The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Sam Ladner’s summer reading list mixes creativity with time, religion, & humor [guest contributor]
We welcome back Ethnography Matter’s first guest contributor, Sam Ladner! Instead of telling us why corporate ethnography can suck, Sam shares with us her summer reading. She discuses an experience that many of us are familiar with – how graduate school ruins the joy of reading. Much to her surprise, Sam tells us that she still loved theory post-grad school!
Grad school has a way of ruining the pleasure of reading. You have stacks of books and articles, many of which you have no hope of ever finishing, much less enjoying. Since leaving grad school, I’ve reveled in the freedom to read whatever I want. Imagine my horror when I realized I continue to read academic books! Yes, when left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate to heady theory and dense research.
Below are a few of my crazy picks. Unlike when I was in grad school, however, I allow myself to read as much or as little as I choose.
1. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi blew my mind when I read his famous Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, so I was pretty interested to learn what he has to say about creativity. He interviewed dozens of eminent scientists, writers, artists and business leaders. I’m personally intrigued about their working processes, which is not at all what I expected.
This book will give you insight into your own ethnographic practice. I’ve already learned about the conditions under which I am more creative in doing my analysis and writing up my findings.
The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Nicolas Nova takes us back to objects, public spaces, and lines….yes lines [guest contributor]
A few months ago we interviewed Nicolas Nova in A Retrospective of Talks by Ethnographers at Lift Conference. Now we finally have Nicolas grace us with a peek into his brain with his summer reading list. A bit more about Nicolas from his bio:
Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher at the Near Future Laboratory. He undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. Nicolas applies this in the domains of video games, mobile and location-based media as well as networked objects/robots. He also teaches user research in interaction design at HEAD-Geneva and ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL, Switzerland). He is also editorial consultant for the Lift Conference. In his free time, he collects video game controllers and peculiar interfaces dug up in flea markets here and there.
This summer I’m spending the months of July and August in California for a visiting researcher’s residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, working on a project about rituals and gestures of the digital everyday. Because of that topic, the books I’ve bought for the summer are quite influenced by this project. They’re not about methodologies, but more about case studies concerning design, material culture, ethnography and architecture. Each of them seems to be feeding our investigation here:
Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century (Alison J. Clarke Ed.)
An interesting anthology describing various case studies about how different designers benefit from observing people when making new things. What caught my attention here is the wide breadth of examples presented and the description of what happens beyond data collection. As a matter of fact, several books (and presentations) I’ve read recently address the data part but are less verbose about how to turn this into “something”. And I have to admit that I’m interested in that “something”, be it a commercial product, a design fiction or a good discussion with friends. Some essays are of course more relevant to me than others but it was overall a good compilation that also covers examples beyond commercial products sold next year.
The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Christina Dennaoui brings us some science, emotion, & pain [guest contributor]
We have another first time contributor on Ethnography Matters! Christina Dennaoui was a graduate student of anthropology, media, and religion at the University of Chicago. After graduate school she started a new chapter as a digital planner and strategist for a digital marketing agency in Chicago. I met Christina through her amazing tumblr blog, Modern and Im/Material Things. Christina isn’t an ethnographer, but she’s a crazy smart social theorist working in industry, so we immediately bonded. Here’s some more about Christina from her bio:
Off the clock, she is an artist, and producer of electronic music. She also volunteers on the Associate Board of Chicago’s largest LGBTQ resource center. She is currently working on a project, which she jokingly calls “post-colonial dubstep.” The project combines elements of critical theory with dance music. This project began with a transatlantic collaboration with Parisian musicians to “remix” Zizek’s Occupy Wall Street speech and is now expanding to include other contemporary philosophers. She’s not much for the Twitters but she tumbls and is fond of email.
In my ideal world, I would use the summer season as an opportunity to catch up on recently released works of fiction or non-fiction. This summer, however, has been the start of a somewhat ambitious project: actually reading all of the books on my bookshelf in their entirety. Crazy, right? My goal is to take my time with each book, actually “sitting with” the author’s arguments rather than voraciously consuming theory like I did in graduate school. My graduate studies focused on religion, anthropology, and communication theory, which means that I have shelves full of work that relate to my professional work in digital strategy and planning. Although there is no grand theme uniting all of the books on my list, there are a few sub-themes worth calling out: archiving and identity, personal branding, quantifying individual interests, and the meaning of “strategy.”
Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay
(A PDF of the book)
Though short in length, Latour and Lepinay’s introduction of Gabriel Tarde’s Psychologie Economique is dense but remarkably clear. Situating Tarde’s work in a larger context of economic and political theory, Latour and Lepinay tease out some the aspects of Tarde’s work that provide useful conceptual frameworks for articulating the more esoteric aspects of economics as a field of study. One area that is of particular relevance to my work is Tarde’s interest in the qualitative measures of economies, such as conversations, tastes, ideas, etc. For Tarde, one of the shortcomings of his contemporaries was that their economic methods often focused on the study of wealth and production to exclusion of other available data. It wasn’t that one approach was better than the other but that a narrow focus creates methodological problems because it often results in the construction of the very structure it aims to study. It’s a simple enough argument, yes, but one that was lost in the wake of Marx’s work.
