Archive | January, 2013

A Day in the Life: 3-wheeled Vehicle-based Fruit Vendor


imageEditor’s Note: A few weeks ago Fulbright Fellow Zach Hyman @SqInchAnthro introduced readers to the world of low-resource creativity in China. In this post he takes us into a day in the life of a 3-Wheeled Vehicle-based Fruit Vendor. Below is a rich ethnographic description, giving deep glimpses into the detailed financial exchanges and intricate processes that unfold in just one day. Zach concludes his post with several reflections on the social interactions that hold a day like this together.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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Introduction: My preferred method for researching  how owners use and modify their vehicles is engaging in participant observation by riding along and working with them. Once I am able to break through the barrier of convincing vehicle owners that I am not afraid of “getting my hands dirty” and am eager to help them work, the stage is set for a day filled with insights as I work side by side with users in context and see firsthand the role their vehicle plays in their lives. This particular ride-along came relatively early on in my research, where I had the privilege of riding along with a fruit vendors who uses their three-wheeled vehicle 1) to transport fruit from the market to the point of sale, 2) as a means of displaying the fruit to customers, and 3) a storage solution for the fruit when the vehicle is parked at his home at the end of the day. In this post, I explore the first of these uses.

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Click for larger version

6:50 AM: I am standing at the junction of the ShiQiao Bridge, in Chongqing, China. The sun is trying to pierce through the heavy morning mist. It is early October, I can barely see my breath, and the smell of diesel and exhaust begins to intensify with each passing minute I spend standing at this intersection of a tunnel and the 4-lane road that feeds into it. I am surprised at the lack of guidance provided to the lanes of merging drivers, and I stop keeping track after witnessing a dozen near misses. Surprisingly, there is not much honking, just labored, steady merging. I am not alone here – there are other people who have congregated at this natural pick-up point. Unlike myself, they are dressed for office jobs – two girls in matching formal uniforms and sporting gold plastic nametags. Another man wearing a loose-fitting suit, resting his black leather briefcase on the concrete divider as he leans against it on a piece of newspaper, eats dumplings held in a plastic bag. At 7:00 AM, a late-model Volkswagen Passat pulls up and the women jump in. The man continues to eat his dumplings.

Read More… A Day in the Life: 3-wheeled Vehicle-based Fruit Vendor

On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Unlike other posts that start off text or images, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu opens up her third post in her guest series on digital ethnography with sound. She wants us to click PLAY before reading on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use sound in your fieldwork, you’ll still find this to be a useful exercise in opening your ethnographic ears.

After you click PLAY,  you’ll appreciate Wendy’s message: our fieldsites are rich with sound data that carries a lot of meaning. She closes her post with a great discussion theorizing digital ethnography as horizontal versus vertical immersion.

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Above is a field recording of mini pinball machines that I collected in the Lungtan township in Taiwan. In it, you can hear the sounds of the machines, scooters, and a conversation that I had with my father while we were trying to figure out how to play the pinball machines. This field recording is rich in texture and meaning.

I know that not all ethnographers work with sound. But I do think that it could be useful to reconsider the sonic (and by extension, the visual) dimensions of our work. I propose an engagement with the textures of human speech in its original sonic. This approach counters the traditional emphasis on text and its impulse to textualize sound in ethnography. This perhaps is most on conspicuous in the practice of transcribing interviews.

You all can probably recall moments of dealing with the complexity of meaning embedded in the tone or the delivery of oral content in interviews. There are sounds of the environment that the informant has chosen to carry out an interview or interact with. Do these sounds reveal anything about the speaker and her relationship to her physical and social environment? Are there other voices in the room? Incidental sounds? Does the tone of the speaker react to and interact with the sounds of the environment in anyway? Where are the points of dissonance and resonance?Read More… On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)

#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community


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In light of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz and the scrutiny it has placed on JSTOR in particular, the economics of research publications, and the ethics of keeping research publications behind paywalls, I thought there were a few more things to say about open access.

I’ve contemplated the idea for some time now about publishing from here on out only in open access journals. I already freely e-mail my own publications to anyone who requests a copy. And I just feel better (more virtuous?) when I publish a paper in an open access journal. I’ve published in both open and closed access journals. It could be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed that when I publish in open access journals, those publications tend to get more citations. That’s not proof, but it is a good sign that open access does a better job of getting your work in front of readers (which is obvious because such journals are available to the whole of the Internet, not just those who can get past a paywall). The reason I’ve published in ‘closed’ journals has to do with the pressures of being tenure-track. Some of the more prestigious journals are not open access. I’m looking at YOU Science, Technology and Human Values and New Media and Society. Anthropology journals in particular are notoriously out of step with the push towards open access (see the many posts over on Savage Minds, for example).

