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HomeNuméros9.2Mending Gaps with Multimodal Care

Mending Gaps with Multimodal Care

Commentary to the the EASA meeting “Illuminating Futures of the Life Course through Visual and Digital Media” and the Paper by Walton and Haapio-Kirk
Daniel Miller

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2This is a slightly unusual commentary since it was written in response to three oral presentations at the EASA 2020 meetings of “Illuminating Futures of the Life Course through Visual and Digital Media” should be of which only one appears in written form within this volume. I felt, however, that the points I wanted to make here are better explicated by reference to all three papers which as will become apparent have many complementary features in relation to each other. I hope that the way the material has been incorporated within this commentary has allowed readers to at least gain the gist of what those additional oral presentations were trying to achieve. For the same reason the commentary itself has the tone of an oral presentation.

3First to say many thanks for inviting me to discuss these three excellent papers. I am going to start with my own Road to Damascus moment. I have been fortunate over the last ten years to have been responsible for two large scale projects: the Why We Post study of social media, and more recently the ASSA project on ageing and smartphones. Both of these involved multiple ethnographies situated in many regions, from Chile to China. Since these were well funded, I was able to visit all these ethnographic fieldsites and spend some time with the respective ethnographers. These visits proved invaluable. They gave me a sense of the geography of the place, the streets and relevant local institutions, but also the nature of sociality. I could directly observe the way the ethnographers had constructed themselves locally in order to make the people of that place comfortable and interested in our project, as well gain a deeper sense of people’s everyday lives as the context for these studies.

4This is, however, from the perspective of anthropology, a really disastrous admission. Because the readers of the books written subsequently by all these ethnographers will not have had the same opportunity to visit these fieldsite or gain any of this immediacy. Furthermore, these were excellent ethnographers who consistently used their writing to convey the experience of their research participants as fully as could ever be expected of them. From the perspective of anthropology, it should be the case that the ethnographic writing would manage in itself to provide a full and sufficient account of the lives of these research participants. It is a real problem that I am now admitting how much I still gained from these actual visits and how important the visits were in helping me to appreciate the ethnographic writing. Because everything that I gained from these visits, has then to be seen as a tragic loss for all other readers of these subsequent monographs who could not also visit these fieldsites. It would have been far better for anthropology if my visits had been superfluous.

5The only good result of this rather crushing revelation was that it meant we had to face up to the problem that had been revealed. We immediately set about compensating for the reader’s inability to visit the fieldsites by thinking what else, other than writing, we might provide, that might incorporate something of what was gained by direct visiting. In the case of our projects, for the Why We Post series each ethnographer was charged with making, where possible, a series of around ten films. One would be a general introduction to the fieldsite and another a general introduction to their methodology. The remainder would be about any other topic of interest. These were then made available through YouTube (​c/​whywepost). We found, however, that the viewing figures for these videos were substantially less than the book downloads, which had reached over one million. This led to a further development. For the second ASSA series we have found ways to include these short films within the texts themselves, as you can find, for example, in The Global Smartphone (Miller et. al 2021).

6This account of the travails of our projects and gaps thereby exposed, leads very clearly to an appreciation of these three presentations. In particular, it seems perfect to be starting with Jay Sokolovsky, because his presentation is the icing on a very welcome cake. We may have added films to our project but - at least speaking for myself - I had not really thought through the problems and issues posed by these lacunae between visiting and reading. By contrast, Sokolovsky has been the pioneer and remains the leading exponent of the use of multimedia and the very explicit discussion of the role of multimedia in the mix of ethnographic reportage. This is perhaps clearest in the new edition of his book The Cultural Context of Ageing (Sokolovksy 2020) which is exceptional adventurous in this regard and at the vanguard of disciplinary consideration of these possibilities. Something for which we are all extremely grateful.

