich cues and obvious but overlooked activities. As we are all more than fully aware, the COVID-19 pandemic threw up a formidable barrier between us and the people and places we were engaged in studying. But as it turns out, that barrier forced us to rethink our research strategy and, as can be the case with unexpected challenges, revealed new opportunities for knowing.
This blog post recounts how our research team, on the cusp of embarking upon an ethnographic project to study the socio-technical practices of independent creative and knowledge workers, pivoted course only to discover the viability and affordances of the diary study method. While we are still all ethnographers at heart, we now see that this approach has some special properties that can make it a powerful complement to other forms of field-based work.
The original aim of our project, which commenced in late 2019, was to investigate how independent workers —individuals who work outside of formal organizations—use technology to conduct their business and manage their lives. We knew from prior research that these workers often creatively “hack” technology for a variety of reasons. Not only do they lack the structured support of formal organizational infrastructures, cultures, and other resources, their work/lives are often uniquely situated requiring them to devise any number of bespoke solutions to “accomplish” their independence. To focus on these practices, we had devised an original research plan that included periods of observation to take note of what, when, and how our study participants brought work and technology together within and across the various spheres of their lives.
When the pandemic forced us to realize that we could no longer observe workers in their homes and workplaces, we came to a bit of a standstill. But at the same time, we recognized the imperative of continuing our research at this unique moment in time. All of a sudden many workers were forced to work from home (or elsewhere outside of the office) blurring a long-standing distinction between workers who have autonomy over where they work and those typically mandated to labor onsite at a defined office space. At the same time, the radical dislocation of work and workers all around the world was fast being recognized as a powerful stressor. We could not help but wonder, as researchers, how this affective dimension might be impacting the situations of independent workers in particular.
So, in the face of simultaneous constraint and opportunity, we repositioned our research. Specifically, we recruited an array of workers from various occupations, all of whom had been independent for at least six months prior to the onset of the pandemic. Each indicated that they would be willing to respond to a series of daily prompts sent to them by a member of our research team either by text or email. After an introductory onboarding interview and discussion of informed consent, we commenced a quotidian ritual with each of them: in the morning, we would send out a prompt (see the full set of prompts we used in the included image), and within 24 hours a small textual or photographic package of reflections was returned to us replete with thoughts and comments that addressed the day’s question, but often much more besides.
These daily forays into the lives of our study participants appeared to create a small, but potent, channel for them to make sense of their own situations at a time when little around them made sense. Far from being a protracted version of an online survey, or even a textual version of an interview, the diary prompts—perhaps because of their directed, yet open nature at a specific moment in time (September 2020-February 2021)—enabled our participants to articulate and share everyday experiences that we wouldn’t have even known to look for or ask about.
Yet the acquisition of these data, admittedly valuable as they were, proved to be only half of the story. We followed each of these week-long exchanges with an open-ended interview, typically in the week following the exchange of diary prompts. It quickly became obvious that we entered them with a pre-established rapport, something that can be difficult to achieve when collecting data virtually. It was also noticeable that the process of completing the diary study had unwittingly prepared our interviewees to engage in richer and more personal discussions during these follow-on interviews than they might have otherwise. Having had time to think about their experiences in small chunks during the prior week seemed to encourage recall while also allowing participants to share in a way that went well beyond the immediate or reactive (which can be a weakness with the interview method). Moreover, coming to these final interviews after several prior empirical touchpoints with participants allowed us to customize questions in a way that approximated the process of post-observation interviewing. In the end, we found that sandwiching a diary study between interviews elicited some of the most emotionally raw, yet detailed, ethnographic encounters we had ever conducted.
Back in 2020, we entered this redesigned research phase somewhat skeptical of diary studies and now leave enthused. A diary study, we discovered, can be a type of scaffold, directing attention without demanding it; creating space for reflection, but with helpful delimitations; facilitating recall of everyday moments that might otherwise go unremarked.
One goal of ethnography is to approximate living with and living like those studied. Of course, we didn’t—and couldn’t—achieve this goal by going out into the field. However, in facing this constraint, we happily discovered a new way to augment our research. Amidst all the other chaos that it has wrought, the pandemic created an opportunity for us to discover that diary studies, especially when combined with interviews, can be a valuable and sensitive way to access and honor the mundane, in situ moments of participants’ work/lives.
Further reading in diary methods:
Amabile, Teresa M., Sigal G. Barsade, Jennifer S. Mueller, and Barry M. Staw. "Affect and creativity at work." Administrative science quarterly 50, no. 3 (2005): 367-403.
Butler, J., & Jaffe, S. (2021). Challenges and Gratitude: A Diary Study of Software Engineers Working From Home During Covid-19 Pandemic. 2021 IEEE/ACM 43rd International Conference on Software Engineering: Software Engineering in Practice (ICSE-SEIP), 362–363.
Carter, S., & Mankoff, J. (2005). When Participants Do the Capturing: The Role of Media in Diary Studies. CHI ’05: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2, 899–908.
Czerwinski, Mary, Eric Horvitz, and Susan Wilhite. "A diary study of task switching and interruptions." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp. 175-182. 2004.
Jokela, T., Ojala, J., & Olsson, T. (2015). A Diary Study on Combining Multiple Information Devices in Everyday Activities and Tasks. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 3903–3912.