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Collateral Benefits: Focus Groups as Social Support Groups


Ricarose Roque

Ricarose Roque

Editor’s Note: Ricarose Roque (@ricarose) continues this month’s theme of ethnography in education with a lovely piece about some unexpected results of qualitative focus groups she ran with groups of parents as part of her research. Ricarose is a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, where she works with families in communities that have limited access to resources and social support around computing. We are thrilled to have her as a guest author at Ethnography Matters. 


In designing our research projects, we weigh which methods can contribute (or not contribute) into our research questions, but how might these methods benefit the people we study?

I found a surprising outcome in a recent series of focus groups I conducted to understand parents’ perceptions of computing in their lives and their children’s lives. Parents play an important role in their children’s learning ecology, from encouraging their children at home to brokering relevant relationships and resources for children beyond the home. As technology proliferates to every part of our lives from how we connect with one another to how we can learn, I’ve been interested in how parents are negotiating technology use with their children, especially among parents who do not have a history or background in computing and engineering. (I use parents loosely here to mean any adult caretaker.) I used focus groups to interview multiple parents in a familiar setting (their local community center) and to leverage the dynamics of groups to gather shared perceptions or contentious points.

In the hour and a half we shared together, I would discuss with 3 to 5 parents their personal and children’s use of technology and its influence on their lives. And at the end of each one, I noticed that parents seemed to enjoy the experience. They thanked me for putting this together. And then they thanked each other. Some suggested doing “this” again. Parents exchanged contact information. There was a feeling that we went through something special. And I only made sense of what that was through iterative readings of the transcripts.

parents

I found that parents connected over their sometimes overwhelming anxiety around computing and how it influenced how they saw themselves, their children, and their relationships to their children. For example, they agreed that there were benefits to using computers and mobile devices in their lives, but at the same time, they shared questions about what was being lost or given up with their use. With cell phones, they could get in touch with their children immediately and at any time. With Facebook, they could keep in touch with relatives still living in the countries they left behind. But when someone grows up with communication done through text-based mediums and interactions mediated through devices, how do they connect with people emotionally and deeply in real life? How do they develop their sense of what is right and wrong? One mother asked about technology: “How — not even how does it benefit him — how does it benefit other people? How does what you do [with technology] help someone else?”

For every question I asked, parents illuminated their responses with stories. One dad shared his disappointment with how technology has complicated reading with his son, and even replaced him as his son’s reading partner.

You hit on a word [on an iPad reading app] and it says the word for you. I was a little offended, I thought I would be a great reader for them, but they preferred to have the, whatever the person who had been paid by the company to read to them, which I’m still bitter about.

Read More… Collateral Benefits: Focus Groups as Social Support Groups

Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography


Christo Sims

Christo Sims

Editor’s Note: We are excited to kick off this month’s theme on what ethnography can bring to education research with a post by Professor Christo Sims (@christosims). Christo has insights from a public school in New York City that was meant to foster digital inclusion across gender, racial, and socioeconomic barriers, but ended up entrenching these barriers instead. His story shows how ethnographic research can answer difficult questions and broaden the usual dialogues about digital inequality in education in fundamental – and important – ways.


Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

By Christo Sims

Digital inequality scholarship is well-intentioned. It debunks myths about digital media’s inherent egalitarianism and draws attention to the digital dimensions of social inequalities. Digital inequality scholars have shown, for example, that people with access to networked media use those technologies in different ways, some of which are thought to be more beneficial than others. They have highlighted how differences in skills and quality of access shape use. And they have rightly attacked the stereotype of the digital generation. These are important contributions for which we should be grateful.

Yet digital inequality scholarship is also limited in some fundamental, and I believe hazardous, ways. To defend these claims, I will draw on an in-depth ethnographic study of an ambitious attempt to combat digital inequality: a new, well-resourced, and highly touted public middle school in Manhattan that fashions itself as “a school for digital kids.” It is hard to imagine a more concerted attempt to combat digital inequality, and yet the school paradoxically helped perpetuate many of the very social divisions it hoped to mend. In-depth ethnographic studies can help us understand these outcomes, and they can provide us with tools for forming more accurate conceptions of relations between digital media and social inequalities.

