A first time contributor to Ethnography Matters, Jay Owens shares her summer reading list with us in the Ethnographer’s Book List series. I became familiar with Jay through liking and reblogging many of her tumblr posts. I eventually wandered over to Jay’s website that had the byline: tech + culture: patterns, trends, lines of flight. I soon found out that Jay is a social media research at FACE, a research and innovation agency in London. And like many of us who find our way to projects and friends online, Jay got her job through Twitter (@hautepop). Jay tells me that she wants to write an ethnography of teenage Tumblr. (We hope you start that project soon!) Previously Jay studied social anthropology at the LSE. You can learn more about Jay’s research on her twitter, tumblr, or her website.
As a commercial researcher I look somewhat enviously at the rhythms of the academic year, when the summer can be a time away from reading lists or teaching schedules allowing for – hopefully – some wider reading and exploration. Nonetheless, working at the intersection of qual & quant research, social media technology and online behaviour means there’s a lot of areas I need to read up on this summer – below is only a fraction of my to-read list.
Research methods are a crucial area: with little in the way of established methods in my field, rigorous thinking about data, analysis and epistemology is essential for producing robust results. Theoretically, too, working on contemporary Western society means I want to add ideas from media studies, geography and economics to the anthropological grounding I gained at university. Finally ethnography, bringing it all together and asserting the primacy of people’s lived experiences.
Recommendations here would be particularly welcome if you believe there are better books I should attend to in these areas first. But so far, these are the key three:
1. John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004)
This book proved essential during my Masters thesis on the cultural meaning of dust (!), offering a much-needed way to think about something really fundamentally messy and impossible to fix within any theoretical paradigm I examined. Now, I’m really curious what its core arguments about indeterminacy and othering look like when read through my current lens of social media data. What’s more, Law’s argument that “methods don’t just describe social realities but are also involved in creating them” is a massive and necessary provocation for anyone working in this field. The work we do with for example public Twitter API data – performing analyses essentially inaccessible to the people creating the information – clearly, politically, this raises questions Law should help me to better address.
Donald Norman’s Living With Complexity may make a useful adjunct to pursue the complexity theme through to empirical implementations in user experience design.
2. Sarah Boslow & Paul Andrew Waters, Statistics in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference (O’Reilly Media, 2008)
Call it the digital humanities or the ‘quantitative turn’ in social sciences research – knowing what to do with quantitative data is becoming essential for cultural and communications research. The social media data I analyse includes hundreds of different distributions, be they frequency of tweeting, number of people followed, or reblogs per photo – and I want to get a better grasp of how to model and analyse them. This book has two particularly attractive features: Chapter 6 on critiquing statistics and understanding common pitfalls, and an orientation towards uses and applications rather than mathematical proofs.
3. Mark Newman, Networks: An Introduction (OUP, 2010)
Continuing in a quantitative vein, I also hope to make time for this comprehensive introduction to network theory and computational methods. Working in commercial research gives me the luxury of not having to run all the analysis myself – we work with a developer team – but nonetheless the more technical knowledge I gain, the more interesting questions I can ask. This book appeals for its breadth, bringing together network studies from biology, computing and physics as well as the social sciences. In this way I hope it’ll offer more than a typical social sciences guide to social network analysis (e.g. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology by Christina Prell, 2011) which seems a bit small-scale to speak to the million-message datasets we use in social media research.
4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Electronic communication is the very matter I research and yet I’ve never read McLuhan properly. Looking back to a classic from 1964 will hopefully cut through the distractions of much writing on contemporary social media - all the books from 2011 claiming Google+ as the future, or those from 2007 heralding the era of MySpace – and demand some serious thinking about how the now fits into thousands of years of technology and information. (Failing that it’ll provide a lucrative source of quotations for Powerpoint presentations…)
5. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso, 2012)
In attempting to keep thinking about things post-university (I’m 26), as much as I’ve done so it’s been through two channels: Twitter and an urban politics reading group. The city provides a valuably approachable terrain for thinking about how power and systems interoperate – a way of fixing abstractions of capital or modernity into something familiar and tangible. As the recession double-dips and the financial crisis lurches on, Harvey’s book will – I hope – offer a way of thinking from a Marxist perspective that will feel practical, reasonable and actionable.
6. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011)
Little needs to be said here other than a shame-faced confession that I’ve still not read it.
7. Suzanne Hall, City, Street and Citizen: The Measure of the Ordinary (Routledge, 2012)
A shame this has been published at university-library-only prices (£80!) – as an ethnography of south London’s Walworth Road, City, Street and Citizen could surely be of interest to many. Multiculturalism has become hugely devalued in British political discourse and yet it’s undeniably a lived reality in the capital. I’m fascinated to read Hall’s account of the micro-politics of relationship and difference, performance and exchange among small shopkeepers on this Southwark street – I think it’ll be a real case of making an area I know quite well both familiar and strange, as the best ethnographies should.
Suggesting comparison is Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Matthews (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – an account of the most globalised building on earth.