Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists

Nick Seaver

Editor’s Note: Nick Seaver (@npseaver) kicks off the March-April special edition of Ethnography Matters, which will feature a number of researchers at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing on the forefront of exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers.

Nick’s post makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, perhaps even more than the ethnographers themselves.

Nick’s own research explores how people imagine and negotiate the relationship between cultural and technical domains, particularly in the organization, reproduction, and dissemination of sonic materials. His current project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems. Nick is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. Before coming to UCI, Nick researched the history of the player piano at MIT. 

When people in the tech industry hear “ethnography,” they tend to think “user research.” Whether we’re talking about broad, multinational explorations or narrowly targeted interviews, ethnography has proven to be a fantastic way to bring outside voices in to the making of technology. As a growing collection of writing on Ethnography Matters attests, ethnography can help us better understand how technology fits into people’s everyday lives, how “users” turn technologies to unexpected ends, and how across the world, technologies get taken up or rejected in a diverse range of cultural contexts. Ethnography takes “users” and shows how they are people — creative, cultural, and contextual, rarely fitting into the small boxes that the term “user” provides for them.

But ethnography doesn’t have to be limited to “users.”

Engineers in context. cc by-nc-nd 2.0 |

My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like PandoraSpotifySongza, or Beats Music, suggest listening material to users, drawing on a mix of data sources, algorithms, and human curation. The people who build them are the typical audience for ethnographic user studies: they’re producing technology that works in an explicitly cultural domain, trying to model and profile a diverse range of users. But for the engineers, product managers, and researchers I work with, ethnography takes a backseat to other ways of knowing people: data mining, machine learning, and personal experience as a music listener are far more common sources of information.

Ethnographers with an interest in big data have worked hard to define what they do in relation to these other methods. Ethnography, they argue, provides thick, specific, contextualized understanding, which can complement and sometimes correct the findings of the more quantitative, formalized methods that dominate in tech companies. However, our understandings of what big data researchers actually do tend to lack the specificity and thickness we bring to our descriptions of users.

Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

Starbucks Listeners and Savants

Among music tech companies, it is very common to think about users in terms of how avidly they consume music. Here is one popular typology, as printed in David Jennings’ book Net, Blogs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll:

Kinds of music listeners, according to avidity

Kinds of music listeners, according to avidity

At the top are the “Savants” — very enthusiastic listeners who are willing to expend a lot of effort to find new music and, significantly for these companies, to spend a lot of money on the music they like. At the bottom are the “Indifferents,” who are the opposite: they do not particularly care about music, and they don’t want to spend much effort to find it. They are sometimes referred to as “Starbucks listeners” — these are the folks who would be perfectly happy picking up whatever compilation CD happened to be for sale at the Starbucks counter. For the developers of music recommender systems, these different attitudes toward listening pose a problem: most of the people who work at music tech companies are enthusiastic “savants,” while the bulk of the market is made up of “casuals” and “indifferents” who approach music in a very different way. There is a risk that savants will build systems that suit their own interests and ideas about music while neglecting those of the market at large. What designs would better suit less avid listeners?

By now, ethnographers are likely chomping at the bit: this is a textbook, perfect occasion for ethnography, not only to help understand what listeners beyond the company walls are like, but also to complicate this coarse typology. Instead of organizing listeners according to a single metric, ethnography could offer more insight into what the experience of listening to music is like beyond simple variables like “How much will I pay?” or “How many clicks until I get the music?” For designers, these insights could suggest more diverse and interesting directions for development.

But while this complicates our ideas about mainstream listeners, it ignores the details of the developers who supposedly build systems that fit their own preconceptions. If, at the end of the day, developers are different from the average user (whether or not they deserve the flattering title “savant”), then we really want to know what they are like: What are their preconceptions about culture? What experiences do they bring to bear on the systems they build? What auxiliary motives guide their technical decision-making? For outside critics and inside developers alike, the ethnography of technologists provides a useful counterpart to the ethnography of users. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us break down the distinction between these two groups: with the ethnographic gaze turned the other way, we can see the similarities and interrelations between the people commonly thought of as consumers and the people commonly thought of as producers of technology.

