Archive | September, 2013

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)


Jan-H. Passoth

Jan-H. Passoth

Nicholas J. Rowland

Nicholas J. Rowland

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.

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Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better if you try that second time or a third time, and at any point after that. The writing of a genius wordsmith and the report of a serious scholar; how could they be comparable in any meaningful way? But because this series of blog-posts is exactly about fiction and ethnography, we will try to answer our own question, nevertheless, and, if we are lucky, harvest a few insights from creative writing to improve our academic writing. Not being literary experts, but scholars – and free time readers of David Foster Wallace´s works – we are neither willing nor able to deliver an exegesis on Wallace’s work or hazard any reconstruction of his style, inter-textual analysis, and surely we won’t – we cannot – document all the pop-cultural linkages Wallace employed in his work. But there is something that we can offer; when we read his dense, immersive prose, we cannot help but thinking that it sounds like ethnography … really, really good ethnography.

Post-Irony and Reportage

Easting Lobsters

“Lobsters” by Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The germ of an approach to writing-up qualitative results, which lives-on in Wallace’s works, is actually quite funny … and Wallace was dead-serious about that … about being funny. Take the plain and bold reportage of  Consider the Lobster: When Wallace adds footnote 6 – the one he is sure will not survive magazine-editing – to the disgusting description of the main eating tent and admits that: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience“, we are given an example of what a post-ironic reportage could be. This is not funny, it is not clever and not highbrow ironic. Despite the talk of late date modernity, ontology and a Lacan-like desire, this is dead serious. It is filled with details and disgust, detailed coverage blended with a firm attitude. Some folks are calling Wallace’s tone-turned-technique for writing a ‘post-ironic’ writing style. The term post-ironic is not new, it is not without its critiques, and, from what we can tell, lives mainly in film and literature (and explicitly not the social sciences). For example, in The Comedy, comedian and anti-humorist Tim Heidecker, both in form and content, portrays an individual living a post-ironic life,

… a man with unlimited options. An aging hipster in Brooklyn, he spends his days in aimless recreation with like-minded friends … in games of comic irreverence and mock sincerity. As Swanson grows restless of the safety a sheltered life offers him, he tests the limits of acceptable behavior, pushing the envelope in every way he can. (movieweb.com)

Serious humor can also be found Werner Herzog’s film Bad Lieutenant or nearly anything from Wes Anderson. Wallace is something of a poster boy for post-ironic prose, because his stories are hilarious, but, at the same time and with the same words, dead serious. Or, in the case of The Pale King, the unfinished and posthumously published last big work, the other way round: incredibly dry and serious, but awfully touching and even funny in a playfully, Kafka-esque fashion.

Reflexivity

Again, any comparison between Wallace and qualitative research reports seems so unfair. David Foster Wallace was maybe the only author ever who was able to make the world of taxes fascinating; sorry record-keeping buffs, even Garfinkel, no matter how hard he wrote about the workplace during the 1940s and 1950s, simply cannot hold a candle to The Pale King. So, despite the unfairness of the comparison, there is still something to learn from Wallace about what our ethnographic accounts could be like. And our answer “What would Wallace write?”, of course, cannot be about mimicking Wallace’s writing style; that would be a dead-end for everyone but Wallace, and, after all, even Garfinkel, the master of ethnomethods, probably couldn’t match Wallace verb-for-verb, so we’re toast. It also cannot be about – and on this we are insistent – the ability to reach a wider audience; our reports in this endeavor called qualitative social science research cannot hinge on opening-up our audience or transforming how we target our work … if only because who knows what it would mean for tenure committees deciding on our fates in the academy. Of course, and above all, our research reports cannot be altered by delving into the fine art of crossing the boundary between fiction and serious scholarship; to wit, fictional ethnography would not constitute scholarship in the social sciences, would it? It worked for Daniel Defoe, but Robinson Crusoe was pretend; the reason to read ethnography, in contrast, is precisely because Mitch Duneier’s characters in Sidewalk were for sure real people. Instead of any of those sterile distractions, the only route forward involves considering – deeply – a concept at the heart of ethnography, qualitative methods, and “being” human, and that is reflexivity.