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

Read More… Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

July 2013: Ethnography in Education


Guest Editor Morgan G. Ames

Guest Editor
Morgan G. Ames

Welcome to this month’s theme on ethnography in education research! From the promise of radio learning nearly a century ago, to the recent hype around One Laptop Per Child, to the current excitement around massive open online courses (MOOCs), education has been a site of constant reform efforts – or, as education researcher Larry Cuban puts it, “tinkering.” While using “big data” to evaluate these reforms has its allure (and can be useful in ethnographic research, as Jenna and Ayman have shown us in previous posts), ethnography is unique in being able to dig below the surface and uncover the complicated processes and contingent effects of education and education reform.

ethnography_education

This month’s authors highlight how ethnography can uncover unexpected results or answer difficult questions about some of the thorniest problems in education reform, especially the persistence of various kinds of inequality. Our first article, by Christo Sims (@christosims), tackled this question head-on in an ethnography of a technology-focused public school in New York that inexplicably had many of its less advantaged students transfer out. With his research, Christo was able to say why this was happening and what it means for other efforts for digital inclusion.

Coming up next, we will hear from Ricarose Roque (@ricarose), who is working to break down some of the stubborn gender, racial, and socioeconomic divides in computer science and bring the programming environment Scratch to a more diverse community. She will talk about some of the unexpected benefits parents experienced in the qualitative focus groups she has been conducting as part of her research.

Later in the month, Sheila Frye (@sheila_frye) will tell us about her research on interactive eBooks, which promote active reading habits – a crucial part of literacy – to children who may not learn this skill otherwise. Sheila uses ethnography to take a close look at both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of interactive eBooks. Her enthusiasm for ethnographic methods is infectious; she is one of the few graduate students we know who LOVES her dissertation work!Read More… July 2013: Ethnography in Education

Play to Plan: mobile games to value street-level trade


Adriana Valdez Young

Adriana Valdez Young

Editor’s note: In the last post of the Stories to Action edition, urban research designer Adriana Valdez Young @thepublicagency tells us how she used stories gathered from ethnographic research to design a game for architects and planners.  Her “action,” a game called Arrivalocity, allowed users to access stories from her fieldwork. Although not all “actions” turn out as we expect. Adriana shares with us how she would approach this process if she were to do this again. All designers and researchers can learn from her very open and honest reflection. 

Adriana Valdez Young makes creative learning and research platforms that engage people with their city. She is the co-founder of English for Action in Rhode Island, helped launch KARAJ in Beruit and is the co-editor of Betta, an architecture zine on lifestyle and conflict.

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An individual storefront subdivided from 1 to 8 businesses over the course of 3 years.(Courtesy of Nicolas Palominos & LSE Cities 2012)

An individual storefront subdivided from 1 to 8 businesses over the course of 3 years.
(Courtesy of Nicolas Palominos & LSE Cities 2012)

Introduction

One day in Eindhoven for a lighting workshop. The next day, back to London for a one-hour walk down the street, followed by six hours drawing plans for a boutique hotel, art cinema, and food market to present to city officials. This is how a group of architecture firms spent two days in the spring of 2012 shaping a gentrified vision for Rye Lane (Olcayto 2012).

Designers, planners and developers shape our cities, yet they can spend little to no time in the field before delving into decision making. In the context of culturally-complex and rapidly changing streets, the results can be generic and damaging characterizations, leading to bland and detrimental designs.

As a researcher with the ‘Ordinary Streets’ project at LSE Cities, I spent several months in 2012 learning about the culture of trade on Rye Lane – a dense, multicultural high street in the neighborhood of Peckham, South London. Rye Lane is a street where businesses and shoppers regularly out-maneuver tight spaces and budgets. It is an entrepreneurial and cultural destination, where a newly arrived immigrant can rent an outdoor market stall for a daily rate of £10 – using only a mailing address and a mobile number to secure a permit; where a woman can buy exactly the same foods she cooked, hair style she wore and movies she watched in Lagos – all in the same shop; and where a refugee from Iraq manages a store that he subdivided from one to eight micro businesses – each one run by immigrants.