7This then is the background for the presentation being discussed here. Once again, he showed us in detail, equally through discussion and exemplification, just how much we gain from this commitment to multimedia. Sokolovsky presented what might seem initially a rather unlikely juxtaposition of an internet meme O.K. Boomer with a Mexican Indigenous Community. The later was, however, the region where Sokolovsky first tested out and explored many of the facets of multimedia based research (e.g. Sokolovksy 2016). Part of his presentation concerns the gradual evolution of his ability to collect multimodal materials from his fieldsite. A core component of this was aural as well as the visual. In retrospect it seemed hard to imagine how such a fluent exposition around his topic could have been conveyed without any actual music? Even more so when that music is situated in such a vibrant context as fiesta, the subject of the first video within his presentation. I also felt it was important to note that much of the problem with his own progression as the disseminator of his ethnographic insights came from the conservatism of publishers, who could not at first acknowledge the need for including such materials.

8Subsequently Sokolovksy was able to broaden his conception of the multimodal largely by virtue of his continued experience in creative anthropological dissemination. A genuine multimodal approach has to deal with many potential additional media. How does film interplay with music as opposed to the presentation of artifacts or creating a mural? What is the role of editing and curating that is involved in reducing these to a form that can be included within subsequent publications? It is the crafted juxtapositions that make the multimodal effective as a contribution. The development of multimedia sensibility has something in common with what elsewhere Madianou and myself (2012) have called polymedia. The point of this concept, derived from structural anthropology, is that whenever you add a new media to the mix, such as websites, it then changes the meaning and use of the previously established media.

9At this point Sokolovsky’s presentation produced one more rabbit from his apparently inexhaustible hat. The mere longevity of his interaction with this population has brought a consciousness of issues around intergenerational relations and the study of change. Whether in respect to agriculture or ritual or mundane aspects of life such as greeting behaviour. But this very longevity brings with it its own solutions. His early commitment to the visual allowed him to present us with that early material juxtaposed with more recent visual evidence. As a result, he was able to better convey the contrasts between practices observable from the 1970s with practices forty years later. All of which culminated in that discussion of a meme about boomers that is itself a visual mode by which these intergenerational tensions become expressed within the community. A final but also a significant outcome of all this was evident in the last sections of his presentation, where he showed how a further advantage of this conscious concern with the multimedia was an enrichment of his own engagement with his research participants, as he considered the consequences of his publications for the community from whom he has learnt so much and who are increasingly themselves involved in the production and co-production of such materials. At this point the paper becomes itself an expression of care.

10The final point of Sokolovsky’s paper became the starting point for considering Prendergast’s presentation, which shifted the focus from multimedia to the multi-stakeholders that may be involved in the production of these visual and other materials. Those stakeholders can include research participants, funding bodies, film makers, designers and others. Especially now when some version of demonstrating `impact’ has become an explicit part of the academic agenda. Prendergast presented three examples where ethnographers worked within multidisciplinary teams of clinicians, designers and engineers on the co-design and iterative development of digital platforms and visual content with and for community dwelling older adults.

11Prendergast noted that designers are generally more used to working within such teams and theorising the possibilities that come from a more collective practice. While anthropologists will in turn come with their own understanding of what is involved, derived from their experience of methods such as participant observation (see also Drazin 2020). Having worked in industry as well as academia Prendergast is in a good position to consider the meeting point of these various perspectives and expectations (see more generally Prendergast and Garattini Eds. 2015). As evident from this experience it is one thing to have workshops and discussions about the ideals and models of such collaborations. But many of these ideals and claims tend to fade out when it comes to the inevitable and often un-envisaged contextual challenges. But then this is similar to the way anthropologists have traditionally reported their participant observation within business and bureaucratic processes.

12What Prendergast then adds, as an often-ignored ingredient, is the more specific contribution of visual methods to this mix. For example, “the incisive clip” as suggested by Pink (2021). Here we are the beneficiaries of Prendergast’s extensive experience in projects such as Intel’s Global Ageing Experience project. As many anthropologists have found in analogous circumstance the problem is that the anthropologist’s contribution tends to be constrained by a niche that has been designated as their area of expertise. But what the anthropologist is hoping for is an involvement in the wider iterative process including usability testing and assessments. Also bringing the anthropological sensitivities to the crucial point of deployment as what we would want to achieve co-deployment.

