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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"

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’.Read More… August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

Onymous, pseudonymous, neither or both?


Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: For our Virtual Identity edition, contributing editor Heather Ford (@hfordsa) explores the complications of attribution and identification in online research. Are members of online communities research subjects, research participants, amateur artists? When is online participation public, private, or something in between?

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Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

When I published one of my first studies of online communities as part of my master’s research, I came up against one of the most challenging aspects of online research: how to reflect the identity of one’s research participants. I had been observing an open educational content community and quoted one of the participants’ missives from the publicly available mailing list without referring to his name or username. I had thought that this was the right thing to do: to anonymize the data, thus protecting the subjects. But the “subject” was angry that he had been quoted “without attribution”. And he was right. If I was really interested in protecting the privacy of my subjects, why would I quote his sentence when anyone could probably Google it and find out who wrote it.

Since then, my process has evolved a lot, but I still send my research participants a draft of my paper before it gets published so that they can choose whether I a) anonymize their statements b) attribute according to their usernames or c) attribute their full (“real”) names. But the process becomes unwieldy when doing detailed content analysis (or “trace ethnography” as per Geiger and Ribes) on Wikipedia where only some editors accept email and where other editors may have left the project. These are publicly available statements on a website that is explicitly open for copying and remixing, but I’m also taking those statements out of the context in which they are written. This is technically a “remix” but may make some editors uncomfortable.

So, do I quote users and attribute their comments to their username on publicly accessible websites like Wikipedia? Or do I need to get their written permission where they choose whether they want me to attribute their name, username, both or neither?Read More… Onymous, pseudonymous, neither or both?

Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD


Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.

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A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

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In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.Read More… Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Ethnomatters’ ‘Openness Edition’


Below is a full list of the posts for our first edition of a monthly collection. Thank you so much to our amazing guest contributors and to contributing editors who helped out!

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‘Open window’ by Sharon Hall Shipp. CC-BY-NC on Flickr

Editorial by Heather Ford, 7 February, 2013

The ethics of openness: How informed is “informed consent”? by Rachelle Annechino, 1 March, 2013

#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community by Jenna Burrell, 27 January, 2013

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights by Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina, 27 February, 2013

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet by Sarah Kendzior, 13 February, 2013

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool by Juliano Spyer, 21 February, 2013

February 2013: The Openness Edition


Heather FordThis month, we begin with a timely conversation on openness in the ethnographic research community, highlighting some of the many facets of this principle for ethnographers, especially those who study online communities. Jenna Burrell has also written a post that has attracted great feedback on open access journals for the ethnography research community so be sure to check that out if you’re interested in how to make your published work more accessible. 

For the next months’ themes, please see the calendar and contact us with your proposed post. We’d love to hear from you!

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On Saturday the 12th of January, almost a month ago, I woke to news of Aaron Swartz’s death the previous day. In the days that followed, I experienced the mixed emotions that accompany such horrific moments: sadness for him and the pain he must have gone through in struggling with depression and anxiety, anger at those who had waged an exaggerated legal campaign against him, uncertainty as I posted about his death on Facebook and felt like I was trying to claim some part of him and his story, and finally resolution that I needed to clarify my own policy on open access.

I had worked passionately for open access in my previous life, helping educational institutions and foundations design open access policy, pushing for open government data and railing against those who didn’t ‘get’ why closing access to publicly-funded information was outdated and unsustainable. But nearing the end of my work with Creative Commons and its international offshoot, iCommons, I became jaded by the internal politics of the open content movement, and embarrassed by my previous zealousness. I started to realize that open access was definitely not revolutionising access to education in the majority of the world, and that the passion that myself and others had felt about pushing forward the openness agenda was becoming sinister as any criticism was met with aggressive denial, as definitions of openness became ever narrower and technologically defined, and as we seemed to get further and further from the goals that we started with.

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Image by Torley on Flickr. CC BY SA

In the wake of Aaron’s death, and the renewed calls by the open access community for academics to take a stand, I felt that I needed to resolve these feelings and to define my own perspective on the issue. Thinking about the openness of your research can be like going down a rabbit hole because if you’re attempting maximum accessibility for all people at all times, any open access policy looks incomplete. Open access definitions tend to be restricted to a particular medium (digital, online) and a particular definition of free (free of charge and free from most copyright licensing conditions) (see Peter Suber’s great introduction to open access here).Read More… February 2013: The Openness Edition

2013 Themes


calendar1Starting February 2013, Ethnography Matters is starting a thematic monthly enquiry led by each of our team members. Be sure to contact us if you’re interested in contributing to any of these editions!

