Leiden Anthropology Blog

RE: Email in the Field

RE: Email in the Field

How can anthropologists engage with email in organisational ethnography? This blog explores email as a ritualised practice that draws attention to both its performativity and boundary-making work.

My Outlook mailbox features seven different email accounts and calendars. Two belong to my university addresses in Leiden and Utrecht. I acquired the five others whilst doing multi-sited fieldwork at three front-runner companies that design and implement city currencies–or ‘alternative’ money–in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Here I came to understand email as not only a method of research, but as a phenomenon in and of itself, as well as a central part of my field site.

The Ritual of Email

During my fieldwork, and indeed sometime after, I would engage in the same ritual, regardless of my physical surroundings: be it the light airy Amsterdam offices of currency consultancy Qoin, the warm dustiness in the canal-side manor of the Social Trade Organisation, or the cosy shambolic headquarters of UK’s largest city currency, the Bristol Pound. I always carried a laptop–my mobile office–which contains all of the field sites, all at once. Every morning I would take a sip of coffee and hoover the cursor towards the blue ‘O’ revealing a closed envelope. Clicking on this icon was invariably preceded by curiosity, mixed with just a pinch of dread. My laptop doesn’t just represent the fields via notes, photos and interview transcriptions; opening Microsoft Outlook means actually entering these sites simultaneously. As my eyes flick from one subject line to another, the digital post continues to flood in: 472 emails today. Welcome to the office.

I spent 24 months working with and alongside currency professionals. During that time, I came to think of email not only as a vital part of the interconnected office ecologies that were my field site, but also as one of the key symbols and ritualised practices of neoliberal capitalism. Ritual, as Stanley Tambiah wrote in his 1985 work Culture, thought, and social action, is “a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication”, which is “constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts (...)”. Conceptualising email as a ritual allowed me to appreciate, firstly, email as a phenomenon; and secondly, how its boundary-making work affected my inclusion in the field.

Performing work, performing relations

First, emailing is a highly performative phenomenon. Saying something is also doing something. In my work specifically, the practice continuously invokes the symbols and structures of corporate life. As a gateway to the world, email is a way to reach out, be contacted, obtain funding, form partnerships -and maintain them through distance and time. It is also a primary means of internal organisation for businesses. Emails are used to share documents and work, distribute responsibilities, and report on-going tasks. As such, they navigate hierarchies, organizational charts, task distribution, as well as metrics of success such as profit margins and key performance indicators (KPI’s). The content and conventions of email operate, in other words, within a particular cosmology of productivity and efficiency that is central to capitalism.

Simultaneously, social relations and emotional management are performed on a daily basis via email. As a medium for both private banter and public notices, office relations are expressed and maintained via digital communication as much as they are during meetings or in front of the water cooler. The medium is, in many ways, a stage for social drama. The tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, or silences are not simply removed from written communication: they are transformed into polite phrases, emoticons, and interpunction. During my fieldwork in the UK, an employee once used email to apologise for using a swearword during the team meeting–even though the whole team was still present in the small office. Using email somehow made the apology more official, it was now ‘black on white’, yet also less theatrical than demanding everyone’s attention to listen to a live statement of regret.

Insignia of inclusion

Second, beyond focusing on content, email can act as a signifier of group identity in businesses. Insider and outsider groups are established via the simple procedure of allocating an organisational alias. Who belongs to the organisation, and who doesn’t, is immediately apparent from the alias used in the correspondence. As, for example, coco.kanters[at]bristolpound.org, in a way I became the Bristol Pound. I turned into a legitimate spokesperson and could liaise with other organisations in its name. The account names themselves signal, as it were, the ‘human boundaries’ of the business. Indeed, my initiation at each organisation involved being allocated my own email account. All three times this felt like a triumph. Having my name directly linked to that of the organisation through an email alias meant I transitioned from outsider to insider. I was included in the team mailing lists and could partake in the digital back-and-forth of information to report and tasks to do. As such, I could also use organisational email as a research tool to ask questions or initiate an instantaneous online dialogue.

When, sometime after I finished fieldwork, the IT-departments would close my email account, I experienced this as leaving the field even more than when I stopped going to the physical office. The organisational alias is a way of communication as much as it is an insignia of inclusion.

Email as a field site, phenomenon and method

Thinking of email as a ritualised practice highlights how, in this digital era, field sites, the phenomena we study, and methodology might be entwined in anthropological research. For (organisational) anthropologists, email practices can mean a lot in terms of defining what ‘the field’ is, as well as negotiating access to it. In addition, its symbols, behavioural rules, and content can reveal much about the worldview of our interlocutors and the structures they navigate. Approaching email as a ritualised practice takes it seriously, for example, as a core technology of neoliberal capitalism. Finally, the central role of email in managing relations and signalling inclusion allows for exploring it further as a method in organisational research. This, to be sure, also calls attention to the very real ethical issues of using it as a research tool and resource. For example, maintaining confidentiality, privacy and ensuring informed consent throughout the intimacy of back-and-forth emails requires different sensibilities and tactics than in offline environments. To conclude, email can be all three things simultaneously: a site, a phenomenon, and a method. As such, email deserves critical anthropological reflection.