On the Importance of Ethnography in Education: an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Mizuko 'Mimi' Ito

Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Editor’s Note: We finish off this month’s theme on ethnography in education with an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito (@mizuko). Mimi has some impressive experience with the topics covered this month: she is the Research Director at the Digital Media and Learning Hub, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning, and a Professor in Anthropology and Informatics at UC Irvine (after getting two PhDs from Stanford). And she is as kind and generous as she is brilliant.

In this interview, Mimi provides insights on bridging disciplines – from ethnography to economics – and institutions – from academia to industry. She also discusses the challenges and opportunities in forging new research agendas and shaping a field, something with which she has a lot of personal experience. We are thrilled to share Mimi’s insights with you to round out this month’s theme on ethnography in education. To learn more about Mimi, check out her many books and reports, summarized at the end of the interview.


Morgan: You’ve worked on a lot of compelling projects using ethnographic methods. What do you see as the strengths of ethnography?

Mimi: I think, for me, I was always in an unusual bucket as an ethnographer because I’ve always done research ‘at home’ and I haven’t taken on the frame of culture in quite the same was as ethnographers do, but I’ve adopted and adapted the perspectives and political commitments and methods of ethnography, and for that has worked very well in studying youth media. My approach has been to study youth culture and media as a space of cultural difference within a particular society. These technologies are new and children and youth occupy a somewhat segregated culture. Feminist ethnographies look at social stratification, and my approach shares affinities with those.

When I started out, there wasn’t a lot of work in anthropology looking at children and youth cultures, and I found that the perspectives of ethnography was really useful for looking at these subaltern and disempowered groups. A lot of my perspectives came from my training in anthropology about how to give voice to the unique ingenuity and perspectives of those who are disempowered. The role of youth in most societies as a relatively oppressed and marginalized population has been relatively under-studied in anthropology. The field has done a great job of studying regional inequities, and gender, race, and class, but has been remarkably silent about the everyday oppression that most societies have based on age.

Morgan: You lead the Digital Media and Learning initiative, and most or all of the researchers in that are ethnographers. Do you feel these experiences giving voice to these groups is a reason for this, or are there others?

Mimi: I do think that part of the commitment came out of the fact that the mainstream of education research is very quantitative and psychological, though a lot of the research being done in informal and out-of-school settings was ethnographic. So there was a natural affinity between the idea behind DML which was looking to more informal and social learning and ethnographic methods. It’s also not a historical accident that most research on informal environments is ethnographic – it’s very difficult to have measures that stand still enough to be taken quantitatively. So there’s also a great fit structurally. As we’ve been moving deeper into the work, we are bringing in more quantitative researchers, like Pew Internet, who have looked at media adoption measures. We’re still pretty early in connecting to quantitative measures, but we’re starting to connect. It’s been great to start with the qualitative, because often the measures are developed without a deep understanding of the qualitative setting.

Digital Media and Learning

Morgan: What impact do you feel that DML has had on the broader education landscape?

Mimi: It may be hard to answer since I’m in the middle of it, but I came of age as a researcher in the second generation of qualitative research in education, and had benefit of folks like Jean Lave and Ray MacDermott. I feel like those approaches have become a lot more accepted in education during the time I’ve been involved in them. The idea that learning is situated, moving from Vygotskian frameworks to something that’s more accepted and that is changing practice – with DML, we’ve joined forces with broader trends in technology that move us away from the more theoretical end and emphasize the importance of how people gain access to knowledge and connect with others, so we’ve been trying to ride the wave of these changes and be more progressive, Deweyan, and situated. I do feel like this message is getting across – people really feel it in their everyday lives. It’s beyond the idea that the classroom should be connected to society – that’s been around for a long time, but with technology it’s finally being experienced in new ways that make our work more relevant.

Morgan: Most of this month’s contributors to Ethnography Matters this month are former DML summer fellows. In your mind, what role does the summer institute play in fostering education research?

