Archive | February, 2016

Don’t panic: the smart city is here!


Ding Wang, in her own words, ‘has a special interest in pursuing degrees whose names consist of two random words’ (specifically Tourism Management, Design Ethnography, and now Digital Economy). Her research is concerned with smart cities and she is applying ethnographic methods to critique and interrogate the smart city conversation.

Editors note: Ding begins her post with a quote from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and so will I. The Guide includes the woeful tale of an alien species whose battle fleet sped across the wastes of space for thousands of years before they dived “screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.” 

This massive miscalculation is rather how I felt after I attended a seminar about one famously blue technology company’s smart cities programme. The first third of the presentation was inspirational. It intelligently framed big problems: energy, pollution, food. Then, a series of technologies that the company had developed to provide ‘real, tangible, deliverable’ solutions to those problems were described. Suddenly the sheen, glamour, and optimism of the supposedly smart solutions disappeared and revealed what the smart cities programme meant in practice: a massively complex and expensive system to operate the traffic lights at intersections (or, robots). Similarly in this piece, Ding is not overly optimistic about the smart cities movement – at least that’s what her ethnographic nous is telling her. Just as the Vl’Hurg battle fleet got swallowed by a small dog due to a massive miscalculation, please let it not be us that massively miscalculates the scale of the confidence trick that ‘smart city’ rhetoric could turn out to be. (Alternatively, we could just ‘cheer up – [because] it might never happen’.)

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

People who have read the book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy will probably remember this passage from the beginning of the book (for people who have not read the book it comes highly recommended). I watched the film as a kid (please forgive my ill-advised choice: I regretted it), then I read the book in Chinese (yes, it was translated into Chinese, that’s how good the book is!) and somehow I felt the urge to revisit the book as an adult and in English. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the novel. I related to it even more than I did as a kid.

“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

The planet Earth is described as an unhappy place where we think little widgets like digital watches are neat: I’d say both of these things are true. The more telling observation, or prediction to be more accurate, is that even those with the neat digital watches aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else (that is unless you believe the rhetoric advertising wearable tech!) Digital watches, or the plethora of other digital gadgets, don’t make us happy. Perhaps, then, we need something neater, bigger and better than just a watch. What about a whole digital city? But that name doesn’t sound quite right, right? After all, ‘digital’ is a word of its time, of the time that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written – the late 1970s. When was the last time you saw a commercial for something calling itself a digital watch? Digital doesn’t cut the mustard any more. These days we like smart stuff (smartwatches, smartphones, smart energy meters… even smart forks). It’s not that we haven’t considered other prefixes (for example: intelligent, connected, ubiquitous) but we decided on smart because it just sounds so… smart. We live in smart times, and eat smart phones for breakfast. So, something that should make us happier… the thing that is neater, bigger, and better than just a watch… is the smart thing to end all smart things. More integration, more intelligence, more ubiquity. I guess the title gives it away, but of course I’m talking about smart cities.

Read More… Don’t panic: the smart city is here!

Everybody’s an Ethnographer!


Dhruv Sharma has a background in anthropology, has worked in various countries as an ethnographer, and also holds a master’s degree in design ethnography from Dundee University. His doctoral research is concerned with radical digital interventions designed to address issues of loneliness among the elderly. As the title of this piece may suggest, he believes that Everybody is an Ethnographer!

Editors note: Dhruv’s delightful post takes us on a journey that begins with a shape shifting monkey jumping over the ocean on a rescue mission. We segue via the wonderful term ‘lemon difficult’ (derived from twisting the strange English colloquialism ‘easy peazy lemon squeezy’). Finally, Dhruv explains how evolutionary factors have endowed our whole species with a tacit interpretive ability. If everybody is an ethnographer, then perhaps the future role of professional ethnographers is to play a supportive role as facilitator: is our future to act as the opposable thumb to the fingers of humanity?

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley.This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here! and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

Mythology of the ethnographic hero

In the Hindu Mythological story of Ramayana, the evil king Raavana had abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita. When Rama and his army of monkeys (Vanaras) found out where she was being held captive, they wanted to send someone to find her to check if she was doing okay and to reassure her that Lord Rama and his army were on their way to rescue her. The only problem was that she was located on a remote island. Lord Rama et al. had no means of crossing the ocean to reach her.

There comes a point in the story when Rama and his army have reached the edge of the sea and are wondering if they’ll ever be able to send a messenger across. In the absence of any other means of getting there, they need someone who can leap across the ocean to land safely on the island and still have enough energy left in them to leap back after finding Sita. According to the story, Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) was frustrated at the group’s inability to find a way to get there. Unaware of the part he would ultimately play, and the extraordinary abilities that he would have to draw upon, Hanuman was destined to fulfil a crucial role. In the meantime though, he sat depressed in a corner.

