Tag Archives: social science

Don’t panic: the smart city is here!

Ding Wang, in her own words, ‘has a special interest in pursuing degrees whose names consist of two random words’ (specifically Tourism Management, Design Ethnography, and now Digital Economy). Her research is concerned with smart cities and she is applying ethnographic methods to critique and interrogate the smart city conversation.

Editors note: Ding begins her post with a quote from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and so will I. The Guide includes the woeful tale of an alien species whose battle fleet sped across the wastes of space for thousands of years before they dived “screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.” 

This massive miscalculation is rather how I felt after I attended a seminar about one famously blue technology company’s smart cities programme. The first third of the presentation was inspirational. It intelligently framed big problems: energy, pollution, food. Then, a series of technologies that the company had developed to provide ‘real, tangible, deliverable’ solutions to those problems were described. Suddenly the sheen, glamour, and optimism of the supposedly smart solutions disappeared and revealed what the smart cities programme meant in practice: a massively complex and expensive system to operate the traffic lights at intersections (or, robots). Similarly in this piece, Ding is not overly optimistic about the smart cities movement – at least that’s what her ethnographic nous is telling her. Just as the Vl’Hurg battle fleet got swallowed by a small dog due to a massive miscalculation, please let it not be us that massively miscalculates the scale of the confidence trick that ‘smart city’ rhetoric could turn out to be. (Alternatively, we could just ‘cheer up – [because] it might never happen’.)

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 on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

People who have read the book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy will probably remember this passage from the beginning of the book (for people who have not read the book it comes highly recommended). I watched the film as a kid (please forgive my ill-advised choice: I regretted it), then I read the book in Chinese (yes, it was translated into Chinese, that’s how good the book is!) and somehow I felt the urge to revisit the book as an adult and in English. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the novel. I related to it even more than I did as a kid.

“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

The planet Earth is described as an unhappy place where we think little widgets like digital watches are neat: I’d say both of these things are true. The more telling observation, or prediction to be more accurate, is that even those with the neat digital watches aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else (that is unless you believe the rhetoric advertising wearable tech!) Digital watches, or the plethora of other digital gadgets, don’t make us happy. Perhaps, then, we need something neater, bigger and better than just a watch. What about a whole digital city? But that name doesn’t sound quite right, right? After all, ‘digital’ is a word of its time, of the time that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written – the late 1970s. When was the last time you saw a commercial for something calling itself a digital watch? Digital doesn’t cut the mustard any more. These days we like smart stuff (smartwatches, smartphones, smart energy meters… even smart forks). It’s not that we haven’t considered other prefixes (for example: intelligent, connected, ubiquitous) but we decided on smart because it just sounds so… smart. We live in smart times, and eat smart phones for breakfast. So, something that should make us happier… the thing that is neater, bigger, and better than just a watch… is the smart thing to end all smart things. More integration, more intelligence, more ubiquity. I guess the title gives it away, but of course I’m talking about smart cities.

Read More… Don’t panic: the smart city is here!

Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

Dhruv Sharma has a background in anthropology, has worked in various countries as an ethnographer, and also holds a master’s degree in design ethnography from Dundee University. His doctoral research is concerned with radical digital interventions designed to address issues of loneliness among the elderly. As the title of this piece may suggest, he believes that Everybody is an Ethnographer!

Editors note: Dhruv’s delightful post takes us on a journey that begins with a shape shifting monkey jumping over the ocean on a rescue mission. We segue via the wonderful term ‘lemon difficult’ (derived from twisting the strange English colloquialism ‘easy peazy lemon squeezy’). Finally, Dhruv explains how evolutionary factors have endowed our whole species with a tacit interpretive ability. If everybody is an ethnographer, then perhaps the future role of professional ethnographers is to play a supportive role as facilitator: is our future to act as the opposable thumb to the fingers of humanity?

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

Mythology of the ethnographic hero

In the Hindu Mythological story of Ramayana, the evil king Raavana had abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita. When Rama and his army of monkeys (Vanaras) found out where she was being held captive, they wanted to send someone to find her to check if she was doing okay and to reassure her that Lord Rama and his army were on their way to rescue her. The only problem was that she was located on a remote island. Lord Rama et al. had no means of crossing the ocean to reach her.

There comes a point in the story when Rama and his army have reached the edge of the sea and are wondering if they’ll ever be able to send a messenger across. In the absence of any other means of getting there, they need someone who can leap across the ocean to land safely on the island and still have enough energy left in them to leap back after finding Sita. According to the story, Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) was frustrated at the group’s inability to find a way to get there. Unaware of the part he would ultimately play, and the extraordinary abilities that he would have to draw upon, Hanuman was destined to fulfil a crucial role. In the meantime though, he sat depressed in a corner.

