By Sophie Schor (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Mascha Gugganig (Technical University Munich)

This special section introduces seven contributions that elucidate the application of multimodal research approaches in an open system to postcards (Gugganig and Schor 2020). The following essays emerged from a Call for Postcards by Mascha Gugganig in which she invited ethnographers, artists, researchers, and related experimentalists to write postcards to a friend, colleague, student, etc. and then reflect on the experience. What emerged was a rich engagement with postcards as a medium for ethnographic work and a writing collaboration with one contributor, Sophie Schor. The following summarizes the contributions and highlights the multimodal potentials of each project both individually and as a whole. By applying Kim Fortun’s (2003) idiom of ethnography in/of/as open systems, we show how postcards prompt reflective ways to engage in ethical and creative multimodal research.

Gugganig’s office table: second postcard from left from a #Colleex workshop, third from left by Charisma Lepcha (see contribution), and postcards from colleagues in the field. (Photograph by Mascha Gugganig)

Charisma Lepcha approaches the open context by analyzing both postcards and the postal system in contemporary India. She engages in a multimodal discourse analysis of the messages on the back, the images on the front, and the postal system as an interactive force (see Gillen 2013). This multimodality is further evident in her use of social media to communicate her displeasure at the lack of deliveries by India Post and to highlight the nostalgia invoked by receiving a hand-written message. In that sense, through the collaborative postcard-writing, Lepcha, her cowriters, and the Indian postal system construct multiple meanings, both on the postcards and online.

Martina Volfová engages with a “family treasure,” her great-grandparents’ correspondence, a story of a wartime love that a century later turns into a mode of reflection on belonging, home, and ethnographic work. The work is a traditional historical analysis of postcards as archival material, yet Volfová’s reflections also alert the reader to the potential of these material objects as ethnographic artifacts, their multimodal capacities, and their value in her own research projects.

Harris et al.’s collaborative historic-ethnographic project Making Clinical Sense (see Harris et al. 2019) engaged three ethnographers in different locations where postcards created a “meeting place” (Östman 2004, 427) to exchange reflections on their fieldwork beyond common communication pathways. The contribution emphasizes the role of interactive communication between researchers and how that engagement impacted their research as a whole. In a multimodal sense, the postcards became objet d’art that decorated the researchers’ respective worksites, and as such became “visual reminders of the team” they were a part of (Harris et al. 2019). At the same time, the temporal indirectness of days or weeks waiting for postcards also reflected their physical distance, the tangible expression of time passing for researchers in their field, and the temporality of research.

Another example of how to make use of postcards’ openness is a correspondence between the brothers Tony Page and Gareth Page, a clinical scientist and physician. Over three decades, they sent postcards from places they visited, bearing messages that reflect the dystopian style and literary tropes of English writer J. G. Ballard. Written by the fictive character “Bollard,” their stories captivate, in a multimodal sense (Gillen 2013), by combining the genres of literary, ethnography, and tourist greetings in the context of conventional postcards.

Mascha Gugganig reflects on her traveling exhibit “Hawaiʻi beyond the Postcard” and furthers the concept of an open ethnography of postcards by questioning processes of the production and dissemination of knowledge. It started as a critique of the colonial-paradise postcard image of Hawaiʻi (see Mamiya 1992) and led to a multidirectional dialogue between various visitors by contributing their own postcards to the exhibition.

Nicola Levell’s contribution engages in questions of materiality and connects visual experiences to scholarly work. Rather than relying on conference technology and PowerPoint to convey her findings (in part due to the venue), she created six postcards, which she distributed among conference attendees to use as a participatory tool. This intentional choice reflects the materiality of her study of the artwork of George Rammell and the process of its creation.

Finally, Sophie Schor’s project Greetings from the [un]Holy Land creates a tension when she juxtaposes stereotypical pictorial illustrations of Israel—and thus wider imaginaries of holiness—with her lived experiences. Offering her own written ethnographic encounters, she highlights the unholy, violent, and mundane sides of daily life in modern-day Israel and Palestine. Her project thus reflects on the use of visual stereotypes to further political projects by proposing a method that interrupts the established narratives that erase violence. Furthermore, in an attempt to circumvent the eventual failure of the postal system, Schor’s work intentionally included other (virtual) mediums—her own blog, Instagram, and a hashtag #unholyland—as she did not rely on the deliverance of each of the postcards she sent. In effect, this distrust of mail services reflects her multimodal engagement with postcards, across various media, and audiences.

Postcards offer exciting new ways to engage with ethnographic research by making use of the open nature of systems, the often-contradictory representations of experience, and a possibility to further multimodal analysis.

Fortun, Kim. 2003. “Ethnography in/of/as Open Systems.” Reviews in Anthropology 32 (2): 171–90.

Gillen, Julia. 2013. “Writing Edwardian Postcards.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 17 (4): 488–521.

Gugganig, Mascha, and Sophie Schor. 2020. “Multimodal Ethnography in/of/as Postcards.” American Anthropologist 122 (3).

Harris, Anna, Andrea Wojcik, Rachel Allison, and John Nott. 2019. “Making Clinical Sense.”

Mamiya, Christin J. 1992. “Greetings from Paradise: The Representation of Hawaiian Culture in Postcards.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 16 (2): 86–101.

Östman, Jan-Ola. 2004. “The Postcard as Media.” Text & Talk—Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse 24 (3): 423–42.