Archive | November, 2012

Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap


Editor’s note: In this guest post, James Robson discusses how he used Google docs as a platform to conduct a series of life history interviews with Religious Education subject teachers in which he would ask interviewees to write about their lives in response to a few questions and then build on their responses with requests for clarification over the period of about 2 months. James writes that this format benefited from what is often seen as a weakness of email interviews  (the ability of interviewees to tap into the stories that people told about themselves) and enabled him to build sufficient trust among interviews to request face to face meetings, where he was able to use the narrative documents that they had produced as a stimulus for further questions. 

James Robson is a DPhil student at the Department of Education at Oxford University who is interested in ICT and religious education. He is currently focused on the contribution ICT can make to secondary school Religious Education (RE) teachers’ aspirations for their subject and how RE teachers perceive ICT as an aid to forging subject meaning.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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There are a few issues that always seem to come up again and again in the context of digital ethnography, but one of the most prominent is the issue of how to study phenomena or groups that exist across online and offline contexts.  An increasing number of studies take such a focus, often using various forms of multi-sited ethnography as suggested by Marcus.  However, such an approach can involve issues of disconnection between sites when the ethnographer moves between online and offline contexts and disconnected data gathering methods.  This problem is exemplified by a common research design, much criticized by Boellstorff in his chapter in Horst and Miller’s recent book, Digital Anthropology (2012), where researchers conduct interviews in isolation, paired with analysis of text from online communities.  This raises ontological and epistemological concerns relating to the extent to which culture can be consciously known by those within it and risks becoming a disconnected light analysis of more expansive issues.

This was a major concern (although there were many more) that I grappled with when starting my doctorate – investigating teachers’ use of online social spaces, focusing particularly on how online engagement with peers influences the construction of their professional identities.  Now that I’ve finished my fieldwork, am writing up, and am (hopefully) in my final year, I want to share here how I came up with a solution to the online-offline issue since it worked pretty well for me. Hopefully it might be useful for somebody else.

From the beginning it was clear to me that my field constituted multiple sites, both online and offline since secondary school teacher identity, even if partially constructed through interaction online, is still rooted and negotiated in other spaces – most obviously schools, but also conferences and continuing professional development (CPD) activities (e.g. training afternoons).  Therefore, I knew that I needed a way of bringing the online and offline together in a meaningful and holistic way (without failing to note the inherent differences between them).  My research design was essentially based around participant observations in three main online social spaces and several offline settings (mainly conferences and schools) and life history interviews.  Therefore, in the first instance, in order to ensure my observations were properly linked with my interviews, I recruited interviewees online through my own participation in the relevant online sites.

I then developed a slightly modified method of life history interviewing which would take place in both online and offline ethnographic contexts and would enhance certain aspects of each.  Building on the life history approach where the interviewer is viewed as a co-constructor of the participants’ narratives, I set up an online collaborative document, in this case a Google Doc, for each participant.  In it were some basic questions eliciting their life story in relation their use of the online social spaces I was studying, but also going further into their stories of how they became teachers, descriptions of their schools and examples of how their online interaction fits into their daily lives.  Then as part of an ongoing iterative process, lasting around two months, I placed questions inside the text and highlighted sections that required more information or clarification.  As time went on, these documents grew and grew into lengthy co-constructed narratives that were incredibly detailed and rich.Read More… Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap

Ethnozine: November 2012 (Anniversary) Edition


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This month we celebrate Ethnographymatter’s first year with a bumper edition of features about ethnographic practice in the world, as well as some exciting news about the growth of our team!

Tricia Wang writes a reflection of the past year at Ethnography Matters, covering some of the more remarkable discussions over the year as we’ve grown into a “community of mavericks whose curiosity about and commitment to ethnography have ignited discussions about ethnography outside of formal institutions”. Rachelle Annechino tells us the “love story of two ethnographers” by letting us in on her chats with Judd and Tamar Antin about their work as research scientists studying motivation and public health narratives.

We’re really lucky to have two guest contributors this month. Wendy Hsu writes about the software that she built to gather more qualitative data for her research on independent rock musicians, and Erik Bigras shares the story of The Asthma Files, a project to understand the contested space of asthma research.

This month also sees the launch of the Ethnomatters Book Club #ethnobookclub with a conversation about what struck readers as important or interesting about Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ book, ‘Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil’.

We’d love you to contribute to the discussion, so feel free to head on over to the group or contribute your ideas on the blog or anywhere else using the #ethnobookclub tag. We’re also hoping to see a few face-to-face book clubs emerging and feeding into the virtual conversation in the new year so let us know if you’re interested in starting one in your city!

Last, but certainly not least, to celebrate our one-year anniversary we’re very excited to announce that Nicolas Nova joins the team as a regular contributor. Nicolas has written several guest posts already for Ethnomatters and brings a great deal of experience in design research, interaction design and speculative applied ethnography. What’s more, Nicolas is based in Switzerland and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe so we’re looking forward to him bringing a new community of European researchers to our conversation.

