An Ethnographic Study of Digital Humanists
: Combining Virtual and Traditional Ethnography in the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This is an ethnographic study of digital humanists. As of writing, this remains the only long-term participant ethnographic study of a Digital Humanities centre. It draws upon traditional fieldwork methodologies, as well as virtual ethnographic techniques, in order to construct a complex portrait of the work and relations of a DH centre (the University of Victoria’s Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory). With respect to traditional fieldwork, I became a member of the ETCL from 2017-2019. In this, I was embedded with the Lab’s technical staff, and was able to observe its relationships in this capacity. With respect to virtual ethnography, I have gathered extensive data from Twitter – examining conference networks and other engagements in which the Lab’s members feature – and have used this data to augment the analysis of research and administrative practices in the Lab. While such engagement with social media is now common in other disciplines, it remains particularly meaningful to the DH community, where many conferences will host pre-conference sessions to introduce Twitter to newcomers and others still will appoint “Twitter chairs” to ensure that there is a bridge between virtual discussions and conference panels. In light of this, and as part of creating a comprehensive understanding of a given DH community, it is essential, in the Age of the Internet, to consider where a community locates itself – be that in virtual or material space. As anthropologists Heather Horst and Daniel Miller (2012) observe: "…the digital, as all material culture, is more than a substrate; it is becoming a constitutive part of what makes us human."

In this thesis, I explore not only the ETCL, but the virtual communities that have
arisen on Twitter around the Lab-organised Digital Humanities Summer Institute. I have endeavoured to use both my physical and virtual observations to provide rich context for an exploration of the social, cultural, and academic forces at work at the ETCL. Beyond this, I have worked to relate these findings to other ethnographic work in DH, in order to discuss the forces that are influencing the field by shaping the spaces where its work is carried out. Finally, this thesis pays considerable attention to the long tail of the “hack vs. yack” debate that has been common in the Digital Humanities over the last decade. This debate, and the negotiations that many labs and practitioners have made in light of it, is particularly important to forming an understanding of research labs like the ETCL. It is hoped that this work will further the understanding of a young, dynamic field that has attracted considerable attention in recent years.

Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Hedges (Supervisor) & John Lavagnino (Supervisor)

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