Tactile digital ethnography: Researching mobile media through the hand

This paper was written by Sarah Pink, Jolynna Sinanan, Larissa Hjorth and Heather Horst; all from RMIT University in Australia. This paper was particularly interesting as it identified the hand as a way to conceptualise and legitimise a research approach. But also to emphasise the presence and the role of the hand in the way that we, as subjects, engage with devices such as smartphones, tablets and any others that feature touch screens. I have identified particular quotes and sections from this paper that I feel are relevant and beneficial to my own research project.


Existing approaches to mobile technologies as material culture (e.g., Horst in press) as ambient, and as productive of forms of copresence and intimacy (e.g. Hjorth & Richardson, 2014) acknowledge the embodied nature of our relationships with these technologies.

However of most relevance to our interests here is the work of the phenomenological anthropologist, Ingold, who building on Merleau-Ponty’s approach, and critiquing the focus on the symbolic and cultural of linguistic research paradigms, has conceptualised the hand as an extension of the brain

…Moores has argued for a phenomenological approach to how people move online. He critiques the notion of “navigating” the Internet, and instead calls for attention to how we feel our ways through online environments

The section of theorizing the hand is almost the most substantial part of the paper, and is certainly where the writers draw on the most external references in order to legitimise this conceptualisation of the hand. They draw on the research of anthropologist, Ingold who proposes that the hand is an extension of the brain, this also compares to cultural theorists that have described mobile media technologies as an extension of identity. If I have find parallel between Ingold’s proposition of the hand and the concept of identity extending beyond the physical body, I could potentially propose that the hand is central in the construction of identity on Instagram, as it is the hand that carries out this process. This section gives me the most support when considering researching this area, I have identified that I need to research Horst, Hjorth, Richardson, Ingold, Merleau-Ponty and Moores in order to build my own take on the concepts that they engage with.


We also concentrated visually on the hands for ethical reasons: since we were researching privacy, we preserved participant’s own privacy by not video recording or photographing their faces.

This quote identifies how the researchers were able to carry out ethical research, as they did take photographs and video recordings of their subjects, which were used in the paper as a figure. The researchers preserved the privacy of the participants by not including their faces, which would mean they become recognisable. In addition to his however the image that was used in the paper does a very good job at preserving this privacy further, as despite the article describing the way the subject maintains intimacy with their family through the use of their tablet, the photograph just shows the tablet from a distance, without any social media open. There is nothing from the content that can be seen that would make the subjects easily identifiable, except perhaps the subjects themselves identifying their own hands, their table and perhaps their own specific layout of apps. There are names mentioned in the paper however, and as the paper includes the participant discussing their family situation and how they interact on social media, potentially these individuals might be found. Although the searcher probably wouldn’t know for sure that these would be the same people.

I also need to make sure that my research preserves the privacy of those who I am observing on Instagram, because they are not having an active role in my research, i.e. I am not interviewing them, rather observing their behaviour, activity and content on Instagram, in relation to my own as a subject. To take images from these accounts and them place them in my own research paper would be unethical, as I would not have obtained permission from the users to use their content in this way. Therefore I have identified that it would only be ethical to put my own visual content from my Instagram profile in my actual research paper, and discuss how this relates to other content from other users I have observed and researched.


In summary this paper has been really beneficial to me, in contributing to the concept of the hand in relation to mobile media and social practice. This paper demonstrates how the hand can be theorized and conceptualised as both the foundation of a cultural phenomenon and the tool supporting a specific research approach. I have identified that I can use the hand as both a research tool for my own research, and use the theory that this paper engages with the conceptualise the role of the Instagram in a cultural context. I still have lots of reading to do, to make sure I fully understand the way that the hand has been mentioned in previous research, and research that relates to other subjects. However this paper has been really beneficial to me, as the references point me towards other texts that are sure to provide me with this wider knowledge.


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