Tag Archives: *edition intro*

Co-designing with machines: moving beyond the human/machine binary

web-7525squareLetter from the Editor: I am happy to announce the The Co-Designing with Machines edition. As someone with one foot in industry redesigning organizations to flourish in a data-rich world and another foot in research, I’m constantly trying to take an aerial view on technical achievements. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the future of design in a data-rich world increasingly powered by of artificial intelligence and its algorithms. What started out over a kitchen conversation with my colleague, Che-Wei Wang (contributor to this edition) about generative design and genetic algorithms turned into a big chunk of my talk at Interaction Design 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. That chunk then took up more of a my brain space and expanded into this edition of Ethnography Matters, Co-designing with machines. In this edition’s introductory post, I share a more productive way to frame human and machine collaboration: as a networked system. Then I chased down nine people who are at the forefront of this transformation to share their perspectives with us. Alicia Dudek from Deloitte will kick off the next post with a speculative fiction on whether AI robots can perform any parts of qualitative fieldwork. Janet Vertesi will close this edition giving us a sneak peak from her upcoming book with an article on human and machine collaboration in NASA Mars Rover expeditions. And in between Alicia and Janet are seven contributors coming from marketing to machine learning with super thoughtful articles. Thanks for joining the ride! And if you find this to be engaging, we have a Slack where we can continue the conversations and meet other human-centric folks. Join our twitter @ethnomatters for updates. Thanks. @triciawang

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Who is winning the battle between humans and computers? If you read the headlines about Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI), DeepMind, beating the world-champion Go player, you might think the machines are winning. CNN’s piece on DeepMind proclaims, “In the ultimate battle of man versus machine, humans are running a close second.” If, on the other hand, you read the headlines about Facebook’s Trending News Section and Personal Assistant, M, you might be convinced that the machines are less pure and perfect than we’ve been led to believe. As the Verge headline puts it, “Facebook admits its trending news algorithm needs a lot of human help.”

The headlines on both sides are based in a false, outdated trope: The binary of humans versus computers. We’re surrounded by similar arguments in popular movies, science fiction, and news. Sometimes computers are intellectually superior to humans, sometimes they are morally superior and free from human bias. Google’s DeepMind is winning a zero-sum game. Facebook’s algorithms are somehow failing by relying on human help, as if collaboration between humans and computers in this epic battle is somehow shameful.

The fact is that humans and computers have always been collaborators. The binary human/computer view is harmful. It’s restricting us from approaching AI innovations more thoughtfully. It’s masking how much we are biased to believe that machines don’t produce biased results. It’s allowing companies to avoid taking responsibility for their discriminatory practices by saying, “it was surfaced by an algorithm.” Furthermore, it’s preventing us from inventing new and meaningful ways to integrate human intelligence and machine intelligence to produce better systems.

giphyAs computers become more human, we need to work even harder to resist the binary of computers versus humans. We have to recognize that humans and machines have always interacted as a symbiotic system. Since the dawn of our species, we’ve changed tools as much as tools have changed us. Up until recently, the ways our brains and our tools changed were limited to the amount of data input, storage, and processing both could handle. But now, we have broken Moore’s Law and we’re sitting on more data than we’re able to process. To make the next leap in getting the full social value out of the data we’ve collected, we need to make a leap in how we conceive of our relationships to machines. We need to see ourselves as one network, not as two separate camps. We can no longer afford to view ourselves in an adversarial position with computers.

To leverage the massive amount of data we’ve collected in a way that’s meaningful for humans, we need to embrace human and machine intelligence as a holistic system. Despite the snazzy zero-sum game headlines, this is the truth behind how DeepMind mastered Go. While the press portrayed DeepMind’s success as a feat independent of human judgement, that wasn’t the case at all. Read More… Co-designing with machines: moving beyond the human/machine binary

The Person in the (Big) Data

FullSizeRender This edition of EM is jam-packed with methods for doing people-centred digital research and is edited by EM co-founder Heather Ford (@hfordsa)
newly-appointed Fellow in Digital Methods at the University of Leeds and thus super excited to understand her role as an ethnographer who (also) does digital methods.

