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When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide. Now What?


 

My brothers and sisters in data science, computational social science, and all of us studying and building the Internet of things inside or outside corporate firewalls, to improve a product, explore a scientific question, or both: we are now, officially, doing human subjects research.

I’m frustrated that the state of public intellectualism allows us, individually, to jump into the conversation about the recently published Facebook “Emotions” Study [1]. What we—from technology builders and interface designers to data scientists and ethnographers working in industry and at universities alike—really (really) need right now is to sit down together and talk. Pointing the finger or pontificating doesn’t move us closer to the discussions we need to have, from data sharing and users’ rights to the drop in public funding for basic research itself. We need a dialogue—a thoughtful, compassionate conversation among those who are or will be training the next generation of researchers studying social media. And, like all matters of ethics, this discussion will become a personal one as we reflect on our doubts, disagreements, missteps, and misgivings. But the stakes are high. Why should the Public trust social media researchers and the platforms that make social media a thing? It is our collective job to earn and maintain the Public’s trust so that future research and social media builders have a fighting chance to learn and create more down the line. Science, in particular, is an investment in questions that precede and will live beyond the horizon of individual careers.

As more and more of us crisscross disciplines and work together to study or build better social media, we are pressed to rethink our basic methods and the ethical obligations pinned to them. Indeed “ethical dilemmas” are often signs that our methodological techniques are stretched too thin and failing us. When is something a “naturalistic experiment” if the data are always undergoing A/B tweaks? How do we determine consent if we are studying an environment that is at once controllable, like a lab, but deeply social, like a backyard BBQ? When do we need to consider someone’s information “private” if we have no way to know, for sure, what they want us to do with what we can see them doing? When, if ever, is it ok to play with someone’s data if there’s no evident harm but we have no way to clearly test the long-term impact on a nebulous number of end users? Read More…

Jan Chipchase’s guide for pop-up field studios


Jan Chipchase

A pop-up studio in Myanmar, Photo by Jan Chipchase.

Editor’s note: Jan Chipchase, a former creative director of Global Insights at Frog Design and principal scientist at Nokia, is the founder of Studio D Radiodurans, a research, design and innovation consultancy. His interest lies in field research and the exploration of human behavior, which he addresses in a booklet guide entitled Pop-Up Studio. We talked recently about this notion, the concept of a “studio” and about his plans for the future.

Nicolas Nova: Prior to discussing this new book, I’m curious about the very notion of “studio”. It’s a concept coming from design and architecture that found its way to field research, in the context of design exploration. What do you mean by “studio” and what does mean for field researchers ?

Jan Chipchase: Most of the work is commissioned as part of design projects that encompass concepting, prototyping, future scoping, strategy and so on. In that sense it is a space that needs to support collaborative learning, the exploration and iteration of ideas and designs. The studio is the closest model.

NN: The idea of having a “pop-up studio” close to the field is an intriguing notion. What kinds of activities can happen in this context (unlike getting back to the consultancy office/motherboard)?

JC: Like any approach there are pros and cons and the trick is understanding where and when it’s most appropriate. We explore some of the alternatives in the book.

The benefits of running a pop-up studio for the kinds of deep immersive projects we’re tasked with include:

The space inspires, supports different forms of interaction, collaboration and allows the team to move to a different level of understanding with one another – this is especially important on multinational teams. Done right you can see individuals and the team achieve a sense of flow. The psychology of the space is critical, and we also look beyond the project to how the experience is reflected upon.

Regardless of how things are normally done as a team you can reinvent the rules of how you want to live and work, which most people find invigorating. It might give the HR department palpitations, but it works. From a creative standpoint. It’s not so much thinking out of the box as challenging the notion of what a box is, the materials it’s made of, the properties of those materials and how they relate to one another.

It makes it easier to staff a research + design + strategy project with a single researcher and still give the rest of the team meaningful field experience, in that it impacts what they make or how they think and the outcome of the project. People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived. That’s your delivery mechanism right there.

“People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived.”

It also allows you to engage executive level (CEO, EVP, …) people. One of our rules is “no tourists”. Everyone, no matter how senior, is put to work. They are some of the biggest fans.