IRS

“IRS” by Alyson Hurt on flickr (CC-BY-NC)

Although most of David Foster Wallace texts are plainly reflexive endeavors, the one that stands out most is The Pale King – the unfinished piece about ways into and experiences working for the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Wallace wrote it, some say, for more than a decade. The piece stands as a good example of how much research must be done to produce such a text, which, we imagine, is quite similar to the sort of research necessary to produce a dense ethnographic report. From what is know about his work process, the book took years to mature. In the process, Wallace dug deep into the dry prose of IRS reports, the broader U.S. tax system, novels on the IRS, and, from what we hear, he even took accounting classes. For information rich reports to contain even a shred of serious humor or post-ironic wit, we need to understand how reflexivity figures into what ethnomeths-mogrels call ‘an accountable state of affairs’ – and reflexivity is a tool that David Foster Wallace was a true master of … an uncrowned king. Conceptualizing our ethnographic projects as preparatory work to produce a novel instead of a research report is tempting … quite tempting. But writing a novel, while it might seem more freeing and a more direct route to a different kind of truth, is not a practical solution for many of us in academia hired to work in social science departments. And, writing a novel seems likely awfully hard work. But we don’t have to. Wallace’s novel – and not just because of the so called “Author´s foreword” about 70 pages after the first word opened a fascinating, hidden-in-plain-sight world of taxes – is an incredible example of how to engage in reflexivity after all the lame turmoil of post-modern, meta-reflexive, self-positioning and the uber-lame deadlocks they have provided us with along the way. Wallace’s reflexivity, as we shall see, worked because it was self-exemplary.

Infra-Reflexivity

footnotes

“footnotes” produced by Nicholas J. Rowland and Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The upshot for us? We must recognize that reflexivity is a beloved and feared cornerstone of our ethnographic writing, as well as all other genres of producing reports based on qualitative methods, and, in a very special way, the only way to producing research on research. This is especially valuable for us because we need reflexivity to conduct research about research in Science & Technology Studies. But now, after years of trying to make our reports more and more reflexive – after Writing Culture and Ashmore´s wonderful, but ridiculous dissertation – we have the feeling that while we cannot stop being reflexive, because all accounts are automatically reflexive or they could not be communicated in the first place, there is no way to be more or less reflexive. Reflexivity, to cite Mike Lynch, is not an “academic virtue and a source of privileged knowledge” (Lynch 2000), but a practical and intransigent part of each and every human practice. Let’s return to Wallace for instruction on this matter; he writes: “Author here. […] David Wallace, age 40, SS No. 947-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deducible home office […] to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true” … and he means it. His comment is not a clever, ironic move toward self-positioning in the text and he is also not simply playing with fiction-truth in a fiction about truth. Wallace’s excerpt above is an exercise in what Latour (1988) called “infra-reflexivity”. As Latour long-ago instructed, Wallace found a way to let the book show marks of its own production; he offered the lived world and wrote it. Whether or not each detail in the story is true, in a scientific sense, simply does not matter. Whether or not the David Wallace in that passage is the David Foster Wallace that wrote The Pale King, simply does not matter. What does matter is that Wallace found a way to communicate to us how it is possible that anyone is able to provide such a clear and detailed account on the dullness and boredom that he experienced and which subsequently tries to capture for the reader. Though it is fiction, some of it must be true. No doubt, the account in the book is pretend – of that there can be no debate – however, there must have been years of research that went into the book, and, in principle, not all of can be made up – of that we are certain – it is totally implausible, if not impossible, that this fiction is fiction. We remember the secret pleasure we felt when not only browsing, but seriously digging through the masses and masses of footnoted footnotes that already made “Infinite Jest” so remarkable. We remember the James O. Incandenza filmography in footnote 24 and how it created the same kind of joy: the joy of reading not a good piece or fiction, but great piece of (ok, made up) research. We learn so many different things, we are even forced to remember so many details about sponsored years, tennis, special effects and films, spies and substance abuse. And what strikes us most is the fact that we enjoy it. We are not threatened away by rich descriptions, lists, cross-references and footnotes. We embrace them.

What Wallace offers us is an exceptionally rare and, thus, profoundly valuable example of infra-reflexivity. To appreciate infra-reflexivity, one must acknowledge the ‘sterile distraction’ (Booth 2000, 1) and ‘suicidal’ move (Adkins 2002, 337; Latour 1988, 169) that is meta-reflexivity, which is best defined as:

[a]n exercise in introspection [which] is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connection between analysis … and the objects [under analysis] … Far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort (Woolgar 1988, 22).

Self-referential looping and claims for methodological superiority, these forms of lame meta-reflexivity are not what Wallace has to teach us. In contrast, if, as Latour (1988, 170) writes:

meta-reflexivity is marked by an inflation of methods, infra-reflexivity is characterized by their deflation. Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