Read More… Play to Plan: mobile games to value street-level trade

Performing Success: When mythologies about a technology dominate first impressions


 

Editor Morgan G. Ames

Editor Morgan G. Ames

Editor’s Note: We are lucky to have Morgan G. Ames @morgangames back from her fieldwork in South America to contribute a post to March edition of Stories to Action. Morgan gives us an insider’s view of a One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) project in Paraguay. Her insights reveal how ethnographic work creates a critical eye to reveal the truth behind what she calls “performing success.”  Her story helps us see how the real benefits that users experience with a technology are often covered up with mythologies that we tell about the device. The result of her work provides invaluable insights for OLPC.

Morgan shared this story below at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk. After her presentation, Morgan also hosted the geek version of My Little Pony or Porn Star (take the test if you haven’t yet!)  in having us guess the technology referred to in overly optimistic quotes about new technologies. You can play along by watching the video of Morgan hosting the game with the conference attendees. Morgan created a tumblr, Techutopianism, dedicated to tracking technology utopian quotes!

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This vignette problematizes the value of first impressions by illustrating an example of participants’ desire to perform success to visitors, especially high-profile ones. In the process, it shows the value of ethnographies, as more sustained research initiatives which ideally last long after the novelty effect of the visitor and of the (techno-)social interactions they are studying have worn off.

The day started like many schooldays in Paraguay. It was a Tuesday in late October, 2010, well into spring, and several months into my fieldwork studying the medium-size One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project there. The sun was beating down and temperatures had already climbed into the high 20s C when we rolled up to the school at 8am with our visitor in tow, just in time for the start of classes.

The visitor, one of OLPC’s founding members and chief software architects, was in the country for a whirlwind five-day visit. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, Paraguay Educa, had carefully filled his itinerary with meetings with high-ranking officials they hoped to convince to support the project as well a visit to Itaipu Dam, one of its most high-profile donors – and this school visit.

I was excited and intrigued that this visitor was going to actually visit a school and spend time in a classroom. After several months of fieldwork, I had noted a number of positive aspects about the project, especially due to the sustained efforts the NGO had been putting into teacher training, community outreach, and laptop maintenance, but I had also noted a number of troubling issues, some of them caused by OLPC’s design or support choices. Would he see these issues, and if so, would he act on making them better?

Ames-Paraguay

Read More… Performing Success: When mythologies about a technology dominate first impressions

Reaching Those Beyond Big Data


Editor’s Note: Opening up the Stories to Action edition is Panthea Lee’s @panthealee moving story about a human trafficking outreach campaign that her company, Reboot, designed for Safe Horizon.  In David Brook’s recent NYT column, What Data Can’t Do, he lists several things that big data is unable to accomplish. After reading the notes to Panthea’s talk below, we’d all agree that big data also leaves out people who live”off the grid.”

As Panthea tells her story about Fatou (pseudonym), a person who has been trafficked, we learn that many of the services we use to make our lives easier, like Google Maps or Hop Stop, are also used by human traffickers to maintain dominance and power over people they are controlling. Panthea shares the early prototypes in Reboot’s design and how they decided to create a campaign that would take place at cash checking shops. 

Below, Panthea shares her notes to the talk that she gave at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. You can also view the video version of her talk

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We’ve made great strides in data-driven policymaking, open government, and civic technology –– many of the folks in this room have made significant contributions in these domains. But, as we know, many people, even here in New York City, still live “off the grid”––and the issues of access go beyond “digital divide”.

As a designer working on governance and development issues––fields where economists regularly eat anthropologists for lunch––this is something I think a lot about.

In the era of Big Data, as we become increasingly reliant on capital-d Data, I wonder what might exist in the negative space? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?

Slide02

A few months ago, I met a young woman from Benin who I will call Fatou (not her real name). Fatou had been adopted by an American preacher on mission in Benin, and brought to the United States. She and her family were overjoyed at her good fortune.

Fatou was pleased, she felt taken care of with her new “mother” and “father” in Queens. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to the US and to allow her to enroll in school, a longtime dream.

But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her.

Whenever they left the house, “to keep her safe”, her mother always held her by the wrist, keeping a firm grip. She wasn’t allowed any possessions beyond clothing. Her belongings were regularly searched for any material she kept, particularly information (pamphlets, papers). If found, they were confiscated. She worked long hours at a school the family owned. She was never herself enrolled in school, as promised, and when she inquired about her education, she was told to stop being ungrateful.