February 2013 edited by Heather Ford: The Openness Edition

March 2013 edited by Tricia Wang: “Stories to insights to action!” The role of narrative in ethnographic practice

April 2013 edited by Nicolas Nova: Ethnomining: Combining qualitative and quantitative data

May 2013 edited by Jenna Burrell: How to talk to companies and organisations about ethnographic fieldwork

June 2013 edited by Rachelle Annechino: Pseudonyms and pseudonymity

Photo by Joe Lanman CC BY on Flickr

Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)


Culture close up Bomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Culture close-up by biomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Last month’s Wired magazine showed an infographic with a headline that read: ‘History’s most influential people, ranked by Wikipedia reach’ with a group of 20 men arranged in hierarchical order — from Jesus at number 1 to Stalin at number 20. Curious, I wondered how ‘influence’ and ‘Wikipedia reach’ was being decided. According to the article, ‘Rankings (were) based on parameters such as the number of language editions in which that person has a page, and the number of people known to speak those languages’. What really surprised me was not the particular arrangement of figures on this page but the conclusions that were being drawn from it.

According to the piece, César Hidalgo, head of the Media Lab’s Macro Connections group, who researched the data, made the following claims about the data gathered from Wikipedia:

a) “It shows you how the world perceives your own national culture.

b) “It’s a socio-cultural mirror.

c) “We use historical characters as proxies for culture.

And finally, perhaps most surprising is this final line in the story:

Using this quantitative approach, Hidalgo is now testing hypotheses such as whether cultural development is structured or random. “Can you have a Steve Jobs in a country that has not generated enough science or technology?” he wonders. “Ultimately we want to know how culture assembles itself.”

It is difficult to comment on the particular method used by this study because there is little more than the diagram and a few paragraphs of analysis, and the journalist may have misquoted him, but I wanted to draw attention to the statements being made because I think it represents the growing phenomenon of big data analysts using Wikipedia data to make assumptions about ‘culture’.Read More… Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)

Ethnozine: November 2012 (Anniversary) Edition


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This month we celebrate Ethnographymatter’s first year with a bumper edition of features about ethnographic practice in the world, as well as some exciting news about the growth of our team!

Tricia Wang writes a reflection of the past year at Ethnography Matters, covering some of the more remarkable discussions over the year as we’ve grown into a “community of mavericks whose curiosity about and commitment to ethnography have ignited discussions about ethnography outside of formal institutions”. Rachelle Annechino tells us the “love story of two ethnographers” by letting us in on her chats with Judd and Tamar Antin about their work as research scientists studying motivation and public health narratives.

We’re really lucky to have two guest contributors this month. Wendy Hsu writes about the software that she built to gather more qualitative data for her research on independent rock musicians, and Erik Bigras shares the story of The Asthma Files, a project to understand the contested space of asthma research.

This month also sees the launch of the Ethnomatters Book Club #ethnobookclub with a conversation about what struck readers as important or interesting about Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ book, ‘Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil’.

We’d love you to contribute to the discussion, so feel free to head on over to the group or contribute your ideas on the blog or anywhere else using the #ethnobookclub tag. We’re also hoping to see a few face-to-face book clubs emerging and feeding into the virtual conversation in the new year so let us know if you’re interested in starting one in your city!

Last, but certainly not least, to celebrate our one-year anniversary we’re very excited to announce that Nicolas Nova joins the team as a regular contributor. Nicolas has written several guest posts already for Ethnomatters and brings a great deal of experience in design research, interaction design and speculative applied ethnography. What’s more, Nicolas is based in Switzerland and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe so we’re looking forward to him bringing a new community of European researchers to our conversation.

What a year it’s been! Here’s to even more fruitful, supportive conversations in the next 🙂

The Ethnomatters Team.

PS: Would you like to be our next guest contributor? Ethnography Matters is your space. You can feature a project/paper/book/syllabus, provide a fieldwork update, or share your thoughts. Here are some more ideas for how you can participate. We’d love to hear from you!

Announcements

  • Today (19 November) Deadline for Microsoft Research Social Media Collective postdoctoral research applications. “This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues.”
  • 30 November Deadline for contributions to the December EthnoZine edition
  • New blog The American Anthropological Association’s Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) recently launched a new blog that ‘aims to promote dialogue on theories, tools, and social interactions that explore questions at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies.

Next month

#ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”


Yesterday I settled down with a cup of coffee at Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford to re-read the highlights that I’d made of the Kindle edition of our book club book of the month, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ “Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil“. But, once again, I was drawn so completely into her really lucid, powerful writing about her role in the field of the alto that I found myself re-reading the chapter and thinking about how I might apply her approach in my own ethnographic work (or alternatively as where I might be a little more tenuous). I’m kicking off what we hope you might continue: picking a single paragraph that stood out for you the most and talking about what it means to you and your practice. Feel free to post in the comments section below or come on over to the mailing list where the team will be discussing the book with the incredible group of ethnographers who inhabit it. Also feel free to blog, Tweet and/or talk about the book in other places by using the tag #ethnobookclub as you come across interesting stuff! 

