“21 Days of”: A COVID-19 Autoethnography Experiment

Has COVID-19 changed the way we do ethnography (including autoethnography)? Well, yes and no. It still involves looking at the self, the other, and the world. So we still started our massive :: micro :: sensemaking experiment with the perennial ethnographer’s question:

Do you have a dedicated notebook or file/folder for your fieldwork? A special pen?

This question likely means something different during the spring of 2020. Travel was restricted and most of us were in some sort of lockdown, dealing with varying types and degrees of trauma. Still, more than 170 artists, activists and scholars responded to our call for participation in a collective ‘experiment’ that asked them to respond to three core questions:

  1. How is COVID-19 helping us think about the relationships between humans, machines, and the planet?
  2. Through this pandemic, how might we understand the relation between massive and microscopic sensibilities and ways of knowing?
  3. How are we making sense of this moment on both a global and granular scale?

After receiving so many (so many!) expressions of interest, we decided to invite all 170 to address these questions through 21 days of daily prompts. Through Facebook as well as a mailing list, collaborators are now making their own work, generating collective work, and posting/interacting with others to share what’s been generated. (as a sidenote, we appreciate the politics of our choice to use Facebook, but did it anyway. It was the right choice for this project, which is a story for another day and a different post).  The participants come from 27 countries, including India, Thailand, Mexico, Japan, Poland, Colombia, South Africa, and more!

screenshot of one of our prompts on facebook. contains allegorical maps from
Screenshot of one of the 21 daily prompts on Facebook. Image by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

The immediate and overwhelming level of interest is a powerful indicator of how much people really want to connect with others to try and make sense of this strange time of global trauma. The process we put in place is experimental and collaborative: the “21 day challenge” riffs off many other types of yoga, meditation, diet challenges. We send out a prompt daily via social media or email to activate participants in each 24 hour period. The participants use the prompts as provocations to make sense of a range of experiences during COVID-19. The prompts focus on how the pandemic situation can be framed simultaneously or iteratively as ‘macro’ and ‘micro’. Or, as we repeat in the prompts every day like a mantra,

the goal is to build our embodied sensibilities toward the material we study, practice autoethnographic forms of writing and analysis, and transform our personal experiences through this COVID-19 moment into critical understanding of scale, sensemaking, and relationality of humans, nonhumans, and the planet.

screenshot of prompt 10 on the facebook page.
Screenshot of prompt #10. stock images copyright free

Now halfway through the 21 days of prompts, it’s clear that the process is already successful in more ways than we could have imagined. People are using these prompts as springboards to dive to more analytical depths in their thinking about everyday life, work and relationships in a pandemic. Whether they’re generating insights for themselves or in anticipation of writing scholarly articles or creating more fully-developed artworks, they’re engaged, having fun, working intensely, and building amongst themselves a potentially long-lasting global community.

photo of an holding an ice cube in the hand and text of a collaborator responding to prompt #7.
(A response to prompt #7. Photo and text courtesy Wei Li, used with permission)  

The project was initially intended as a Call for Proposals to a special issue of the international journal Qualitative Inquiry. And that ambition still stands in the near future. But with more than 170 submissions, we are expanding the options for collaborators to find an outlet for their work. For example, we’re now arranging with a Los Angeles based SCIArts initiative entitled “The Great Pause” to exhibit some of the artworks that might emerge from our Massive_Micro project. Also, in collaboration with Mark DeGarmo Dance company in New York City, we are working out the details of curating a virtual ‘salon’ based on the works generated.

The 21 Day Autoethnographic Challenge is only one phase of this experiment. It will end on June 7, 2020.

To learn more about the project, contact Anne Harris or Annette Markham, watch for the hashtag #massive_micro on Twitter and Instagram, and get updates on the project page.

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