ethnographer’s dilemma

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do next (now that I’ve graduated and published a book–and thanks to Thomas for writing a blurb about it!), and anything I come up with quickly gets bound up in the daunting figuring-out-methods-logistics tied to values I hold as a researcher of people and their material stuff.

One value I hold in looking at how people make meaning of their practice and experience is that I myself have to participate if I’m to *truly* understand. I mean, sure, a thick description of practice can probably be conveyed without having to be a participant in the activity, but I–me–personally–*I’m* interested in actually experiencing it. (And besides, do I really believe anyone *really* knows what it’s like to raid in WoW after reading my book? No, truth be told, not really. But the book does what it does; it’s (hopefully) a convincing write-up of how gaming practice can change over time and why that’s important for the learning sciences. And, as Latour says, what counts as good research is just that it be convincing.)

But tasking myself in participating in whatever activity I’m studying gets mired (ha!) in the question of depth. (And the medium being measured is quicksand; it’s easy to get stuck and sucked in deeper and deeper, no?)

So, for example, I think it’d be fascinating to look at the practice of media pirates. Yes, there’s the whole network of couriers, distributors, etc. who are on The Scene, hanging out in IRC channels, etc. but what I’m most interested in is the actual production of the media that’s distributed. I think it’s very interesting how people learn to participate in their everyday. The intricacies of the material practice seduces and captivates.

Anyway, I read the .nfo file that came along with a telesync of the Star Trek reboot movie from a couple of years ago, and it was amazing how detailed the person who created the telesync wrote up his/her steps to produce a very, very good viewing experience, even though all the sources were from handycams in movie theaters. The telesyncer had to splice together multiple sources, post-process the hue and saturation so they all matched, skew some of the source videos so they all were the same straight-on POV, etc.

It likely took hours and hours to do all this, made more amazing when you realize that he or she had to do it very quickly so that it hit the torrent sites before other versions. And for what? It lived for probably about a month before another release came out that was a rip of the DVD or bluray disc, making this one obsolete. Well, the answer is for cred, of course–for some serious cultural capital, mad props, +1s, and reputation gain.

Where did this individual learn how to do all that video editing? Was the software pirated, too? (Is piracy a launching pad for more piracy? The gritty, real-world, evil twin pathway that the angelic, gaming-as-entry-to-computer-science pathway doesn’t want you to know about…) Was he or she a professional video editor perhaps? Learned it in school? From family? Friends?

So, how do I even begin to research this? How do I gain access to an illicit activity in a subversive subculture? Lots of people have done this, and there’s books on how to do ethnographies… but I gotta wonder: Are they just as limited as my own book was in conveying the actual experience? To do it right, maybe I just gotta do it. Maybe I need to actually engage in the practice to deeply understand it (and possibly to legitimately gain access).

Which brings me to the ethnographer’s dilemma. Do I have time and/or the resources for anything of meaningful depth? Am I just rambling?