Today we launch the next edition of Ethnography Matters entitled: ‘Methods for uncovering the Person in the (Big) Data’. The aim of the edition is to document some of the innovative methods that are being used to explore online communities, cultures and politics in ways that connect people to the data created about/by them. By ‘method’, we mean both the things that researchers do (interviews, memo-ing, member checking, participant observation) as well as the principles that underpin what many of us do (serving communities, enabling people-centred research, advocating for change). In this introductory post, I outline the current debate around the risks of data-centric research methods and introduce two principles of people-centric research methods that are common to the methods that we’ll be showcasing in the coming weeks.

As researchers involved in studying life in an environment suffused by data, we are all (to at least some extent) asking and answering questions about how we employ digital methods in our research practice. The increasing reliance on natively digital methods is part of what David Berry calls the “computational turn” in the social sciences, and what industry researchers recognize as moves towards Big Data and the rise of Data Science.


Digital Methods‘ by Richard Rogers (2013)

First, a word on digital methods. In his groundbreaking work on digital methods, Richard Rogers argued for a move towards natively digital methods. In doing so, Rogers distinguishes between methods that have been digitized (e.g. online surveys) vs. those that are “born digital” (e.g. recommender systems), arguing that the Internet should not only be seen as an object for studying online communities but as a source for studying modern life that is now suffused by data. “Digital methods,” writes Rogers, “strives to follow the evolving methods of the medium” by the researcher becoming a “native” speaker of online vocabulary and practices.

The risks of going natively digital

There are, however, risks associated with going native. As ethnographers, we recognize the important critical role that we play of bridging different communities and maintaining reflexivity about our research practice at all times and this makes ethnographers great partners in data studies. Going native in this context, in other words, is an appropriate metaphor for both the benefits and risks of digital methods because the risk is not in using digital methods but in focusing too much on data traces.

Having surveyed some of debates about data-centric methodology, I’ve categorized the risks according to three core themes: 1. accuracy and completeness, 2. access and control, 3. ethical issues.Read More… The Person in the (Big) Data

What on Earth is Post Disciplinary 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’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

joe lindely gif

‘Jargon free’ text is the name of the game according to the Ethnography Matters style guide, so titling the introduction to this edition ‘Post Disciplinary Ethnography’ – a bit of a mouthful if ever there was one – seems slightly counter intuitive. Before this post is finished I will invoke a range of other, less-than-straightforward, locutions and idioms. For instance I will have to touch upon the mysterious ‘HighWire’ and the lofty-sounding concept of the ‘method assemblage’. Thankfully, even if the words themselves are unfamiliar, I believe that with some simple explanations we can cut right to the point.

First of all though, I will introduce myself: I am Joseph Lindley, a 32-year-old male of the species ‘homo sapiens’, I reside in Manchester (UK) and I like to think I ‘know where my towel is’. I have a bit of a miscellany of life and work experience including being a manager in a healthcare organisation, working as an IT professional, studying interactive arts, and being a musician under the moniker Joe Galen.

For the last four years though I have been a postgraduate student where I attained a masters degree in research methods and am currently studying for a doctorate on the strange topic of ‘design fiction’. The postgraduate part of that story has all taken place at Lancaster University’s ‘HighWire’ doctoral training centre. All of this edition’s content will come from researchers at the HighWire centre, so before proceeding any further, let me describe it.

HighWire is a 5-year project that was funded by the UK Research Council’s ‘Digital Economy’ programme. HighWire’s approach is fundamentally post disciplinary, which is rather different to its more commonly seen cousins that we refer to as inter, cross and multi… disciplinary (this report offers a fantastic definition of each of these terms and explores their nuances). These related terms, each describing how people (or concepts) with different expertise (or philosophical foundations) come together form teams (or produce insights) that are in some way ‘greater than a sum of their parts’. More often than not, those outcomes are achieved by, as Blackwell’s title suggests, ‘creating value across boundaries’. The properties and tropes of each discipline remain in tact, but, extra value can be created bridging the gaps between them. Post disciplinarity I see rather differently.Read More… What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?