Situating my own work and the act of “witnessing” the experience of many Wikipedians in terms that Nancy Scheper-Hughes uses

“The field” in Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s book is the hillside favela above the plantation town of Bom Jesus de Mata in Northeastern Brazil. Scheper-Hughes returns to the village that she had worked in as a 20-year-old activist to try to understand why mothers do not treat the death of so many of their infants as a tragedy. During a period of 25 years, returning on and off to the village, Scheper-Hughes follows three generations of shantytown women in their struggles against starvation, sickness and death.

Scheper-Hughes says that her writing departs from traditional or classical ethnography in the way that the self, other, and scientific objectivity are handled, as well as how her own values and sympathies are made explicit, rather than “invisible” or hidden. She describes the role of the ethnographer as follows (my highlights):

The ethnographer, like the artist, is engaged in a special kind of vision quest through which a specific interpretation of the human condition, an entire sensibility, is forged. Our medium, our canvas, is “the field”, a place both proximate and intimate (because we have lived some part of our lives there) as well as forever distant and unknowably “other” (because our own destinies lie elsewhere). In the act of “writing culture,” what emerges is always a highly subjective, partial, and fragmentary – but also deeply felt and personal – record of human lives based on eyewitness and testimony. The act of witnessing is what lends our work its moral (at times its almost theological) character. So-called participant observation has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really prefer not to go at all and once there doesn’t know how to go about getting out except through writing, which draws others there as well, making them party to the act of witnessing.

I love this paragraph for so many reasons, but the glimpse of answers to three important questions stand out for me:Read More… #ethnobookclub The role of the ethnographic Self in the field: “Death Without Weeping”

Where does ethnography belong? Thoughts on WikiSym 2012


On the first day of WikiSym last week, as we started preparing for the open space track and the crowd was being petitioned for new sessions over lunch, I suddenly thought that it might be a good idea for researchers who used ethnographic methods to get together to talk about the challenges we were facing and the successes we were having. So I took the mic and asked how many people used ethnographic methods in their research. After a few raised their hands, I announced that lunch would be spent talking about ethnography for those who were interested. Almost a dozen people – many of whom are big data analysts – came to listen and talk at a small Greek restaurant in the center of Linz. I was impressed that so many quantitative researchers came to listen and try to understand how they might integrate ethnographic methods into their research. It made me excited about the potential of ethnographic research methods in this community, but by the end of the conference, I was worried about the assumptions on which much of the research on Wikipedia is based, and at what this means for the way that we understand Wikipedia in the world. 

WikiSym (Wiki Symposium) is the annual meeting of researchers, practitioners and wiki engineers to talk about everything to do with wikis and open collaboration. Founded by the father of the wiki, Ward Cunningham and others, the conference started off as a place where wiki engineers would gather to advance the field. Seven years later, WikiSym is dominated by big data quantitative analyses of English Wikipedia.

Some participants were worried about the movement away from engineering topics (like designing better wiki platforms), while others were worried about the fact that Wikipedia (and its platform, MediaWiki) dominates the proceedings, leaving other equally valuable sites like Wikia and platforms like TikiWiki under-studied.

So, in the spirit of the times, I drew up a few rough analyses of papers presented.

(Wikipedia and its platform, MediaWiki are but one of a host of other wiki communities and platforms which is why I’ve distinguished between Wikipedia and others.)

It would be interesting to look at this for other years to see whether the recent Big Data trend is having an impact on Wikipedia research and whether research related to Wikipedia (rather than other open collaboration communities) is on the rise. One thing I did notice was that the demo track was a lot larger this year than the previous two years. Hopefully that is a good sign for the future because it is here that research is put into practice through the design of alternative tools. A good example is Jodi Schneider’s research on Wikipedia deletions that she then used to conceptualize alternative interfaces  that would simplify the process and help to ensure that each article would be dealt with more fairly.

Talking about ethnography?

I am still intrigued by the fact that so many quantitative analysts wanted to know about ethnography during our open space session. We started the session with those who had done ethnographic work talking about their experiences: Stuart Geiger talked about his ethnographic work on Wikipedia bots, Isis Amelie Hjorth talked about her ethnographic enquiry into Wreckamovie, the collaborative movie outfit from Finland and Paško Bilić discussed how he studied breaking news stories on Wikipedia. Others wanted to know how you even begin to do ethnographic research on Wikipedia when editors are a) anonymous and b) located all around the world. One participant said, “I’m faced with 3 million edits (in my dataset) and I have to say something about them. How do I even begin?”Read More… Where does ethnography belong? Thoughts on WikiSym 2012