John McManus studies Turkish football fans in the diaspora at Oxford University’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society (Compas). Editor’s note: This event report is the final post in the ‘Being ...
Editor’s note: This event report is the final post in the ‘Being a student ethnographer‘ series. It documents a discussion – the third of the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group’s (OxDEG) events this term – dedicated to ‘technology and fieldwork’. Open to the entire university, OxDEG draws students and faculty from a wide variety of departments but is led by students from the Oxford Internet Institute and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. In this seminar, participants discussed what technologies are useful for ethnographers studying social activity in digital environments and recognized common concerns.
Technology and Fieldwork, Fieldwork and Technology: this was a massive subject and we had only 90 minutes to discuss. Throw into the mix a broad range of disciplines (computing studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology), season with some striking subject matter (Wikipedia, ethnomusicology of the chip music scene, Uranium extraction in Tanzania) and what do you get? A frank and wide-ranging debate on ethnography, in fact. The main “take away” message was, you are not alone. It was heartening to reach across the disciplinary boundaries and see that those in other departments are struggling with very similar theoretical and methodological problems.
Top on the list was the specialist language of computing – with its parsing, programming and algorithms – acting sometimes as a barrier to ethnographers engaging in innovative research methods. How to get over this hump? One suggestion was for a tweaking of anthropological methods training course. If you’re going to study Turkish village practices, you learn Turkish. Balinese Cockfights? Some sort of Indonesian might come in handy. Why, then, do we rarely hear departments exhorting potential digital ethnographers to go take a course in Python or some other programming language? Read More…
Editor’s note: In this post for our Being a student ethnographer series, I talked to Christine Hine about her forthcoming book, ‘Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday’ due out next year. In this interview, Christine talks about the current phase in virtual ethnographic practice, about what are her latest research interests, and about a framework that she believes can help ethnographers understand how to adapt their practice to suit multi-modal communication environments.
HF: What do you think are the key challenges that ethnographers face in trying to study the Internet today?
CH: Robinson and Schulz, in their 2009 paper, describe evolving forms of ethnographic practice in response to the Internet and digitally mediated environments. They divide this into three phases that include a) pioneering, where cyberethnographers focused on issues of identity play and a separation between online and offline identities 2) legitimizing (in which my own work is situated) where ethnographers explored the use of offline methods in the online sphere and, 3) multi-modal approaches where ethnographers are concerned with how participants combine different modes of communication.
I believe that we are still in the process of having to legitimize cyber ethnography and that multi-modal approaches are a worthy goal for virtual ethnography. The key challenge here is in understanding how to do multi-modal studies. This is especially challenging since the ethnographer’s toolkit changes with every new setting. We don’t know what that toolkit consists of because every time we do a new study, we have to choose what combination of sites, methods, writing practices and techniques we need to use. Read More…
Editor’s note: In this post for our ‘Being a Student Ethnographer‘ edition, Shireen Walton relays a conversation with David Zeitlyn at a special seminar on Digital Visual Anthropology (DVA) in Oxford earlier this month. As someone new to the online field, Shireen has been forced to think rather seriously over the past few years about some of the big questions concerning the visual sub-category of a contemporary digital anthropology. David Zeitlyn is based at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and has been a key figure in the developing relationship between Social Anthropology and ICT – especially in opening up innovative pathways for the use of multimedia, visualisation and Internet technologies in social anthropological research projects.
The main issue faced by all digital researchers, it seems, is to think first and foremost about how the traditional practice of ethnography translates to the online context. They have to do this in a manner both faithful and rigorous enough to constitute ethnographic research, whilst being adaptable enough to meet fresh challenges stemming from new zones of (online) engagement: a challenging prospect. Leading on from this, anthropologists are then forced to consider what existing methodological tools they might rely on in order to even broach these new topics whilst creatively, and rather bravely, suggesting how they might need updating.
One of the broadest issues we considered in the seminar was whether digital anthropology can these days be regarded as a new, official sub-discipline within mainstream anthropology as Horst and Miller recently declared in the introduction to their edited volume, Digital Anthropology (Horst and Miller 2012). Following on from this, might we then propose that the visual sub-field of a digital anthropological project could then itself constitute a ‘sub-sub field?’ These issues require thinking about where contemporary DVA might sit within the mainstream anthropological canon, including its established methods and epistemological boundaries.
