Falling in: how ethnography happened to me and what I’ve learned from it

guest author Austin Toombs

Austin Toombs

Editor’s Note: Austin Toombs (@altoombs) brings a background in computer science and a critical sensibility to his ethnographic research on maker cultures.  He explores the formation of maker identities in his research, focusing on how specific sites such as hackerspaces, makerspaces, Fab Labs, and other co-working spaces intersect with the politics of making, gendered practices, urban vs. rural geographies, and creative hardware and software developments. Austin is a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. He is a member of the Cultural Research In Technology (CRIT) Group, and is advised by Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell. He is also a member of ISTC-Social.

My research as a PhD student began by looking at cultures of participation surrounding hobbyist programming. I was—and still am—interested in the fuzzy-gray area between work and play, and as someone who misses the puzzle, thrill, and flow of programming, these communities were great starting points for me. Working on this research led me, almost inevitably, toward my ethnographic work with my local hackerspace and the broader maker community. In this context, I have seen how this local community embraces the work/play ambiguity, how it can function primarily as a social environment, and how it works to actively cultivate an attitude of lifelong, playful, and ad hoc learning. In this post I explore the role ethnography played in my work and how the ethnographic approach helped me get to these insights. I also discuss some of the complications and issues I have run into because of this approach, and how I am working toward solving them. For more information, feel free to contact me!


the role of ethnography in my work

My first encounter with the concept of a hackerspace came from my initial research on hobbyist programmers. I remember nearly dancing with excitement when I realized that the city I lived in happened to have a hackerspace, because I knew immediately that I would be joining them in some capacity, if not for research, then for my own personal enjoyment. The first few visits to the space were exploratory; I wanted to see what was going on, how the members and regular attendees interacted with each other, and whether or not this seemed like a good fit for my research.

My initial goal was to use the site as a potentially endless supply of case studies to explore my questions about work and play. Thankfully, I realized fairly early on that this case-study-first approach would not work for me. Instead, I found myself drawn to the overall narrative of the hackerspace and its members. How did this particular maker community form? What did the members do for their day jobs? How did they become ‘makers’? What do they think about themselves, and how has becoming a member of this community influenced that?

If I was going to choose particular artifacts to look at more deeply—which I eventually did—I wanted them to be artifacts and projects that the members valued, not decontextualized projects that I thought were interesting. That was when I began, as David Hakken would call it, “appropriating the ethnographic gaze” (Hakken 2004). In this stage I was still not yet planning on working through a “real” ethnography, even though my research eventually led me there anyway. Still, I saw a lot of value in what ethnography could provide for accessing a deeper, tacit understanding of the community from an insider’s perspective. One of the biggest strengths I saw in appropriating an ethnographic approach for my research on hackerspaces was its participatory nature.

Why was participation so important? First of all, hackerspaces are not the kind of environment where sitting back and watching is allowed. These are tinkerers and makers. The person sitting in the corner and taking notes without engaging will stand out and be far more disruptive than the one in the heat of it all speaking loudly and asking questions.

participation is required!

participation is required!

Second, these hackerspace members quickly became close friends of mine, so a purely observational approach would have felt awkward for me and for them.

Finally, I cannot control my own nerdiness. I am not a sit-back-and-watch kind of person, and if there are cool things going on, I need to jump in and be engaged and interact.

During a typical observation at the hackerspace, I walk around to see what everyone is working on or what they are talking about. I try to pick up on how they are interacting with specific tools and which tools they are ignoring. I pay attention to who asks which questions and whom they ask. I listen for how they talk about each other and how they represent their own activities in the space. When people need a hand on a project, I jump in and participate and observe how other people participate, even if I am unfamiliar with the particular techniques required. I listen in on how people describe the space to new visitors. I give tours of the space to new visitors – in fact, this actually has become something many of the members assume I am in charge of now. When events take place associated with the hackerspace, like the mini non-branded maker fair we put on last summer or the many workshops we put on throughout the community, I’m there assisting in every way I can. I am often asked to be the note taker for meetings at the hackerspace, because they know that I will likely be taking notes anyway. I investigate relocation sites in our never-ending quest to find more space. In short, I am just as much a member of this hackerspace as anybody else is, and for me that is at the very core of my ability to do this research, and something that would be much more difficult to accomplish through a non-ethnographic approach.

trying to keep ethnographic distance

trying to keep ethnographic distance

In my current work I struggle with the same basic tension all ethnographers face: how to find the balance between my voice and my participants’ voices. My initial research questions focused on finding case studies about how makers decide between making their projects by hand and purchasing them. After spending a few weeks asking members questions about projects that I hoped would lead me to insights about this decision-making process, I eventually realized that the members just did not find this distinction interesting. Instead, I started to pick up on the focus the members had on their self-made tools, which spoke to other questions I had about why certain parts of projects are made and what it means for another part to “just” be purchased. Based on this participant-driven understanding of tools that I developed, my advisors and I then worked out a new set of research questions about how those tools are interacted with, what they might say about the hackerspace (both to members and to outsiders), and what the hackers’ abilities to make these tools says to them about themselves. This focus on tools came from experiencing firsthand just how important these tools are for the hackerspace and the experience of participating in this maker community.

