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Quote: Follow the Thing versus Follow the People


“In terms of internet research, multi-sited ethnography – in particular Marcus’s tracking strategy of “following the thing,” can provide a methodological approach that accounts for the role of material objects (technologies, artifacts, media) in describing social processes that are constituted in and articulated through sociotechnical practices. Conventionally, ethnographic research has concentrated primarily on the role of human actors in meaning-making processes. While documents and artifacts have certainly been part of ethnographic projects, those objects have often been examined as the product, and not a co-producer of, culture. The result is that technology often plays a limited role in understanding social practices, a point Bruno Latour makes arguing that technical objects are the “missing masses” in social science (1992).”

Walker, Dana M. (2010) The Location of Digital Ethnography, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

reblogged from modernandmaterialthings

A funny film poking fun of ethnography (makes a great teaching tool!)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e5mivkXmsc
badethnography has a shared a teaching gem: Walter Wippersberg‘s 1994 Film, Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich Dark, Mysterious Austria.  I am now assigning , to all my students. If you teach qualitative methods, consider including this in your syllabus.

Produced for Austria’s SBS-TV, this films pokes fun at old-school ethnography from anthropologists and the National Geographic-esque like exposes on the exotic Africans and South American natives.

“A team of the All African Television network wanders into the darkest regions of the Eastern Alps. They observe the habits and rituals of the natives and make not one, but two ethnological major break-through discoveries.” IMDB

badethnography tell us that at

“At 5:40, we learn that the team has disproved the theory that Europeans are monogamous; starting at about 7:50, they describe the elaborate costumes and militaristic symbolism of clans of the Tyrol region of Austria; and at 15:00, there’s a great discussion of the curious obsession with “patently useless activities,” such as biking for no other purpose than biking itself.

Aside from the humorous commentary, it’s a great way of illustrating the sociological imagination,  which requires us to step out of our own culture and try to look at it through the eyes of an outsider — and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to recapture the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted.”

Often times ethnography can feel so heavy and serious –  power and culture ad naseum.

But what does power and culture look like? How do you explain exoticism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism? Dunkles, Rätselhaftes Österreich is a wonderful video to start those conversations because it’s silly! Part of why I love ethnography so much is that it is so fun and I think this video is a great reminder for ethnographers to laugh a bit at ourselves. In all of our musings over the practice and theory of ethnography, we’ve got to remember that we live in a wonderfully silly world and how lovely it is that we live in a period where we get to play all day in collecting knowledge of “man,” a la Foucault.

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and btw – I don’t think I could ever visit the Alps of Austria without constantly thinking of this video.

UPDATE: Also check out Kitchen Stories, a Swedish film about an ethnographic study on kitchens. It’s a comedy. You can buy the DVD on amazon and watch 2 clips here. Thanks Leila Takayama for the tip!

An example of why culture and design matter for the user – it’s in the details


An Xiao Mina’s latest post about seat numbers in China is a great example of how design that attempts to understand the user’s world matters. She explains in her post why there is no 12E in this photo:

Contrary to intuition for English speakers, seats 12F and 12D are next to each other on the train. Why no 12E? After some time, I realized it’s because the letter E sounds like the number 1 in Chinese.

Without awareness of how the letter E sounds in this context, any designer (Chinese speaking or non-Chinese speaking) could easily overlook this very minor detail that would great confusion for a person who is looking for their seat.

Minimizing unintentional confusion in design requires attention to the details. This is why ethnography and user studies are important.