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Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

Ethnography Matters is one year old this month! Pick CC BY NC SA by jacsonquerubin on Flickr

Ethnography Matters is one year old! Anniversaries are always surrounded with a quality of epicness and grandness. But I don’t feel so much epic or grand today as I feel grateful.

When Heather Ford asked me to join her, Rachelle Annechino, and Jenna Burrell to start a group blog about ethnography, I immediately said yes. Honestly, it’s not too hard to get me blogging – I already have like 20 blogs. I would’ve agreed if Heather asked me to blog about doggies. Though it did help that Heather, Jenna, and Rachelle are really wonderful people 🙂

But I said yes to Ethnography Matters because I recognized that the space we were carving out was important because nobody was talking about and celebrating ethnographers who weren’t bound by the traditional boundaries of anthropology and sociology.  Most conversations about ethnography were taking place either inside industry doors, academic conferences or departmentx, or blogs that fell along industry or field boundaries.

We felt that ethnography should be understood by a wider audience of non-specialists.  At the same time, we recognized that ethnographers needed a space to talk about the new challenges and opportunities that digital tools posed as objects of study, as analytical tools, and as a medium for conducting fieldwork.

When I joined Ethnography Matters, I didn’t realize how important it would become for my own work.  I was in the middle of an 18-month fieldwork trip that was the last phase of my 7 years of fieldwork in China. I was feeling a bit isolated from other forms of ethnography as this was my longest stint of academic research.

Since my first post in October 2011, I’ve come to rely on Ethnography Matters as a place for me to be exposed to other ethnographers’ experiences.  I have learned so much from Heather, Rachelle, and Jenna over the last year.

Heather’s Wikipedia posts are always illuminating and her post on Coye Chesire’s seminar on trust is super helpful for my own research on online trust. Her interview with Stuart Geiger on the ethnography of robots really pushed me to think about ethnography in a whole different context, and even now I can’t totally wrap my mind around it – like really – ethnography on robots? Read More… Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

Introducing Ethnography Matters

Rachelle Annechino and I are recent graduates of the School of Information at UC Berkeley. We met one cold, sunny summer day in August (only in San Francisco!) when I arrived to find friends to learn Python with. Rachelle and I meet to co-work and chat at Brown Couch Café in Oakland where we talk about fascinating bits and pieces from our lives and work. For her final project, Rachelle and her project partner, Yo-Shang Cheng interviewed San Francisco residents and asked them to draw pictures of their internal images or “mental maps” of the neighborhoods they lived in and of the city as a whole. They then visualized these mental maps according to concepts like ‘corridors’ (where are the hearts of each neighbourhood?), ‘barriers’ (is it really that close? It’s not always as simple as it looks getting from one neighbourhood to another in San Francisco) and ‘boundaries’ (what neighbourhood are you in? according to whom?). Rachelle is simply one of the most insightful, brilliant people I know. And she rocks at Python – which makes her a good friend to have.

I met Jenna Burrell when Rachelle and I took her Qualitative Research Methods class last year. Jenna has been doing research on Internet use in Ghana for the past decade or so and was one of the most inspiring teachers that I had at the I School. Jenna’s forthcoming book ‘Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana’ is an incredibly rich contribution to our understanding of African Internet culture. Mostly when I think of Jenna, I think of the fact that while I was in Accra speaking in staid conference rooms during the Africa preparatory conference for the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, Jenna was also out talking to young Ghanaians in Internet cafes and in the streets who were disconnected from a discussion which was ostensibly about them. Jenna is an incredible mentor and her writing about ‘The Fieldsite as a Network’ has been so helpful in thinking about how to ‘do’ digital ethnography. She continues to push the boundaries of the discipline and ask important questions about how digital technologies might become part of the grassroots, self-organizing efforts of populations marginalized from the global economy.

Tricia Wang was introduced to me in one of Jenna’s classes when Jofish Kaye suggested I read about the work she had done on Internet censorship in China. I looked her up and just knew we would be friends. Tricia’s critique of the Google China debacle and her calling for Google to employ more ethnographers in order to better understand the Chinese internet culture was so powerful, and her PhD work on migrant workers is inspiring to say the least. As I write this, Tricia is in China doing her fieldwork, sleeping in Internet cafes and accompanying migrant workers as they move through the city. She’s trying to understand how the use of technology changes how people interact with the physical city, a concept she calls’ digital urbanism on the margins’: migrants’ urban lives mediated through communications technologies like mobile phones and computers in Internet cafes.

And then there’s me, the budding ethnographer, finding herself lucky to know these incredible people and looking forward to the little journey we’re going to go on at this site. Ethnography Matters will be a place where we can share what we’re reading and writing about, how we’re thinking about ethnography, and hopefully giving a little insight for others who are thinking about a career in ethnography into what this even means today. We’ll have others join us in the future, and if you’re interested in contributing, please let us know. We’re looking forward to walking around in your shoes too!