This post introduces a new collaborative project coming soon to CASTAC: an archive of online platforms that highlights how researchers have utilized different communicative modes and media in qualitative research and creative work, including in journalism and the arts.
Think about how you usually encounter a researcher’s findings, a journalist’s account of an important event, or news of an artist’s latest work. In the early 20th century, you would often do so by reading an article in a newspaper, magazine, book, or academic journal. And although these publications might include pictures, graphs, and cartoons, they often emphasized textual ways of conveying information and ideas. Nowadays, an increasing number of researchers, journalists, and artists use multiple media technologies—often digital—to conduct and publicize their work, including text, graphics, and video, among others. Using and combining broader arrays of communication technologies reflects current media practices, but it also gives researchers and other professionals more strategies to reach a range of audiences, from specialized to broad. While these approaches can enable pedagogues, content creators, and students to gain deeper insights into social life, we must also critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations of the increasingly vast array of communication forms in our social worlds.
The MultiRepository: A database tool for qualitative researchers, pedagogues, and their students
The MultiRepository will be a pedagogical resource for instructors and students in the social sciences interested in contemporary research strategies and communication. It will highlight platforms, films, and other projects that combine media technologies and modes to illuminate meanings—emotional, material, among others—that go beyond what can be conveyed through written text. Motivating this repository—which will foreground the intersection of method and communication—are three interrelated arguments. First, collaborating and communicating with publics, especially non-academic ones, often demands moving beyond a narrow emphasis on written text as the most credible and effective form of communication. Second, communicative forms always bear affordances and constraints at each stage of the research process that must be carefully weighed; each affects producers, distributors, audiences, and politics—the social and material distribution of power. Lastly, some researchers interested in contemporary communication tools conflate “multimedia” and “multimodality”. We contend these related terms can be productively differentiated to help researchers practically and analytically consider specific communicative contexts. We explore each of these arguments below by way of a recent historical example.
The MultiRepository will inspire scholars, pedagogues, and students at all levels of expertise to critically examine the utility of paying closer attention to how multimedia and multimodality manifest in contemporary research and cultural production. A “mode” is a communicative form or process; examples include linguistic, visual, affective, embodied, gestural, or aural (sound-based) modes. Multimodality involves combinations of these forms, which themselves are often culturally specific sensorial categories. “Media” refers to the technological means or “channel” of communication, including everything from spirit mediums to radio and video conferencing. Multimedia entails combining many kinds of media, like text, images, video, and audio. Since they feature any number of of communicative and phenomenological processes, multimedia platforms are thus always multimodal to varying degrees.
Social media, like TikTok and Twitter, are multimedia and multimodal because they often feature text, audiovisual materials, and other communicative processes as ensembles. A video embedded in a tweet, for instance, can combine linguistic, aural, visual, and potentially, gestural and affective modes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us also had to learn how to connect remotely with collaborators, students, and multiple publics, which reinforced the importance of thoughtfully engaging multimedia and multimodal communicative strategies. This indispensable work follows scholarly traditions that began before the outbreak. Researchers in the (post)humanistic social sciences have sought to better understand human and even non-human forms of communication—like the “voices” of plants, animals, mountains, ghosts, robots, and aliens.
Making such nuanced distinctions between medium and mode may appear unnecessary. But the difference is more a question of emphasis and context than absolute distinction. Choices about media and modality are relevant at all stages of inquiry because they can have major consequences for research—including the kinds of questions you develop and the methods and sites you select—as well as how you present your results and to whom. From a linguistic anthropological perspective, taking note of the subtle distinctions between medium and mode can illuminate how content creators focus their attentions (or fail to do so). Focusing on medium and mode requires considering more than the topic of research but also why, how, and to what end researchers will pursue and represent it.
For example, students who leap into documentary filmmaking may struggle without backstage writing and storyboarding as well as elicitation strategies specific to cultural practices and sensorial know-how in their fieldsites. Likewise, researchers may risk not “meeting people where they’re at” if they insist on publishing exclusively in print media and rarefied journals. These choices can potentially minimize, feed into, or even exacerbate intersecting forms of stratification between researchers and their interlocutors as well as their audiences. In the classroom, efforts to incorporate different media—like documentaries, poetry, and music recordings—and modes—like field trips, group collaborations, and material engagements—acknowledge the limits of scholarly emphasis on the written word that published research often lacks.
It’s worth noting that there can be no qualitative research methods without communication, and yet the stakes of mode and medium are too often underanalyzed. How can questions of media and mode diversify and deepen research methods among students and scholars? Relatedly, how might we better highlight examples students encounter in areas of social life beyond the academy?
The 2020 NBA Bubble: An initial inquiry into media & modes
Apropos, we turn now to issues surrounding media and mode that emerged as paramount in one influential corner of American society: the National Basketball Association (NBA). Like our colleagues featured in the future repository, we’ll focus on the consequences of medium and mode.