Studying up, revisited

In anthropology, this kind of ethnography is known as “studying up,” from an influential 1972 essay written by Laura Nader: “Up the Anthropologist — Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” For most of its history, ethnography had been used to “study down” — people with power studied those without it. Anthropology was organized around the study of the “savage slot,” examining the lifeworlds of so-called primitive, small-scale, or savage society. These were people disempowered by colonialism, and anthropologists themselves often worked for colonial powers, using their research on local customs to assist colonial governments. Sociologists taking up ethnography also tended to study down, examining the lives of the urban poor or working class.

In its early history, the ethnographic method was built on this imbalanced power dynamic, which made it hard for the subjects of ethnography to refuse to be studied, and posed serious ethical problems regarding how ethnographers should use their findings. The unseemly parallel in the present moment is between “savages” and “users”: the term “user” designates a class of people disempowered in relation to technology, and treating people as users disempowers them.

To continue sketching out this very broad-stroke history: anthropologists had a crisis of conscience in the mid-twentieth century regarding their complicity with colonial projects, and they have spent much of their time since then trying to come to terms with the unsavory legacy of the ethnographic method. Today, many anthropologists use the rich knowledge and close friendships they develop during fieldwork to serve as advocates for their research participants; this anthropology is a far cry from exploitative studies of the past, such as research on social cohesion among tribal groups commissioned by colonial governments looking to break it down. The parallel in the present moment is with user researchers whose interest is not simply to package users up for technologists, but to complicate the idea of what “users” can be and to advocate on their behalf.

What Nader suggested in her essay was that anthropologists should also point their ethnographic eye up, to people who wielded power — corporations, the government, the wealthy, scientists, the police, white collar criminals, and so on. These studies would contribute to a more well-rounded anthropology and provide instructive challenges for ethnographic methods. The studier-up faces research problems that may not arise while studying down, like acquiring access to corporate offices or having to convince lawyers of the merits of your research project. While studying up, you realize that many standard elements of fieldwork seem strange when applied “out of place.”

For many researchers in science and technology studies, ethnographic studying up is their defining method. In the 1970s and 1980s, these researchers brought ethnography “home from the tropics” and studied in the labs of high energy physicistsplant biologists, and biochemists, producing a set of creative and perplexing ethnographies. Since these pioneering laboratory studies, STS-affiliated ethnographers have studied the development of technologies in corporations and academic research labs, drawing attention to under-appreciated aspects of science and technology: the influences of “cultural,” “social,” or “political” factors in settings often assumed to be purely rational, the sociocultural structures within high tech organizations, and the subjective dynamics that shape technical decision making.

Of course studying up is not a replacement for studying down, any more than ethnography is a replacement for all other methods of knowing people. Rather, as Laura Nader suggested, studying up adds a usefully contextualizing perspective to other forms of ethnography. As ethnographers examine how people live with algorithms, studies of those algorithms’ designers help complete our picture of the contemporary world, in which software sorting allows social theories to be ever more explicitly built into cultural infrastructures.

How does ethnography matter?

I went into this project thinking that my interlocutors and I approached the world from very different perspectives: I’m a humanities-trained guy, getting a PhD in the “most humanistic of the sciences,” while the people I work with in the field are typically engineers with advanced degrees in computer science. One of the most surprising findings from my research so far is how much disciplinary history we have in common.

The ethnographic method did not fall fully-formed from the sky, ready to use. It has a history, over which it has changed substantially as researchers have experimented with new practices and encountered new puzzles. Over the course of the twentieth century, these experiments often involved formal and quantitative methods (as in the “New Ethnography” of the 1970s). As I explore contemporary methods for understanding music and culture with computers, I am also looking to the history of ethnographic and anthropological research, and the parallels are striking. Multidimensional scaling — an analytical method extended by researchers in mathematical anthropology — is a common technique used at larger scale by academic researchers in music recommendation. Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics project, which sought to catalog and taxonomize music practices from around the world, looks a lot like Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project avant la lettre.

As today, these methods were the subject of heated arguments about how best to capture cultural life: Clifford Geertz’s famous and influential essay “Thick Description” is substantially concerned with rebutting the New Ethnography (sometimes known as “ethnoscience”). Forty years earlier, Bronislaw Malinowski — the paragon of immersive anthropological ethnography — made a similar argument for “full-blooded description” against the practice of formally diagramming kin relations. Since its early days, our understandings of ethnography have been tangled up with our understandings of formal and quantitative methods.

