Archive | June, 2014

Jan Chipchase’s guide for pop-up field studios


Jan Chipchase

A pop-up studio in Myanmar, Photo by Jan Chipchase.

Editor’s note: Jan Chipchase, a former creative director of Global Insights at Frog Design and principal scientist at Nokia, is the founder of Studio D Radiodurans, a research, design and innovation consultancy. His interest lies in field research and the exploration of human behavior, which he addresses in a booklet guide entitled Pop-Up Studio. We talked recently about this notion, the concept of a “studio” and about his plans for the future.

Nicolas Nova: Prior to discussing this new book, I’m curious about the very notion of “studio”. It’s a concept coming from design and architecture that found its way to field research, in the context of design exploration. What do you mean by “studio” and what does mean for field researchers ?

Jan Chipchase: Most of the work is commissioned as part of design projects that encompass concepting, prototyping, future scoping, strategy and so on. In that sense it is a space that needs to support collaborative learning, the exploration and iteration of ideas and designs. The studio is the closest model.

NN: The idea of having a “pop-up studio” close to the field is an intriguing notion. What kinds of activities can happen in this context (unlike getting back to the consultancy office/motherboard)?

JC: Like any approach there are pros and cons and the trick is understanding where and when it’s most appropriate. We explore some of the alternatives in the book.

The benefits of running a pop-up studio for the kinds of deep immersive projects we’re tasked with include:

The space inspires, supports different forms of interaction, collaboration and allows the team to move to a different level of understanding with one another – this is especially important on multinational teams. Done right you can see individuals and the team achieve a sense of flow. The psychology of the space is critical, and we also look beyond the project to how the experience is reflected upon.

Regardless of how things are normally done as a team you can reinvent the rules of how you want to live and work, which most people find invigorating. It might give the HR department palpitations, but it works. From a creative standpoint. It’s not so much thinking out of the box as challenging the notion of what a box is, the materials it’s made of, the properties of those materials and how they relate to one another.

It makes it easier to staff a research + design + strategy project with a single researcher and still give the rest of the team meaningful field experience, in that it impacts what they make or how they think and the outcome of the project. People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived. That’s your delivery mechanism right there.

“People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived.”

It also allows you to engage executive level (CEO, EVP, …) people. One of our rules is “no tourists”. Everyone, no matter how senior, is put to work. They are some of the biggest fans.

We have a dedicated synthesis and sense making process, but this model allows for constant (after each session, each day, at the end of each location) iteration on the questions, so that the next day when the team goes out they are pushing the learning forward. There’s a learning curve for individuals and the team and the trick is to know where you are on that curve – it’s only apparent when you’re in the field.Read More… Jan Chipchase’s guide for pop-up field studios

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography


VerklemptI’m not one to speak about theory and method in the abstract. But when I am asked about my method, I typically respond that I use historically informed ethnography. However, whenever I say this I think of Mike Meyers’ SNL character Linda Richman. On Richman’s public access show, she and her friends talked about “about coffee, New York, dawters, dawgs, you know – no big whoop – just coffee talk.” During their discussions Richman would often become “verklempt,” such as in recalling meeting Barbara Streisand; overcome with emotion, she’d turn to her guests with a prompt: “The Prince of Tides is neither about a Prince nor tides – discuss.”

Hence, while I might say “historically informed ethnography,” I think to myself that “my work is neither historical nor ethnographic – discuss.”

Historically informed

As a computer science undergraduate I loved (and minored in) history. I still do love history and find that while I am typically focusing on contemporary communities and how they work together, historical context is important to my developing understanding of the practices of today.