Hanuman was born with supernatural powers, including the ability to alter his body size at will and take giant leaps. However, as a child, he was very mischievous and while playing he would often cause disruption to religious rituals. When it became impossible to control and discipline young Hanuman, one sage put a curse on him making him forget the abilities and super powers that he possessed. The curse would only be lifted when Hanuman’s powers were the only viable option. In the aforementioned scene of Ramayana, Hanuman keeps suggesting that he is not able to cross the ocean, but through constant convincing, reassurance and cheering by his peers, he finally realises his potential, the curse is lifted, and he emerges as the hero. Hanuman had the innate ability to perform the task but needed help, support, encouragement and reassurance to lift the curse and to put his abilities into practice.Read More… Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

What’s the matter with Ethnography?

Robert PottsRobert Potts is a filmmaker, lecturer, designer, and PhD candidate at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training who takes special interest in a diverse range of subjects including shared narratives, urbanism, and ‘joined up’ thinking. Rob’s doctoral research revolves around an ethnographic study at Hyperisland, a unique type of design school.

Editors note: Ethnographic praxis in 2016 has long since transcended the work of the gentlemen anthropologists from yesteryear. As a designer, artist, filmmaker, ethnographer and lecturer – not to mention PhD candidate – Rob’s work ‘joins up thinking’. In this piece Rob takes us on a journey that shows us how Rob’s unique ability to join up threads of thought informs both his ethnographic practice, and how it may influence the future of ethnography. What can we learn from films like Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’? How does the act of ‘making things’ (i.e. turning concepts in material matter) allow for the development of richer insights? How do intensely emotional experiences (losing a child to cancer, for instance) provide designers and ethnographers with raw materials from which ethnographic nous can be applied, leveraged, and articulated in unique forms? Taking us on a journey via a ‘documentary of the imagination’, through the critically acclaimed video game ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, to Rob’s experience as a filmmaker embedded in research projects, this piece explores how matter embodies what matters, for the future of 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 on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

dark matters 2.png

Or we could ask; what is the matter of ethnography? Or; what matters to ethnography?

We all are motivated by purpose; to make things matter. I followed an unorthodox path in discovering the value of ethnography, a path that revealed some intriguing connections along the way. ‘Matter’, of course, has two meanings. A substance of which some specific object is made or a concern, a situation, or even a question. The meanings entwine, physical matter makes up what matters to us most. I want to share how ethnography matters to me and how matter matters to ethnography, and why that should matter to the Ethnography Matters readership.

During my tenure as a PhD researcher at HighWire, ethnographic practice has become central to my work. My research blends several streams. I observe groups of experts collaborating in organisations, usually in creative or technology contexts. I also embed in interdisciplinary research projects as a filmmaker (Coincidentally, we even made a film about Dark Matter). In collaboration with other researchers contributing to this blog series I use ethnography to understand innovation. We use ethnographically derived methods to develop technology strategy and new methods to explore potential futures. Our experiments blend design methods. Our purpose is to do ethnography with, rather than on, people. Three relevant EPIC papers that Joseph, Dhruv and I have co-authored are here (Shared Ethnography for Shared Cities)here (Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography) and here (Operationalizing Design Fiction with Anticipatory Ethnography).

My parallel practice as ethnographer and filmmaker embedded in research projects highlights to me the ways in which we interpret and encode insight. Film seeks to tell an inside story. It also opens us to how people interact through their emotions, expression and creativity. Using ethnography one day and film production methods the next, I can’t help but notice how these practices connect and mutually inform one another. Gathering and interpreting insight involves structuring narratives; opening windows into how people make sense of activity. Editing and coding are both interpretive activities that seek to organise experience into a coherent flow. These narratives aren’t always linear, sometimes they feel like networks. Insights need to be embodied, they need a place to be, usually they are written down; reading matter…Read More… What’s the matter with Ethnography?

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?

We have a Slack! Join us at Ethnography Hangout to discuss applied ethnography

Last week, we announced the rebirth of Ethnography Matters with a retrospective of the last five years of posts. Part of the rebirth involves meeting the community where it is at. And one of those places is Slack. So the Ethnography Matters, Anthrodesign, and EPIC teams have created a Slack channel for conversations about ​ethnographic methods. At Ethnography Hangout, we are an interdisciplinary group wearing many hats from design to tech and research, so you don’t need to have any formal background in ethnography to participate.

To us, creating a single Slack channel made a lot of sense to have our overlapping communities join into one place for conversations that extend beyond our own organizations and mailing lists.

We envision the Ethnography Hangout Slack to be a place for anyone to discuss applied ethnography. Those interested in discussion specifically grounded in the discipline of  Anthropology can also check out American Anthropology Association (AAA)’s Slack.