If ethnographers have sometimes seemed like techies, as Tricia Wang wrote recently, “hard-core techies also look like ethnographers”: they pull together a diverse range of analytical resources, assemble their numbers in interpretive ways, and frequently draw qualitative conclusions from quantitative practices. The tools of ethnography can help us to appreciate the thicknesses and specificities of these other ways of knowing people, enabling more robust critique and facilitating cooperation. A better understanding of how computational methods work in practice can give us a better understanding of ethnography and how it matters.

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21 Responses to “Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists”

  1. Erin B. Taylor
    March 10, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Nick, thanks for this. With the explosion in design anthropology, I sometimes wonder where all the ethnographers are who are focused on producers!

    • March 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

      Thanks, Erin! Of course, people have a variety of ways that they learn about producers (organization studies, various kinds of design research, many idiosyncratic programs implemented within companies, etc.), but it’s interesting to me that there is such a divide between methods for studying users vs. producers. Not to mention the idea some people have that producers don’t need to be studied because their work is self-evident or because they can somehow study themselves!

      • Erin B. Taylor
        March 10, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

        Yes, it’s almost like there’s a need to get a conversation going about “producer experience” – not to create yet another opposition but to at least remind people that there is another side to things. But then it could be a gateway concept, leading to “distributor experience,” “experiencer experience” and who knows where else!

  2. March 11, 2014 at 5:45 am #

    Hey Nick, what have you actually found out about tech people and how they approach creating solutions? I was a bit bummed out to read through the article and not learning anything about what the title seemed to promise. Any learnings you can share that could help us communicate and collaborate better between tech, people and biz?

    • March 11, 2014 at 11:37 am #

      Hi larsst, you’ll want to stay tuned for the upcoming posts in the current ISTC-Social edition of the blog, which will have a bunch more folks talking about their work with tech. This was intended to be more of an intro to the rest of the series, to get people thinking about ethnography in broader terms. I’m actually “in the field” right now, so package-able conclusions from my own research (especially for industries other than music) are still a ways off!

  3. ken anderson
    March 11, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

    I was priviledged to see some early results from Nick – he has some good content and is a great researcher. I really like his work. I also appreciate the thoughtfulness of this blog posting. Having said that, I want to put the importance of “studying up” in a slightly different perspective.
    (1) “Studying up” was an important language at a particular time (the 80s). I now find it a little offensive. Most of my career has been about studying “the people” as my friend Maria likes to say, or more theoretically Everyday Life. I do not think of either of these as being “down” or “up”; the problem is “up” implies a superiority and down – inferiority. Part of what anthropology has been about to me is seeing value in all people’s and ways of life. “Up” runs counter to that notion now and would hope we could drop it from our vocabulary. At a time studying people and positions of power (up) was called for but it has long outlived that usefulness as anthropologists, sociologists and STS people are studying all aspects of life.

    2) Studying up wasn’t just about “up” (versus down) it was about studying ourselves, not “the other”. Studying “up” became a rationalization for being able to study at the time Westerns but really “ourselves”. Other than original peoples and marginalized populations studying “The West” was not in the prevue of anthropologists. For example, in graduate school I studied technology adoption in the USA as a way to pay for graduate school. My adviser would not let that count toward dissertation research, unless I didn’t want to become an anthropologist. That was anthropology in the context of “studying up’ and the magnitude of change it enabled. It wasn’t really about not studying “down” but about studying ourselves. Without the “studying up” turn, “autoethnography” would not be possible. Obviously, there was a lot going on in society and the academy that would enable the discipline to shift (whole article there) to get behind the “study up”

    3) Just who is up? I find Nick’s whole positioning here (well and STS’s in general) to be curious – why are physicists or app developers “up”? Aren’t anthropologists “professionals” as “up” as either of these other professionals? Or as Nick himself noted – studying sideways. Indeed, one might argue that studying app developers might even be “down” or at least that by claiming they are “up” it feeds into a rhetoric about technology. Rather than assume an “up”, wouldn’t be important to note the kinds of working and living conditions programers have as at least a context to calling it “up”? What does calling programming ” up” hide about the programmers and programming, and what privilege does it give to the STS researcher? Why not directly address issues of power, which was what “studying up” was supposed to be about?