When I went off to graduate school for a PhD, I was very much inspired by a little known work about Quakers: Michael Sheeran’s1 Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society Of Friends. This was an ethnography of their consensus decision-making, but began with an introduction to their history, one that greatly informs the present-day. For instance, Quakers’ decision-making is a reflection of the origins of Protestantism. In short, under Protestantism it was thought that divine will could be discerned via the individual rather than through the church. However, the idea of individual discernment allowed for some unusual (and ill-favored) beliefs, such as those of the Ranters and the messianic Quaker James Naylor. This, in turn, brought increased persecution by the state. Hence, early Quakers faced the problem of how to represent themselves as moderate and nonthreatening. Their solution, in part, was to adopt a position of pacifism and community consensus. This historical context imparted a much richer understanding than if I had only read of their current day decision making. Accordingly, I tried to do the same thing with respect to Wikipedia collaboration by placing it in the historical context of what I called the pursuit of the universal encyclopedia.

Hence, even when I am focused upon the seemingly faddish phenomena of the digital realm, I challenge myself to ask if this is truly something never seen before? It rarely is, which then permits me to ask the more interesting and productive question of how is it different from (or a continuation of) what has gone before?

Is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history?

A digital interlude

Much of my quandary about history and ethnography relates to my domain of study. I love being able to immerse myself in the conversations and cultural artifacts of a community. Much of this is likely a reflection of my personality. I can be shy and I enjoy hunting through archives for something that is novel and leads to an insight. I am often happy to work alone as I read through blogs, wiki pages and email archives. Yet, is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history? (When the sources are dead?)

I’m fortunate that I tend to study open communities and geeks. This means that many of my sources are prolific self-documenters, publishing their thoughts and contributions in public. Consequently, I have many primary sources, and I want to share them with my readers. In fact, after a decade of work, I have over four thousand sources and as I’ve done this work, I’ve continued to develop a system by which I can easily document, find, and manage this information. I recently did a screencast of the two tools I’ve developed for this.

Of course, this is not to say that conversations and interviews with community members are not useful. I’ve attended many a conference, Meetup, and un-conference. Many times people have shared with me context and background that has been invaluable to my understanding and portrayals. Sometimes, I delight in a key insight or wonderful quotation I can use from an interview. However, I do take lesser pleasure in an insight communicated to me privately than one I can find publicly. I don’t attempt to rationalize or advocate for this position, it is simply my preference. (I suspect many of the lofty words spent on academic distinctions is to justify similar differences in personal sensibilities and social habitus).Read More… Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

Who needs an ethnographer?


I recently found myself lamenting the lack of ethnography in my professional life with a new acquaintance. Don’t get me wrong: my job stretches me in other ways. But many of the things I was trained for during my PhD aren’t called for in my day job. Not explicitly, anyway, though I would argue that once you’ve been taught certain kinds of observational skills it’s very hard to turn them off.

“You should set up your own independent project,” she said. “Do some ethnography on the side.”

My acquaintance is Kat Jungnickel, a sociologist currently researching cycling cultures. I met her in her office where swatches of fabric were pinned to 19th century patent applications for women’s cycling clothes, a series of hand-sewn garments based on these patents hung on mannequins by the door, and early photos of coteries of women cyclists were pinned to a bulletin board. This kind of creative, tangible research is definitely something that I would like more of in my life.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, actually. I do want to use my qualitative research skills more but I’ve been hesitating because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to employ them in a volunteering context. At present I mainly use my writing and thinking skills for theatre reviewing–I find this very rewarding, but it’s not getting me to stretch my research muscles any.

But when I try to picture what a “volunteer ethnographer” might look like, I draw a blank. Ethnography isn’t generally the kind of skill people offer to volunteering efforts. There are all kinds of skills that charities and volunteer organisations need…bookkeeping, driving, cooking, tutoring, mentoring, crafting, building, and so on and so forth. But ethnography?

It’s still usually the ethnographer who initiates the study, the ethnographer who’s decided that there is something worth examining here.

