Archive | May, 2012

The god in small things: Ethnomethodology takes ethnography to the details [Syllabus as Essay Series] [guest contributor]


Our June guest contributor is an inter-disciplinary ethnographer, Barry Brown, who is well known for his work in Human-Computer-Interaction, Sociology, and Communications. He pioneered the study of leisure and entertainment in social computing and has applied it to research on augmented reality video games, mixed-reality museum visiting, mobile collaborative tourism, and transportation.  Barry recently joined Mobile Life at University of Stockholm as the center Co-Director.

We’ll do an interview with Barry in another post about his career as an ethnographer who has worked in many  industrial and academic settings. For today, we asked Barry to talk to us about something that very few ethnographers talk about – ethnomethodology.

When I first heard of the word,  I cringed because it just sounded boring and unsexy. It’s hard enough to explain to people what ethnography is. Luckily, Barry was the first person to not only introduce me to ethnomethodology, but mentor me in the techniques of and wonders of ethnomethodology.

So what’s the best best way we can do our  first post on ethnomethodology at Ethnography Matters? A curated reading list!

We asked Barry to curate the first post in our Syllabus as Essay reading series.  In this post, Barry explains how ethnomethodology helps us answer questions that sociological theories just can’t. He also suggests reading Mike Lynch, an author I blogged about a while back on Cultural Bytes. Barry covers Garfinkel and  guides us through Harvey Sack’s writing by recommending specific chapters in his oeuvre. He then ends with the  philosopher, Wittgenstein, who inspired thinkers across multiple disciplines. 

If you would like to contribute to the Syllabus as Essay series, please reach out ethnography matters [at] gmail [dot] com.

Enjoy! Tricia and team.


I work with ethnography and the design of technology – a not uncommon role for contributors to this blog.  It’s something of a truism to say that, when working with computer systems, the details matter.  Not just in the case of a semi colon versus a full stop, your ‘p’s and ‘q’s all in the right place, but in the ways in which the right font here or a well designed feature can turn a computer system from useless to must have.  This attention to detail – ‘sweating the small stuff’ is based on the assumption that what we see as ‘big things’ naturally and unavoidably rest upon the small.

For that reason I’ve always thought there’s something of a natural affinity between computer science – or the design of technology more broadly – and my particular favourite flavour of ethnography.  “Ethnomethodology” is a particularly odd branch of sociology, obsessed to a quite unhealthily degree with ‘the details’ of social life and social interaction.  It is an ‘-ology’ that looks at the methods whereby people live their lives – how we interact (Sacks 1995), talk (Atkinson and Heritage 1984), walk (Ryave and Schenkein 1974), work (Button 1993), travel (McHugh, et al. 1974), break the law (Sacks 1972) or cry (Beach and LeBaron 2002). So, for example, when we converse we do not usually all talk at once – there is structure in our turn taking activity (Sacks, et al. 1974). When we offer an invitation there are certain ways of refusing that avoid rudeness (Sacks 1995).

Our activities are structured yet not simply determined by these structures. Rather structures are seen and used in the everyday organization of this activity. These are the structures that ethnomethodology has studied – something of an inversion of the notion of ‘structure’ as it is commonly deployed in the social sciences (Garfinkel 2002).Read More… The god in small things: Ethnomethodology takes ethnography to the details [Syllabus as Essay Series] [guest contributor]

The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Small Data People in a Big Data World (part 1 of 3)


Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

Part I: Questions

Research is hard to do. Much of it is left to the specialists who carry on in school 4-10 more years after completing a first degree to acquire the proper training. It’s not only hard to do, it’s also hard to read and understand and extrapolate from. Mass media coverage of science and social research is rife with misinterpretations – overgeneralizations, glossing over research limitations, failing to adequately consider the characteristics of subject populations. Does more data or “big data” in any way, shape, or form alter this state of affairs? Is it the case, as Wired magazine (provocatively…arrogantly…and ignorantly) suggests that “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete” and “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves?”

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Small Data People in a Big Data World (part 1 of 3)

Trusting machines



Fool hu-mans, there is no escape!

The Wall Street Journal did a piece last week on drones that decide whether to fire on a target, provocatively titled “Could We Trust an Army of Killer Robots?”

Although the title goes for the sci-fi jugular, the article balances questions about robot decision making with concerns like those of Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Lab director Ronald Arkin:

His work has been motivated in large part by his concerns about the failures of human decision-makers in the heat of battle, especially in attacking targets that aren’t a threat. The robots “will not have the full moral reasoning capabilities of humans,” he explains, “but I believe they can—and this is a hypothesis—perform better than humans” [1]

In other words: Do we trust an army of people?

Drones might make better decisions in some contexts. Whether drones can be trusted is a whole ‘nother question.Read More… Trusting machines

Transcription and reflexivity


IPA chart ~ CC BY-SA Nickshanks, Grendelkhan, Nohat

IPA chart ~ CC BY-SA Nickshanks, Grendelkhan, Nohat

For research projects that incorporate transcripts, the transcription process can feel like a necessary evil that you have to get through in order to move on to “real” analysis. Transcribing recordings yourself can be a revelation and a great way to get close to your data, but at the same time there’s a wall of tedium people hit, when transcription would be gladly traded for a less painfully tedious task, like maybe plucking your own eyelashes out using two playing cards as tweezers. (If you blink you have to start over, but at least you don’t have to transcribe anything.)

Even hiring transcription out can be tedious. Everyone seems to hit the tedium wall eventually, and transcripts trickle in slowly.

Last week I saw a list message from an anthropologist looking for someone to transcribe interviews with speakers of an Appalachian variety of English — which reminded me of a project I worked on that included interviews with speakers of a non-standard (and often stigmatized) flavor of American English [1]. One of the most interesting things about the project for me was seeing how ideas about language and representation surfaced during the transcription process.

Read More… Transcription and reflexivity

What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?


The vision of an ethnographer physically going to a place, establishing themselves in the activities of that place, talking to people and developing deeper understandings seems so much simpler than the same activities in multifaceted spaces like Wikipedia. Researching how Wikipedians manage and verify information in rapidly evolving news articles in my latest ethnographic assignment, I sometimes wish I could simply go to the article as I would to a place, sit down and have a chat to the people around me.

Wikipedia conversations are asynchronous (sometimes with whole weeks or months between replies among editors) and it has proven extremely complicated to work out who said what when, let alone contact and to have live conversations with the editors. I’m beginning to realise how much physical presence is a part of the trust building exercise. If I want to connect with a particular Wikipedia editor, I can only email them or write a message on their talk page, and I often don’t have a lot to go on when I’m doing these things. I often don’t know where they’re from or where they live or who they really are beyond the clues they give me on their profile pages.Read More… What does it mean to be a participant observer in a place like Wikipedia?