Read More… #GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community

Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)


Culture close up Bomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Culture close-up by biomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Last month’s Wired magazine showed an infographic with a headline that read: ‘History’s most influential people, ranked by Wikipedia reach’ with a group of 20 men arranged in hierarchical order — from Jesus at number 1 to Stalin at number 20. Curious, I wondered how ‘influence’ and ‘Wikipedia reach’ was being decided. According to the article, ‘Rankings (were) based on parameters such as the number of language editions in which that person has a page, and the number of people known to speak those languages’. What really surprised me was not the particular arrangement of figures on this page but the conclusions that were being drawn from it.

According to the piece, César Hidalgo, head of the Media Lab’s Macro Connections group, who researched the data, made the following claims about the data gathered from Wikipedia:

a) “It shows you how the world perceives your own national culture.

b) “It’s a socio-cultural mirror.

c) “We use historical characters as proxies for culture.

And finally, perhaps most surprising is this final line in the story:

Using this quantitative approach, Hidalgo is now testing hypotheses such as whether cultural development is structured or random. “Can you have a Steve Jobs in a country that has not generated enough science or technology?” he wonders. “Ultimately we want to know how culture assembles itself.”

It is difficult to comment on the particular method used by this study because there is little more than the diagram and a few paragraphs of analysis, and the journalist may have misquoted him, but I wanted to draw attention to the statements being made because I think it represents the growing phenomenon of big data analysts using Wikipedia data to make assumptions about ‘culture’.Read More… Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)

On Teaching Social Media to Undergraduates [Syllabus As Essay]


Alice3_smEditor’s Note: We are very happy to feature Ethnography Matter’s first Syllabus as Essay post for 2013 from Alice Marwick, a researcher who conducted pioneering ethnographic fieldwork on the world of social media use. Simply titled, “Social Media,” the syllabus that she created for undergraduate students at Fordham University is breathtaking and groundbreaking. Not only did Alice construct an interdisciplinary reading list to prepare her students to critically analyze social media, she also aimed to give her students practical social media skills for entry-level jobs and internships. Who does that? Only a professor who has a deep understanding of the contemporary internet!

While we weren’t lucky enough to be Alice’s student, she gives us an abbreviated tour of her class below. Alice explains her motivations for including several key readings in her syllabus. We get a peak into some of the lesson assignments for her students. We also get to learn how she integrated tumblr into her lesson plans.

Alice is currently an Assistant Professor at Fordham University in the Department of Communication and Media Studies and an academic affiliate at the Center for Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School. She is turning her dissertation, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Self-Branding in Web 2.0, into a book. 

Are you teaching a class on ethnography that engages with issues of technology? Then consider being our next guest poster for the Syllabus as Essay series! 

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[Social Media Week by Fora do Eixo on Flickr]

I started my first semester as an assistant professor at Fordham with free range to take over a recently-added undergraduate class called “Social Media.” I’ve seen social media classes taught at the undergraduate level that focus entirely on learning to use the sites du jour. Not only does this approach not age well, it doesn’t give students skills to analyze social media critically, which is my primary ethos of teaching media studies.  Instead, I decided to spend the first half of the class grounding the students in a mish-mash of theory drawn from computer-mediated communication (CMC), science and technology studies (STS), and digital ethnography, and the second half organized topically, around key areas of interest like journalism, memes, and privacy. I wanted to do two things with the class: First, give the students some practical skills they could bring to bear in an internship or entry-level job, and second, focus on the sociotechnical, the interplay between technological affordances and social norms, to provide a skill set that would enable students to approach new sites and apps with a critical eye.

For a textbook, I chose Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Like me, Baym is trained in communication, but uses ethnography as her primary method. The book gives a thorough schooling in CMC theory, some of which is out of fashion but still useful, and more modish key concepts in STS, while maintaining a critical, anthropological viewpoint.

Read More… On Teaching Social Media to Undergraduates [Syllabus As Essay]

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)


whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s Note: Reddit. Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. These days it’s difficult to go anywhere online without encountering an anonymous troll (or ten). Debates about trolling, which is best described as deliberately antagonistic or otherwise provocative online speech and behavior, have even seeped into congressional hearingsIn research conducted between 2008 and 2012, Whitney Phillips @wphillips49 –who received her PhD in English with a Digital Culture/Folklore emphasis from the University of Oregon– investigated the origins and subcultural contours of online trolling. Using a combination of cultural studies, new media studies and ethnography, Whitney postulated that there is more to trolls and trolling behaviors than detractors might initially think. 