When you get right down to it, who needs an ethnographer? Generally speaking in ethnographic research the person conducting the study calls the shots: the research lead decides who and what they will study and why it’s important that the world has (for example) a detailed, rich description of the belly dance community in the online game Second Life. (My chapter “Digitizing Raqs Sharqi: Belly Dance in Second Life” in Belly Dance Around the World: New Communities, Performance and Identity will explain everything you need to know.) Increasingly, ethnographers work with the communities they are studying to find out what are the most important issues to them and how an ethnographic study might serve them, instead of focusing on what the rest of the world can gain from that research. But it’s still usually the ethnographer who initiates the study, the ethnographer who’s decided that there is something worth examining here. I don’t know of many examples where it is the community who has asked the ethnographer to study them. Please comment if you know of any.

Read More… Who needs an ethnographer?

Public Health on Drugs


Michael Agar

Michael Agar

Rachelle Annechino invited me to write something about the concept of “public health” as I experienced it in my decades-long and checkered past in the drug field. That past is described in unbearable detail in a book called Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs. The bottom line of my memory (if memories can have a bottom line) is that the phrase “public health” was a severe case of metaphor abuse. I only got clear on this slowly over the decades. This is the first time that I’ve tried to box it up in a summary, courtesy of ten years of hindsight after leaving the field.

The history of policy and practice around psychoactive substances in the 20th century U.S. has been a long slow-dance between docs and cops. Consider opioids as an example – opium and morphine and laudanum, and later heroin, and later methadone, and later buprenorphine, and now oxycontin — all opioid drugs that range from the organic to the synthetic. The docs first celebrated them for their medical use, then got upset when users broke the compliance rules and used them on their own, at which point the cops stepped in. In their different historical contexts they went through the same cycle, from legit (more or less) medication to popular use to crime. To those of us working in what the bureaucrats called the “demand” side of the drug field, attention to public health made a lot more sense than what the better funded “supply” side lusted after, namely, toss the addicted into jail.

The question was, how could anthropologists, among others, use and subvert the public health discourse in useful ways?

Like most U.S. presidential elections, “public health” was only the better of two bad choices. “Public health” has its uses. Boas studied with Virchow, a founder of social epidemiology, after all. It isn’t the right framework to describe and understand people in their social worlds and how chemicals they ingest do and don’t fit into the flow. But, if you want to join policy conversations about “substance abuse” in most countries I’ve worked in, you have to translate your arguments into a doc/cop creole to make sense to the other participants. It’s the old problem of naïve realism, as the social cognition types say, or doxa, if you’re a Bourdieu fan. Do you push from the outside or talk on the inside? I chose the latter. So the question was, how could anthropologists, among others, use and subvert the public health discourse in useful ways?

Here’s a pretty easy example of one way we did that. Historically, public health arose out of successes at finding and then controlling the biological mechanisms that caused a disease. Public health found those mechanisms using epidemiology and then attempted to control them with biology. Epidemiologists built a database of “case records.” A good case record consists of clinical criteria for diagnosis, severity, time and place of onset, and demographics. (See, for example, this introduction to epidemiology [pdf].)

With time, as the DSM molted during its travels along its Roman numeral marked trail, diagnostic criteria have become more subtle and more reasonable, but that official definition of “abuse” remains on NIDA’s web page today. By this definition, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t been, at least at one point in their life, a drug abuser.

In the drug field, “ diagnosis” and “severity” were corrupted by war on drugs ideology. The insanity reached a peak in the 1980s with the official definition of “drug abuse” as “any illicit use of a substance” — any at all — including “illicit use” of a legal substance as well. This madness occurred at about the same time as the famous “library purge” of 1984, in which the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) expunged a set of its own titles from its archives and encouraged librarians to remove them from card catalogs. With time, as the DSM molted during its travels along its Roman numeral marked trail, diagnostic criteria have become more subtle and more reasonable, but that official definition of “abuse” remains on NIDA’s web page today. By this definition, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t been, at least at one point in their life, a drug abuser. The “diagnostic” part of a case record lost any useful meaning for research or intervention.Read More… Public Health on Drugs