At first, Fatou thought these were just US customs. But then things got worse.Read More… Reaching Those Beyond Big Data

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (3 of 3)


whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s note: In the final installment of Whitney Phillip‘s @wphillips49 series on ethnography of trolling, she shares with us how she navigates academic territories when her own work and academic background–she has three degrees from three different fields–does not fit neatly within pre-existing boundaries. While some people fear border jumping in academia, we see this as a strength and as a sign of a fearless learner. Now that Whitney is on the job market, we invited her to discuss how she is managing her identity as “Dr. Whitney Phillips” and to share some tips she has picked up along the way. 

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discipline hopscotch

Often I am asked about my research focus, and when that happens I never quite know what to say. My PhD is in English, I have a Folklore structured emphasis (the PhD equivalent of a major), and my dissertation is on trolling. Although this combination makes perfect sense to me, it tends to raise more questions than it answers (“English, really?” being the most common response, followed closely behind by “Oh you mean like Norse mythology?”). To simplify things, and especially early in my research project, I would usually just say that I studied internet trolls and leave it at that.

But as I came to realize, the claim that “I study trolls” was misleading, since that sort of framing implied that I somehow received training in trolling (…lol?), or at least narrowed my field of interest/expertise to that one behavioral practice. And I don’t just study trolls, not even in the dissertation. Throughout my project I also address digital culture more broadly (specifically meme culture and the steady mainstreaming of similar), and devote a great deal of space to the discussion and critique of sensationalist corporate media. I even have a chapter on trolls’ relationship to the Western philosophical canon (Socrates, come on down!). In a lot of ways, the dissertation project—now revised book manuscript—is as much about the wider cultural context as it is about trolls themselves, complicating the so-called “elevator pitch” (20 second research synopses) all academics are expected to perform at conferences and other professional gatherings.

That I don’t have a concise elevator pitch doesn’t bother me. In fact, given my  academic background, it’s entirely appropriate—I have a B.A. in philosophy (2004, Humboldt State University), and/but whenever I could would apply specific philosophical approaches to pop culture, primarily television (television is my absolute favorite medium). I also have an M.F.A. in fiction (2007, Emerson College), and/but throughout my program mostly wrote non-fiction, avoided writing workshops (the backbone of all M.F.A. programs), and took as many lit classes as possible. I’ve never fully fit into any one field or department, and have always been perfectly comfortable—happy, even—playing hopscotch with disciplinary borders. Because why not, and anyway they’re just chalk marks.

Regardless of how I might feel about clear-cut borders, I do have to navigate the academic waters, and have had to learn to take things like elevator pitches seriously (well seriously-ish). And not just elevator pitches, but academic taglines—the one or two word signal phrases journalists and other academics use to designate your research area (i.e. “anthropologist Jan McTenure”; “social scientist Bill O’Jobby”). This has proven to be even more difficult than distilling my research focus into a 20 second soundbite. Because what am I, really? In 1-3 words, anyway.Read More… Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (3 of 3)

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights


Editor’s Note: This post for the February ‘Openness Edition‘ comes from Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina who discuss their project to facilitate personal storytelling by homeless youth from Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The team from the Media Design Practices/ Field Track program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California had so much success with the timeline structure that they’re packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. and releasing it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field. This kind of repurposing of ethnographic tools is exactly the kind of sharing that we get excited about at EM and we encourage others to share their own tools and work processes in similar ways.

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jovenestimeline1

Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Ethnography has a lot to offer design, as evidenced by the growing field of design and design-related research informed by the methods and practices of anthropology.  Within this emerging interdisciplinary space, the design community and the anthropological community now have an opportunity to ask the question – “If anthropology has offered so much for design – what can design offer anthropology?”

We explored this question as part of our work with Jovenes, Inc., a center for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for youth to tell their personal stories and experiences. These stories would assist the organization in learning more about its constituency and support applications for additional funding to improve its programming and services. We worked in the vein of Participatory Action Research, by Alice McIntyre, taking a collaborative approach to the design and storytelling process, ensuring that both the youths’ untapped creative abilities and our expertise and research were consistently utilized throughout the experience.Read More… Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

Massively EPIC 2013! Your Contributions Wanted, March 9th!


