Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

Ethnography Matters is one year old this month! Pick CC BY NC SA by jacsonquerubin on Flickr

Ethnography Matters is one year old! Anniversaries are always surrounded with a quality of epicness and grandness. But I don’t feel so much epic or grand today as I feel grateful.

When Heather Ford asked me to join her, Rachelle Annechino, and Jenna Burrell to start a group blog about ethnography, I immediately said yes. Honestly, it’s not too hard to get me blogging – I already have like 20 blogs. I would’ve agreed if Heather asked me to blog about doggies. Though it did help that Heather, Jenna, and Rachelle are really wonderful people 🙂

But I said yes to Ethnography Matters because I recognized that the space we were carving out was important because nobody was talking about and celebrating ethnographers who weren’t bound by the traditional boundaries of anthropology and sociology.  Most conversations about ethnography were taking place either inside industry doors, academic conferences or departmentx, or blogs that fell along industry or field boundaries.

We felt that ethnography should be understood by a wider audience of non-specialists.  At the same time, we recognized that ethnographers needed a space to talk about the new challenges and opportunities that digital tools posed as objects of study, as analytical tools, and as a medium for conducting fieldwork.

When I joined Ethnography Matters, I didn’t realize how important it would become for my own work.  I was in the middle of an 18-month fieldwork trip that was the last phase of my 7 years of fieldwork in China. I was feeling a bit isolated from other forms of ethnography as this was my longest stint of academic research.

Since my first post in October 2011, I’ve come to rely on Ethnography Matters as a place for me to be exposed to other ethnographers’ experiences.  I have learned so much from Heather, Rachelle, and Jenna over the last year.

Heather’s Wikipedia posts are always illuminating and her post on Coye Chesire’s seminar on trust is super helpful for my own research on online trust. Her interview with Stuart Geiger on the ethnography of robots really pushed me to think about ethnography in a whole different context, and even now I can’t totally wrap my mind around it – like really – ethnography on robots? 

Rachelle’s post on drug mis-use research opened me up to a new world of research, Interviewing for Introverts has become a post I tell all students to read, and now I always tell myself to bring colored markers into the field.

Jenna’s 3-part series on Big Data has been an open tab on my browser for months as I find myself continually re-reading it. Her post on opting-out on airport security is a great example of how to conduct ethnography in everyday life situations.

I’ve also learned so much from our guest posters. We’ve established the tradition of featuring contributors from a variety of backgrounds.

We’ve started several series that have been an ongoing source of knowledge.

  • Ethnographer’s Reading List has probably filled all of our bookshelves with more books than we can handle.
  • Tools We Use revealed the wide range of processes we use and the struggles we face in finding qualitative tools to help us organize our data.
  • Syllabus as Essay gives ethnography syllabi around the world a new life.

And now we’ve just launched the #EthnoBookclub series where readers and contributors read and comment on one ethnographic monograph every month. It’s not too late to join in on this month’s book, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s Death Without Weeping.

One of my favorite aspects about Ethnography Matters is that we are a fluid space for both formally trained ethnographers and non-ethnographers. Those that fall into the latter category understand the value of ethnography, deeply appreciate it, and work with ethnographers. For ethnography to thrive, it needs to matter to a wider community.

One of our most popular posts came from John Payne, a designer by training who deeply appreciates the value of ethnographic work and teaches his design staff at Moment to use ethnography.  Christina Dennaoui, who is a digital planner at an advertising agency as well as an artist, works closely with ethnographers in the industry and is constantly reading qualitative studies. Carla Borsoi, VP of Consumer Insights at AOL, relies on her qualitative eye and has a shelf full of books on story telling and data collection.

One year later

One year later, I see how much I rely on Ethnography Matters. I’ve been introduced to new ways of looking at ethnographic data.  I love reading other ethnographers’ experiences. I learn just as much from non-formally trained ethnographers. I like that Ethnography Matters is not defining ethnography, but rather opening a space to talk about the  blurry boundaries of our craft for those who do it, use it, and appreciate it.

Together, we the contributors and the readers – have created a community of mavericks whose curiosity about and commitment to ethnography have ignited discussions about ethnography outside of formal institutions. We have brought ethnography out of industry and academia and into a space more accessible not only to ethnographers, but non-ethnographers.

We are not a research group housed at a university or company. We are not a lab. We are not an annual conference. We are just a few people who came together to create a space and in the process, what’s emerged is a community with a new geography of communication practices that fall outside of disciplines and industries.

We are no different than the communities we write about. We need exposure and feedback. We need third places. We need non-formal ways to connect. When we don’t have these spaces, we risk becoming silo-ed in our own sub-fields.

But building a community goes beyond doing  blog posts. How do we create the space for emergent practices to arise?

We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing. Hopefully, if it continues to be useful, then that’s what creates opportunities for us as a community.  What those opportunities will look like, we can’t know exactly, but it’s that mix of understanding emergent practices and anticipating future needs (and perhaps a bit of serendipity) that will make our second year even more exciting than the first. We look forward to your comments here or on facebook, your email discussions, your tweets!

And I look forward to contributing and learning. And one more thing, I am beyond excited about Nicolas Nova  joining us as a regular contributor! 

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