We have a dedicated synthesis and sense making process, but this model allows for constant (after each session, each day, at the end of each location) iteration on the questions, so that the next day when the team goes out they are pushing the learning forward. There’s a learning curve for individuals and the team and the trick is to know where you are on that curve – it’s only apparent when you’re in the field. Read More…

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography


VerklemptI’m not one to speak about theory and method in the abstract. But when I am asked about my method, I typically respond that I use historically informed ethnography. However, whenever I say this I think of Mike Meyers’ SNL character Linda Richman. On Richman’s public access show, she and her friends talked about “about coffee, New York, dawters, dawgs, you know – no big whoop – just coffee talk.” During their discussions Richman would often become “verklempt,” such as in recalling meeting Barbara Streisand; overcome with emotion, she’d turn to her guests with a prompt: “The Prince of Tides is neither about a Prince nor tides – discuss.” Hence, while I might say “historically informed ethnography,” I think to myself that “my work is neither historical nor ethnographic – discuss.”

Historically informed

As a computer science undergraduate I loved (and minored in) history. I still do love history and find that while I am typically focusing on contemporary communities and how they work together, historical context is important to my developing understanding of the practices of today.

When I went off to graduate school for a PhD, I was very much inspired by a little known work about Quakers: Michael Sheeran’s1 Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society Of Friends. This was an ethnography of their consensus decision-making, but began with an introduction to their history, one that greatly informs the present-day. For instance, Quakers’ decision-making is a reflection of the origins of Protestantism. In short, under Protestantism it was thought that divine will could be discerned via the individual rather than through the church. However, the idea of individual discernment allowed for some unusual (and ill-favored) beliefs, such as those of the Ranters and the messianic Quaker James Naylor. This, in turn, brought increased persecution by the state. Hence, early Quakers faced the problem of how to represent themselves as moderate and nonthreatening. Their solution, in part, was to adopt a position of pacifism and community consensus. This historical context imparted a much richer understanding than if I had only read of their current day decision making. Accordingly, I tried to do the same thing with respect to Wikipedia collaboration by placing it in the historical context of what I called the pursuit of the universal encyclopedia.

Hence, even when I am focused upon the seemingly faddish phenomena of the digital realm, I challenge myself to ask if this is truly something never seen before? It rarely is, which then permits me to ask the more interesting and productive question of how is it different from (or a continuation of) what has gone before?

Is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history?

A digital interlude

Much of my quandary about history and ethnography relates to my domain of study. I love being able to immerse myself in the conversations and cultural artifacts of a community. Much of this is likely a reflection of my personality. I can be shy and I enjoy hunting through archives for something that is novel and leads to an insight. I am often happy to work alone as I read through blogs, wiki pages and email archives. Yet, is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history? (When the sources are dead?)

I’m fortunate that I tend to study open communities and geeks. This means that many of my sources are prolific self-documenters, publishing their thoughts and contributions in public. Consequently, I have many primary sources, and I want to share them with my readers. In fact, after a decade of work, I have over four thousand sources and as I’ve done this work, I’ve continued to develop a system by which I can easily document, find, and manage this information. I recently did a screencast of the two tools I’ve developed for this.

Of course, this is not to say that conversations and interviews with community members are not useful. I’ve attended many a conference, Meetup, and un-conference. Many times people have shared with me context and background that has been invaluable to my understanding and portrayals. Sometimes, I delight in a key insight or wonderful quotation I can use from an interview. However, I do take lesser pleasure in an insight communicated to me privately than one I can find publicly. I don’t attempt to rationalize or advocate for this position, it is simply my preference. (I suspect many of the lofty words spent on academic distinctions is to justify similar differences in personal sensibilities and social habitus). Read More…

Who needs an ethnographer?


I recently found myself lamenting the lack of ethnography in my professional life with a new acquaintance. Don’t get me wrong: my job stretches me in other ways. But many of the things I was trained for during my PhD aren’t called for in my day job. Not explicitly, anyway, though I would argue that once you’ve been taught certain kinds of observational skills it’s very hard to turn them off.

“You should set up your own independent project,” she said. “Do some ethnography on the side.”

My acquaintance is Kat Jungnickel, a sociologist currently researching cycling cultures. I met her in her office where swatches of fabric were pinned to 19th century patent applications for women’s cycling clothes, a series of hand-sewn garments based on these patents hung on mannequins by the door, and early photos of coteries of women cyclists were pinned to a bulletin board. This kind of creative, tangible research is definitely something that I would like more of in my life.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, actually. I do want to use my qualitative research skills more but I’ve been hesitating because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to employ them in a volunteering context. At present I mainly use my writing and thinking skills for theatre reviewing–I find this very rewarding, but it’s not getting me to stretch my research muscles any.