Defining DVA essentially involves two main considerations as either site of or method of research, (or both), as Sarah Pink has identified in her seminal article entitled: Digital Visual Anthropology: Potentials and Challenges, (Pink 2011). In the case of my own research for example, studying the Iranian ‘photo-blogosphere’ constitutes both a site of enquiry – i.e. a visual system of popular Iranian cultural expression on the Internet, as well as a method of enquiry, using the online medium to access these communities and conduct online participant observation amongst them. I rely on digital and visual technologies including the Internet, the digital camera, and a digitally-curated online exhibition, in order to situate myself in the field and conduct research in a technologically-relevant manner which befits the activities of my participants. Read More…
Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.
When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.
The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”. Read More…
I remember the first time I adopted an ethnographic persona – very tentatively and with a great deal of trepidation. I’d applied for a job as an ethnographer with Ushahidi after graduating from my Masters degree and was miraculously accepted – miraculous because most ethnographer jobs require at least a PhD, not to mention loads of ethnographic experience. The stars were aligned… or were they?
This was the first time that Ushahidi had hired an ethnographer; it was the first time that the funding body that would help to pay my salary had invested in ethnographic research; it was my first ethnography job and my first ethnographic project. Firsts for everyone are really exciting, and I was lucky to be working for an organisation that supported me despite my lack of ethnographic experience. But ethnography doesn’t accord with the usual tenor of development projects and we faced a number of challenges that, looking back on it now, were bound to happen; challenges that, in the end, had really good results but meant that things weren’t exactly plain sailing en route.
In my first few months at the job, I heard things like: ‘You really need to have a PhD to say you’re an ethnographer’ or: ‘Only anthropologists can claim to do real ethnography’. This was all very interesting but I’d just received a job as an ethnographer and I couldn’t exactly ask for them to take it back. So I did what I always do when faced with a crisis: I gathered a bunch of much more experienced and knowledgeable people together to help me discover what exactly it meant to be an ethnographer. I knew that there were many of us who were asking similar questions and that the “ethnography + digital/networked/technology” space was burgeoning in many quarters. Read More…
For our edition on Genes, DJ Robynn put together this special mix of songs collected from this month’s contributors.
The songs in this mix are:
- Translinear Light – Alice Coltrane
- The All of Everything – Sun Ra
- Roll and Tumble – DJ Krush
- Jeans – Quadron
- Melt! – Flying Lotus
- I’m Too Sexy – Right Said Fred
- Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan – Govinda, Alka Yagnik, Nikhil Vinay
- Sexy And I Know It – LMFAO
- It’s Tricky – Run DMC
- Pre-med – Bitesize
- That Spells DNA – Jonathan Coulton
- I Wanna Be Sedated – the Ramones
- Company IV – Philip Glass
The music in this mix was selected by this month’s contributors:
Alondra Nelson talked to EM about the sociocultural implications of genetic screening tests, touching on uses of genetic analysis in such varied settings as the early Black Panthers’ community-based genetic screening programs for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are. She also described the music that came to mind for her when thinking about her research:
Both Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane are making what you might call scientific music, but it’s also metaphysical music. Part of what’s so interesting to me as a researcher about contemporary genetics and what we think it means in society, is that it’s making claims about science or the scientific, but we’re also asking it to do some pretty significant metaphysical work. The work of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane resonate with me in that regard. And Sun Ra also of course because there’s a lot of discord and cacophony in the work. Coltrane is a bit more melodic. Sun Ra, you have crashing, booming — depending on what your taste is, even difficult to hear – combinations and recombinations of sound. So I think that the Sun Ra pieces are also a manifestation of the discord in how we think about ourselves and our communities after the genome. But also discord with the hyperbole that does not render the full complexity of human experience and human societies.
Julia Serano described the ways in which cultural boundaries can be replicated in people’s (mis)understandings of biology (…):
Biology as it gets taught in school, you learn to put things into categories: These are dogs; these are cats. These are women; these are men. We learn to organize everything into these clear cut categories — but in biology, there really are no clear-cut categories. You can put dogs and cats into separate categories, and sometimes that’s useful, but they once shared a similar ancestor together. There is a lot of overlap between the types of genes they have, and their behaviors.
Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though.
And thanks to Christopher Kelty for sharing Jonathan Coulton’s music.
We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.
EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.
I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.
Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.
Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.
EM: Were you interested in that growing up?
Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.
This is all fruit fly stuff
EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.
Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”
She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.
EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…
Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.
Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.
The natural/unnatural binary
EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.
The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.
Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?
EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?
In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.
Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried. Read More…