Affordances and Adaptations: Ethnography Labs in Tempore Pandemic

From the Series: Virtual Connections, Digital Contentions: Small Academic Meetings during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Photo by Janita Van Dyk, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Ante Pandemic

In pre-pandemic times, the second-floor hallways and offices of the anthropology building at the University of Toronto were peppered with graduate students and faculty moving in and out of seminar rooms or working in their offices. At the back of the building, there are two separate doors, commonly left open to the noise and general buzz of the department. These doors lead to the Ethnography Lab. The door on the left opens onto the boardroom where the Lab hosts events and working groups around a large seminar table. On the right you might have found the Ethnography Lab coordinator and members hosting office hours in their office space, planning events, or sharing ideas and experiences. This room is outfitted with desk space, computers, a couch, and a small ethnographic methods library. It also houses archives for the Lab’s many community-driven projects in the nearby Kensington Market neighborhood. The Lab was deeply dependent on the flow of traffic—the daily comings and goings of students, faculty, and administrators—to foster community.

Now celebrating its eighth year, the Ethnography Lab is an informal space for University of Toronto community members to explore and play with ethnographic methods. Offering a welcoming and low-stakes but high-quality research environment, the Lab occupies an interstitial place in our academic institution. The Lab provides knowledge, technical resources, and connections to cross-disciplinary ethnographers from the university, the public and private sector, and the community. Thus, it provides an important site for practice and experimentation outside of departmental programs, relations of supervision, and the university itself. The last eight years have shown that the Lab thrives on the independent initiative of students and faculty who see in it a space in which to learn from and with one another, by organizing workshops, reading groups, writing groups, film showings, conference nodes, or inviting speakers on diverse topics within the expansive world of ethnographic methods of research and representation. Faculty, students, and non-university participants find the Lab compelling precisely because it pushes against the hierarchies and divisions of the academy, of professor and student, expert and apprentice, supervisor and supervisee, professional and amateur.

The physical space of the Lab has been central to its operation over the years, particularly in how it enabled spontaneous inspiration. It is through informal hallway exchanges and casual drop-ins that we (coordinators, volunteers, and faculty mentors) at the Lab have created and maintained a community of engaged and committed researchers. Institutional knowledge and a passion for ethnographic experimentation have been passed down from one coordinator to the next via unplanned chats in the office. New events are imagined by way of eavesdropping and being inspired by fleeting exchanges between Lab members and peers leaving their classes.

The vulnerabilities of this model of making community were thrown into relief by the onset of the pandemic when the anthropology building—like the rest of the city of Toronto—was locked down. We asked ourselves whether the Lab could adapt, and if we could translate our mode of engagement during pandemic times? Could we recreate this model virtually and, if not, then what would we change?

In Pandemic Situ

It turns out that members of the Ethnography Lab community had more urgent concerns than our initial questions, particularly around the possibility of conducting ethnographic fieldwork during a pandemic. And so, we responded with a series of virtual meetings that we collectively called “Ethnography in/of the Pandemic.” A first foray into using the Zoom platform, we distributed an initial meeting link to colleagues in our department and abroad, inviting all who were interested to gather and generate topics they wanted to discuss. While our boardroom can accommodate the bodies of up to thirty people, the Zoom room can accommodate many more; indeed, we were surprised and delighted to see people from far beyond Toronto, including a sizable group of graduate students and some faculty from British Columbia. This event and the three sessions that followed addressed the immediate concerns of those engaged in ethnography during the pandemic: ethics, writing, and methodological tools. We quickly recognized our capacity as a Lab to respond rapidly to our communities’ needs and serve as a space for discussion, exploration, problem-solving, and mutual support. In fact, our Lab has always served this function within the department, by addressing gaps in the curriculum, responding to graduate student interests, and providing a space for our community members to try new things with others and to bring their own ethnographic experiments to fruition. The “Ethnography in/of the Pandemic” series concretized for many of us the importance of Lab spaces in the academic system. The successes of the virtual format encouraged us to think more expansively and ask: Just what do ethnography labs and centers afford? What are other labs doing? How might we seize the pandemic moment to build connections and foster new ways of relating among these informal and experimental sites?

New Encounters

The Ethnography in/of the Pandemic initiative was in part a successful experiment in bringing together people across significant geographic distances, and it inspired us to organize a meeting of members from other ethnography labs and centers. The purpose would be to learn from their individual experiences (with an eye to what might be possible ethnography-wise during a pandemic), while also reflecting more broadly on the form of the center/lab itself in the anthropological ecosystem. In this regard, the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) “Raising Our Voices” virtual event series came at just the right time. A gathering like the one we were imagining might not have seemed serious enough to convene for an in-person academic conference. The less formal space of a virtual roundtable, however, felt tailor-made for it.

Luckily, we found interested participants: Mike Fortun and George Marcus from the Center for Ethnography at UC Irvine, Kregg Hetherington from the Ethnography Lab at Concordia University in Montreal, and Alissa Jordan from the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania joined our own Farzaneh Hemmasi and Cassandra Hartblay from the University of Toronto. The virtual event was well attended—possibly better than if it had been at a traditional AAA annual meeting. Not only did the session include inspiring examples of the work carried out at these labs and centers, but the discussion afterward helped us imagine what we might accomplish together as a network. For instance, it became clear from the diverse examples shared during the roundtable that labs and centers are places for experimenting and working in more-than-textual forms (performance, mapping, film/video, and sound), as well as in ways (collaboratively) and toward ends not usually emphasized or encouraged as part of traditional academic career paths (research that is engaged, located “at home,” or imagines multiple non-academic publics). During the discussion, George Marcus observed that one value of such labs and centers is how they legitimize multimodal, collaborative, engaged practice in a discipline that still foregrounds solitary fieldwork, away from home, and whose main output is a text. A network of labs and centers could amplify this legitimizing effect.

