Users, programmers, politicians. Ethnography as mediation in online participation projects?
Paper short abstract:
In the development process of two online public participation platforms, the ethnographer acts as a unique intermediary between users, programmers and politicians and thus may facilitate improvements of the (electronic) citizen-state-relationship.
Paper long abstract:
For my doctoral dissertation, I aim at comparing political engagement in the digital age in Iceland and Germany. Research is multi-sited and takes place in four major research sites: two physical, Iceland's capital Reykjavík and the rural district of Friesland in the North of Germany, as well as two virtual sites, the online participation-platforms Betri Reykjavík and Liquid Friesland. How do the latter become part of everyday-life of the citizens of the former? How do these websites influence decision-making processes in their respective regions? How do the possibilities to engage online influence the ways citizens see themselves as well as politicians and vice versa? I tackle these research problems with a pragmatic combination of established methods of ethnography, such as research stays in the physical fields - doing participant observation, interviews and focus groups, as well as methods of virtual ethnography, such as lurking, email-interviews and video-telephony. This paper focuses on my aim to come up with practical guidelines for both programmers and implementers (administration personnel and politicians) of the online-participation-platforms to improve these tools in user-friendliness and effectiveness. Often, offers of digital democracy are developed and run without real communication between the different parties and in-depth examination of the citizens' needs in such a platform, more often than not due to lack of resources and workforce. Here, the ethnographer works as an intermediary between both sides, actively engaging in the further development of the platforms and thus help to improve the (electronic) citizen-state-relationship.
Engaged anthropology: Reality? Necessity? Utopia?