Hi, everyone. Welcome to this conversation about ethnography that we're lucky enough to have with Rianna Walcott. Rianna is one of the PhD students in our department, and has been doing really interesting work, studying black communities online in Britain. Rianna, welcome and thank you for being with us today.
But yeah, just to get a start Rianna, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your research.
Rianna Walcott 0:48
So I'm currently nearing the end of my PhD in ddH. And my research looks at Black British digital communities, in particular, social media platforms. I examine social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and I look at how black communities form in those spaces, what identity looks like in those spaces.
Rianna Walcott 1:18
I'm thinking about platform migration, particularly an observed move, from Facebook to Twitter for a lot of black British topics of conversation. And I'm now focusing a lot on discourse analysis and thinking about language change, and how black British English if you will, is cultivated on social media, what kind of connections that has to Black British understandings of identity. That's it in a nutshell.
It's fascinating and we've spoken about your research before and it's it's absolutely brilliant. But given that so much of your work, is online, I feel like we see a lot of research where we say, Oh, we're studying social media. We just need to look at social media postings. It's enough to do that kind of text analysis, content analysis. But could you say a bit about why ethnography is important? For your work for the kinds of things that you're studying?
Rianna Walcott 2:27
So discourse analysis is a crucial part of what I do, and I thought that it would be, when I originally conceived of this project, I thought it would be more central to the work I do. But actually, it'ss become almost a retrospective part of my sampling. So I found that for me to get to the discourse that I wanted to be analyzing to get to the bits that I considered worthy of note, I wanted to make sure that it was centered around what my community, the community I'm studying, considers worthy ofnote. So by starting with ethnography, starting with interviews, thinking about the people in those spaces, thinking about the connections that are being made by people, thinking about not just my perspective as a researcher, as a researcher who uses these spaces or the other, you might be a researcher who's outside of these spaces. I think that would give me a pretty limited look. It wouldn't have given me sort of full richness of the picture. I also consider my work to be collaborative, that's a large part of my ethical considerations. And I want to make sure that the people, the community under study that I consider my own community, is an active collaborator in the work I'm doing, because I think it will make my work more accurate, more rich, and more ethical. So starting from ethnography is very important. And in getting to the discourse analysis afterwards, it means that I've had this lovely corpus of interviews. It's lovely, hours and hours, of interview data, and I can see where certain topics are more important to my interviewees, I can see where certain topics overlap, I can see certain terms that come up more often. People are even referring to specific events and moments that happened in the online spaces I'm looking at. So you know, I'll have interview participants saying, oh, yeah, do you remember in 2016, when we were in this Facebook group together, and this conversation happened? That's been a really wonderful way of guiding what I look at, because otherwise, you know, analysing discourse, you know, there are of course, multiple ways of coming up with what discourse is important. I'm not saying it's the only way, but I think that this is a particularly useful way for me to ensure that what my community considers important is being centered in my research.
Oh that's great, and you've talked a lot about using interviews and discourse analysis in your research. But could you talk more broadly about how you apply ethnographic methods in your research? What methods do you employ? Have you had to adapt them to the kinds of problems that you study?
Rianna Walcott 5:27
So I guess I just have a broad overview of how I've done it. So I started out looking at Facebook spaces, and looking at closed groups, because a large part of my research is looking at how conversations in groups that are considered closed, or where the community doesn't consider itself as under observation. Compared to discourse, where the conversation is on an open platform, you know, so you'd have a closed group on Facebook where the only people who have seen the discourse are people who are members of that group, and there's an understanding that everyone in that group will be Black, versus Twitter, where's there's much less control over who sees the discourse. So I started out by looking at these Facebook groups and beginning with the content moderators and admins of these different groups. And then I used snowball sampling from there, I asked them a series of questions about their practice online about like, what drew them to these groups in the first place, why they consider that they don't use these groups so much, a bit about their membership, etc. And then ask them to identify their top five most influential black British Twitter users and then anyone that overlaps on those lists of the top five highlighted by my interview participants, were then the people I went on to interview.
Rianna Walcott 7:09
often there was so much overlap, so even when I got to Twitter they were talking retrospectively about Facebook. The interview method that I use is semi structured interviews, so I have a set of questions that I loosely follow, but a large part of my interview process is about where these questions take us. It's about what do my participants consider most important to address, its giving them the opportunity to lead the interview as well as me, and I think that that's been particularly critical to my practice, just because things come up that I as a single user, and participant in these spaces might not have made the connection to. We are all active users and observers of these spaces. So it's understanding that, that their decisions about what I should focus on are just as important as my own. So yes, the semi structured interviews have been quite organic. It's been really interesting to see some of the stuff that overlaps even when we aren't following a rigid set of questions. I find quite naturally that a couple of my participants are talking about similar things, similar events, and I'm also enjoying seeing what other social media platforms they bring into the conversation.