13To illustrate these arguments, he suggested that a common intervention is through the provision of a set of short videos. Such short videos can lend themselves to direct collaboration that is perhaps of particular importance when it comes to groups such as the subjects of an Intellectual Disability Supplement he worked on. Here we see that visual forms may be more appropriate to interactivity than textual forms and thereby an aid to both accessibility and collaboration. All of which reflected the tagline of the organisation they were working with: `Nothing about us, without us.’ Similarly, when he came to the final example of transitions to adult health care services, Predergast showed that a major advantage of short videos is that they lend themselves to creating a less mediated relation to research participants who are likely to appear directly within these videos, often sharing their own stories. This gives a sense of both immediacy and often poignancy that may become an important element in the subsequent take up of these materials. There seemed to be a clear conclusion here. The more multifaceted the multimedia element in the research, the greater the likelihood of finding some particular media that lends itself to these wider aims of care, inclusion, collaboration and accessibility. As his presentation clearly showed, the shift from textual to visual is likely to correspond also to a shift from collaboration with academics to a collaboration with research participants.

14Once again the final part of Prendergast’s paper can become the starting point for considering the paper by Walton and Haapio-Kirk. In this case the paper is included within the current volume and reference will be to this rather than to their presentation. If it is the case that multimedia provides a greater range of possibilities for locating which media can best facilitate one’s collaboration with research participants, this suggests looking in more detail at both the range of media, but also the range of populations. It helps that here we have two very different populations to consider - the migrants of Milan and populations from both rural and urban Japan. Walton and Haapio-Kirk were both part of the larger ASSA team project discussed above for which the researchers were asked to also make short videos.

15The request to nine different ethnographers to produce a set of films, produced something, which in retrospect may not be that surprising but I simply hadn’t even considered. It sorts of jumped out at me when I came to see them. By and large we don’t assume that the actual writing style of the ethnographer corresponds to the cultural styles of the population that they have been studying. We just write in our own style, which has nothing to do with local cultural genres of writing. But what about film? As the films started to come in from the earlier Why We Post project I noticed that these videos had ended up closely tailored to local styles. The Brazilian films made by a Brazilian ethnographer were really exuberant and in your face. The Turkish films were quite reticent and reserved. Partly this is simply a manner of the informants who appear on film. The Brazilians who appeared on film tended to be far more flamboyant than the Turkish `talking heads’. Furthermore, the ethnographers had cooperated with local film makers in some cases whose styles again seemed characteristic of their respective regions. This is significant because it shows that for films unlike for writing, the anthropologist is thereby exposed to the way different populations adapt new media to their own values and concerns. Something that comes across best through comparison (e.g. Wang and Haapio-Kirk 2021).

16This seems to extend to other new media, while both old and new media are increasingly experienced through the smartphone. Much of Walton’s recently published and excellent monograph has been about the new experience of geography (Walton 2021). Often it is the disruptive experience of migration that is compensated for by finding new and creative ways of using visual communication to allow migrants to be simultaneously at home in both the place of their birth and their new place of residence. This is a feature of the smartphone considered as a `transportal home’, a place within which we now also live (Miller et. al. 2021: 219-227) The way the visual is co-opted to deal with such changing conditions owes a great deal to local traditions. Japan with its history of anime and manga was well placed to incorporate stickers in the way people express care. Walton shows how there are particular Italian modes for expressing sociality and togetherness that the migrants also soon come to share both through living in their residential flats and through their use of visual elements such as memes shared through social media.

17It also helps that these authors focus upon care, since this term could be regarded as foundational to all three papers and presentations. What makes all these authors stand out is that none of them are concerned just with the abstractions of multimedia and its use in research. Whether with regard to collaboration with research participants, or effective teaching to students, or the way people show sensitivity across geography they are not just studying care, but do so with the aim of practicing care. One of the reasons we as anthropologists care about the possibilities of the multimodal is because these media facilitates our engagements with people in ways that mere text cannot. It has become also our practice of care. Furthermore, the people we work with are just as aware as we are of these possibilities and have often made visual practices central to care.