The choices made by professionals, fans, and other participants in the entertainment industry are shaped by media and modes that have practical, aesthetic, and political implications. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA shifted their activities to compensate for the mandated absence of audiences at live games across the league. In summer 2020, NBA athletes living in isolation at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, played to virtual fans on monitors and the sounds of artificial crowd noise. Exuberant verbal interjections like “BANG!” or “Mama, there goes that man!” offered by announcers like Mike Breen and Mark Jackson, became all the more crucial to the success of pandemic television broadcasts because they helped fill the relative silence and absence of emotional feedback caused by the lack of co-present spectators.
These changes, however, were less contentious than existential questions about the resumption of in-person play or how players could protest the police murder of George Floyd and express support for the Black Lives Matter movement during broadcasts. In light of lost revenue and salaries, the NBA Players’ Association and the overwhelmingly White, wealthy team owners settled upon a biomedically fraught resumption of the season with stringent COVID testing and rules. Players could wear a set of “approved” protest messages on the back of their jerseys where their last names would typically be stenciled. This sartorial-textual mode of protest dovetailed, albeit in curtailed fashion, with players’ in-person activism in the aftermath of the season’s initial interruption and willingness to boycott games after ongoing instances of police brutality. Raising new questions, risks, and possibilities, protest styles often anticipated remediation and people reacting through sharing video, photography, and social media content.
Fig. 1. An explanatory segment on ABC’s Good Morning America.
By spring 2021, when thousands of fans were allowed into arenas, numerous scandals led to continued critical reflection about longstanding racism in professional sports, including in its media politics and affective modes. Incidents of individual crowd members spitting or hurling water bottles, beer, popcorn, and epithets at Black players sparked extensive debates about the dehumanization of professional athletes; the legacies of racism in the US as well as among fan bases; and anti-social behaviors exacerbated by the pandemic. Media and modality were central to fan, player, and other commentators’ analysis: Whose talk dominated sports media like radio, cable television, and major news outlets? Did entitled, wealthy fans sitting courtside or those fuming online know how to show their emotional allegiance and sympathy without dehumanizing the often newly well-to-do Black players from disenfranchised backgrounds on opposing teams? What have the tragedies, social isolation, and economic pain of the pandemic meant for fans’ emotional capacities to behave while cheering? The two seasons proved incredibly taxing and continue inflecting debates and even celebratory modes as the NBA now enters its 75th anniversary.
While much commentary about the NBA offered progressive messages unavailable in many entertainments, it nevertheless tended to avoid mentioning the political-economic conditions that facilitate the league and its global popularity. Industries like insurance, alcohol, finance, and gambling offer the NBA sponsorship in exchange for advertisements that celebrate a bourgeois American, often unattainable, “good life.” Likewise, military recruitment ads brand American empire to look like Marvel films and hyperreal video games like Call of Duty, glorifying and mystifying the violence of imperial dominance abroad and domestic artificial scarcity that often motivates enlistment. Meanwhile, diverse musicians mired in the same political-economic challenges have incentives to lease their sounds to promote NBA content and sponsors, including the monopolistic telecommunication giants and associated technologies of surveillance capitalism. Far from merely helping circulate NBA events and products, these multimedia and multimodal assemblages are aesthetic, practical, and inherently structural elements that scaffold the league and contemporary American politics. Taking this moment as but one example, researchers can raise innumerable, productive questions about each decision related to medium and mode as they unpack the communicative trajectory that accompanied the NBA’s response to the pandemic.
Fig. 3. GoArmy’s 2019 advertisement from the “What’s Your Warrior?” series.
In Version 1.0 of the MultiRepository—slated to publish in winter 2022—you’ll find artistic, journalistic, and social scientific examples of kindred multimodal and multimediated research, links, content, and prompts for classroom discussion. As with the NBA example, questions surrounding medium and mode are central to how researchers featured therein have approached their subjects and fieldsites.
While we primarily relied on language to discuss the NBA example above, the repository features films, maps, and platforms that move beyond textual forms. For pedagogues and students, we’ll curate brief reviews of each online resource written by different authors that highlight elements to guide project conceptualization and seminar planning. By focusing on the communication media and modes shaping contemporary qualitative research methods, our repository augments larger databases like MIT’s Docubase with specific commentary. We encourage visitors to suggest resources to include in future iterations.
Possible inclusions to the MultiRepository are countless, so this list will never be comprehensive. We hope, however, that it will spark new projects that meet the challenges of our grossly hierarchical, precarious, and divisive political economy. 
 See also Pink (2011); Collins, Durington, and Gill (2017).
 See, for example, the work of De la Cadena (2010), Kosek (2011), Heise (2016), Lepselter (2016); Ralph, Jésus, and Palmié (2017); and Tsing (2004).
 See Gal (2012).
 See Barrasso (2020).
 See Sullivan (2021).