The Ethnographer’s Summer Reading List: Elisa Oreglia brings us something old, something new, and something borrowed [guest contributor]
We finally have Elisa Oreglia join Ethnography Matters for a guest post! Elisa is a PhD candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Information. She studies the circulation and use of mobile phones and computers in China, especially in the countryside, and despite two summers spent helping out in the fields, she’s still a hopeless farmer.
… something borrowed, something blue… no, I’m not talking about ethnographies of weddings, even though weddings, funerals, and all social rituals are a staple of anthropological writing. This is my guiding rhyme to choose summer readings, and make sure that they deviate from the usual goal-driven reading of the rest of the year.
Carla Borsoi is a new contributor to Ethnography Matters. This month, she’s sharing her summer reading list in the Ethnographer’s Reading List series. One of my favorite books about the history of the internet is on her list, Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. I’ve always been interested in Carla’s work because her work with industry has always been tied to producing insights with qualitative research. After spending five years at Ask.com, she is currently the VP of Consumer Insights at AOL where she gets to drive product and marketing strategy for mail and mobile products by drawing on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, digging into web analytics, measuring marketing effectiveness, and monitoring social media. We’ll have to interview Carla in depth in soon about how she uses qualitative research at AOL. You can find more about Carla on her website or if you have questions for Carla, send her a tweet!
I love summer. I love reading. I maintain an ongoing reading list on GoodReads, which means that there is never a lack of content to consume. Next year, my eldest will be attending high school. We got her summer reading list and I was surprised to see some books that have been languishing on my to-read list. Then, as Ethnography Matters has put together other people’s summer reading lists, it was inspiration to smash these all together and create a list of must-reads by August.
While books directly related to research and methodology can be interesting, what’s more compelling is what comes after the data collection. How do you tell a story with data? How do you suck people in and get them to internalize what has been learned? What can we predict for the future? To that end, this list is comprised of books that cover this topic in various guises.
1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
This is actually a re-read, but is hands down the best book on using storytelling that I’ve read. It’s nice to revisit and take the lessons back in, reinforcing them.
2. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
This is about taking a bunch of studies related to happiness, filtering it through a personal lens and then weaving a story around it. I’m also interested in understanding how people manage their time and achieve goals.
3. You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
More of a manifesto. How does one weave together history with a vision of the future? Many folks have told me that they disagreed with some of ideas put forth in this book, but at the least we know Mr. Lanier can be provocative.
4. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture Edited by Kenneth Haltman & Jules David Prown
This book is a compilation of essays covering America’s connection to products and what that has to say about American culture. I can’t wait to read about chapters about corsets, lava lamps and the telephone.
A history and a book which looks to the past to get ideas of the future. How can one weave together a cohesive explanation of how a culture arose based on various influences?
I just finished one of these, and will be looking forward to digging into the rest of these over the coming weeks. At the end of the summer, I’ll report back and let you know what you think the value of each of these and how I might apply these to my work.
A first time contributor to Ethnography Matters, Jay Owens shares her summer reading list with us in the Ethnographer’s Book List series. I became familiar with Jay through liking and reblogging many of her tumblr posts. I eventually wandered over to Jay’s website that had the byline: tech + culture: patterns, trends, lines of flight. I soon found out that Jay is a social media research at FACE, a research and innovation agency in London. And like many of us who find our way to projects and friends online, Jay got her job through Twitter (@hautepop). Jay tells me that she wants to write an ethnography of teenage Tumblr. (We hope you start that project soon!) Previously Jay studied social anthropology at the LSE. You can learn more about Jay’s research on her twitter, tumblr, or her website.
As a commercial researcher I look somewhat enviously at the rhythms of the academic year, when the summer can be a time away from reading lists or teaching schedules allowing for – hopefully – some wider reading and exploration. Nonetheless, working at the intersection of qual & quant research, social media technology and online behaviour means there’s a lot of areas I need to read up on this summer – below is only a fraction of my to-read list.
Research methods are a crucial area: with little in the way of established methods in my field, rigorous thinking about data, analysis and epistemology is essential for producing robust results. Theoretically, too, working on contemporary Western society means I want to add ideas from media studies, geography and economics to the anthropological grounding I gained at university. Finally ethnography, bringing it all together and asserting the primacy of people’s lived experiences.