What a year it’s been! Here’s to even more fruitful, supportive conversations in the next 🙂

The Ethnomatters Team.

PS: Would you like to be our next guest contributor? Ethnography Matters is your space. You can feature a project/paper/book/syllabus, provide a fieldwork update, or share your thoughts. Here are some more ideas for how you can participate. We’d love to hear from you!

Announcements

  • Today (19 November) Deadline for Microsoft Research Social Media Collective postdoctoral research applications. “This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues.”
  • 30 November Deadline for contributions to the December EthnoZine edition
  • New blog The American Anthropological Association’s Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) recently launched a new blog that ‘aims to promote dialogue on theories, tools, and social interactions that explore questions at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies.

Next month

Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary


Ethnography Matters is one year old this month! Pick CC BY NC SA by jacsonquerubin on Flickr

Ethnography Matters is one year old! Anniversaries are always surrounded with a quality of epicness and grandness. But I don’t feel so much epic or grand today as I feel grateful.

When Heather Ford asked me to join her, Rachelle Annechino, and Jenna Burrell to start a group blog about ethnography, I immediately said yes. Honestly, it’s not too hard to get me blogging – I already have like 20 blogs. I would’ve agreed if Heather asked me to blog about doggies. Though it did help that Heather, Jenna, and Rachelle are really wonderful people 🙂

But I said yes to Ethnography Matters because I recognized that the space we were carving out was important because nobody was talking about and celebrating ethnographers who weren’t bound by the traditional boundaries of anthropology and sociology.  Most conversations about ethnography were taking place either inside industry doors, academic conferences or departmentx, or blogs that fell along industry or field boundaries.

We felt that ethnography should be understood by a wider audience of non-specialists.  At the same time, we recognized that ethnographers needed a space to talk about the new challenges and opportunities that digital tools posed as objects of study, as analytical tools, and as a medium for conducting fieldwork.

When I joined Ethnography Matters, I didn’t realize how important it would become for my own work.  I was in the middle of an 18-month fieldwork trip that was the last phase of my 7 years of fieldwork in China. I was feeling a bit isolated from other forms of ethnography as this was my longest stint of academic research.

Since my first post in October 2011, I’ve come to rely on Ethnography Matters as a place for me to be exposed to other ethnographers’ experiences.  I have learned so much from Heather, Rachelle, and Jenna over the last year.

Heather’s Wikipedia posts are always illuminating and her post on Coye Chesire’s seminar on trust is super helpful for my own research on online trust. Her interview with Stuart Geiger on the ethnography of robots really pushed me to think about ethnography in a whole different context, and even now I can’t totally wrap my mind around it – like really – ethnography on robots? Read More… Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor


Editor’s Note: When we launched  Ethnography Matters one year ago in October 2011, we wanted to create a place for ethnographers who were fluid in their practice, ideas, and theories. And so far, the interactions in the comments, on twitter and facebook, and along with our amazing guest contributors, have reflected our original goal. We’re excited that you’ve all made this possible by reading, contributing, and tweeting. While we come from different disciplines, backgrounds, and industries, it doesn’t mean that we can’t build conversations that stretch outside our institutional circles for support, new ideas, and collaborations.

To celebrate our one year anniversary, we’re very excited to announce that Ethnography Matters is expanding! Nicolas Nova is joining EM as a regular contributor. You may be familiar with Nicolas as he has written several guest posts already for EM. He brings a lot of experience and expertise in design research, interaction design, and speculative applied ethnography. Nicolas is based in Switzerland, teaches at the Geneva University of Arts and Design, and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe, so we look forward to expanding EM to the European community of ethnographers. He co-founded Lift, a conference that has often been described as the cozier & smaller version of TED. He’s been blogging about his research since 2003 on Pasta & Vinegar.
We thought it would be fun to introduce Nicolas by asking him some questions about, of course, ethnography! And if you have any more questions for Nicolas, ask in the comments section below. 
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How did you discover ethnography?
I “formally” discovered ethnography during my undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences when studying in France. Aside from classes in experimental psychology, we had courses in linguistics and cultural anthropology which is where I ran across this field and its approach. I remember that the lectures were fascinating, and the assignments were even more intriguing. We had to run interviews and observe curious topics such as how car-makers named auto-parts and their color, or how people make sense of the spatial environment. What caught me as interesting at the time was the approach, as it was totally different than the controlled experiments we had to run in Cognitive Psychology. Now that I think about it, the gap between these research endeavors is also huge in an epistemological sense, and I’m not sure that people in our program got that from the outset, but it was a marvelous opportunity to understand ethnography.
What did you enjoy about it when you started to learn about it? 