 See Ganguli (2020); McMenamin (2020); The Undefeated (2020).
 See Abdul-Jabbar (2021).
 See Thomas (2021).
 See Le Batard and Friends (2021).
 See Felt (2019).
 See GoArmy (2019). Polk’s (2020) incisive analysis demonstrates how leftist critiques must better account for the paradoxical ways in which the American military in the 20th century often served as a means of Black domestic political advancement while amplifying anti-Blackness and racist empire abroad.
 See Zuboff (2019).
 For a rich analysis of multimodal and multimedia politics among other NBA publics in post-Yugoslav spaces, see Walton (2021).
 See Ralph and Singhal (2010); Reed (2018).
Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem. 2021. “What the NBA Championship Means to Me.” Jacobin. July 24. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/07/kareem-abdul-jabbar-nba-finals-1971-championship-bucks.
Barrasso, Justin. 2020. “Breen, Jackson, Van Gundy Detail the 2020 NBA Playoffs.” Sports Illustrated. September 6. https://www.si.com/nba/2020/09/06/breen-jackson-van-gundy-interview-bubble.
Collins, Samuel Gerald, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill. 2017. “Multimodality: An Invitation.” American Anthropologist 119 (1): 142–46.
de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.
Felt, Hunter. 2019. “Are NBA Stars and Coaches Hypocrites for Not Speaking Out on China?” The Guardian. October 10. http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/oct/10/nba-players-coaches-china-reaction-hong-kong-daryl-morey.
Gal, Susan. 2012. “The Role of Language in Ethnographic Method” in The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology. Edited by Richard, Fardon, Oliva Harris, Trevor H. J. Marchand, Cris Shore, Veronica Strang, Richard Wilson, and Mark Nuttall. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. 79–91.
Ganguli, Tania. 2020. “Why Some NBA Players Aren’t Wearing Social Justice Messages on Their Jerseys.” Los Angeles Times. July 15. https://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/story/2020-07-14/lakers-social-justice-messages-on-jerseys.
GoArmy. 2019. “What’s Your Warrior? | Join Forces | GOARMY | Commercial.” November 19. Accessed August 5, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TprgnuYfyQ.
Good Morning America. 2020. “Basketball Returns with Virtual Fans, Social Justice l GMA.” July 31. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQrscVG9kEo.
Heise, Ursula K. 2016. Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kosek, Jake. 2011 “The Natures of the Beast: On the New Uses of the Honeybee,” In Global Political Ecology, edited by Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, and Michael J. Watts. New York, NY: Routledge. 228-251.
Le Batard and Friends. 2021. “An Honest Conversation About ESPN, Rachel Nichols & Maria Taylor | Jemele Hill, Amin Elhassan.” July 6. Accessed August 5, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOgEwCks1yM.
Lepselter, Susan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
McMenamin, Dave. 2020. “LeBron to Forgo Social Justice Message on Jersey.” ESPN.com. July 11. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29448088/lakers-lebron-james-go-social-justice-message-jersey.
Pink, Sarah. 2011. “Multimodality, Multisensoriality and Ethnographic Knowing: Social Semiotics and the Phenomenology of Perception.” Qualitative Research 11 (3): 261–76.
Polk, Khary Oronde. 2020. Contagions of Empire: Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad, 1898–1948. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Ralph, Michael, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, and Stephan Palmié. 2017. “Saint Tupac.” Transforming Anthropology 25 (2): 90–102.
Ralph, Michael, and Maya Singhal. 2019. “Racial Capitalism.” Theory and Society 48 (6): 851–81.
Reed, Adolph. 2018. “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left.” Dialectical Anthropology 42 (2): 105–15.
Sullivan, Matt. 2021. “Inside the Zoom Call Where Kyrie Irving Tried to Burst the NBA’s Bubble.” The Undefeated. June 24. https://theundefeated.com/features/inside-the-zoom-call-where-kyrie-irving-tried-to-burst-the-nbas-bubble/.
The Undefeated. 2020. “Social Justice Messages Each NBA Player Is Wearing on His Jersey.” The Undefeated. July 31. https://theundefeated.com/features/social-justice-messages-each-nba-player-is-wearing-on-his-jersey/.
Thomas, Etan. 2021. “The Ugliness of NBA Fans Attacking Players: Are Black Athletes Viewed as Human Beings?” The Undefeated. May 28. https://theundefeated.com/features/the-ugliness-of-nba-fans-attacking-players/.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Walton, Jeremy F. 2021. “Pavelić’s Ghost.” Sidecar, New Left Review Blog. June 3. https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/pavelics-ghost.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
*The MultiRepository is a collaboration between CASTAC, the CaMP Anthropology Blog (Communication, Media, and Performance), and Boundary Shift, a multimodal podcast platform under development. Boundary Shift will highlight public-facing research and creative work focused on the intersection of contemporary media, fluid and durable social boundaries.