    Anthropology has long been about making the invisible visible, including revealing power, not concealing it. Let’s take that as our charter

    • March 11, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

      Thanks, ken. These are some really meaty thoughts. One of my favorite pieces on this issue, which resonates with the concerns you have here, is Hugh Gusterson’s “Studying Up Revisited.” He shares a story about his work with nuclear scientists, in which one of his interlocutors showed up to a meeting wearing “tribal” garb, protesting the power dynamics of ethnographic study. The aspect of Nader’s argument that people tend to underemphasize (and I’m guilty of this as well in this piece), is that studying up is not a fix for ethnography’s power issues — rather, it’s a way of basically weaponizing those issues to bring high power subjects “down to size.” As you note, this idea is based around a fairly simplistic understanding of what “power” is and how it works. Especially now, but maybe never, we’re not dealing with plain up/down power relations. Whether for reasons of ethnographic rapport or for just plain “fairness,” it’s not a great idea to do a crude “studying up.” And, as you also note, studying up has also been tied up with an expansion of anthropology’s ambit to include the West (and in STS, perhaps especially, a method of exoticizing or defamiliarizing, a la Laboratory Life, which really bears some of these problematic issues).

      Ethnography (whether studying “up” or otherwise) has, as I noted in the post, been useful for breaking down presumed distinctions between users and technologists, by showing how they do non-stereotypical things. Discursively, however, the distinction is quite alive for all sorts of people, and “studying up” has proven to be a useful tool for starting to pick that distinction apart. There is always the risk, though, that this is seen as reinforcing the distinction, rather than weakening it or complicating it. (It doesn’t do us any good to pretend that just because there is no intrinsic distinction between users and builders, people don’t act as though there is.) I like Chris Kelty’s term “superaltern,” because it gets at some of the oddness of programmers’ social status, at least as I’ve seen it in the US.

      That is all a long way of saying that I agree with most of what you say here.

      And of course there are some differences among these groups, precisely in terms of power (not everyone is allowed to adjust the Pandora algorithms, not even inside of Pandora). The “technologists” in the title of the post is a symptom of how hard it can be to talk meaningfully about the variety of people on “the other side” — engineers, product managers, marketers, user researchers, etc. etc. — who give technology much (but not all) of its shape. So while I agree that “studying up” is tied up with “studying us,” it’s important to not just lump everyone together. Much of my current research is tied up with exactly this concern: how am I the same as my interlocutors, how am I different, how are we (to put an anthropological kinship spin on it) related? If it didn’t feel too much like anthropological inside baseball, I would have talked a bit about Matti Bunzl’s fascinating take on this issue in terms of a neo-Boasian anthropology, which I take as a sort of model for my own “native” anthropology.

      My personal working definition of ethnography is “everyday life as object and method” (perhaps unconsciously channeling Maria!), and while I obviously think it is quite useful, I find recalling “Up the Anthropologist” worthwhile precisely because it throws the troublesome power dynamics of ethnography into the foreground. Those power dynamics are more complicated than up and down, but they also do not go away because of a decision about what word not to use. Then there is the flurry of interesting recent activity in the anthropology of expertise, which I quite like, but given that this comment is much too long already, I’ll save that for another time.

  4. March 15, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on Erik Champion and commented:
    I have been struggling with a replacement word for “users” players performers gamers..maybe the word is just “people”

  5. March 17, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    I’m not familiar with the definition of the user as a term “that designates a class of people disempowered in relation to technology, and treating people as users disempowers them.” Who is treating or disempowering users in that way?
    When I was reading your article, esp. on the “savants”, I constantly was thinking about the concept of the “lead user” or “expert user” in innovation management research (see, e.g., Eric von Hippel). Lead users are ahead of the mass market, often tweaking and hacking products to fit their needs.

    • March 17, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Judith. You’re absolutely right about the variety of people and activities that sometimes get lumped together under the term “user.” This isn’t my main literature, but as I understand it, there’s a fair amount of debate around the term “user” in HCI and allied fields. In what I’ve seen, the debate circulates around the question of how developers regard users; calling all of these people “users” seems to deny them agency or to homogenize them. This blog post I just found through a Google search summarizes that position well, although I’m sure there are more classic references I’m not aware of.