In this context, reflexivity refers to “any text that takes into account its own production,” but it is utterly unremarkable to be reflexive, and, on this point, Latour (1988, 168) and Lynch (2000, 34) appear to find common ground. What we don’t need is more self-referential looping in our texts; instead, we need texts that self-exemplifying. Thus, in true infra-reflexive form, we have learned that no number of additions, subtractions, self-referential looping, or any other reflexive gymnastics will make a paper more, less, definitively, or woefully reflexive. However, we did detect a wrinkle in Latour’s insistence that accounts be self-exemplary. As we read Wallace, the reflexivity comes through his prose without being the target of his prose or an explicit part of his narrative strategy; he is reflexive without telling us that he was being reflexive. He doesn’t wink. He being clever but does not insist on being clever. The openness of his reflexivity, which we consider self-exemplifying, is up to the reader. And we think Wallace might very well agree with Latour on this final point. Latour (1988, 171) writes, “my own text is in your hands and lives or dies through what you will do with it,” a comment he makes, without irony, in his writing about his writing. So, what might Wallace teach us that Garfinkel didn’t (or couldn’t)? We guess Wallace wouldn’t teach us anything; he’s shown us, and he did. He showed us what Latour (1988, 170) dared we should aspire to:

Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

The only difference between Latour and Wallace is that Wallace did it, and so should we when writing-up our qualitative results.


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Ethnography and Speculative Fiction


Clare Anzoleaga

Clare Anzoleaga

Editor’s Note: In this third post in our “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction” series, Clare Anzoleaga (@ClareAnzoleaga) from Fresno City College and Porterville College discusses the potential of fictional accounts of ethnographic work. In doing so, she complements the piece by Anne Galloway and the article by Laura Forlano: this time it’s less about design or design fictions and more about writing. More specifically, she highlights the rhetorical possibilities of such approach for understanding knowledge and shared meaning.

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In 1991 famous ethnographer, Dwight Conquergood, published a piece titled, “Rethinking Ethnography.” One important point from this piece deals with the ethnographer’s challenge to appropriately convey the experience of the “Being There” of fieldwork with the rhetorical final product of the “Being Here.” It begs the question: What rhetorical/communicative strategies should we use to adequately tell the story of a culture? This came into play a bit further for me the other night when I had a dinner party for some colleagues. One of the topics we playfully debated had to do with whether ethnography should reside in the field of Communication theory or not (to me, this is a no-brainer). Ethnography is Communication because whether the researcher is in the field talking to people or at their laptop storifying analysis, one of its intents is to elicit a communicative and performative response. Ethnography sends a message through the form of a story either through text, performance, images or all of the above. This got me thinking, however, about this article on speculative fiction and ethnography that I was writing for ethnographymatters.net. While many speculative fiction writers have been incorporating the practice of ethnography into their work, few Communication scholars incorporate speculative fiction into their ethnography. Thus I began to wonder about Conquergood and his discussion on the rhetorical possibilities of ethnography and the differences between a researcher who writes ethnographic, peer-reviewed journal articles who uses speculative fiction, and a writer who uses ethnography as a way to write in the genre of speculative fiction. In this essay, I direct my focus of inquiry at some of the benefits and challenges of the ethnographer in the field of Communication who uses speculative fiction in their research. While my focus is oriented in the field of Communication, I acknowledge these concepts are also applicable to the broader work of any social researcher.

I should start with making two distinctions here first. On one hand, there is the question of where and how ethnography, which weaves in speculative fiction scenarios as part of the ethnographic analysis, is being produced in such scholarly fields as Communication. I ran a quick keyword search of “ethnography” and “speculative fiction,” at “Communication & Mass Media Complete” and found no journal article or book results on this matter. This means there are few ethnographers in the Communication field who are currently producing peer-reviewed journal articles who use speculative fiction in their storified analysis (but I hope they start soon, ahem!).

Read More… Ethnography and Speculative Fiction

Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?


Laura

Laura Forlano

Editor’s Note: Laura Forlano (@laura4lano) is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012-2013. Her research is on emergent forms of organizing and urbanism enabled by mobile, wireless and ubiquitous computing technologies with an emphasis on the socio-technical practices and spaces of innovation. In her contribution, Laura describes the lessons ethnographers can learn from Science-Fiction and a sub-domain of design referred to as “speculative design”.

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In the recent science fiction film Elysium, by South-African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp and Matt Damon, the world has descended into a dystopia in which the poor, non-white population must live in squalor on Earth working for a factory that makes robots while the wealthy have moved to a man-made country club in the sky. A recent segregation-mapping project profiled in WIRED illustrates that extreme geographic divisions between rich and poor are not reserved for Hollywood but are actually part and parcel of our current social realties (Vanhemert, 2013). Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. For example, for over a decade, the film Minority Report has inspired technologists and designers alike as a classic, deterministic vision of a future in which gestural interfaces and biometric technologies are commonplace.

Ethnography as Time Travel

Ten years ago – about one year after I had acquired my very first mobile phone, a silver Samsung clamshell style with a distinctly awful ringtone – I remember standing in a cramped elevator compartment at the Central European University in Budapest with a number of senior colleagues when I announced that I had decided to focus my doctoral research on the wireless Internet. One colleague snorted and laughed, stating, “You can’t study something that doesn’t exist.”

