Ethnography celebration and retrospective: We’re back!

The editors of Ethnography Matters are pleased to announce that we’re back to our regular editorial calendar for 2016. We’ve set up a new series schedule for the year, with a focus on “centers of ethnographic practice.” Centers could be geographical (such as the focus on work happening at the interdisciplinary center, Highwire, in our first edition of 2016 edited by Joe Lindley), or centered around a particular idea, method or person. Each series will evolve over two months and will be edited by one of the team or by a guest editor.


In November last year, we celebrated the four-year anniversary of the founding of Ethnography Matters. Born in November 2011, Ethnography Matters was launched when we assembled a founding group of individuals who wanted to explore how technology makes us and how we make technology. Our original goal for starting Ethnography Matters was to create a body of work about ethnography that would be accessible in plain language to the public. No paywalls. No jargon. No degree waving. We wanted to build a community across industry, academia, and civil society. In the past four years, we have had an impressive collection of 182 posts, 13 editions, 14 interviews, 3 series, and 30 methods. Posts have been cited and reproduced in numerous academic publications and books, and the site has been featured as a resource for ethnographers in books by Christine Hine, Patricia Sunderland’s and Rita DennyGerrish & Lathlean, Gaillet & Eble and Bucchi & Trench.

Since 2011, we’ve watched this community grow on our WordPress dashboard from 500 readers a month to 15,000. It’s not only about numbers, though. We recognise our community not only in the numbers but in the stories we regularly hear from people who look to Ethnography Matters as a resource and talking point.

All communities need a narrative for why they exist, and Ethnography Matters is no different. Ethnography matters to us because it helps to keep technological development real. We believe that technologies need to develop close to the needs and experiences of users. Technologies need to aspire – to help us to not only do what we need to do but to be better people, to help us become a better society. These ideas have always mattered, but they matter now more than ever. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the global rise of new forms of automated and flextime labor systems such as Uber, Instacart, and Seamless. Technology is becoming increasingly embedded into our daily lives, bringing with it a particular set of logics that are difficult to resist. It’s clear that we’re in the middle of yet another social transition, but the question is, into what?

Robin Sloan, writer, in his recent Atlantic piece on why he’s no longer using Uber-like food systems asked,

Is this a system I want to live inside? Is this a system fit for humans?

In the context of technological systems, this is the question that ethnographers are responsible for inspiring their communities to ask, whether we work in private sector, academia, or public sector. That is why one of our core goals is to continually be a space for conversation between industry, academia, and public sectors, because these boundaries are more fluid in practice. This is why we’ve made great efforts to feature work from industry, such as Steelcase, Facebook, Intel, and Deloitte.

We’ve highlighted the amazing work coming from public sector ethnography from service design firm Reboot to work on NASA and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). There’s also deep analysis coming from those working with institutions such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s research on asthma, MIT’s Natasha Schull’s work on addiction to gambling, and Fabien Giradin’s work with the Louvre Museum in Paris. All of these posts come from individuals who have used the the tools of ethnography to study the machines of our times.

Perhaps we’re optimists at heart, but we’ve always wanted Ethnography Matters to help fix ethnography’s public branding problem. Our goal was to excise the notion that ethnographers are these oddball social scientists who go off to remote islands for years at a time and that the only application of ethnography was the study of the “exotic.”

To achieve that, we wanted to showcase not only ethnographers, but also people who use ethnographic methods and mindsets. We are unique in having such a diverse backgrounds of contributors, from psychologist Beatriz Arantes to UX designer Lesia Reichelt, to interdisciplinary social scientist Alondra Nelson, anthropologist and journalist Sarah Kendzior, and activist and biologist Julia Serano.

You can also journey through our archives to find posts on how ethnography can be used to study practically everything. To get you started, we’ve compiled a starter list of ethnographic work that’s been covered on our site: robots, algorithms, music recommendation apps, hackers in China, museum design, engineering, car design, weird Twitter, Wikipedia, internet memes in Uganda and US, mobile games, education, DNA, education, casino gambling, social media, hospices, trust, privacy, and homeless youth. We know that ethnography isn’t cocktail party conversation yet, but we think we’ve made a solid contribution in showcasing its wide range of applications.

As much as we’ve wanted to open up ethnography to a wider audience, we’ve also allowed the ethnography geek in us loose. We’ve featured interviews with digital ethnography pioneers like Danny Miller, Mimi Ito, Christine Hine, and danah boyd. We’re methods geeks and our archive includes discussions on digital anthropology, data visualization, interviewing users, interviewing for introverts, qualitative tools, qualitative analysis apps, notetaking platforms, design speculative ethnography, informed consent, and video tag analysis. We also have a collection of posts for those working in industry; from managing client expectations with design research, to how to identify as a commercial ethnography, to deliverable presentation formats and messaging ethnography as thick data.

Together, we the editors, contributors and the readers, have created a community of mavericks whose curiosity about and commitment to ethnography have ignited discussions about ethnography outside of formal institutions. We have brought ethnography out of industry and academia and into a space more accessible not only to ethnographers, but to everyone curious in exploring it.

We are not a single research group housed at a university or company. We are not a lab. We are not an annual conference. We are just a few people who came together to create a space for the celebration of ethnographic principles and practices. What has emerged is a community that is constructing a new geography of communication practices that fall outside of discipline and industry norms.

We are no different than the communities we write about. We need exposure and feedback. We need third places. We need non-formal ways to connect. When we don’t have these spaces, we risk becoming silo-ed in our own sub-fields. In the spirit of this, we’re making a few changes and trying out new things.

  1. We’ve set up a new series schedule for the year, with a focus on “Centers of ethnographic practice.” Each series will evolve over two months and will be edited by one of the team or by a guest editor. Other authors in addition to the series posters are encouraged so let us know if you have any ideas.
  2. After many requests from readers, we have created an Ethnography Matters Medium channel where we’re reposting the most highly read posts and linking to relevant articles.
  3. We’re thrilled to have a new team member. Zach Hyman joins us to help with publishing across different channels, editing articles, and thinking of ways to get Ethnography Matters out to a wider audience.
  4. In addition to the reboot of, we’ve teamed up with the Anthrodesign email group and EPIC to start a Slack.  At the Ethnography Hangout Slack, you’ll find an interdisciplinary group wearing many hats from design to tech and research, so you don’t need to have any formal background in ethnography to participate. Please fill out this form to join.

As part of our reboot is finding new ways to connect with the Ethnography Matters community. Here is a summary of the different ways you can participate:

  1. Contribute to a series. For the first three series of 2016, we will be covering following topics: interdisciplinary collaboration (Joe Lindley, Jan-Feb), mixed methods for highlighting the person in their data (Heather Ford, Mar-Apr), Big and Thick data (Tricia Wang, May-Jun). Submit by sending us an email.
  2. Contribute a post. We publish posts outside of the monthly themes throughout the calendar year. Please take a look at our editorial guidelines to submit.
  3. Join the Slack channel,Ethnography Hangout.
  4. Join the Ethnography Matters Google group for occasional announcements about upcoming themes and important announcements.
  5. Join Ethnography Matters on twitter @ethnomatters. Help us tweet out posts you like and flag our attention to anything you’d like us to retweet.

Ethnography offers important principles for the study of technology and society, but there are still many challenges. As a community, we’re looking forward to a successful year in which we see a new impetus on collaboration and diversity – more conversations about ethnography and its importance in our rapidly changing world. And we’re looking forward to you joining us!

Best wishes,

Heather, Morgan, Rachelle, Tricia and Zach.

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