Mimi: We’ve really enjoyed supporting and hosting the summer research institute, or what we call our talent development module. The reality is that the scholarship has to change, which is slow, but there are already a lot of young scholars who are doing things differently. They’re closer to the technologies we’re talking about – they grew up with these technologies – but it’s also the emerging salience of technology- and design-based research. When I was coming of age as a grad student, the idea of doing technology studies within anthropology was pretty far out, along with the idea of an online community as a field site. There wasn’t any precedent. Today’s scholars are growing up when the institutional frameworks haven’t quite adapted yet, but there’s a lot more acceptance that these changes are here to stay and they’re interesting to look at.

Also, we’re participants in these worlds – the idea that the world is interconnected, and your scholarship is intermingled with everything that’s happening, and you’re out there in the world like in Ethnography Matters and the world talks – and emerging scholars are much more involved in these ways. I was trying to do that without the community when I started out, so it’s great to help now with that community building and the cohort identity that comes along with it. I still remember when the idea that academics would blog was mind-blowing.

Morgan: Many of the posts this month focused on aspects of digital inequality and digital inclusion. What are your thoughts on the salience of this topic to education research?

Mimi: I think it’s incredibly important. To hear that that has emerged as a theme is great. It’s a weakness of my cohort, this first cohort focused on digital informal education – we’re not all celebratory, but we’re pretty excited about these new worlds without giving as much attention as we should to the fact that the populations who were finding their ways to these technologies were privileged in over-determined ways. Even the early research around girls and technology was often like that.

The mobile phone work was great in disrupting common views of where innovation came from, so it wasn’t completely absent, but we’re now in a period where the technology is more ubiquitous, Silicon Valley has so much money, and we’re finally recognizing that all of these technology shifts may be leading to more inequity rather than simply promoting greater access and democratization. I remember the early mobile phone work and Twitter research – there was this sense that we’ve just overthrown the central regimes of knowledge production, but it turns out it’s not that simple. We knew that, but this next generation of scholars will be really helpful in digging into these issues.

Morgan: What are some of the other big open questions are in education research today?

Mimi: Related to inequality, the relation of education to a changing economic climate is one that’s really important. Education research has tended not to go there enough – there’s some school-to-work research, but most tend to hand it off. There’s a sense that the goal of education research is to cultivate learning to a point, then you throw it over the fence and if you’re well-prepared you’ll do okay in life. Today, though, the job landscape has changed so much, and there’s a lot more focus on lifelong learning. What are we preparing kids for? That pathway is very difficult. Those kinds of broader questions are harder for education researchers to grapple with. It’s the reason that we have an economist in the DML network, Juliet Schor, who can help us with these questions. It’s been incredibly enriching. Just because we prepare kids for jobs doesn’t mean that the jobs are going to be there. There’s a belief that the job of education is to prepare kids for high-end jobs, but we have to have an economy that will welcome them.

I think we’re also still pretty early with bringing design-based research into education – designing learning systems that are iteratively-developed and adaptive and responsive. It’s less about the design of content and products and more about the design of environments and communities. That’s also really exciting – that our goal of education researchers or developers isn’t about transmitting knowledge as much as fostering community and norms. We’re still early in merging these ways of thinking, but those are a couple that have captured my attention.

Morgan: What’s next in your research?

Mimi: We’re at an exciting time – we’re just wrapping up our first round of empirical studies that were launched. Bill Penuel and his team have been working on a big survey and the results of that are just coming out. It’s our first effort to quantify some of our measures of connected learning. I’ve never done a mixed-method collaboration at this scale before. My local team has been developing case studies of interest-driven environments, chosen in a way that help with academic, civic, and economic outcomes. My prior work on fans and gamers wasn’t particularly selected because they help kids in schools, but these current cases are much more oriented toward that. We want to help scaffold that transition between what they’re interested in and what can help them in their futures. Examples of communities that help that for subaltern youth are really interesting. We want to build those connections between interests and opportunities for those kids.

