What does it really mean to do research in the digital age? We might have what seem like an easy set of answers: doing research means using Google, managing citations using organizational software like Zotero or Easy Bib, collecting and integrating quotations (we might use Endnote or Scrivener for this), accessing archives (some of which are physical, but most of which are not), and then presenting that research using a word processor. But again, what does this really mean, especially when we consider that for most of human history, research looked nothing like what I’ve just described? If a search engine does not exist, nor the Internet, neither do any of the ways we access information as it exists separately from geographic space and necessarily longer durations of time. Before such massive accumulations of digitized texts, a researcher would likely have to travel to a specific archival or fieldwork site to accrue knowledge that could only be gained in that specific way: driving to the airport, stepping on a plane, travelling to that location, and spending a significant amount of time there. But today, all of that time, money, and attention can be saved and spent on engaging with the text itself; fieldwork can be supplemented increasingly efficiently with Zoom, Skype, text and email.
Our podcast guest on April 2, 2021, Dr. Lara Putnam, chatted with me about exactly how these profound and rapid changes in research methods impact our daily lives, and how we think about the world around us. Dr. Puntam is UCIS Research Professor in the Department of History right here at the University of Pittsburgh, and she is also a participant and Co-Leader of our Sawyer Seminar, originated in the fall of 2019! Along with the rest of our Leadership team, Professors Annette Vee and Alison Langmead, she has already appeared on our podcast’s very first introductory episode; if you’re new to the show or want a refresher, that podcast is a phenomenal way to brush up on the topics at the foundation of Info Eco’s ongoing meetings, speakers, and contributions!
Dr. Puntam is a scholar of Latin American and Caribbean history, migration, kinship, gender, and theories and methods of transnational history. On the podcast, we chatted about her 2016 article “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” which sparked important conversations about the impacts of mass digitization and web-based searching on historians’ research methods. And you don’t have to actually be a historian, as we talked about on the podcast, to feel these impacts; if you’ve used a microfilm reader or typewriter, visited a physical archive, or conducted any kind of fieldwork, you know firsthand how vastly different that experience is from querying an online search engine. Dr. Putnam’s focus is on how these differences impact how we think about borders: local, national, and transnational. If researchers do not even have to leave their chair to find information about a place halfway around the world, our relationship to space and place changes radically; if information is at the tip of our hands—able to be googled, rather than achieved over the course of several lengthy drives, flights, stays, or even an entire degree—this information is viewed as a product to obtain, rather than a process to embark on.
Dr. Putnam has written about how this shift to web-based searching can produce a kind of false completeness. We know well by now in the seminar that search engines do not simply spit out an unfiltered list of all results related to your search. Instead, Google uses an algorithm to find results that are “topically relevant” and “quality” as determined by popularity and institutional affiliation (i.e., you’re more likely to get results from Vanity Fair than your friend’s celebrity gossip blog), as recent as possible, and based on that algorithm’s assessment of the user’s “intent.” If the same results keep getting clicked on by the same searchers, the same absences will be written and re-written into our digital histories in the process.
On the podcast, Dr. Putnam shared that her work in Latin American and Caribbean histories is coupled with research and writing on U.S.-based, women-led grassroots political organizations. Just like with history, political research has transitioned from a highly local, interpersonal pursuit to a process of managing and analyzing data. With data points acting as a proxy for human interaction, our broad, national information about what matters to communities of local voters is mostly the result of anonymous poling and surveying rather than face-to-face conversation. Most of us can search online and find broad statistics of what our town, city, or state thinks about politics or current events—but a dwindling few number of us could say we know our real live neighbors well enough to just ask them. In a 2019 survey, only 14% of Americans said they interacted with their neighbors more than once a month, and virtually nobody felt comfortable enough with their neighbors to trust them with a set of spare keys for emergencies.
When the political arena is so large and so digital, actually addressing or even pinpointing the legitimate and hard-fought issues of grassroots groups can be enormously difficult—but as Dr. Putnam reminded us, local women-led political organizations are not exactly new, and they’re likely made up of the neighbors we all have yet to meet. We don’t need expensive data analyses to target and support these groups, we just have to find them and talk to them. Between 2016 and 2020, Putnam wrote about how building local coalitions of neighbors and activists fighting for the same changes, within the same zip codes, could transform how we think about politics—and as we now know, especially in cases like Georgia’s historic Senate runoff race, it absolutely did. So next time you want to find something out, conduct research, or even just connect with an old friend, try challenging yourself to not use the Internet—at least not as a first try. You might be surprised by how long it takes, how many people you meet in the process, or what you learn that you couldn’t have possibly predictively guessed that you would.