      Of course, “user” can be a useful word, and as someone not based in the world of user research, it’s not a big issue for me. I’m sure there are plenty of people doing good work in characterizing the people who use software in non-homogenizing, non-essentializing ways. I’m more interested in the practices that produce “users” and “developers” as separate groups of people, even though the former tweak things to their own ends and the latter make use of pre-existing technologies.

      To share a story from my own research: I was presenting some early work to a group of engineers at a big tech company, and I started to talk about how the developers I work with think about “listeners” (since they make software for listening to music). One of the people in the audience interrupted me and said, “Do you mean users?” It was as though he needed the people I was talking about to be formatted in a very particular way in order to make sense of them. I think it is that formatting that rubs some people the wrong way. In terms of my research, I’m more interested in the variety of ways that formatting happens.

      • March 18, 2014 at 11:26 am #

        Thanks for your detailed answer, Nick.
        I’m familiar with the users vs. humans discussion although this harsh definition of “users” was new to me.
        I totally see your point with the problem of how some developers regard users and “users” seems to be the only word so far that is standard among developers. So it might have a negative connotation for some people, although the speaker didn’t intend to.

        While it makes sense for me to question and develop new labels in the User Research/HCI/UCD etc. communities, I don’t think we should overestimate the effect of using new labels on people that aren’t necessarily familiar with these communities, like engineers or developers.

        I’m wondering how the guy from your story was thinking about “users” and “listeners” and how come you thought he needed the people to be formatted? (I guess just talking about “people” would have led to even more hands raising. @EMC)

        The challenge for me is how to provoke a variety of formatting and a less homogenizing (or even patronizing) view of users that some engineers might have. How can we introduce them to the debate in our communities and explain why we discuss additional labels beyond “users”?

        Using new labels could be a way athough I think it’s necessary to explain and jump into a discussion about that labelling. I guess a good way would be true co-development. The most valuable experience I recall was a developer actually seeing how a user was failing to use his interface.
        I would be very interested in any conclusions from your research in this regard. Mhm, and maybe we’re kind of homogenizing developers, too?

        • March 18, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

          I think your comments about labels are spot-on. The one thing I would add (although again, this isn’t really my area of expertise) is that as much as we talk about the empowerment of users, there generally remain some very real power imbalances in play. As I noted in my response to ken above, not everyone can change the algorithm underlying Pandora Radio, for example — not even “within” Pandora!

          That brings me to your last point, which is the concern about homogenizing developers. Over the course of my (ongoing) research, my picture of just whom I’m studying has acquired much more detail. As in any ethnographic project, a group originally imagined in a fairly abstract way (not necessarily as homogeneous, but just without the details filled in) comes to be seen with all sorts of internal distinctions that matter a great deal to people in that group.

          So my point in using the terms “technologists” or “developers” here is not to say they are all the same, but to refer to the imagined divide in common usage between users and makers of technology. I am not endorsing this or inventing it — just recognizing that it is a widespread common sense among “developers” and “users” alike. What is interesting to me is that “ethnography,” by being primarily used to understand (and complexify) “users,” ends up reinforcing this divide: only a certain class of people make sense as objects for ethnographic study.

          By turning ethnography towards people generally understood as “developers” rather than “users,” we can help to break down this divide, de-essentializing our understanding of these two groups. (Ethnography can help to do this both by showing the heterogeneity living in the term “developer” and by ceasing to take the actions/knowledge of developers as “self-evident.”) Of course, to do that you need to recognize that this common sense user-developer split exists, and at that point you run the risk of people assuming that your goal is to reinforce the split, rather than to break it down.

  6. April 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    “Treating people as users disempowers them”

    Librarians are beginning to study their users in an attempt to offer better service than we did in the days where library visitors were shushed before leaving with their books. But we’re usually still stuck in the librarian vs. user trap.

    I am rethinking all my research now!

    • April 7, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

      It’s a tricky question, as the other comments here can attest to! I wouldn’t say that calling someone a “user” is somehow intrinsically disempowering, but as a term that grew up in a particular mode of doing things with computers, it has some baggage. Maybe trying on other terms with other histories would be a productive way to see how “user” formats our understanding in hard-to-perceive ways…


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