IN-TOUCH treads new methodological ground by bringing together theories and methods from multimodality, sensory ethnography, and arts and design, in order to find new ways of conceptualizing and studying ‘digital touch’ technologies. We combine the three scholarly ‘lenses’ of these related but differently situated approaches to explore the multifaceted nature of digital touch communication practices. This enables us to produce a fine-grained account of digital touch devices, systems and environments and their use, which attends to their social-semiotic, sensory-experiential and affective dimensions.

Within this frame, we are using a range of methods, including observation (field-notes and video recording), participatory observation, video re-enactment, focus groups, interviews, cultural probes, prototyping, and scenario development.

A key methodological challenge for IN-TOUCH is the situated study of state-of-the-art digital touch technologies when many are at an early stage of development and readiness. Some are unstable and lab-bound, others conceptual and speculative. This makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to observe their ‘in the wild’ use. In response, in our effort to understand the social character and societal impact of touch as it is digitally mediated, our case studies use a range of approaches, a mix of technologies, and look across domains of use, including the:

  • Ethnographic case study approach, involving sensory and multimodal observations and interviews
  • Placement of digital touch devices as cultural probes into specific contexts of use (e.g. putting Owlet Baby Care into the family home in the In Touch with Baby case study)
  • Construction of research environments (e.g. the use of an exhibition in the Art of Remote Contact case study) to prompt digital touch interaction
  • Development of digital prototypes (e.g. Tactile Emoticon) and social scenarios for digital touch communication
  • Use of rapid-prototyping workshops (e.g. Imagining Remote Personal Touch) to generate spaces through which to explore the social imaginaries of digital touch

We are exploring how to integrate, layer and work across the above three approaches to bring them into conversation in different ways, depending on the character of each case study. This enables us to attend to digital touch as it is being developed and designed, incorporated and imagined in labs, design and artistic practice and, increasingly, how digital touch is taken up or adapted through its use in people’s everyday lives.

We are also using workshops, exhibitions, and other events to engage with other academics, artists, industry and the public to develop our methods for interrogating digital touch. Our frame, methods and partnerships combine to bring together a range of research practices, enhance our engagement with non-linguistic methods, and enable us to develop innovative methodology.

Methods in the Pandemic

Webinar on Sensory, ethnographic and creative methods in Covid-19 contiditons. Part of an NCRM webinar on Methods adapted or suited to research in the pandemic.

Methods-related publications and links

Jewitt, C., Price, S., Leder Mackley, K., Yiannoutsou, N., Atkinson, D. (2020) Interdisciplinary Insights for Digital Touch Communication, Springer Nature.

Jewitt, C., Leder Mackley, K., Atkinson, D. and Price, S. (2019) Rapid prototyping as a method for social science: researching digital touch. In L. Pauwels and D. Mannay (eds.) Sage Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 2nd ed.

Jewitt, C. and K. Leder Mackley (2018) Methodological dialogues across multimodality and sensory ethnography: digital touch communicationQualitative Research, Online First:

Price, S., Leder Mackley, K., Jewitt, C., Huisman, G., Petreca, B., Berthouze, N., Prattichizzo, D., and Hayward, V. (2018) Reshaping touch communication: an interdisciplinary research agendaCHI EA ‘18 Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, W17.

Jewitt, C. (2017) A multimodal perspective on touch, communication and learning. In F. Serafini, E. Gee (eds.), Remixing Multiliteracies: Theory and Practice from New London to New Times. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jewitt, C. (2017) Towards a multimodal social semiotic agenda for touch. In S. Zhao, E. Djonov, A. Bjorkvall and M. Boerils (eds.) Advancing Multimodal and Critical Discourse Studies: Interdisciplinary Research. Routledge: London, 79-93.

Visit MODE for a full discussion of, and resources for, multimodal research.

Visit MIDAS for resources to support working across the social sciences and the arts.