Recommendations here would be particularly welcome if you believe there are better books I should attend to in these areas first. But so far, these are the key three:
1. John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004)
This book proved essential during my Masters thesis on the cultural meaning of dust (!), offering a much-needed way to think about something really fundamentally messy and impossible to fix within any theoretical paradigm I examined. Now, I’m really curious what its core arguments about indeterminacy and othering look like when read through my current lens of social media data. What’s more, Law’s argument that “methods don’t just describe social realities but are also involved in creating them” is a massive and necessary provocation for anyone working in this field. The work we do with for example public Twitter API data – performing analyses essentially inaccessible to the people creating the information – clearly, politically, this raises questions Law should help me to better address.
Donald Norman’s Living With Complexity may make a useful adjunct to pursue the complexity theme through to empirical implementations in user experience design.
2. Sarah Boslow & Paul Andrew Waters, Statistics in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference (O’Reilly Media, 2008)
Call it the digital humanities or the ‘quantitative turn’ in social sciences research – knowing what to do with quantitative data is becoming essential for cultural and communications research. The social media data I analyse includes hundreds of different distributions, be they frequency of tweeting, number of people followed, or reblogs per photo – and I want to get a better grasp of how to model and analyse them. This book has two particularly attractive features: Chapter 6 on critiquing statistics and understanding common pitfalls, and an orientation towards uses and applications rather than mathematical proofs.
3. Mark Newman, Networks: An Introduction (OUP, 2010)
Continuing in a quantitative vein, I also hope to make time for this comprehensive introduction to network theory and computational methods. Working in commercial research gives me the luxury of not having to run all the analysis myself – we work with a developer team – but nonetheless the more technical knowledge I gain, the more interesting questions I can ask. This book appeals for its breadth, bringing together network studies from biology, computing and physics as well as the social sciences. In this way I hope it’ll offer more than a typical social sciences guide to social network analysis (e.g. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology by Christina Prell, 2011) which seems a bit small-scale to speak to the million-message datasets we use in social media research.
4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Electronic communication is the very matter I research and yet I’ve never read McLuhan properly. Looking back to a classic from 1964 will hopefully cut through the distractions of much writing on contemporary social media – all the books from 2011 claiming Google+ as the future, or those from 2007 heralding the era of MySpace – and demand some serious thinking about how the now fits into thousands of years of technology and information. (Failing that it’ll provide a lucrative source of quotations for Powerpoint presentations…)
5. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso, 2012)
In attempting to keep thinking about things post-university (I’m 26), as much as I’ve done so it’s been through two channels: Twitter and an urban politics reading group. The city provides a valuably approachable terrain for thinking about how power and systems interoperate – a way of fixing abstractions of capital or modernity into something familiar and tangible. As the recession double-dips and the financial crisis lurches on, Harvey’s book will – I hope – offer a way of thinking from a Marxist perspective that will feel practical, reasonable and actionable.
6. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011)
Little needs to be said here other than a shame-faced confession that I’ve still not read it.
7. Suzanne Hall, City, Street and Citizen: The Measure of the Ordinary (Routledge, 2012)
A shame this has been published at university-library-only prices (£80!) – as an ethnography of south London’s Walworth Road, City, Street and Citizen could surely be of interest to many. Multiculturalism has become hugely devalued in British political discourse and yet it’s undeniably a lived reality in the capital. I’m fascinated to read Hall’s account of the micro-politics of relationship and difference, performance and exchange among small shopkeepers on this Southwark street – I think it’ll be a real case of making an area I know quite well both familiar and strange, as the best ethnographies should.
Suggesting comparison is Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Matthews (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – an account of the most globalised building on earth.
For the Ethnography Matters Reading List Series, we’ve invited several ethnographers to share their reading lists with our readers. I want to thank Roy Christopher for giving us the inspiration to create the Reading List series! Every summer, Roy asks friends and colleuage to create a reading list in which he laboriously compiles and links to Powell’s online store. After we saw his list, we wanted to create an onoing one at Ethnography Matters. Do check out Roy’s 2012 list that has contributions from Howard Reingold to Douglas Rushkoff. First in the line up is Ethnography Matters contributor Tricia Wang, who is coming back from a year and a half of fieldwork and has curated a list ethnographic monographs and non-fiction books. Carla Borsoi from AOL and Jay Owens from FACE also contribute for July.
We would love to feature your book list! Please contact one of our contributors or email us!
I haven’t read any books because I’ve been in fieldwork, so I don’t even know where to start. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.
LIST 1: ETHNOGRAPHIC MONOGRAPHS
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. I am quite obsessed with this topic because what I see happening in China is people learning capitalism – like learning how to be a consumer, investor, borrower, and credit card users. Insurance ads are plastered to billboards, malls are open til midnight, and teenagers are learning how to shape their identity through products. Though I’ve always felt helpless when I am observing “capitalism.” Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that address the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address and that will hopefully help me better understand my field site.Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List