Archive | June, 2012

The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Conclusions (part 3 of 3)

Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

As promised here is the final installment of my short series about ‘big data.’ I started out by declaring myself a ‘small data’ person. My intention was to be a bit provocative by suggesting that forgoing or limiting data collection might sometimes be a legitimate or even laudable choice. That contrast was perhaps overdrawn. It seemed to suggest that ‘big data’ and ethnographic approaches were at the opposing ends of some continuum. ‘How much’ is not necessarily a very interesting or relevant question for an ethnographer, but who among us hasn’t done some counting and declared some quantity (1000s of pages of notes, hundreds of days in the field, hours of audio or video recordings) that is meant to impress, to indicate thoroughness, depth, effort, and seriousness?

So the game of numbers is one we all probably play from time to time.

Now to answer my few remaining questions:

1) How might big data be part of projects that are primarily ethnographic in approach?

My first exposure to ‘big data’ came from a student who managed to gain access to a truly massive collection of CDR (call detail record) data from a phone network in Rwanda. Josh Blumenstock was able to combine CDR data with results from a survey he designed and carried out with a research team in Rwanda to gain insights into the demographics of phone owners, within country migration patterns, and reciprocity and risk management. I was terribly excited by the possibilities of what could be found in that kind of data since I had been examining mobile phone ownership and gifting in nearby Uganda. I wondered how larger patterns in the data might reflect (or raise questions) about what I was coming to see at the micro-level about phone ownership and sharing, especially its gendered dimensions. Indeed Josh’s work showed a strong gender skew in ownership with far more men than women owning phones and women phone owners more affluent and well-educated. My work explained the marital and other family dynamics that put far fewer phones into the hands of women than men.

However, combining these two approaches is more a standard mixed methods approach than anything new. Is something more innovative than that possible?Read More… The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Conclusions (part 3 of 3)

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List

For the Ethnography Matters Reading List Series, we’ve invited several ethnographers to share their reading lists with our readers. I want to thank Roy Christopher for giving us the inspiration to create the Reading List series! Every summer, Roy asks friends and colleuage to create a reading list in which he laboriously compiles and links to Powell’s online store. After we saw his list, we wanted to create an onoing one at Ethnography Matters. Do  check out Roy’s 2012 list that has contributions from Howard Reingold to Douglas Rushkoff. First in the line up is Ethnography Matters contributor Tricia Wang, who is coming back from a year and a half of fieldwork and has curated a list ethnographic monographs  and non-fiction books. Carla Borsoi from AOL and Jay Owens from FACE also contribute for July.

We would love to feature your book list! Please contact one of our contributors or email us!

I haven’t read any books because I’ve been in fieldwork, so I don’t even know where to start. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.

I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. I am quite obsessed with this topic because what I see happening in China is people learning capitalism – like learning how to be a consumer, investor, borrower, and credit card users. Insurance ads are plastered to billboards, malls are open til midnight, and teenagers are learning how to shape their identity through products. Though I’ve always felt helpless when I am observing “capitalism.” Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a  commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that address the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address and that will hopefully help me better understand my field site.Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List

The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Answers (part 2 of 3)

Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

I’ve come away from the DataEdge conferencewith some answers…and some more questions. While I don’t intend to recap the conference itself, I do want to take advantage of time spent with this diverse group of participants and their varied perspectives to try to offer the bigger picture sense I’m starting to develop of the big data/data analytics trend.

The idea that big data might usher in a new era of automatic research and along with it researcher de-skilling or that it would render the scientific method obsolete did not prove to be a popular sentiment (*phew* sigh of relief). The point that data isn’t self-explanatory, that it needs to be interpreted was reasserted many times during the conference coming from people who occupy very different roles in this data science world. No need to panic, let’s move along to some answers to those questions I raised in part I.

What is big data? Ok, this was not a question I raised going into the conference, but I should have. Perhaps unsurprisingly there wasn’t a clear consensus or a consistent definition that carried through the talks. I found myself at certain points wondering, “are we still talking about ‘big data’ or are we just talking about your standard, garden-variety statistics now?” At any rate, this confusion was productive and led me to identify three things that appear to be new in this discussion of data, statistics, and analysis.

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Answers (part 2 of 3)

From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures

Annie Lin. Pic by Guillaume Paumier CC BY 3.0

I’ve been trying to talk to Egyptian Wikipedia editors for a project about the experience of Wikipedia editors in the Middle East and am finding it really difficult to connect to relevant people through their Talk pages. And so I went to talk to Annie Lin, Global Education Program Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation about how she engaged with editors in Egypt at the start of a project to get students in local universities to write Wikipedia articles. In this interview, Lin talks about ways for outsiders to gain access by giving up power, encouraging participation and changing communication styles and platforms where the culture demands it. She’s given me some great things to think about as I build a more grounded understanding of editing in the Middle East, and I’m sure there are some gems in here that will help others as they think about doing ethnography starting from online places. 

Annie Lin is excited. The first pilot project that she oversaw in Cairo, Egypt to encourage students in local universities to contribute to Wikipedia has been a success – and although the term has ended, many students are still editing.

May was the last month of classes but a lot of students say they’ll keep editing. It seems that the students are excited about the idea that they’re contributing Arabic topics in the Arab world.

The pilot project, involving 60 students from 7 classes in 2 universities, had students create articles in Arabic Wikipedia either as part of the curriculum or as an extra curricula activity. An initial survey asking students what would motivate them to edit Wikipedia had a sense of contributing information about Egypt or the Arab world as the most common motivation. Lin says that when they show maps of Portuguese Wikipedia compared to Arabic Wikipedia, professors and students are shocked at the low numbers of Arabic articles.Read More… From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures