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  Introduction

From 1997-1999 we were funded by the ESRC to to explore the implications of hypermedia and hypertext for the production, presentation and dissemination of ethnographic social science research. The research was based on a completed ethnography (Dr. Bella Dicks's Ph.D. thesis research[1]) of the Rhondda Heritage Park, and focused on a section of that work in order to expand it. Using a mixture of old and new materials we experimented with the creation of an Ethnographic Hypermedia Environment (EHE) in order to explore how appropriate such an environment is for representing ethnographic research.

Bella's original ethnography of the Rhondda Heritage Park consisted of an exploration of how the heritage park was set up, how its narratives of history were constructed and how visitors and local people interact with these. In this project we focused on mostly on the interactions of the visitors and Guides with the heritage park and with each other. We interviewed the guides using a high quality digital camcorder and supplemented this material with recordings of of visitor interaction as well as filming three "day in the life" style videos of the guides. We then used these materials, plus more traditional written texts (such as interview transcripts, background documents, academic analysis, etc.) and images (such as photographs, diagrams, etc.), to assemble a hypermedia environment in which these items could be explored.

Theoretical Foundation

This project addressed several issues. On one level it interrogated debates around the crisis of representation in ethnography through the utilization of a digital medium that moved beyond the limits of a written ethnography. In particular we were able to explore the ways a hypermedia environment enabled a more integrated representation of the voices of the ethnographer(s), participants and readers as well as the difficulties this caused.

On another level this project emerged from research into the problems inherent in the "code and retrieve" model of CAQDAS, Computer-Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software, that has dominated approaches to the uses for computers in social science research[2]. Rather than using the computer as a simple number crunching device, this project investigated the creative potential of the computer as a medium for the presentation and conduct of qualitative research.

Naturally these two aspects informed each other. What happens to ethnographies when they break the bounds of linearity? How does one author such ethnographies and, indeed, what happens to the author? What are the advantages of such a medium and what are its pitfalls? How easy is it to conduct research that takes full advantage of the medium? Ultimately this project confronted issues at the forefront of the debate about ethnography as well as practical concerns about how actually to use this new technology to good effect.

Methodology and Tools

The research mixed participant interviews recorded using a digital video camcorder with data in other media. A scanner with OCR (optical character recognition) software was used to input various forms (e.g. blueprints, flyers, newspapers, posters) of non-digital information into a computer. From this mixture of audio, video, transcriptions, and scanned documents we endeavoured to create an ethnography that could be experienced on CD-ROM.

The tools needed to do this were generally available at "consumer" or educational prices so that we could create a suite of equipment and software that would be available "off the shelf." For the record, we used the following equipment.

  • Computer 1: Pentium II 266MMX with 64MB RAM, 4GB hard drive, 64 bit sound card, Yamaha CD-RW (rewriter). Used for the development of the hypermedia environment and burning CDs.
  • Computer 2: Pentium II 300 MMX with 128MB Ram, 7GB a/v hard drive and DPS Spark digital video capture card. Used primarily for video capture and editing.
  • Scanner: HP 6100C with Omni Pro 9 for OCR and Corel Photo Paint for image editing.
  • Camcorder: Sony digital camcorder
  • Software: StorySpace for hypertext authoring, Adobe Premiere for video editing, Macromedia Authorware 4 for hypermedia authoring.

Outcomes and Goals

We had two major goals. On one hand we were interested in reflecting on what it required to actually attempt this type of research. On the other we created a prototype CD-ROM that held the Ethnographic Hypermedia Environment. Through so doing we were able to contribute to the theoretical debates about the role of computers in social science research as well as the current crisis in ethnography. In the process we hope that we were able to demonstrate some of the more creative and less mechanistic applications of computer technology for the conduct and dissemination of qualitative research. Because the original material contains much that is highly confidential we are limited in the amount that we can demonstrate but we will mount some excerpts from the CD-ROM on this website over the next few months. For similar reasons we must decline any requests to make complete copies of the CD for others.

As is always the case, there were both successes and failures. We are in the process of submitting a manuscript to SAGE detailing our findings and plan to make a lot of supplementary material available here.

Destinations

  • Publications: relating to both this project and our new one
  • Examples: of portions of the EHE under construction
  • Biographies: of the 97-99 research team
  • Links: web-based resources for hypermedia ethnography

Endnotes

1. Dicks, B. 1997, The View of our Town From the Hills: An Enquiry into The Representation of Community at the Rhondda Heritage Park, Ph.D. thesis. Cardiff University of Wales.

2. See the article in SOCRES Online by Coffey, Holbrook and Atkinson which addresses this issue.