The subject of Whitney’s research leads us to ask, how does one conduct ethnographic research on an anonymous, and at times malicious, online population? In the first post of her three-part guest series, Whitney shares with us how she tackled the ethical pitfalls of her groundbreaking research. She also discusses how these pitfalls allowed her to make larger claims about trolling, with particular focus on the striking overlap between trolling and mainstream behaviors.  We look forward to her next post on her participant observation expeditions with trolls.       

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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My name is Whitney Phillips, and I study trolls. Well, not just trolls. I’ve also written about meme culture, so-bad-it’s-good fan engagement (my essay on the kuso aesthetic in Troll 2 is forthcoming in Transformative Works and Cultures), and online shaming. But for the better part of five-ish years, my life has revolved around trolls and the trolls who troll them. The title of my dissertation—THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embeddedness of Online Trolling—pretty much says it all.

As I will discuss in this and several subsequent guest posts, my research experiences have been something of a mixed bag. Writing about trolls (to say nothing about working with trolls) has certainly been engaging, but has also proven to be the most consistently frustrating, challenging, and at times downright infuriating endeavor I have ever attempted. Which is one of the main reasons it has been so engaging, go figure.

Because in the end, it was the complications—the incomplete data sets, the trolls’ endless prevarications, the incessant march of subcultural change—that gave rise to my basic argument, the nutshell version of which can be found in my response to the Violentacrez controversy. As I argue, trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scavenge and repurpose mainstream content, allowing one to extrapolate what’s going on in the dominant culture by examining what’s going on in the troll space. I could not have written my way into this argument if things had gone according to plan. I needed those roadblocks, even if at the time they made me want to rip out my hair.

Read More… Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)

Inside the World of Low-tech, Resource-constrained Creativity in China [Fieldnote Update]


A father-son team work together in a workshop modifying three-wheeled vehicles in Guizhou, China.

A father-son team work together in a workshop modifying three-wheeled vehicles in Guizhou, China.

imageEditor’s Note: When we started Ethnography Matters, we envisioned it to be a place where ethnographers could share updates from their fieldsites. Last month, An Xiao Mina shared her fieldnotes, Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes. This month, Zach Hyman @SqInchAnthro shares his fieldnotes from his fieldsite in China.

Zach is based in Chongqing, China on a year long ethnographic dive into creative practices of vehicular design among resource-constrained users. After four months in the field, Zach shares with Ethnography Matters his first field update. 

His observations on low-tech vehicles are incredibly relevant for the current global shifts in automative production. China is now the largest car market. But many Western companies are discovering that simply transferring a car designed for Western users does not appeal to Asian users. Point in case GM’s Cadillac, a car built for American consumers fails to connect to Chinese consumers.  It’s no surprise to an audience of ethnographers  that cultural values inform design decisions, but companies like GM are having to learn the hard way.  

A deep understanding of workers’ current vehicle practices reveals new opportunities to develop vehicles that challenge the current domination of resource-intensive cars. One entrepreneur, Joel Jackson, created Mobius One in Kenya with local welders to overcome transport challenges. The result? A $6,000 low-tech car made for Africa. Like Joel, Zach’s research contributes to a growing group of designers and entrepreneurs who will create a new class of vehicles. 

Find Zach on Instagram @SquareInchAnthro and twitter @SqInchAnthro

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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I am presently based out of Chongqing, China, conducting research for a Fulbright grant on resource-constrained creativity surrounding mobility across China. So far, my work has me riding along with, living with, and working alongside urban and peri-urban vehicle users. I have been conducting ethnographic “deep dives” to better understand vehicles’ role in today’s (and tomorrow’s) China. To that end, I will be spending this year documenting and reflecting upon the patterns and practices of mobile creativity.

This is the first of many opportunities to share with a wider audience glimpses  into some of the aspects I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for my research. Enjoy this initial serving, stay tuned for future updates here on Ethnography Matters, and point yourself towards squareinchanthro.com for more of what you see below. Here’s more information more about the technique I’m practicing of using Instagram to write live fieldnotes similar to the ones below.

I_ UN/REACHABLE: In a talk at 2011’s Poptech Conference, Jan Chipchase identified the practice in Seoul of vehicle owners displaying their cellphone number on their vehicle so they may be notified if it must be moved. A similar practice can be found amongst 3-wheeled vehicle-owning fruit vendors who frequent Chongqing’s crowded wholesale fruit market – though this one has a slight twist.

Read More… Inside the World of Low-tech, Resource-constrained Creativity in China [Fieldnote Update]