Simon Roberts Editor’s Note: One of the reasons we started Ethnography Matters was to bring ethnography to a wider audience. Before Ethnography Matters, the founders of EPIC  @epiconference had a similar goal: to give ethnographers outside of academia a space to build community, to share best practices, and to educate the industry about the value of human driven research. EPIC has been, and continues to be, a critical space for ethnographers working in the industry. We are very excited to announce that Ethnography Matters and EPIC will be collaborating this year to bring you closer to the amazing organizers, papers, workshops, and conversations in the lead up to and after the conference. 

In a special guest contribution from co-organizer of EPIC13 (and EPIC12), Simon Roberts from ReD Associates tells us about the exciting things to expect from this year’s conference. He tells us about the massively radical decision to make EPIC13  a no theme year! No theme conferences are quite radical in the conference world, especially considering that EPIC has always had a theme since it started in 2005. This will be the first of many posts from the awesome organizing team behind EPIC13.

Simon Roberts @ideasbazaar is a well known anthropologist with a long history of working with a diverse group of clients. He is currently a consultant at ReD Associates, an innovation and strategy consultancy. In 2002 he founded Ideas Bazaar,  UK’s first ethnographic research company and in 2006 he moved to Intel to develop an R&D lab focused on ageing and healthcare. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers! Join our email groups for ongoing conversations. Follow us on twitter and facebook

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To theme or not to theme
EPIC, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, is “the premier international gathering on the current and future practice of ethnography in the business world.” That’s the headline, the formal statement of intent.

But to my mind, Bruce Sterling, in his keynote at EPIC 2011, put it well when he said that EPIC is a big tent. It’s a tent under which a diverse group of people gather each year – people with odd titles and jobs which they can’t explain to their mothers, and a shared belief in the importance of applying ethnographically derived knowledge to the world of business.

Under the big tent of EPIC each year come together an array of professional committed to putting people at the heart of business decision making. In this respect, we hope that EPIC 2013 in London will be no different. However, in 2013 we are making at least one change which may stretch that canvas a little more than in past years.

EPIC Calling
This year’s call for contributions (for Papers, Pecha Kuchas and Artifacts) has no theme.

Over the years organizers have framed the conference around meaty ideas and concepts and expected would-be authors or presenters to respond to that theme.Read More… Massively EPIC 2013! Your Contributions Wanted, March 9th!

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool


JSpyerEditor’s note:  In this post for February’s Openness Edition, Juliano Spyer (@jasper) explains how he created a video logging (vlogging) survey that took on a life of its own within the YouTube vlogging community, and discusses how his research instrument became valuable not only for the himself, the researcher, but for the researched community. Juliano has invited us to respond to his initial post and to experiment with this exciting new survey form. 

Juliano is a Brazilian ethnographer who is currently doing his PhD at University College London’s Anthropology Department where he is part of the Social Networking and Social Science Research Project.

Check out other posts from the Openness Edition: Jenna Burrel’s ‘#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community‘ and Sarah Kendzior’s ‘On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet‘.
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Think of a survey where the presence of the researcher is not required. Think of a questionnaire that is spontaneously answered and also recommended to others inside a network of friends and peers. Think of a situation where the research results do not go exclusively to the researcher, but remain within the researched community and operate as an archive of group knowledge. I have found that all this is possible through video tagging.

What are video tags?

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

In 2011, as I conducted an ethnographic study of YouTube beauty gurus, I learned that the vlogging community uses roughly two genres of videos: tutorials, which are step-by-step instructions on how to create a makeup look, and “video tags” or just “tags”, a more personal type of communication which consists of questionnaires created and circulated inside the community.

The term “tag”, here, has at least two meanings: tag as the topic or subject of the questionnaire and tag as the action of inviting (“tagging”) your friends at the end of the questionnaire so they can also answer the questions and bring more people to participate. Levels of participation begin with watching and commenting, then answering tags created by others, then creating original tags.

I won’t go into why users do what they do here. It is enough to say that video tags are a way for participants of a certain community of practice to socialize, to get to know more about the people they admire, as well as to forge new relationships. And for those who decide to respond to the tags, it is a way of becoming known by others in this “informal realm” (Winkler Reid 2010) where a person’s reputation corresponds to the number of subscribers that person’s channel has.Read More… YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool