Archive | January, 2012

Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new years with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Suck?” In Part 1, she proceeded to dissect this divisive question with a cultural analysis of academics critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate forms of ethnography. Her post incited a lot of great discussions and surfaced many tensions that have long been difficult to articulate in both communities. 

In this second post of  her three part installment, Sam extends the cultural analysis from her first piece and offers methods that are more fitting for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In her final post, Sam will discuss how to maintain reflexivity in the both the private and academic settings.

Sam points out that research output can be compromised regardless if the ethnography is working in corporate or academic settings. What methods do you use to avoids compromising research in private-sector ethnography or academic setting ethnography? Please share in the comments!

A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

“The fact that there is no such thing as a perfect anti-sepsis does not mean that one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer.”

— Robert Solow

Robert Solow was an economist, but he could tell anthropologists a thing or two about how to deal with real constraints on the research process. Solow became famous for the “Solow Residual,” or contribution to productivity growth that remains “unexplained” even after careful, empirical analysis. Solow asserted that this unexplained residual was due to technological change.

Is it possible that Solow was wrong? Certainly. Economic growth during that period was accompanied by several other significant shifts, including but not limited to a rise in homeownership, more women entering the workforce, and the elimination of “separate but equal” education systems. Solow could have been wrong in so many ways, but the relevant question is not whether he was right, but whether he contributed insight to an empirically observed phenomenon.

This anecdote is a roundabout way of addressing the question: is rapid ethnography possible? Of course it’s possible. Will it provide us with unequivocal evidence of a given social phenomenon? Will it provide as deep insight as traditional ethnography? Will it be “perfect”?  No, no and definitely no. But, again, the relevant question here is whether it will give us meaningful insight into an empirically observed phenomenon.Read More… Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Cheering up the chatbot

The speech to text tool on my phone is convinced that “ethnography” = “not greasy.” (At least “not greasy” tends to be a postive thing?) Generally STT and voice commands work great on it though. You have to talk to it the right way: Enunciate; dramatic pauses between each word; don’t feed it too many words at once. The popular speech recognition application Dragon NaturallySpeaking emphasizes that users train the system to recognize their voices, but there’s always an element of the system training its users how to talk.

For entertainment purposes, it’s best to avoid the careful pauses and smush things together, producing text message gems like “Send me the faxable baby.”  It’s the mismatches between human intention and machine representation that can make using natural language interaction tools like STT, chatbots and speech prediction both frustrating and hilarious. When it’s bad, it’s really really good.

I’ve been playing with the game Cheer up the Chatbot the last couple days (from RRRR, “Where the games play you”).

Chatbot has an unusual way of interacting with people, as so many chatbots do.

Screen explaining Chatbot's mental disorders

Screen explaining Chatbot’s mental disorders

Understandably, Chatbot is sad.


Poor chatbot


The goal is to get Chatbot to smile.

Open-ended questions make robots happy

Open-ended questions make robots happy


The game is a mix of bot and human-to-human chat, where you switch between talking to the game’s bot and to different players who are presented as the “Chatbot” speaker to each other.  When you hit a moment where there are enough players with different agendas online — including some who don’t know how the game works, some presenting as Chatbot, and some presenting as people — it can get weird.

Read More… Cheering up the chatbot

Challenges of Urban Fieldwork: A Scavenger Hunt Approach

street scene, Ring Road, Accra, Ghana

My favorite and most longstanding site for fieldwork is a city, Accra, Ghana. There are some peculiar difficulties of urban fieldwork. The size and scope of such a “site” makes it difficult to know what to do, where to go, what to observe, etc. It can also be difficult given the element of anonymity and social distancing in cities. Cities contain diverse populations. You can never really arrive at the sense that you’ve mastered such a place, that you understand it comprehensively. Cities are culturally layered and contain much that is transitory and impermanent, they reflect the promiscuous intermingling of influences.

Beyond the particular topic you might be studying, how can you come to get a sense of the flavor or style of a city? I’ve been compiling for some time a list of questions that might be useful to ethnographers who are trying to figure out what to do, where to go, and what to ask in urban settings. Especially for short-term research stints, seeking out the answers to these questions (scavenger hunt style) could be a way to ramp up research quickly and get richer context for more specific research questions. As this is an evolving list, I invite additional suggestions.

On a related note, over at Ken Banks offers a list of 15 suggestions for travel habits when traveling in Africa that are usefully oriented to the demands of research. In particular, his suggestion to buy local newspapers and consume other local media I totally agree with. Having a TV where I’m staying I find indispensable, just to see what issues are presented on the local news and especially how they are presented as well as the kinds of local and foreign media content that are available to people living there. I tend to bring home piles and piles of newspapers from my fieldwork excursions with interesting articles marked with post-it notes.Read More… Challenges of Urban Fieldwork: A Scavenger Hunt Approach

The ethnography of robots

Heather Ford spoke with Stuart Geiger, PhD student at the UC Berkeley School of Information, about his emerging ideas about the ethnography of robots. “Not the ethnography of robotics (e.g. examining the humans who design, build, program, and otherwise interact with robots, which I and others have been doing),” wrote Geiger, “but the ways in which bots themselves relate to the world”. Geiger believes that constructing and relating an emic account of the non-human should be the ultimate challenge for ethnography but that he’s getting an absurd amount of pushback from it.” He explains why in this fascinating account of what it means to study the culture of robots.

Stuart Geiger speaking about bots on Wikipedia at the CPoV conference by Institute of Network Cultures on Flickr

HF: So, what’s new, almost-Professor Geiger?

SG: I just got back from the 4S conference — the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Study of Science — which is pretty much the longstanding home for not just science studies but also Science and
Technology Studies. I was in this really interesting session featuring some really cool qualitative studies of robots, including two ethnographies of robotics. One of the presenters, Zara Mirmalek, was looking at the interactions between humans and robots within a modified framework from intercultural communication and workplace studies.

I really enjoyed how she was examining robots as co-workers from different cultures, but it seems like most people in the room didn’t fully get it, thinking it was some kind of stretched metaphor. People kept giving her the same feedback that I’ve been given — isn’t there an easier way you can study the phenomena that interest you without attributing culture to robots themselves? But I saw where she was going and asked her about doing ethnographic studies of robot culture itself, instead of the culture of people who interact with robots — and it seemed like half the room gave a polite chuckle. Zara, however, told me that she loved the idea and we had a great chat afterwards about this.Read More… The ethnography of robots

Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)

Ethnography Matters is happy to start the new year with a series of posts from guest writer, Sam Ladner. In this piece, Sam examines the different temporal conceptions of ethnographic fieldwork in industry and academia. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sam’s discussion where she discusses how corporate ethnographers can avoid compromising research.   

 Sam is a sociologist specializing in the social aspects of technological change. She mixes private-sector consulting work with academic research and teaching. Primarily an ethnographer, Sam is founder and principal with Copernicus Consulting, a social research company that consults on digital and industrial product design, organizational change, and consumer culture. She is also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She  has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Time & Society and The Canadian Journal of Communication. She is currently managing the Mobile Work Life project, which is investigating smartphones and work/life balance.

Part 1: A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

Corporate ethnography’s emergence ignited criticism that its quality and rigour was not as good as the ethnography practiced by academics. Academically trained social scientists have argued that private-sector practitioners are often not trained in anthropology or sociology, much less in the actual method of ethnography. Academics have argued that using ethnography for marketing and advertising is just more evidence of underhanded marketers attempting to dupe people into consumerism (Caron & Caronia, 2007).

And they are right.

Much of private-sector ethnography is as banal as it is ironic. In its bland quest to “understand the consumer,” it reduces culture to mere consumerism and thereby fails to achieve its own stated goal of understanding. This cynical veneer of cultural research disregards the truly transformative effect of “going native,” which is the first step to deriving both deep insight and innovation. Private-sector “ethnographers” are frequently ignorant to what ethnography actually is. The real essence of ethnography is the study of culture or as Geertz would say, the “webs of significance” or the meaning individual social actors ascribe to objects, events, or people. “Ethno” derives from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning folk or culture, while “graphy” derives from “grapho” or “to write.” Most corporate ethnographers neither study culture nor write about it. Instead, ethnography is simply as “on-site research,” such as an in-home interview, and “written up” as a series of meaningless video clips or as the truly stupefying Power Point presentation.

But these critical academics are also wrong.Read More… Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)