Founded in 2002, Anthrodesign’s mailing list established a new space for people working at the intersection of applied anthropology and design. Since 2005, EPIC has been promoting ethnography in organizations though the field’s premier annual conference, and more recently through an online community and professional resources at epicpeople.org . Launched in 2012, the Ethnography Matters blog has created publicly accessible content from people working in industry to academia at the cross section of technology and people. Despite having been formed at different times for different reasons, all three organizations  are committed to a people-centric to organizations, products, and services, thereby expanding the field of applied ethnography.

To join the discussion on Slack , please fill out this form where we ask for some information about you and your work. Read our Slack guidelines. We look forward to seeing you on Slack!

For any question about joining Ethnography Hangout Slack, please contact the administrators.

Ethnography celebration and retrospective: We’re back!

The editors of Ethnography Matters are pleased to announce that we’re back to our regular editorial calendar for 2016. We’ve set up a new series schedule for the year, with a focus on “centers of ethnographic practice.” Centers could be geographical (such as the focus on work happening at the interdisciplinary center, Highwire, in our first edition of 2016 edited by Joe Lindley), or centered around a particular idea, method or person. Each series will evolve over two months and will be edited by one of the team or by a guest editor.


In November last year, we celebrated the four-year anniversary of the founding of Ethnography Matters. Born in November 2011, Ethnography Matters was launched when we assembled a founding group of individuals who wanted to explore how technology makes us and how we make technology. Our original goal for starting Ethnography Matters was to create a body of work about ethnography that would be accessible in plain language to the public. No paywalls. No jargon. No degree waving. We wanted to build a community across industry, academia, and civil society. In the past four years, we have had an impressive collection of 182 posts, 13 editions, 14 interviews, 3 series, and 30 methods. Posts have been cited and reproduced in numerous academic publications and books, and the site has been featured as a resource for ethnographers in books by Christine Hine, Patricia Sunderland’s and Rita DennyGerrish & Lathlean, Gaillet & Eble and Bucchi & Trench.

Since 2011, we’ve watched this community grow on our WordPress dashboard from 500 readers a month to 15,000. It’s not only about numbers, though. We recognise our community not only in the numbers but in the stories we regularly hear from people who look to Ethnography Matters as a resource and talking point.

All communities need a narrative for why they exist, and Ethnography Matters is no different. Ethnography matters to us because it helps to keep technological development real. We believe that technologies need to develop close to the needs and experiences of users. Technologies need to aspire – to help us to not only do what we need to do but to be better people, to help us become a better society. These ideas have always mattered, but they matter now more than ever. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the global rise of new forms of automated and flextime labor systems such as Uber, Instacart, and Seamless. Technology is becoming increasingly embedded into our daily lives, bringing with it a particular set of logics that are difficult to resist. It’s clear that we’re in the middle of yet another social transition, but the question is, into what?Read More… Ethnography celebration and retrospective: We’re back!

Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama

Silvia Lindtner

Silvia Lindtner

Amelia Guimarin

Amelia Guimarin

Editor’s Note: (@yunnia) and (@femhacktweets) round out the March-April theme on makers, hackers, and engineers with this 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. Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) is a postdoc at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai, and is the cofounder of Hacked Matter. She researches, writes and teaches about maker culture and its intersections with manufacturing in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use. Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) is a independent producer and researcher at UC Irvine.  She has a background in anthropology and documentary filmmaking and focuses on issues of identity, labor and sustainability.  She also runs femhack.com, a showcase of DIY strategies for females with a hacker attitude.