March-April 2014: Studying Hackers, Makers, and Engineers

Editor Morgan G. Ames

This month’s theme – ethnographies of hackers, makers, and engineers – is edited by Morgan G. Ames, who made the transition from being a hacker to studying them herself.

Stories abound of the translation work that ethnographers in industry do to make the experiences of those they observe – the ‘users’ – legible to engineers, designers, marketers, and others in the businesses that employ them. Lucy Suchman, one of the first and most inspiring critical ethnographers in industry, referred to the expectations she encountered for this translation-work in her own job at Xerox PARC as ‘throwing results over the wall.’ These results may take the form of the dreaded ‘implications for design’ that ethnographers are sometimes asked to generate, whether for employers or ACM conferences.

What happens, though, when the ethnographic gaze is turned back on those who are usually the beneficiaries of this translation-work? Lucy Suchman explored this in her groundbreaking book, Plans and Situated Actions, drawing on her experiences at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. Alongside Lucy, a growing number of ethnographers from both academia and industry have been exploring the cultures of scientists, analysts, and others like them in a bid to help the outside world better understand them – and for them to better understand themselves.

The March-April edition of Ethnography Matters will continue this ethnographic inversion by featuring guest authors who are exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers. The authors hail from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, a five-university alliance advised by Intel’s Genevieve Bell (another inspiring industry ethnographer). This group is working on new ways of bridging the academy-industry divide, and many of its members are exploring various aspects of hacker, maker, and engineer cultures.

Caution: Hackers Thinking!

The first post, by Nick Seaver (@npseaver), makes the case for studying technologists as a form of ‘studying up’ – of putting those who wield power under the ethnographic lens. He relates this to his own research on music recommendation systems like Pandora and Spotify.

Second,  Austin Toombs (@altoombs) tells us how he “fell in” to doing ethnographic research on a local hackerspace, how he has navigated the line between ethnography, participation, and activism, and what ethnography has taught him about hackers and himself.

Katie Pine (@khpine) and Max Liboiron (@maxliboiron) then discuss their work in health informatics and civil engineering cultures to show how measurement itself is performative, and how ethnography is particularly well-suited to accounting for this performativity.

Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her.

Marisa Leavitt Cohn then considers how NASA engineers approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) and  (@femhacktweets) round out the theme with a post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space.


Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference


TTricia Wang his month’s theme features a series of posts from EPIC 2103  (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference)and is edited by Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), who gave the opening keynote at EPIC, “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript).

Most ethnography conferences are largely academic affairs and have been ongoing for years. The American Anthropological Association is in its 113th year; the Ethnography in Education Research Forum, its 35th; the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, its 26th; and the Chicago Ethnography Conference, its 16th. In contrast to conferences that are mostly academic in nature from the speakers to the attendees and content, one relatively new conference focuses on the work ethnographers do within organizations: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference), which was held most recently in London from September 15-18, 2013 (draft proceedings of papers & program).

Before attending an ethnographic conference, there is a critical question that must be answered: Why go to an ethnography conference? This is not a trick question. It is something that I have asked myself a number of times. In fact, I had honestly been unsure of the value of such conferences. That is, until I attended EPIC 2013. Let me elaborate…

Consider the hypothetical in which you are a superhero. You would likely want to hang out with a team with different super powers(a la X-Men or Justice League), not a team comprised of clones of yourself. So for most of my career, I didn’t prioritize going to ethnographic industry events. That said, I have attended my fair share of academic conferences such as HCI, CHI, CSCW, and ASA. By and large, I haven’t been overly impressed; the academic rigor of presentations wasn’t always coupled with inspiration and the events could be incredibly sleep-inducing (except for the fun meet ups afterwards where everyone becomes human!). I generally prefer conferences that challenge me to think about the unfamiliar, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear from an ethnographer.