In short, by engaging with the space ethnographically, we have been able to develop questions and insights about the social aspects of making and the social influences that affect the adoption of a maker identity, which are lenses we might not have noticed had we approached the project as a series of case studies about self-made tools.

hackerspace tools in context

hackerspace tools in context

complications and challenges

A struggle many ethnographers face is that of negotiating the various roles that a researcher can come to occupy in the course of studying a community. I am at the same time a member and a researcher of the space – included but separate. Last summer Chelsey Hauge similarly discussed the multiple roles she enacts in her research site and how the tensions between those roles is generative. I have found such tensions helpful in my own work as well, and rely on similar strategies for guarding my participants and my data collection – especially my commitment to being critically engaged and reflective of my own position within my research community throughout my process, a role both complicated and rewarding.

There is also a related ethical challenge that I have had to reflect more deeply about: how can I keep my ‘ethnographic distance’ when I begin acting as a representative for this hackerspace? I try never to think of myself as a representative of this community, but I am often put into a position where I am expected to act as one: sometimes I am representing the hackerspace to members of the local community, and other times I find myself wanting to speak for the community in answering research questions.

The first situation is easy enough to handle: when I am leading or helping with workshops put on by this hackerspace in the local community, I adopt the representative role and speak to community members about the space, encouraging them to visit the space and, if they ask, mentioning that I happen to be a PhD student who studies the hackerspace.

The second is trickier, and involves distinguishing between questions I can answer based on direct evidence I have observed from the space, and questions that actually justify a closer look into the community through another set of interviews or observations, even if I initially think I know the answer to those questions based of my intimate involvement in the community. One of the ways I address this problem is by relying on frequent member checks, which involves discussing my thoughts on a particular question with other members and asking them to point out what I have missed or what I have misrepresented. I also rely on peer debriefers, who help me identify these situations where I might be stepping outside of what I can and cannot say without further inquiry.

Another interesting tension that comes up often in my research is one of choosing between participating to gain firsthand experience and allowing others to participate so that I can observe and later ask them about their experiences. I mentioned earlier that some of the members have begun to expect me to lead the tours of the hackerspace when new visitors arrive. This is a task that I took on gladly at the start because I was excited about the hackerspace and because it provided me with a smooth way to introduce to the visitors—without alarming them—that I also happen to be observing the hackerspace and that they are, technically, participants in my research while they are there during public access night.

However, I also found the tours to be a great source of data for me when I was not leading them. Then I could hear how the other hackerspace members introduce the space to visitors, giving me an insight into how they feel about the space without asking them about it directly. This is a tension I am still navigating.

fry-ethnographyA more practical and personal problem I have had to work on is creating a separation between time I am there to observe and time I am there to hang out. The members of the hackerspace have become good friends of mine, and one of the primary roles of this hackerspace is to provide a “third space” for the members; a place that is not home and is not work. Every once in a while I want to hang out at the space and be able to relax like the other members, turn my work-brain off, work on some of my personal projects, and not worry about jotting down every juicy quote I hear. I have recently come to accept that this is a problem I will not be able to solve, because my research is simply too interesting to me. There will never be a time when I can go to the hackerspace and ignore what is happening around me, but I suppose there are worse problems to have, though, so I have chalked this one up to a blessing, rather than a curse.

All in all, while I didn’t expect to become an full-on ethnographer in the process of doing this research, I’ve fallen into it – and have embraced that falling in.


Hakken, David 2004. “Ethnography” In Bainbridge, William, Ed., Berkshire Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, pp. 239-244.  Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

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6 Responses to “Falling in: how ethnography happened to me and what I’ve learned from it”

  1. ludost
    March 21, 2014 at 8:05 am #

    Heya, interesting stuff, well explained! I just defended my thesis proposal re spaces of hacking and half of the questions of the jury were related on this same balance between hanging out with friends, learning new tech skills, and doing the research. I am into ethnographic action research so it is even more complicated.

    One challenge I am having is that hackerspace members have become friends, and the more they are friendly, the more they want to participate and influence my research. But then it comes out that some disagree with the opinions of others and worry how much agency I am going to give to them or to other members (especially when it concerns internal/external politics).

    Also, wanted to ask – what’s your view on gendered practices?

    Anyhow, was nice reading you!


    • altoombs
      March 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Ethnographic Action Research sounds pretty interesting. Could you briefly describe where you see the distinctions and how you combine the two?

      The tension you mention about the members wanting to participate in the research but also being concerned about the balance of power is a tough one, and one that I don’t think can be solved. The most we can do is make sure that we are not compromising the validity of our methodologies. In your case, I would suggest explaining that you are trying not to give anyone any more agency than anyone else, but that there is a good chance you will not be able to be perfect at that (since we are human, after all) so you will need help, e.g. through member checking or similar activities, to make sure that you present everyone’s views, even if they might be unpopular. Maybe it would also help to remind your participants that those kinds of disagreements are often the most interesting for us, because they are very good at uncovering a lot of the tacit assumptions and understandings we try to explicate.

      My view on gendered practices is still a little bit limited, because the hackerspace I study is primarily male, even though one of the founding members is female. Do you have a specific question about gendered practices I can answer? I don’t know if I can just dive into such an open question at the moment, even though it’s a really good one!

      Thanks for the questions!


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