But when I try to picture what a “volunteer ethnographer” might look like, I draw a blank. Ethnography isn’t generally the kind of skill people offer to volunteering efforts. There are all kinds of skills that charities and volunteer organisations need…bookkeeping, driving, cooking, tutoring, mentoring, crafting, building, and so on and so forth. But ethnography?

It’s still usually the ethnographer who initiates the study, the ethnographer who’s decided that there is something worth examining here.

When you get right down to it, who needs an ethnographer? Generally speaking in ethnographic research the person conducting the study calls the shots: the research lead decides who and what they will study and why it’s important that the world has (for example) a detailed, rich description of the belly dance community in the online game Second Life. (My chapter “Digitizing Raqs Sharqi: Belly Dance in Second Life” in Belly Dance Around the World: New Communities, Performance and Identity will explain everything you need to know.) Increasingly, ethnographers work with the communities they are studying to find out what are the most important issues to them and how an ethnographic study might serve them, instead of focusing on what the rest of the world can gain from that research. But it’s still usually the ethnographer who initiates the study, the ethnographer who’s decided that there is something worth examining here. I don’t know of many examples where it is the community who has asked the ethnographer to study them. Please comment if you know of any.

Read More…

Public Health on Drugs


Michael Agar

Michael Agar

Rachelle Annechino invited me to write something about the concept of “public health” as I experienced it in my decades-long and checkered past in the drug field. That past is described in unbearable detail in a book called Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs. The bottom line of my memory (if memories can have a bottom line) is that the phrase “public health” was a severe case of metaphor abuse. I only got clear on this slowly over the decades. This is the first time that I’ve tried to box it up in a summary, courtesy of ten years of hindsight after leaving the field.

The history of policy and practice around psychoactive substances in the 20th century U.S. has been a long slow-dance between docs and cops. Consider opioids as an example – opium and morphine and laudanum, and later heroin, and later methadone, and later buprenorphine, and now oxycontin — all opioid drugs that range from the organic to the synthetic. The docs first celebrated them for their medical use, then got upset when users broke the compliance rules and used them on their own, at which point the cops stepped in. In their different historical contexts they went through the same cycle, from legit (more or less) medication to popular use to crime. To those of us working in what the bureaucrats called the “demand” side of the drug field, attention to public health made a lot more sense than what the better funded “supply” side lusted after, namely, toss the addicted into jail.

The question was, how could anthropologists, among others, use and subvert the public health discourse in useful ways?

Like most U.S. presidential elections, “public health” was only the better of two bad choices. “Public health” has its uses. Boas studied with Virchow, a founder of social epidemiology, after all. It isn’t the right framework to describe and understand people in their social worlds and how chemicals they ingest do and don’t fit into the flow. But, if you want to join policy conversations about “substance abuse” in most countries I’ve worked in, you have to translate your arguments into a doc/cop creole to make sense to the other participants. It’s the old problem of naïve realism, as the social cognition types say, or doxa, if you’re a Bourdieu fan. Do you push from the outside or talk on the inside? I chose the latter. So the question was, how could anthropologists, among others, use and subvert the public health discourse in useful ways?

Here’s a pretty easy example of one way we did that. Historically, public health arose out of successes at finding and then controlling the biological mechanisms that caused a disease. Public health found those mechanisms using epidemiology and then attempted to control them with biology. Epidemiologists built a database of “case records.” A good case record consists of clinical criteria for diagnosis, severity, time and place of onset, and demographics. (See, for example, this introduction to epidemiology [pdf].)

With time, as the DSM molted during its travels along its Roman numeral marked trail, diagnostic criteria have become more subtle and more reasonable, but that official definition of “abuse” remains on NIDA’s web page today. By this definition, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t been, at least at one point in their life, a drug abuser.