18In turn this takes us back to the very foundations of the anthropological enterprise as an exercise in empathy. The cartoons that arose from the ASSA project examples of which can be found in Walton and Haapio-Kirk’s paper tend to be poignant. They help express and convey the struggles of migrants or people who are ageing, but also typically portray them as active agents, such that it is their creativity and not just that of the anthropologists that is appreciated. The visual expression of a metaphor, when a man is proud to be a tortoise and is portrayed as half-tortoise makes excellent use of the traditions of cartoons as a media. A short video could have had that man talking about this metaphor but wouldn’t have had the same impact as this cartoon figure which directly visualises the metaphor. This is something that Walton’s research participants also appreciate when they exploit the charm or humour in a meme.

19This brings us back to the beginning of my discussion of these three works. Because what is foregrounded in the Walton and Haapio-Kirk paper is the common trajectory of researchers and researched. Both in Italy and Japan people are creatively adopting and adapting new media such as stickers and memes, just as we hope to use new media in our research dissemination. They immediately appreciate the possibilities of employing multimedia for the expression of care. In observing them we come full circle to Sokolovsky’s original contention that we should learn to do the very same thing ourselves. This final paper is perhaps the most multimodal in terms of the sheer range of media that are being employed: from the materiality of the phone itself, through film, memes, photos, stickers and drawing. This paper also draws together the foci of Sokolovsky and Prendergast on both how we can convey our research and how we collaborate, but also, as in the Japanese case, how we elicit experiences through techniques such as asking our informants to make their own drawings.

20My comments started in poverty and end in wealth. It began with a worrying sense of loss, when I realised that everything I had gained from visiting these ethnographers was simultaneously testament to what we might have failed to convey through even the best ethnographic writing. A yawning gap and apparent failure. But we end with an extraordinary wealth of solutions for filling that gap. By the time we have considered what Sokolovsky gained from his longitudinal visual encounters, what Prendergast gained from his collaborations with designers as well as research participants, what Walton gained from the Milanese migrants use of the visual to express social care to what Haapio-Kirk gains from asking her research participants to make these drawings, we can clearly see the vast potential that lies in the `multi’ element of the multimodal, equally for us as researchers and for those we research.

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Books and articles

Drazin, Adam. 2020. Design Anthropology in Context. London: Routledge

Madianou, Mirca and Miller, Daniel. 2012. Migration and New Media. London: Routledge

Miller, Daniel. et al. 2021 The Global Smartphone. London: UCL Press

Pink, Sarah. 2021. Planning and Practising ‘Visual Methods’: Appropriate Uses and Ethical Issues. In Doing Visual Ethnography. Sarah Pink, ed. Sage. (accessed August 8, 2023)

Prendergast, David and Chiara Garattini, eds. 2015. Aging and the Digital Life-Course. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Prendergast, David. 2020. “The Ethnographer, the Engineer and the Clinician: Co-designing Digital and Visual Platforms with and for Older Adults.” Paper presented during EASA 2020 conference in Lisbon, 21-24 July 2020.

Sokolovsky Jay 2016 Indigenous Mexico Engages the 21st Century: A multimedia enabled text. London: Routledge

Sokolovsky, Jay. 2020. “Broaching Synoptic Illusions: The Paradoxes of Multimedia Engaged Ethnography Engaging both Studied Communities and Varied Audiences.” Paper presented during EASA 2020 conference in Lisbon, 21-24 July 2020

Sokolovsky, Jay, ed. 2020. The Cultural Context of Aging, 4th edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Walton, Shireen. 2021. Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond. London: UCL Press.

Walton, Shireen  and Laura Haapio-Kirk. 2021. Doing Multimodal Anthropology of Ageing with Smartphones. AnthroVision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 December 2023. URL:

Wang, X., and L. Happio-Kirk. 2021. Emotion Work Via Digital Visual Communication: A Comparative Study Between China and Japan. Global Media and China. Vol.6.3: 325-344. (accessed August 8, 2023)


UCL Why We Post. (accessed August 8, 2023)

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Electronic reference

Daniel Miller, Mending Gaps with Multimodal CareAnthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Daniel Miller

University College London, Department of Anthropology

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