What I enjoyed was that it framed the way I was curious about the world, artifacts, people, and what they were doing. It basically corresponded to a more rigorous approach compared to something I use to do as a kid with my brother: going anywhere, sitting on a bench and looking at people, trying to make sense of what they were doing… an activity we used to called very naively “street physiognomy” (which, in retrospect, wasn’t physiognomy at all since we were focused on people’s activities).
Read More… We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor

In between is the place where you have to understand people: Social science, stigma, and data big or small


Judd and Tamar

Editor’s Note: Judd Antin @juddantin is a social psychologist and user experience researcher who studies motivations for online participation. In 2011, he was named an MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35. Prior to joining Facebook, he worked with Yahoo Research.  His educational background includes Applied Anthropology, Information Science, and training at the French Culinary Institute. One of my favorite papers of his is Readers are Not Free Riders: Reading as a form of participation on Wikpedia (pdf) [1].

Tamar Antin is a research scientist who uses mixed and especially qualitative methods to critically examine public health policies and narratives. She has several years of experience in public health research. One of her recent publications is Food Choice As a Multidimensional Experience [2].   Her dissertation [3] combining three papers on food choices and body image is excellent reading for any student of qualitative methods. 

I’ve known Tamar and Judd for several years now, and Tamar has been a mentor to me. Every time Tamar and I talk about research and ethnography, it never seems to last long enough; I just want to ask her more questions. And every time I see Judd, I want to ask him a million questions too. So a post for Ethnography Matters was a great excuse to get together with them for a chat on anthropology, Big Data and Small Data, and other interesting things.  –  Rachelle

P.S. This isn’t a straight transcript of our conversation but a sort of Frankenstein transcript made out of chopped up pieces sewn back together. 

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1. Two Ethnographers
2. What they’re working on
3. Stigma and hacking
4. Qualitative research as art, science and handmaiden
5. Big Data and Small Data

1. Two Ethnographers

What’s your background in anthropology?.

Judd: I have an undergraduate degree in anthro from Johns Hopkins, where I was one of seven anthropology majors I think, like in the whole university. It was a small department. I got interested in anthro primarily because of my adviser, who became our friend, Felicity Northcott. Coincidentally she also married Tamar and I. She was internet ordained and she officiated our wedding. She’s awesome.  She was just a very down to earth, foul-mouthed, passionate anthropologist.

Tamar: And for me, I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology also, from the University of Texas. I was having this conversation with the undergraduate adviser there at the end of my senior year, like okay now I have this degree, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I went to the career center, and they had a list of all the jobs that you could do with certain majors, and I think the only job that was listed for anthropology majors was travel agent.

Judd: What?

Tamar: Oh yeah. I was thinking, well I don’t want to do that.

Judd: Travel agent?!

Read More… In between is the place where you have to understand people: Social science, stigma, and data big or small

#ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”


Yesterday I settled down with a cup of coffee at Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford to re-read the highlights that I’d made of the Kindle edition of our book club book of the month, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ “Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil“. But, once again, I was drawn so completely into her really lucid, powerful writing about her role in the field of the alto that I found myself re-reading the chapter and thinking about how I might apply her approach in my own ethnographic work (or alternatively as where I might be a little more tenuous). I’m kicking off what we hope you might continue: picking a single paragraph that stood out for you the most and talking about what it means to you and your practice. Feel free to post in the comments section below or come on over to the mailing list where the team will be discussing the book with the incredible group of ethnographers who inhabit it. Also feel free to blog, Tweet and/or talk about the book in other places by using the tag #ethnobookclub as you come across interesting stuff! 

Situating my own work and the act of “witnessing” the experience of many Wikipedians in terms that Nancy Scheper-Hughes uses

“The field” in Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s book is the hillside favela above the plantation town of Bom Jesus de Mata in Northeastern Brazil. Scheper-Hughes returns to the village that she had worked in as a 20-year-old activist to try to understand why mothers do not treat the death of so many of their infants as a tragedy. During a period of 25 years, returning on and off to the village, Scheper-Hughes follows three generations of shantytown women in their struggles against starvation, sickness and death.

Scheper-Hughes says that her writing departs from traditional or classical ethnography in the way that the self, other, and scientific objectivity are handled, as well as how her own values and sympathies are made explicit, rather than “invisible” or hidden. She describes the role of the ethnographer as follows (my highlights):

The ethnographer, like the artist, is engaged in a special kind of vision quest through which a specific interpretation of the human condition, an entire sensibility, is forged. Our medium, our canvas, is “the field”, a place both proximate and intimate (because we have lived some part of our lives there) as well as forever distant and unknowably “other” (because our own destinies lie elsewhere). In the act of “writing culture,” what emerges is always a highly subjective, partial, and fragmentary – but also deeply felt and personal – record of human lives based on eyewitness and testimony. The act of witnessing is what lends our work its moral (at times its almost theological) character. So-called participant observation has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really prefer not to go at all and once there doesn’t know how to go about getting out except through writing, which draws others there as well, making them party to the act of witnessing.

I love this paragraph for so many reasons, but the glimpse of answers to three important questions stand out for me:Read More… #ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”