“Making” is envisioned as a new mode of engaging the world, empowering citizens to turn from passive consumers into active participants in economic processes, state affairs and technological innovation. It is heralded as the saviour of broken economies and educational systems, across developed and developing regions alike. This vision of the rising maker is a powerful one. Indeed, it has attracted significant corporate investment (from places like Intel), drawn the attention of governments (from Obama to China) and mobilized money and people across regions (enabled in part by the set-up of new hardware accelerators like HAXLR8R). Making gets people excited (again). It is the story of adventure and of conquering unfamiliar territory to reinvent how technological futures are made today — at its heart it is a vision of technological and social progress. Journalists, scholars, and makers alike have been busy telling this story, joining in on the promotion of making as the harbinger of an industrial revolution (Anderson 2012). What has fallen through the cracks, however, are other stories of making that do not neatly fit the maker story of linear technological progress, of the Californian culture of cool and of embarking on a bold adventure. In this blog post, we focus on telling this other story of making — of those makers who are rarely thought of as makers and whose stories are less often told. Earlier this month, we traveled to Shenzhen to attend China’s first featured Maker Faire. Both of us came to the Maker Faire predominantly as researchers, although with different vantage points. Silvia lives in China and has been conducting ethnographic research with China’s maker scene and its intersection with manufacturing since 2010. Amelia lives in California, where she has been working as a documentary filmmaker and researcher on the topic of hacking and education. We recently embarked on a collaborative project of producing a documentary film on China’s makers, with a particular focus on what is going in the Southern parts of China, where small scale maker entities are forging new connections with manufacturers. There is both a power and responsibility that comes with holding paper, pen and camera – a topic that has received much attention in the discipline of anthropology. The ethnographer makes her fieldsite – she choses whose story to capture and how to tell it, co-constructing the sites she studies through the narrative that emerges from her work. It was in the evening of the last day of the maker faire, when it occurred to us that there was another maker story to be crafted here; it was the end of two exhilarating days filled with workshops, panels, and product showcases with presenters ranging all the way from small-scale start-ups to large corporations like Intel and Foxconn. We were about to head back to the hotel to drop off the equipment, when we paused. Something had changed. The streets that were filled, just hours before, with thousands of enthusiastic makers and visitors were empty, aside from a group of workers, who were in the midst of tearing down the large tents that had protected the booths of gadgeteers from the heavy rain of southern China. It was quiet, aside from the shouts of the workers who in a coordinated effort disassembled the tent. A few hours later – while the makers partied, drank, danced, talked, and celebrated their successful event – the tents were dismantled and loaded onto large by-standing trucks, with no sign left of a big event having ever taken place. A woman with a broom made out of twigs swept the street of the faire’s last remains.

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

It was in this moment that it became clear to us how much attention is paid to the making of the thing, while the work that goes into sustaining and enabling making the thing is rarely appreciated or lauded as equally cool and valuable. Who builds up and tears down (literally and metaphorically) the maker tent? Who performs the work of organizing maker faires and conferences, of raising money, of building important social connections to promote and engage makers and consumers? What other modes of making are there? What alternative models of collaboration and open-ness do we overlook? This post will not be about the loudest, boldest and coolest projects at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. It will be about those who work more quietly, and perhaps with more sincerity, than their noisy counterparts on stage. Read More… Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama

Engineering obsolescence

Marisa Cohn

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social

Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”

Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These make great bookmarks now. Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FortranCardPROJ039.agr.jpg

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?

Read More… Engineering obsolescence

Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: 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. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.

In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/188629337/

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

Read More… Ethnography as Diaspora

Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work

Katie Pine

Katie Pine

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron

Editor’s Note: and continue this week’s theme of makers, hackers, and engineers with a post about the politics and performativity of measurements, central to the practice of many engineers and scientists.

(@khpine) is a postdoc in Intel Labs Cultural Transformation Lab, and is currently in residence at UC Irvine.  Katie’s work bridges Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Organization Studies, and Science & Technology Studies.  At present her NSF-funded research examines micro-foundations of IT-enabled accountability policy and practice in the healthcare domain.

(@maxliboiron) is a postdoc at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of environmental harm manifest.

From common core to quantified self, measurement is increasingly part and parcel of our daily lives.  We use number-driven measurements to make visible, manage, and regulate increasingly nuanced aspects of daily life, work, public institutions, and our environment.

However, measurements are never mere faithful representations of nature, but have social and political origins and ramifications.  We are exploring two aspects of measurement that often go unnoticed: first, the situated, complex work that goes into making measurements work in the first place (and the fact that this work is inherently social, cultural, and political), and second, the idea that measurements themselves can be seen as performative, creating and re-creating the very things they are intended to make visible.

Representational theory defines measurement as “the correlation of numbers with entities that are not numbers,” a process of transformation, translation, and even interpretation at the level of sampling and gathering data. What is selected for measurement and what is not, how measurements are standardized, what counts as an important unit of measure, and how measurements are used all have stakes for the systems of which they are part.

Moser & Law (2006) argue that current metaphors for information as “flow” are inaccurate, as these metaphors presume that information is immutable, something that is created and exists in the world and thus can be taken up, passed around, and used for calculation.  Moser and Law instead argue that we can see information as something that is inherently mutable and relational, that changes its shape as it is circulated and used.  To put it more simply, information never fully has meaning on its own – it becomes meaningful and usable when a particular person or group make decisions about what the information is and how they can use it.


A good example comes from a recent study on counting rates of infection in hospitals (Dixon Woods et Al., 2012).  The authors found that an act as seemingly simple as counting infections was actually highly social and cultural – the answer to the question “what counts?” varied widely from one hospital to another, calling into question the current focus in healthcare (and investment of healthcare dollars) on quality measures as a tool for achieving reforms such as infection reduction in practice. Making meaning of numbers requires acts of both calculation and judgment, what Moser & Law call “qualculation.”

Read More… Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work