Asking them, asking us, and losing trust? The quandary of being asked to comment in an online dispute in eastern Germany
Gareth Hamilton (University of Latvia)
Paper short abstract:
Through examples, this poster shows the complex position of a doctoral student interviewing two informants with competing narratives, expressed in an online dispute on the quality of life offered by a ‘shrinking’ east German city, and fear of lost impartiality by possible quotation in those debates.
Paper long abstract:
Employing rhetoric cultural theory (cf Carrithers 2005a,b, 2007, 2009), this poster shows a potential quandary for the ethnographer resulting from face-to-face interviews with two informants involved in an online dispute over qualitative representations of a 'shrinking' (cf Engler 2005, Dietzsch 2009) eastern German city. The request for a quotation from the anthropologist by one informant, a western German journalist/blogger working for Austrian national radio, had the potential to expand the ethnographic interview's boundaries from personal, consociational, empathetic and face-to-face interaction into the relatively impersonal and uncontrolled media of cyberspace in which its potential audience, one public, spread to its counterpublic (Warner 2002) by the email newsletter of the other, local, informant, a shopkeeper and club promoter. This (counter)public's members are located within broader cultural narratives of lingering east/west mistrust, while simultaneously residents of my fieldsite. Given that the ethnographic work of locating and interacting with informants relies on mutual trust, this potential quotation raised the damaging spectre of being seen as partisan 'side-taker', and thus an untrustworthy, conversation partner. The poster demonstrates competing significances of certain contentious 'cultural items' from broader narratives transferred to the online dispute, such as the 'eastern' purchasing of bananas (cf Berdahl 1999), or consumerism and McDonalds coffee. However, by visually placing the interviewer between the competing narratives, it metaphorically highlights that being 'ethnographer in the middle' is also worth the 'risk', given the increased insight and understanding provided through the increased interpersonal intimacy of such experiences.