But I can now testify that I have attended my first ethnography industry gathering and I found it very inspirational, indeed!

In September 2013, I traveled to London to attend and speak at EPIC 2013. It was an honor to deliver the conference-opening keynote lecture entitled “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript). While there was some variability in the quality of the presentations, the ones that were high quality were beyond inspirational. Equally brain-exploding were the fantastic hallway conversations with other accomplished ethnographers.

EPIC is a gathering where academic ethnographers and corporate ethnographers mingle as equals. In its sixth year, EPIC “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings.” EPIC started out with folks who were working at large tech companies such as IBM, Xerox Parc, Intel, and Microsoft, but it has now evolved into a conference that welcomes attendees working in boutique research firms, design studios, and consulting agencies.

There is no other conference in our field that is so interdisciplinary in attendance and ideas. I met attendees who deal with ethnography in every context, including marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia. Simply put, this is the conference to go to if you wish to learn how to make products, services, and organizations that truly serve people.

To capture the memorable presentations, interesting conversations, and useful workshops from EPIC 2013, Ethnography Matters will present a series of guest posts from presenters and attendees of the conference.Read More… Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference

November 2013: Being a student ethnographer

THeather Ford his month’s theme is about what it means to be a student ethnographer and is edited by Ethnomatters co-founder, Heather Ford (@hfordsa), a current DPhil (PhD) student who believes that she will forever be a student of ethnography.

I remember the first time I adopted an ethnographic persona – very tentatively and with a great deal of trepidation. I’d applied for a job as an ethnographer with Ushahidi after graduating from my Masters degree and was miraculously accepted – miraculous because most ethnographer jobs require at least a PhD, not to mention loads of ethnographic experience. The stars were aligned… or were they?

This was the first time that Ushahidi had hired an ethnographer; it was the first time that the funding body that would help to pay my salary had invested in ethnographic research; it was my first ethnography job and my first ethnographic project. Firsts for everyone are really exciting, and I was lucky to be working for an organisation that supported me despite my lack of ethnographic experience. But ethnography doesn’t accord with the usual tenor of development projects and we faced a number of challenges that, looking back on it now, were bound to happen; challenges that, in the end, had really good results but meant that things weren’t exactly plain sailing en route.

In my first few months at the job, I heard things like: ‘You really need to have a PhD to say you’re an ethnographer’ or: ‘Only anthropologists can claim to do real ethnography’. This was all very interesting but I’d just received a job as an ethnographer and I couldn’t exactly ask for them to take it back. So I did what I always do when faced with a crisis: I gathered a bunch of much more experienced and knowledgeable people together to help me discover what exactly it meant to be an ethnographer. I knew that there were many of us who were asking similar questions and that the “ethnography + digital/networked/technology” space was burgeoning in many quarters.Read More… November 2013: Being a student ethnographer

October 2013: Social contexts of genes + jeans (Music mix)

picture of DJ RobynnDJ Robynn is a Bay Area DJ who has been called “one of the last avatars of the vinyl.” You can find some of her original mixes here.

For our edition on Genes, DJ Robynn put together this special remix of songs collected from this month’s contributors.

DJ Robynn’s Mix: Social contexts of Genes + Jeans (October 2013 Genes/Jeans edition) by Ethnography Matters on Mixcloud

MixCloud supports SoundExchange, PRS for Music and PPL

The songs in this mix are:

The music in this mix was selected by this month’s contributors:

Alondra Nelson talked to EM about the sociocultural implications of genetic screening tests, touching on uses of genetic analysis in such varied settings as the early Black Panthers’ community-based genetic screening programs for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are. She also described the music that came to mind for her when thinking about her research:

Both Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane are making what you might call scientific music, but it’s also metaphysical music. Part of what’s so interesting to me as a researcher about contemporary genetics and what we think it means in society, is that it’s making claims about science or the scientific, but we’re also asking it to do some pretty significant metaphysical work. The work of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane resonate with me in that regard. And Sun Ra also of course because there’s a lot of discord and cacophony in the work. Coltrane is a bit more melodic. Sun Ra, you have crashing, booming — depending on what your taste is, even difficult to hear –  combinations and recombinations of sound. So I think that the Sun Ra pieces are also a manifestation of the discord in how we think about ourselves and our communities after the genome. But also discord with the hyperbole that does not render the full complexity of human experience and human societies.

(Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA)

Julia Serano described the ways in which cultural boundaries can be replicated in people’s (mis)understandings of biology (…):

Biology as it gets taught in school, you learn to put things into categories: These are dogs; these are cats. These are women; these are men. We learn to organize everything into these clear cut categories — but in biology, there really are no clear-cut categories. You can put dogs and cats into separate categories, and sometimes that’s useful, but they once shared a similar ancestor together. There is a lot of overlap between the types of genes they have, and their behaviors.

(Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano)

Clare Wilkinson-Weber selected a popular song from the 1994 Bollywood film Dulaara to go with her piece on Jeans, Indian film and fashion:

Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though.

(Jeans, Indian film and fashion)

And thanks to Christopher Kelty for sharing Jonathan Coulton’s music.

September 2013: Ethnography, Speculative Fiction and Design

This month’s theme is about the relationships between ethnography and fiction. It is not necessarily something that we explored a lot here at Ethnography Matters, which is why it seemed an interesting topic for this September edition. Another reason to address this now is because of recent experimental ways of “doing ethnography” (e.g. the work by Ellis & Bochner or Denzin), as well as curious interdisciplinary work at the cross-roads of design, science-fiction and ethnography (e.g. design fiction).

Of course, in Anthropology, the border between ethnography and fiction has always been very thin. Consider how ethnographers have written fictional novels or made speculative films, more or less based on field research. Also think about “docufictions” by Jean Rouch, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. There are lots of reasons for using fictional methods, but there’s a general interest in going beyond scientific format/language by making ethnographic accounts more “engaging, palatable, and effective“.

For that matter, Tobias Hecht gives a rather good definition of what we will address in this month’s edition:

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

What’s interesting here is that “storytelling” can take many narrative forms. Of course, a great deal of ethnographic fiction corresponds to short stories, novels, films and documentary. However, there are plenty of other possibilities. People interested in fantasy role-playing games are used to thick bestiaries of fictional creatures. In such documents, animals or monsters are described with drawings, a fictional background, statistics (frequency, magic resistance, armor class…) and a profusion of material concerning their habitat, their rituals and their behavior. The level of details provided by the authors is generally tremendous. Another interesting example here is the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual” by Franz Joseph. This book, presented as a collection of factual documents, presents the spacecraft of Start Trek, with uniforms, weapons, devices and military protocols. To some extent, it describes the author’s take on this fictional universe, and it’s sometimes inaccurate according to Trekkies. However, for an ethnographer like me, this manual is incredibly intriguing as it shows a peculiar way to present fieldwork, and makes me wonder about the most convincing and engaging formats.

Star Trek

Artifacts from Star Trek, Picture by Julian Bleecker CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both role-playing game bestiaries and SciFi tech manuals are interesting because they have a certain format and use particular conventions: technical diagrams and schematics, zoological-like classification, etc. By making things appear factual they attempt to suspend the reader’s disbelief. However, they are still textual, which leads us to wonder whether other artifacts might have the same power of attraction. Obviously, there are plenty of good examples of designed objects that can count as “fictional ethnographies”: maps of fictional universes (e.g. Lord of the Rings), and museum exhibits presenting props from science fiction films can be seen as similar vehicles.

In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.

In this edition, we’ll address ethnography and fiction with the following contributors:

  • Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
  • Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
  • Jan-Hendrik Passoth, sociologist at TU Berlin and Nicholas Rowland, Associate Professor at PSU, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.

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

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?


Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’.Read More… August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

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.


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