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“.
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?