Inspired by the Raising Our Voices roundtable experience, we decided to continue with a “Meet the Labs” virtual meeting that was even more ambitious. We brought together members of labs outside of North America: Igancio Farias and Tomas Criado of the Stadtlabor for Multimodal Anthropology at Humboldt University in Berlin, and Maka Suarez and Jorge Nunez from Kaleidos, the Center for Interdisciplinary Ethnography attached to the University of the Americas in Quito, Ecuador. Each lab had an hour to present a few of their projects and to discuss the possibilities and limits of working within a lab or center setting. Both presented forms of public anthropology that were locally grounded and engaged non-academic collaborators and audiences. We were delighted to learn that our virtual audience included a small group of anthropologists planning on starting their own ethnography lab at another Canadian university. The virtual format of our gathering encouraged each lab to share the multimodal media with which and through which they work. Such a meeting would have been impossible—financially and probably logistically—with the usual in-person modalities according to which pre-pandemic lab events took place.

With all that the virtual affords comes a set of important qualifications. We have spent the past year fumbling through some of the limits of the virtual, be they the lack of accessibility for our disabled colleagues, the presumption of availability that the ease of the virtual demands, the unreliability of internet access, and the steep learning curve of new technologies and the socialities they produce. We now have some best practices:

  • Build access into your event from its inception. Accessibility is more than a checklist; it is a relational mode imagined and defined by disabled people, the Disability Justice movement, and many others. At the Lab, working on accessibility looks like drawing on existing disability expertise and those who have been communing virtually well before pandemic times. We learned a great deal from our Coordinator’s experience with the Society for Disability Studies annual meetings and their “accessibility guidelines for presentations,” from RespectAbility, and from Aimi Hamraie’s “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” For us, accessibility practices look like providing access information in our publicity materials, such as whether or not closed-captioning, ASL, and language interpretation will be available. It involves offering visual descriptions of speakers and images, describing slides, and speaking at a slower pace. While we tinkered with to provide auto-captions, and later activated Zoom auto-captions, these are insufficient and only a starting point. We are privileged to have the new Centre for Global Disability Studies at the University of Toronto that provides small grants funding to community members seeking to improve accessibility. We at the Lab have a long way to go in this regard and recognize that accessibility is never complete or achieved, but is ongoing and dynamic.
  • Show up as you are. At our in-person Lab events, we encourage snacking, sitting comfortably, stretching, walking around, etc. During our virtual meetings, we encourage the same kind of dynamics. It is ok to eat on camera, to be reclined in bed, to have disheveled hair. Children, pets, and other guests are welcome. The sound of a garbage truck or siren is inevitable. Interruptions and delays are to be expected. Build these expectations and the material conditions of living in a body among others into your events.
  • Prevent Zoom-bombings. To prevent Zoom-bombings, we protect our event link and password by requiring registration. We rely on an event moderator to admit only registrants and to monitor the chat and security features to reduce harm against our attendees. With a zero-tolerance policy, we are prepared to shut down meetings in the event of targeted harassment.
  • Always include a time zone in your event publicity. Always.
  • Ask attendees’ consent to record. Recording an event for archival purposes requires the consent of registrants in advance. We failed to consider this on more than one occasion, which means that many of our events are not recorded.
  • While we strive for informal and non-hierarchical relations at the Lab, academic and professional hierarchies persist in virtual spaces. Provide attendees with multiple ways to engage, be that by submitting questions in advance, using the chat or Q&A functions, or by turning on their microphone and video and chatting. Be explicit about soliciting questions and comments from (under)graduate students, community members, and so on.
  • Re-distribute the event link ten minutes before the event starts. Always.

Post Pandemic Finita?

As vaccination rates increase and Covid-19 rates fluctuate, we see our universities moving toward in-person modes of engagement. What are we to make with the new skills, newfound digital intimacies, and virtual infrastructures we’ve built individually and collectively? While we look forward to drop-in hours and hallway banter, and particularly a return to forms of in-person ethnographic research, we do not intend to abandon all the virtual has afforded us at the Lab over the past year and a half. Even as virtual events foreclose some of the sociality and experimentation that make lab spaces valuable, they clearly open important avenues for inspiration and collectivity not otherwise possible. For these reasons, a post-pandemic ethnography lab will likely continue to include virtual events in the mix. Our Lab members convened virtually in August 2021 to brainstorm a 2021–22 schedule of events and programming. Pandemic conditions are such that many of us find ourselves away from Toronto. Our membership is more remote than ever before. In this brainstorming session, it became clear that the virtual is not a backup plan in the event of further stay-at-home measures. Instead, the virtual is now a crucial part of how we imagine our work. Our “Meet the Labs” series will continue and our relationship-building with other ethnography labs and centers will continue to depend on the potential of virtual means of connecting and collaboration.

As the disciplinary ground of anthropology shifts beneath our feet (a likely feature of many disciplines), one pandemic lesson may be that as things move forward, they must be done otherwise. While we are only just starting to explore the value and potential of spaces like ours, our pandemic experience has shown us that ethnography labs (or centers, or salons, or collectives, or bureaus) offer an important location from which to experiment with that otherwise.