Rianna Walcott 8:53
You know, so I have made, in the beginning of my research, the decision to connect Facebook and Twitter, my participants have brought in Instagram, they've brought in Tik Tok, they've brought in talking about Clubhouse - stuff that I would not personally have done, platforms that I don't personally use as much, I'm now getting this perspective, and how that contributes to their overall understanding of Black British identity.
I think it's super helpful to have your entire research process laid out so clearly, because I think all of us have different projects and the strategies we adopt are so shaped, I think, as you're describing to us, by the problems that we're investigating. It struck me you're talking about how you study closed groups, and you've talked about studying your own community a few times. In the conversation so far. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about, on the one hand the kinds of ethical issues that you encountered in your work, you mentioned that a little bit, say more on that. But also, I think especially, and I know this is very important to you, especially in relation to what it means to be studying your own community.
Rianna Walcott 10:26
So I spent a long time thinking about my ethical proposal, and I think that during that at an institution like King's was particularly interesting because we have our own set of ethical guidelines and commitments that we have to adhere to, you know, to get ethical approval, and from the start of my PhD to the last time I looked at my ethics, the process even changed a bit, because of GDPR regulations coming into force and stuff. So it's something I've had to spend a fair bit of time thinking about, and I have been thinking about this and this really ties back to the fact that I am researching my own community and I consider my duty of care to my community, my friends, and the people that I'm taking to, to be stronger, perhaps, than the understanding of institutional, bureaucratic, ethics are. So you know, that to me is the bare minimum that you need to be doing when you're thinking about ethical considerations. So one of the things that I'm doing is thinking about the fact that I'm looking at a closed groups versus the more visible spaces, that brings into question two different things. In a closed group we could reasonably say, These people did not expect to be observed did not expect to be studied. I was a member of these groups, a participant very vocally and very visibly long before I decided to do a PhD. So I was known in these spaces. That has been of great benefit to my work. The fact that I have a public profile, outwardly facing work and research, understandings of myself as a scholar-activist - I'm known in my community. I can be trusted not to bring harm to these spaces, not to bring unwanted visibility.
Rianna Walcott 12:46
The context collapse that I'm exposing them to, by taking the content that was in these spaces and bringing them to a very violent academic space is something I have had to navigate very carefully. And I've made very clear to those people that I am conscious of that, I am thinking of that. I give them options as to what way they want to be identified. So that goes from 'Do you want to have a completely random pseudonym, to have your profile picture blotted out', up to 'do you want to be cited by your full name' and everything in between. Because I understand citation and this ethics of care to be something that is down to the individual. I think there's a tendency to assume that total anonymity is the way forward, particularly as kings ethics approval goes, and I think that actually there's a lot to allow for people in the community who might want to be recognized for their thoughts and ideas, might want to be actively cited.
Rianna Walcott 13:59
There is like a whole movement called 'cite Black women' so here when we're looking at a marginalized community, where our efforts, our labours, our intellectual work, is globally under appreciated. So I like to make sure that I'm giving those options. I declared myself as a researcher in the group, I uploaded my proposal to the group, asked for feedback, before I did that I asked admins and moderators for permission to do so. You know, always giving people an opportunity to opt out, and just really making sure you're doing what you can to reduce harm. Then with Twitter you've got a slightly different question. I think a lot of people assume that because Twitter is a hyper-visible space, that you don't have to worry too much about ethics, that you can just store it and use it in any which way because they've tweeted it out, and I know certainly plenty of journalists think of it in that way. But I make sure that I get permission for every Tweet I use. In the same way as Facebook, my profile is very central to my research, I ensure that I'm using my own personal Twitter, they know who I am, I reach out to that using that medium as well. I DM my participants, with the tweet I want to use, I'd say 'Hey, are you okay, if I use this Tweet? Here's where it's going, here's how I intend to talk about it', I get a yes or no, then I literally show them what I've written about it. So I DM them the paragraph of how I analyze this Tweet. And I've actually not had anyone say no yet. So nine times out of 10 they'll be like 'Go on sure!' And then we do a little bit of ritual, 'you're the best', 'no you're the best! Come on Black woman!' Back and forth, and it's all very moving. Very touching. So I think my ethical practice is part of my methods! Like I think if we're going to centre people in our research, if we're going to have community centred in the research it has to include their words. You know, I have to check that that's what they meant! That I also haven't, you know, extrapolated something out of nowhere, that actually, when you did this thing was it meant how I interpreted this? I wouldn't do that with quantitative data. Because when it comes down to a million data points you're not gonna ask every single user.