Hanuman was born with supernatural powers, including the ability to alter his body size at will and take giant leaps. However, as a child, he was very mischievous and while playing he would often cause disruption to religious rituals. When it became impossible to control and discipline young Hanuman, one sage put a curse on him making him forget the abilities and super powers that he possessed. The curse would only be lifted when Hanuman’s powers were the only viable option. In the aforementioned scene of Ramayana, Hanuman keeps suggesting that he is not able to cross the ocean, but through constant convincing, reassurance and cheering by his peers, he finally realises his potential, the curse is lifted, and he emerges as the hero. Hanuman had the innate ability to perform the task but needed help, support, encouragement and reassurance to lift the curse and to put his abilities into practice.Read More… Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

Small Methods for Big Data


[Image via GIPHY]

We are currently soliciting contributions to the March/April edition of EthnographyMatters. The aim of the edition is to document some of the innovative methods that are being used to explore online communities, cultures and politics in ways that connect people to the data created about/by them. By ‘method’, we mean both the things that ethnographers do (interviews, memo-ing, member checking, participant observation) as well as the principles that underpin what many of us do (serving communities, enabling people-centred research, advocating for change). Ethnography has never been tied indelibly with qualitative methods: the practice of ethnography requires using a suite of methods in order to reach our goals and there are multiple methods that ethnographers share with Big Data researchers.

The availability of data that is generated as a by-product of online activities offers researchers with useful ways of understanding online communities. Such methods can go far beyond merely the collection and visualisation/analysis of that data outside of the human context that constitutes the majority of Big Data research. ‘Small Methods for Big Data’ is not about methods “in the service of” Big Data but rather in the “context of”. Not “either… or” but rather “both… and”. Not one before the other, but both together in a circular motion towards understanding.

Examples of fresh ways of connecting data and people include:

  • Defining the fieldsite by employing the metaphor of a network [Burrell, 2009];
  • Using social media such as Instagram to write public field notes and memos [Wang, 2012];
  • Conducting interviews with users by bringing in visualised traces of the user’s online experiences [Dubois and Ford, 2015].

There are, however, many others and we want to collect them as well as to publish reflections on their principled use in ethnographic and mixed method research in a small sample/vignette of innovative approaches. The vignette could then be used in teaching and research, inspiring others to add to the collection of methods and strategies used to connect people and data in innovative ways.

You can participate by sending details about interesting methods, strategies or reflections that you have encountered/experienced, or by writing a post for the upcoming edition.

Contributions to the vignette should be 300 words and should cover: what the method is, how the method works, why it works as well as where researchers can find more information about it.

Posts for Ethnography Matters’ ‘Small Methods for Big Data’ edition should be maximum 1,000 words and can offer a series of methods or focus on a single method and reflections on the use of that method. Contributor guidelines are here but email me if you have any questions.

Deadline: Friday 4 March, 2016

What’s the matter with Ethnography?


Robert PottsRobert Potts is a filmmaker, lecturer, designer, and PhD candidate at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training who takes special interest in a diverse range of subjects including shared narratives, urbanism, and ‘joined up’ thinking. Rob’s doctoral research revolves around an ethnographic study at Hyperisland, a unique type of design school.

Editors note: Ethnographic praxis in 2016 has long since transcended the work of the gentlemen anthropologists from yesteryear. As a designer, artist, filmmaker, ethnographer and lecturer – not to mention PhD candidate – Rob’s work ‘joins up thinking’. In this piece Rob takes us on a journey that shows us how Rob’s unique ability to join up threads of thought informs both his ethnographic practice, and how it may influence the future of ethnography. What can we learn from films like Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’? How does the act of ‘making things’ (i.e. turning concepts in material matter) allow for the development of richer insights? How do intensely emotional experiences (losing a child to cancer, for instance) provide designers and ethnographers with raw materials from which ethnographic nous can be applied, leveraged, and articulated in unique forms? Taking us on a journey via a ‘documentary of the imagination’, through the critically acclaimed video game ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, to Rob’s experience as a filmmaker embedded in research projects, this piece explores how matter embodies what matters, for the future of ethnography.

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

dark matters 2.png

Or we could ask; what is the matter of ethnography? Or; what matters to ethnography?

We all are motivated by purpose; to make things matter. I followed an unorthodox path in discovering the value of ethnography, a path that revealed some intriguing connections along the way. ‘Matter’, of course, has two meanings. A substance of which some specific object is made or a concern, a situation, or even a question. The meanings entwine, physical matter makes up what matters to us most. I want to share how ethnography matters to me and how matter matters to ethnography, and why that should matter to the Ethnography Matters readership.

During my tenure as a PhD researcher at HighWire, ethnographic practice has become central to my work. My research blends several streams. I observe groups of experts collaborating in organisations, usually in creative or technology contexts. I also embed in interdisciplinary research projects as a filmmaker (Coincidentally, we even made a film about Dark Matter). In collaboration with other researchers contributing to this blog series I use ethnography to understand innovation. We use ethnographically derived methods to develop technology strategy and new methods to explore potential futures. Our experiments blend design methods. Our purpose is to do ethnography with, rather than on, people. Three relevant EPIC papers that Joseph, Dhruv and I have co-authored are here (Shared Ethnography for Shared Cities)here (Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography) and here (Operationalizing Design Fiction with Anticipatory Ethnography).

My parallel practice as ethnographer and filmmaker embedded in research projects highlights to me the ways in which we interpret and encode insight. Film seeks to tell an inside story. It also opens us to how people interact through their emotions, expression and creativity. Using ethnography one day and film production methods the next, I can’t help but notice how these practices connect and mutually inform one another. Gathering and interpreting insight involves structuring narratives; opening windows into how people make sense of activity. Editing and coding are both interpretive activities that seek to organise experience into a coherent flow. These narratives aren’t always linear, sometimes they feel like networks. Insights need to be embodied, they need a place to be, usually they are written down; reading matter…Read More… What’s the matter with Ethnography?