August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?


Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’.

Similarly, and perhaps paradoxically, an ethnography of the objects is a useful way of understanding social worlds – especially in today’s information-rich environments. Although we start at infrastructure and objects, we don’t end there. We use these material forms to connect people to the objects they construct and share, and this enables us to highlight the relationships between people in new ways. As Gina Neff who spoke at the conference about her work on documents noted: ‘How people work together can be explained by the stuff that they share and the way they share it.’

Most importantly, perhaps, studying specific objects ethnographically can help us thread the needle between entirely eliminating physical infrastructures from our field of analysis and engaging in a kind of McLuhanist technological determinism. Analyzing, say, the manner in which a bot performs its work within the networks of Wikipedia truth-building can clue us into the fact that bots really do play a major role in how Wikipedia works, all the while helping us avoid the more grandiose claims of technological theorists who might want to reduce what is interesting about Wikipedia to the operations of a kind of weightless digital culture (see Stuart Geiger’s post later this month for more on this).

As we saw in some of the previous discussions of bots on Ethnography Matters, though, taking this step can be controversial.

Critiques and Responses

Studying objects is particularly controversial when we turn our gaze from the social world in general to the specific domains of media, technology, and the news – which is a special focus of this particular issue of Ethnography Matters. As Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars Ignacio Siles and Pablo Boczkowski, and Judy Wajacman and Paul K. Jones have noted in separate but parallel articles, communications research has long been concerned with representation – the way particular clusters of texts, sounds, and images convey meaning to both human producers and audiences.

This is exactly why our collective advocacy is not limited to the application of Actor-Network Theory and concepts of STS to the stuff and the people that make the news.  As Pablo Boczkowski put it in its notes for the Objects of Journalism pre-conference, the dialog between scholars studying objects and more traditional forms of social research is a conversation that must be ‘approached as a two-way street, trying to incorporate ideas from other domains but also aiming to influence them’. Other subfields in communication research, such as organizational communication, have undergone a successful material turn and have paved the way by attempting to combine reflections on objects and materiality with, for example, Bakhtinian dialogism —or other concepts originating from linguistics. Communication scholars know how to deal with language, meaning and semiotics: why would we suddenly forget these assets when dealing with objects?


Survey image by roboppy on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA

There are more general criticisms which might be mounted against the notion of pursuing an ethnography of objects. Objects don’t have agency in the same way that humans do, some argue. Focusing on objects means that you ignore the culpability of people and institutions, others might claim. The specter of technological determinism has often been (groundlessly?) raised when criticizing ANT: by stating an equivalence between humans and non-humans — both called “actants”— it is said to flatten the social forces that are at stake.  Finally, how can you even perform an “ethnography” of objects, anyway? Isn’t ethnographic research particularly concerned with the actions of human beings, the larger structures in which these human actions are embedded, and the meaning (there’s that word again) that humans attribute to what they do?

We think these concerns are legitimate, but overblown.

When a social scientist declares that they’re focusing or framing their study around an analysis of an object or objects, the immediate reaction is often to link this choice to the long-running debates around actor network theory and the question of whether things/objects have agency. But the value of an ethnographic focus on objects is quite simple, and need not be caught up in the somewhat arid, scholastic debates within the field of STS. A focus on objects enables us to look further afield than the usual suspects when investigating the mechanics of social action — especially in technologically mediated environments.

For people working in education, business, the media and government, interaction with objects and tools in particular spaces is a key element of daily work practice. Studying those objects (their history, paths and affordances) as well as the interaction between people and objects can be a fruitful way of understanding the ways in which people-interacting-with-objects affects everything from our relationship to politics and politicians, to media and culture, to the environment and personal relationships. As Star notes, infrastructure is not a collection of objects but ‘a fundamentally relational concept.’

Next up

In the weeks that follow, we’ll be bringing you objects – both familiar and strange. Juliette de Meyer (@juliettedm) will talk about the ubiquitous hyperlink, Stuart Geiger (@steaiou) will bring us images and thoughts on Wikipedia bots, Andie Tucher will present us with a fascinating “faked” photograph from the 19th century and Joe Cutbirth (@jcutbirth) will give us a piece on “bar rags” in gay communities in 1970/80s Texas. We’ll end the series by interviewing the founder of the Object Ethnography Project and hear stories about some of their fascinating object exchanges.

Get ready to be able to look at these objects very, very differently!

CW Anderson (favorite object: the survey data entry form) is an ethnographer who studies how changes in technology, culture and economics are shaping journalism as Assistant Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island (USA).

Juliette de Maeyer (favorite object: hyperlink) is a a PhD student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) who looks at how the dynamics shaping news production can be understood by looking at one particular object: the hyperlink.

Heather Ford (favorite object: infobox) studies how Wikipedians write history as it happens as a DPhil student at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute (UK).

Featured image by Cova.69 CC BY on Flickr

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6 Responses to “August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects”

  1. August 15, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    In the last couple of days, as well as reading Star’s paper about the importance of studying infrastructures, I’ve read about Latanya Sweeney’s experience of racism via Google adwords, as a side effect of big-data crunching ( via ) and Jenny Chan’s account of the life of a Chinese worker potentially building Apple components: “A suicide survivor”


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