In the drug field, “ diagnosis” and “severity” were corrupted by war on drugs ideology. The insanity reached a peak in the 1980s with the official definition of “drug abuse” as “any illicit use of a substance” — any at all — including “illicit use” of a legal substance as well. This madness occurred at about the same time as the famous “library purge” of 1984, in which the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) expunged a set of its own titles from its archives and encouraged librarians to remove them from card catalogs. With time, as the DSM molted during its travels along its Roman numeral marked trail, diagnostic criteria have become more subtle and more reasonable, but that official definition of “abuse” remains on NIDA’s web page today. By this definition, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t been, at least at one point in their life, a drug abuser. The “diagnostic” part of a case record lost any useful meaning for research or intervention. Read More…

Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama


Silvia Lindtner

Silvia Lindtner

Amelia Guimarin

Amelia Guimarin

Editor’s Note: (@yunnia) and (@femhacktweets) round out the March-April theme on makers, hackers, and engineers with this post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space. Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) is a postdoc at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai, and is the cofounder of Hacked Matter. She researches, writes and teaches about maker culture and its intersections with manufacturing in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use. Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) is a independent producer and researcher at UC Irvine.  She has a background in anthropology and documentary filmmaking and focuses on issues of identity, labor and sustainability.  She also runs femhack.com, a showcase of DIY strategies for females with a hacker attitude.


“Making” is envisioned as a new mode of engaging the world, empowering citizens to turn from passive consumers into active participants in economic processes, state affairs and technological innovation. It is heralded as the saviour of broken economies and educational systems, across developed and developing regions alike. This vision of the rising maker is a powerful one. Indeed, it has attracted significant corporate investment (from places like Intel), drawn the attention of governments (from Obama to China) and mobilized money and people across regions (enabled in part by the set-up of new hardware accelerators like HAXLR8R). Making gets people excited (again). It is the story of adventure and of conquering unfamiliar territory to reinvent how technological futures are made today — at its heart it is a vision of technological and social progress. Journalists, scholars, and makers alike have been busy telling this story, joining in on the promotion of making as the harbinger of an industrial revolution (Anderson 2012). What has fallen through the cracks, however, are other stories of making that do not neatly fit the maker story of linear technological progress, of the Californian culture of cool and of embarking on a bold adventure. In this blog post, we focus on telling this other story of making — of those makers who are rarely thought of as makers and whose stories are less often told. Earlier this month, we traveled to Shenzhen to attend China’s first featured Maker Faire. Both of us came to the Maker Faire predominantly as researchers, although with different vantage points. Silvia lives in China and has been conducting ethnographic research with China’s maker scene and its intersection with manufacturing since 2010. Amelia lives in California, where she has been working as a documentary filmmaker and researcher on the topic of hacking and education. We recently embarked on a collaborative project of producing a documentary film on China’s makers, with a particular focus on what is going in the Southern parts of China, where small scale maker entities are forging new connections with manufacturers. There is both a power and responsibility that comes with holding paper, pen and camera – a topic that has received much attention in the discipline of anthropology. The ethnographer makes her fieldsite – she choses whose story to capture and how to tell it, co-constructing the sites she studies through the narrative that emerges from her work. It was in the evening of the last day of the maker faire, when it occurred to us that there was another maker story to be crafted here; it was the end of two exhilarating days filled with workshops, panels, and product showcases with presenters ranging all the way from small-scale start-ups to large corporations like Intel and Foxconn. We were about to head back to the hotel to drop off the equipment, when we paused. Something had changed. The streets that were filled, just hours before, with thousands of enthusiastic makers and visitors were empty, aside from a group of workers, who were in the midst of tearing down the large tents that had protected the booths of gadgeteers from the heavy rain of southern China. It was quiet, aside from the shouts of the workers who in a coordinated effort disassembled the tent. A few hours later – while the makers partied, drank, danced, talked, and celebrated their successful event – the tents were dismantled and loaded onto large by-standing trucks, with no sign left of a big event having ever taken place. A woman with a broom made out of twigs swept the street of the faire’s last remains.

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

It was in this moment that it became clear to us how much attention is paid to the making of the thing, while the work that goes into sustaining and enabling making the thing is rarely appreciated or lauded as equally cool and valuable. Who builds up and tears down (literally and metaphorically) the maker tent? Who performs the work of organizing maker faires and conferences, of raising money, of building important social connections to promote and engage makers and consumers? What other modes of making are there? What alternative models of collaboration and open-ness do we overlook? This post will not be about the loudest, boldest and coolest projects at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. It will be about those who work more quietly, and perhaps with more sincerity, than their noisy counterparts on stage. Read More…

Engineering obsolescence


Marisa Cohn

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social


Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”

Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These make great bookmarks now. Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FortranCardPROJ039.agr.jpg

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?

Read More…

Ethnography as Diaspora


Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.


In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/188629337/

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

Read More…

Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work


Katie Pine

Katie Pine

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron

Editor’s Note: and continue this week’s theme of makers, hackers, and engineers with a post about the politics and performativity of measurements, central to the practice of many engineers and scientists.