And I find that that degree of care that you're taking really interesting, I think, both as an approach but also thinking about it in relation to your own position within this community. As you said, you are a figure within this community. That you're maintaining your relationships, in part through that ethics of care as much as anything else. The thing that occurred to me that I really wanted to ask you a little bit more about was, given that this is your own community, you are studying black British communities being black British yourself. And as you said, you find yourself often surprised by what has come up because you may not have anticipated - how have you had to think about your own identity and your own assumptions about your community, in the process of doing this research, because that's often the dilemma, especially with ethnographic work, that we have assumptions we bring to our research, and we need to be open to having those assumptions challenged. So could you talk a little bit about that process and how it's worked for you.
Rianna Walcott 18:35
So I was erroneously calling this work autoethnography for some time. And I think that the reason why I was so drawn to that term, was because of centring of my own use of the spaces. The fact that the reason why I got to these spaces was because of a personal need, a personal search for community. That's probably the way that I got to doing this PhD in the first place. I was looking at these spaces because I know about them because I needed them at one point. Right. And then that need is what made the project important. And I think that also has helped me understand that my needs were not the same as everyone else's needs. So it made it almost easier to accept that I needed to have conversations with other people. I'm talking to people who are older than me sometimes, who are younger than me sometimes. When I first started using these spaces, for instance, I didn't yet identify as queer. But there are plenty of queer Black people who need these spaces for urgent safety reasons. I needed these spaces because I was in a predominantly white institution, and I needed access to communities of colour to remain sane! I think understanding that when I speak to people, sometimes they've given me their personal histories of digital use. They're walking me through a timeline that might start pre-Tumblr, they're talking to me about offline and online connections that they have. I know that I can't have all of these perspectives because I don't embody all of these different identity points. So, when I'm talking to, you know, people whose experiences are not the same as my own, there's not just one matter that connects us to a unitary, black Britishness.
That's super helpful and thank you for kind of relating that story so honestly, because something that I believe very strongly is ethnography should change who we are, as much as tell us something about the world, because the process of research should challenge our own assumptions about the world and that sounds like it has been, in many ways, your connections to your community have become richer through the process of research.
Rianna Walcott 22:42
My methods did change as a result of the pandemic, and an initial part of what I wanted to do, was I wanted to have these interviews one to one in person, and then a focus group, where I brought together all of these interviewees, who may have known each other only online or may have had offline relationships, and see what happened when you just put us in a room together and talk. Being able to look at our offline behaviors. For a future project, I guess, it wasn't to be, because of the impact of Covid-19. So I had those interviews online, one to one, and all the richness of communication still comes through. So there's the richnesss of being able to say 'this is my community and recognize each other as part of it' has come through in my interviews. It's come through at certain points where our experiences overlap, and where you know, we talk differently, slip into slang, gesture at each other, talk about family, community, it's nice to be included in that conversation. And it has made my analysis richer, I think, because people tell you things that may they wouldn't say to a researcher outside of that community so they wouldn't trust.
Part of doing this work as well is also seeing the unflattering, and seeing things that are not particularly nice about the ways that we behave online. And I know we wouldn't necessarily want to share that with someone that's outside of the family. You know, I'm talking to plenty of people who have lots of different genders, sexual identities, geographical backgrounds, cultural differences across this. I've mentioned, we're just all Black, but that has been an entry point into something much broader I think.
Rianna Walcott 25:12
So one of my research participants is Zimbabwean black British, and I knew nothing about the stuff they were telling me before they told me. But so much of it resonated, that means I'll be able to write about it compassionately, and ethically, correctly. But also, like, it's so wonderful to see that side, especially when you're thinking about language, seeing the impact of being bilingual in these spaces, and it's something that I wouldn't have access to otherwise, and I only have access to because it's my friend.
One final question, Rianna before we let you go on, thank you again for all the time you've given us. If you had to give one piece of advice to our students as novice ethnographers what would you want them to know that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Rianna Walcott 26:46
I spent ages, for some weird reason, fretting about how to approach people. And now I'm at the end of it, I'm like, 'why'd you waste all that time?' People love to talk about their own experiences of their own lives. Especially if you have the privilege of looking at your own community. Of course they're going to talk to you! They're so happy and proud that someone is writing a PhD about things that we consider central to our lives. If you're a nice person they're probably going to talk to you. I think I took too long to realize I didn't need to be scared of just emailing someone! Worst they can do is say no, and they won't say no. Because you're adorable! So I guess that's the first thing.
Rianna Walcott 27:36
The other thing I would say is speaking to other researchers and other people in your community is just as important. People will point you towards the right readings. The best thing to do is to sort of work and build from the community up.
Yeah, and I think those are very wise words for us to close with. Just to be brave and to go on out there and talk to people because people typically want to talk to you. And draw your knowledge from the community that you're studying. You don't have to go very far off to find things that you will need to know. Thanks again, Rianna, this was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed myself and I'm sure our students will as well.