BLOG: Conducting Digital and Ethnographic/Participatory Action Research during COVID by Yovanna Pineda

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As the pandemic rages on, I am happy to publish another contribution on Research Corner that considers how best to maintain an active research agenda. Do you have any further advice? Or would you like to contribute posts about specific physical or digital collections of Latin American materials that we have not featured yet? Do you have any other ideas for Latin American research-centered posts? I’m looking to receive new drafts by December or January. Please email Gretchen Pierce at gkpierce@ship.edu or fill out this Google Form.

Dr. Yovanna Pineda is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida and author of Industrial Development in a Frontier Economy: The Industrialization of Argentina, 1890-1930 (Stanford, 2009). Her upcoming book, Sensational Machines: Technē-Culture in Argentina, examines ritual and mythmaking in the design, maintenance, and repair of harvesters and tractors. It analyzes the 200-year development of peoples’ emotional and sensory meanings of cutting-edge technology during the long 19th-20th centuries. For this post, she draws from experiences working on this project during the pandemic. https://yovannapineda.com/

Conducting Digital and Ethnographic/Participatory Action Research during COVID

My research involves on-site fieldwork as I examine the meanings that local people place on farm machinery, namely the combine harvester [hereafter, harvester] in rural and urban Argentina. Before the pandemic, I was working on-site during the summer months in rural Santa Fe province and in archives of Buenos Aires City (see Figure 1). My work required assessing emotions and feelings and observing ritual and mythmaking in the design, maintenance, and repair of harvesters. Thus, like all researchers around the world, the COVID pandemic placed a major snafu in my active style of doing research. In this post, I briefly discuss resources from the digital archives of Memoria Chilena, the Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno  (Argentina), and share how I used communication apps, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, to continue ethnographic research. Ultimately, the regular contact with townspeople via the apps permitted me to expand into participatory action research, an approach emphasizing participation and action by community members affected by that research.

Figure 1: Santa Fe Province from Rumsey Maps, Open Access

At the start of the pandemic, the national libraries in Chile and Argentina closed. Fortunately, before the pandemic, they had begun digitizing their collections to permit open access. This process of digitizing materials or cataloguing them sped up during the pandemic. As such, I could use the Memoria Chilena website to research the 1875 international exposition of industry and agriculture.1 This site had an efficient search engine and digital files were downloadable in easy-to-read PDF files (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Screenshot of “1875 International Exposition,” Memoria Chilena. [http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/602/w3-article-688.html]

At the Argentine National Library’s website, I searched for documents relevant to the “Development President” Arturo Frondizi (1958-1962) (see Figure 3). Prior to the-pandemic, I would travel and search through paper catalogs to find information in the national library. In its stead it was useful to have a catalog browser to discover new material. Though these documents were not downloadable, the browser permitted me to organize documents that I will want to review in a future research trip when, and if, the pandemic subsides. In this case, a researcher should also obtain a credencial de investigador/a, a process which I strongly suggest completing before arriving in Buenos Aires as the instructions require several steps (Figure 4). It is valid for up to three years.    

Figure 3: Screenshot of search for “Arturo Frondizi” on Argentina’s Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno.

Figure 4: Screenshot of the instructions for obtaining a Credencial de investigador/a, Argentina’s Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno.

Given that my research requires physical observations, I designed a new research plan based on the live interviews that I had recorded from 2016-2019. In the recordings, I heard the emphases in speech indicating different emotions when participants spoke of the harvesters as part of their identity. These findings suggest that machines co-exist with their owners. Figure 5 is a visualization of the interviewees’ memories and its ties to lifework, body, and machines. For instance, machines permitted workers an opportunity to produce, be productive, and enjoy time with family and friends. In an analogous example, an academic works on the same typewriter over a span of a few decades. This academic comes to love the typewriter, recalling the hours spent with the machine. Often, this same academic spends time and money maintaining and repairing it to extend the machine’s life.

Figure 5: Yovanna Pineda, interpretative sketch of the tropes of Life, Body and Machine.

In the redesign of my research plan, I considered these findings when I contacted past interviewees for follow ups. I asked them to tell me what they would like me to research and know about harvesters. Using Whatsapp and Messenger, my participants sent me information on what interested them, namely the rehabilitation of domestic harvester models. Through re-developing the machines, they felt they were contributing to the history of Argentine harvesters.

With their explicit permission, I share photos of their work. They re-create models of domestic harvesters that were manufactured locally during the heyday period of industrialization (1930-1970). Carlos Eduardo Balma, for instance, creates small-scale models for collectors. He uses materials from old machines to recreate these models (see Figure 6). 

Figure 6: Carlos Eduardo Balma, photos of his work on building small-scale machine models, author’s Facebook Messenger.

I contacted mechanic and harvest contractor Gabriel Ardusso. Along with others, he rehabilitates machinery for machine auctions, fairs, expos, and annual festivals (see Figure 7). With group settings in WhatsApp and Messenger, Gabriel introduced me to others working in the field of harvester re-sales, auctions, and rehabilitation. For instance, Gabriel introduced me to the auction organizer Hugo Plez (see Figure 8). He also showed me how harvester aficionados used social media sites like YouTube, Whatsapp, and Messenger to stay in contact with each other during the pandemic (see Figure 9). This was important because during the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities closed national roads to reduce the diffusion of the virus. Contractors like Ardusso who travel for work were in towns far from home, and relatively isolated for months.2

Figure 7: Gabriel Ardusso, photo of a completed rehabilitation of a Senor Harvester at local rural fair, author’s WhatsApp.

Figure 8: Gabriel Ardusso, introduction to Hugo Plez, Harvester and Farm Parts Auctioneer, author’s Facebook Messenger.

Figure 9: Gabriel Ardusso, link to YouTube videos, author’s Facebook Messenger.

Overall, though not replacing in-person research, the use of digital archives, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp was a lifesaver for designing a COVID research plan and involving the community to tell me (the researcher) what they would like me to know about their work.  I invite other researchers to consider how they might modify their own research agendas in light of the pandemic.

 

 

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1 For more on Memoria Chilena’s musical resources, see Eileen Karmy’s April 12, 2020 post.

2 Whatsapp interview with Gabriel Ardusso, 2020. 

 

 

 

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