(@khpine) is a postdoc in Intel Labs Cultural Transformation Lab, and is currently in residence at UC Irvine.  Katie’s work bridges Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Organization Studies, and Science & Technology Studies.  At present her NSF-funded research examines micro-foundations of IT-enabled accountability policy and practice in the healthcare domain.

(@maxliboiron) is a postdoc at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of environmental harm manifest.


From common core to quantified self, measurement is increasingly part and parcel of our daily lives.  We use number-driven measurements to make visible, manage, and regulate increasingly nuanced aspects of daily life, work, public institutions, and our environment.

However, measurements are never mere faithful representations of nature, but have social and political origins and ramifications.  We are exploring two aspects of measurement that often go unnoticed: first, the situated, complex work that goes into making measurements work in the first place (and the fact that this work is inherently social, cultural, and political), and second, the idea that measurements themselves can be seen as performative, creating and re-creating the very things they are intended to make visible.

Representational theory defines measurement as “the correlation of numbers with entities that are not numbers,” a process of transformation, translation, and even interpretation at the level of sampling and gathering data. What is selected for measurement and what is not, how measurements are standardized, what counts as an important unit of measure, and how measurements are used all have stakes for the systems of which they are part.

Moser & Law (2006) argue that current metaphors for information as “flow” are inaccurate, as these metaphors presume that information is immutable, something that is created and exists in the world and thus can be taken up, passed around, and used for calculation.  Moser and Law instead argue that we can see information as something that is inherently mutable and relational, that changes its shape as it is circulated and used.  To put it more simply, information never fully has meaning on its own – it becomes meaningful and usable when a particular person or group make decisions about what the information is and how they can use it.

binarycounting01

A good example comes from a recent study on counting rates of infection in hospitals (Dixon Woods et Al., 2012).  The authors found that an act as seemingly simple as counting infections was actually highly social and cultural – the answer to the question “what counts?” varied widely from one hospital to another, calling into question the current focus in healthcare (and investment of healthcare dollars) on quality measures as a tool for achieving reforms such as infection reduction in practice. Making meaning of numbers requires acts of both calculation and judgment, what Moser & Law call “qualculation.”

Read More…

Falling in: how ethnography happened to me and what I’ve learned from it


guest author Austin Toombs

Austin Toombs

Editor’s Note: Austin Toombs (@altoombs) brings a background in computer science and a critical sensibility to his ethnographic research on maker cultures.  He explores the formation of maker identities in his research, focusing on how specific sites such as hackerspaces, makerspaces, Fab Labs, and other co-working spaces intersect with the politics of making, gendered practices, urban vs. rural geographies, and creative hardware and software developments. Austin is a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. He is a member of the Cultural Research In Technology (CRIT) Group, and is advised by Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell. He is also a member of ISTC-Social.


My research as a PhD student began by looking at cultures of participation surrounding hobbyist programming. I was—and still am—interested in the fuzzy-gray area between work and play, and as someone who misses the puzzle, thrill, and flow of programming, these communities were great starting points for me. Working on this research led me, almost inevitably, toward my ethnographic work with my local hackerspace and the broader maker community. In this context, I have seen how this local community embraces the work/play ambiguity, how it can function primarily as a social environment, and how it works to actively cultivate an attitude of lifelong, playful, and ad hoc learning. In this post I explore the role ethnography played in my work and how the ethnographic approach helped me get to these insights. I also discuss some of the complications and issues I have run into because of this approach, and how I am working toward solving them. For more information, feel free to contact me!

hackerspaces

the role of ethnography in my work

My first encounter with the concept of a hackerspace came from my initial research on hobbyist programmers. I remember nearly dancing with excitement when I realized that the city I lived in happened to have a hackerspace, because I knew immediately that I would be joining them in some capacity, if not for research, then for my own personal enjoyment. The first few visits to the space were exploratory; I wanted to see what was going on, how the members and regular attendees interacted with each other, and whether or not this seemed like a good fit for my research.

My initial goal was to use the site as a potentially endless supply of case studies to explore my questions about work and play. Thankfully, I realized fairly early on that this case-study-first approach would not work for me. Instead, I found myself drawn to the overall narrative of the hackerspace and its members. How did this particular maker community form? What did the members do for their day jobs? How did they become ‘makers’? What do they think about themselves, and how has becoming a member of this community influenced that?

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