Yet, as ethnographers and designers of emerging technology, this is exactly what we must find ways to do. And, in 2002, I set out to explore the many ways in which it is, in fact, quite possible to study the future. In my case, it did not matter that, in reality, Bryant Park, a park near Times Square in mid-town Manhattan, had had a fully functioning free, public wireless network since 2001. The important thing was that, in the public imagination, even among telecom experts, the technology was not yet part of everyday life.

Read More… Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?

Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design


Galloway

Anne Galloway

Editor’s Note: Anne Galloway (@annegalloway) is Senior Lecturer at the School of Design (Victoria University of Wellington,) and Principal Investigator at Design Culture Lab. Coming from a background in anthropology and STS, Anne’s work focusses on relations between humans and nonhumans, and the development of creative research methods for understanding issues and controversies around science, technology and animals. In this first post of this month’s edition about Ethnography and Fiction, she gives her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction. More specifically, she describes various authors who inspired her work as well the relationship between ethnography and design.

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For the past five years I’ve worked as a design ethnographer. I haven’t always called myself that—I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and a PhD in Sociology—but I’ve always studied what people make in, and of, the world. And although I don’t feel much disciplinary allegiance, it would be disingenuous to say my disciplinary background, and their methods in particular, haven’t been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Perhaps because of my multidisciplinary education, I tend to have a rather idiosyncratic view of what design ethnography means. First, I do not use ethnography as a means to privilege people, and my approach to design ethnography is different from that which underpins much human- or user-centred design. My ethnographic practice is strongly informed by science and technology studies, most notably in their recognition of nonhumans as agents in everyday life, and by “multispecies ethnography“, which explicitly involves doing research with nonhuman animals. More generally, I see both ethnography and design as practices that re-assemble the complex assemblages to which we are already attached. And although I also see the need for ethnographic studies that directly inform design practices and products, and respect the people who do this valuable work, I don’t enjoy playing a support role to ‘real’ designers. I much prefer to find new ways of doing both ethnography and design.

So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Read More… Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design

September 2013: Ethnography, Speculative Fiction and Design


This month’s theme is about the relationships between ethnography and fiction. It is not necessarily something that we explored a lot here at Ethnography Matters, which is why it seemed an interesting topic for this September edition. Another reason to address this now is because of recent experimental ways of “doing ethnography” (e.g. the work by Ellis & Bochner or Denzin), as well as curious interdisciplinary work at the cross-roads of design, science-fiction and ethnography (e.g. design fiction).

Of course, in Anthropology, the border between ethnography and fiction has always been very thin. Consider how ethnographers have written fictional novels or made speculative films, more or less based on field research. Also think about “docufictions” by Jean Rouch, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. There are lots of reasons for using fictional methods, but there’s a general interest in going beyond scientific format/language by making ethnographic accounts more “engaging, palatable, and effective“.

For that matter, Tobias Hecht gives a rather good definition of what we will address in this month’s edition:

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

What’s interesting here is that “storytelling” can take many narrative forms. Of course, a great deal of ethnographic fiction corresponds to short stories, novels, films and documentary. However, there are plenty of other possibilities. People interested in fantasy role-playing games are used to thick bestiaries of fictional creatures. In such documents, animals or monsters are described with drawings, a fictional background, statistics (frequency, magic resistance, armor class…) and a profusion of material concerning their habitat, their rituals and their behavior. The level of details provided by the authors is generally tremendous. Another interesting example here is the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual” by Franz Joseph. This book, presented as a collection of factual documents, presents the spacecraft of Start Trek, with uniforms, weapons, devices and military protocols. To some extent, it describes the author’s take on this fictional universe, and it’s sometimes inaccurate according to Trekkies. However, for an ethnographer like me, this manual is incredibly intriguing as it shows a peculiar way to present fieldwork, and makes me wonder about the most convincing and engaging formats.

Star Trek

Artifacts from Star Trek, Picture by Julian Bleecker CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both role-playing game bestiaries and SciFi tech manuals are interesting because they have a certain format and use particular conventions: technical diagrams and schematics, zoological-like classification, etc. By making things appear factual they attempt to suspend the reader’s disbelief. However, they are still textual, which leads us to wonder whether other artifacts might have the same power of attraction. Obviously, there are plenty of good examples of designed objects that can count as “fictional ethnographies”: maps of fictional universes (e.g. Lord of the Rings), and museum exhibits presenting props from science fiction films can be seen as similar vehicles.

In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.

In this edition, we’ll address ethnography and fiction with the following contributors:

  • Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
  • Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
  • Jan-Hendrik Passoth, sociologist at TU Berlin and Nicholas Rowland, Associate Professor at PSU, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.

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