Here are some of my favorites – Crystle Martin is doing a study on WWEE. It’s been really eye-opening, and shows some of my own cultural biases, but I had no idea that professional wrestling was so amazing and intergenerational and robust. Others have been interesting and challenging, like Ksenia Korobkova’s work on boy band fandom and fan fiction. These are populations we don’t think of as particularly geeky or technie and they’ve been ignored, but it’s amazing the level of engagement and creativity coming out of them. It’s challenging because these interests can be stigmatized. When you go into adult contexts, the one thing guaranteed to get an eye-roll is Justin Bieber and One Direction. It’s a really tough sell to suggest that those are valuable learning settings.

It’s just so exciting, though – connecting ethnographic research and design and practice, and building connections between ethnography and quantitative research. I’ve been able to go beyond what I normally do – the ethnographic part – and connect it with these other approaches.

Morgan: Anything else you’d like to talk to us about?

Mimi: One of our missions for this work is opening up the question of what it takes to do large-scale qualitative analysis to be able to make larger claims about societal patterns. One of the strengths of ethnography has been to go deep into the lived experience of these communities, but that has tended to marginalize us in policy arenas. In Digital Youth, we were able to do analysis across multiple ethnographic cases and start to make claims about the broader patterns and stratification we were seeing in youth cultures. There are been cases of it done – in ethnographies of high schools for example – but we could say across these different populations, there are common stories. We’re trying to be even more systematic in the next phase and build a lot of infrastructure for data-sharing and collaboration. We’re still at the early stages to produce anything from this infrastructure, but it will be exciting to see what comes of it.

I think it’s really critical for ethnographers to collaborate – with quantitative people, but also with other ethnographers, which would let us make bigger claims and challenge and locate our specific cases across a broader field. This would require ethnographers getting past their comfort zones and their proprietary feelings about their field sites and notes. Ethnographers are probably the most proprietary and least collaborative in terms of these nitty-gritty issues of sharing data. It has a good motivation – we’re really immersed in our work, and have rich contextual material that makes our work unique, but there are still ways to collaborate that lets you keep that sensitivity while still tracing broader narratives.

Morgan: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Mimi: It was a pleasure!

Mimi Ito


Mimi has published groundbreaking work on a range of subjects, bringing her anthropological sensibilities and her talent for explanation to topics from otaku culture to children’s educational software, Japanese mobile phone use to the technosocial worlds of U.S. youth. Below is a selection of her work that we at Ethnography Matters have found most inspiring.

Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design

Home by Mizuko Ito et al.

This influential research report captures many of the research activities of the Digital Media and Learning hub and has spawned a movement, which is summarized at http://connectedlearning.tv. Its even-handed insights are a must-read for any researcher in education.

Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World

Edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tzuji

“This is the first comprehensive book to examine the full range of practices we associate with Otaku culture. The range of material covered here – from train watchers to cosplayers, from model builders to fansubbers – is really spectacular, helping us to move beyond encrusted stereotypes of the isolated Otaku to a much more nuanced understanding of the Otaku subculture.”

Henry Jenkins

Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software

by Mizuko Ito

“In a sophisticated and subtle analysis of software for children, the author explores the complex interplay among historical forces, parental ideals, children’s desires, the consumer marketplace, and the Zeitgeist.”

Howard Gardner

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media

by Mizuko Ito, et al.

“This is a beautifully written and extraordinarily rich account of perhaps the most important challenge cyberspace gives us: understanding how it is changing out kids and how it might change our understanding of literacy.”

Lawrence Lessig

Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life

Buy from Amazon.com

Edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda

“This is not just about a technology or the way it is used in one country. It’s about understanding one of the most important ways that twenty-first century lives will differ from those of the twentieth century.”

Howard Rheingold

Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project

by Mizuko Ito, et al.

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Categories: Editions, Ethnography in Education, Interviews

Author:morganya

http://morganya.org

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  1. July 2013: Ethnography in Education | Ethnography Matters - July 31, 2013

    […] finish off a month with an interview of education, ethnography, and digital inclusion with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito (@mizuko). Mimi has some impressive experience with the topics […]

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