I wanted to focus my own contribution to this month’s special edition (about “how to talk to companies about ethnography”) on presentation formats. That research findings will ultimately be delivered or presented is a given, but the particular format varies and seems often to be a matter of the conventions within particular organizational or research cultures. I’ve participated in ethnographic projects within the corporate sector. I’ve done a bit of consulting work for an NGO. The bulk of my career I’ve spent in Academia doing ethnographic work as most conventionally defined – culminating in the writing of an 80,000 word ethnographic monograph (which was text by-and-large with just a few black and white photos). On this basis, I’ve passed through a few different micro-worlds where different presentation practices prevailed.
In our interview with Steve Portigal this month I asked him about the hierarchy of formality he describes in his new book. For delivering the late-breaking or unprocessed findings (to communicate their informality) he uses e-mail, then Word documents, and finally polished results are delivered in PowerPoint. The ascendence of PowerPoint (not as an accompaniment to a project report, but as the report itself) in corporate settings and consultancy work I find really fascinating. Maybe because of the way it seems to prioritize communicating with as few words as possible, the pressure to edit down to the essentials, to consider what to omit just as much as what to include, how daunting! It seems obvious that this is reflection of the particularly intensive pressures of productivity, of delivering on the short project cycles of the private sector.
The Office suite of applications does not, by any means, encompass the full range of formats that are our options for communicating about ethnographic research. For example, my first job title when I worked in industry (at Intel Corp) was “Application Concept Developer.” My task was to translate research findings from our team of social scientists (who used interviews, observation, diary studies, copious photographs, etc) into interactive design concepts. These were not prototypes, but rather interactive demonstrations showing how insights from fieldwork fed into novel designs for computing systems. This was an attempt to communicate between social scientists and engineers…using the language of building and by engaging through interactivity.
[Editor’s Update: since posting this entry, I’ve been pointed in the direction of this excellent article (another one from EPIC), by Nina Wakeford, “PowerPoint and the Crafting of Social Data” which specifically considers PowerPoint as a format for outputting ethnographic analysis.
Broader consideration of PowerPoint includes:
– this article (stuck behind a paywall) on “PowerPoint in Public: Digital Technologies and the New Morphology of Demonstration” by David Stark and Verena Paravel in the journal Theory, Culture and Society.
– this intriguing looking book titled PowerPoint, Communication, and the Knowledge Society, by Hubert Knoblauch, published by Cambridge U. Press.]
Performing the fieldwork experience for audiences – raw data, transparency, and visuals
Prevailing formats are directly considered and questioned in an article from EPIC 2006 on “Rhetorics of Knowing in Corporate Ethnographic Research” by Dawn Nafus and ken anderson. They describe their own use of direct quotations and photographs from the field to deliver on their research mission to, “uncover new uses for computing power, identify important activities that are not well supported by technology, and understand barriers to technology adoption by studying real people in their natural live environments.” Quotations and photographs were employed to provide a kind of direct and transparent view of research informants who were shown photo-realistically and ‘speaking’ in their own words. Nafus and anderson considered, in retrospect, how their efforts to make ‘real’ and vivid these current and potential users (who were previously invisible non-entities that appeared nowhere in market segments, etc.) inadvertently oversimplified the work they were doing as researchers. These representations of “real” people also seemed to communicate the notion that such people could be straight-forwardly and transparently understood. From the perspective of the audiences they delivered their research findings to (often engineers, generally people not trained in the social sciences) the work they did amounted to (as one of the engineers described it), having “done drilldowns and got verbatims.”
This brings us to another challenge of work of presentations and the use of formats, especially visuals. Their purpose may not just be to make visible the populations being studied, but also to make visible the work of the researcher’s themselves; to establish their authority. The “confessional tale” is well-established in ethnographic writing (see Van Maanen, Tales of the Field). These are often set apart from whatever constitutes the ‘findings’ of the research, but show incidents of struggle or rapport building that demonstrate the difficulty of the work and why the author should be trusted on the matter. The photo of the researcher-in-the-field (often used as a marker of professional identity on websites and visual presentations) is a similar convention. The ethnographer appears somewhere exotic, somewhere distant from everyday life. Though, depending on the image, there’s the risk of making one’s work look too “fun.” Best for such a self-portrait to look studious, holding some sort of tool of data capture (a camera or notebook) or perhaps on an uncomfortable looking mode of transport (maybe something like a camel?).
Of course a format alone doesn’t do any of this automatically. As much as images might lend themselves to easily to misguided assumptions of transparency and the performance of “I was there” that establishes researcher authority, a photo can, when carefully chosen, also confound in productive ways. I love to find excuses to use this image from Ghana (see below) as a way of explaining and talking about the concept of culture and challenging notions that people and the intent of their practices can be deduced either without interpretation (thus ‘objectively’) or that interpretations can be arrived at easily from a comfy distance.
Formats in Academic Ethnographic Work
The greatest conformity around format seems to be found in Academic work where text, text, and more text seems to prevail. One’s career and legitimacy as a scholar rests on a series of 8000 word articles or the occasional 100,000 word book with a few images, charts, or tables thrown in for good measure. That said there is an incredible power and flexibility in text, in what you can do with writing. But there also seems to be a kind of ‘path dependency’ at work here. The problem of scarcity in publishing budgets (especially academic publishing) may have made the copious use of visuals or videos too expensive or hard to distribute in the past, but this is no longer the same kind of constraint given possibilities for doing this kind of work on the Internet. There are recent efforts to break beyond this – one small step, is the photo essay series launched by the journal of Cultural Anthropology to offer “alternative forms of critical ethnographic expression.”
Specialization, the division between disciplines, and elitism also do seem to bear some responsibility, I think, for the minimal concern in the Academy with effective communication and consequently the lack of creative consideration around formats of presentation. Without rigid standards of output that scholars are judged on (i.e. the daunting hoop of producing a book-length ethnographic monograph) how will the elites of a discipline ensure that pretenders are kept out? To embrace experimentation is to perhaps let go of or gradually reestablish new criteria for evaluation. This very blog is also a foray into this experimentation, an expression of our desire to try alternate modes and combinations of formats with a goal of communicating more effectively and with a different audience then the ones reached through modes of presentation we normally work in. It works, maybe, because it isn’t rigidly peer reviewed and contributions are generally short and without heavy costs or consequences.
My intention in talking about formats was not to get bogged down (as I seem to have anyways!) in a discussion about text vs. images which implies that there is less to this conversation than I think there really is. Certainly last months ‘ethnomining’ edition is an excellent place to break out of a notion of ‘formats’ as just a matter of one media or another. I’m struck by the data visualizations in the blog posts for that edition and especially their intruiguing ambiguity. Beyond texts (short or long), images of all sorts, a PowerPoint slideset presented by a charismatic speaker, a compelling interactive application concept, a complex and aesthetically rich data visualization, there are surely possibilities waiting to be discovered.