What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

joe lindely gif

‘Jargon free’ text is the name of the game according to the Ethnography Matters style guide, so titling the introduction to this edition ‘Post Disciplinary Ethnography’ – a bit of a mouthful if ever there was one – seems slightly counter intuitive. Before this post is finished I will invoke a range of other, less-than-straightforward, locutions and idioms. For instance I will have to touch upon the mysterious ‘HighWire’ and the lofty-sounding concept of the ‘method assemblage’. Thankfully, even if the words themselves are unfamiliar, I believe that with some simple explanations we can cut right to the point.

First of all though, I will introduce myself: I am Joseph Lindley, a 32-year-old male of the species ‘homo sapiens’, I reside in Manchester (UK) and I like to think I ‘know where my towel is’. I have a bit of a miscellany of life and work experience including being a manager in a healthcare organisation, working as an IT professional, studying interactive arts, and being a musician under the moniker Joe Galen.

For the last four years though I have been a postgraduate student where I attained a masters degree in research methods and am currently studying for a doctorate on the strange topic of ‘design fiction’. The postgraduate part of that story has all taken place at Lancaster University’s ‘HighWire’ doctoral training centre. All of this edition’s content will come from researchers at the HighWire centre, so before proceeding any further, let me describe it.

HighWire is a 5-year project that was funded by the UK Research Council’s ‘Digital Economy’ programme. HighWire’s approach is fundamentally post disciplinary, which is rather different to its more commonly seen cousins that we refer to as inter, cross and multi… disciplinary (this report offers a fantastic definition of each of these terms and explores their nuances). These related terms, each describing how people (or concepts) with different expertise (or philosophical foundations) come together form teams (or produce insights) that are in some way ‘greater than a sum of their parts’. More often than not, those outcomes are achieved by, as Blackwell’s title suggests, ‘creating value across boundaries’. The properties and tropes of each discipline remain in tact, but, extra value can be created bridging the gaps between them. Post disciplinarity I see rather differently.

One way way to describe that perspective is in terms of David Hume’s ‘Bundle Theory’ that supposes things are defined by a collection of their own properties. If we imagine disciplines as bundles of strands, where each strand is a property of that discipline, then interdisciplinary (and cross, and multi) projects capitalize on acknowledging and working with the contrasts between those strands. At HighWire we are more concerned with actually connecting these strands together, rather than just focusing on their contrasts.

A different way to look at it is in terms of a food metaphor. Cake (which in this metaphor is a discipline like, say, Sociology) is nice. Ice cream (let’s say…. Physics) is also tasty. The contrasts between the properties of the two disciplines adds value, and anyone who likes to have cake and ice cream on the same plate, will agree. This is still just inter (cross or multi) disciplinary dessert though. To think of it in more post disciplinary terms let’s add this dessert to our metaphorical menu, the Chocolate orange bombe Alaska with hot chocolate sauce. Combining the contrasting elements of ice cream, chocolate, orange, cake and meringue, bridging the differences between them, and in doing so creating something new. A truly post disciplinary dessert.

If you thought the reference to bundle theory and the dessert metaphor suggested I was finding it difficult to get the point across, then you’d be right. Post disciplinarity is difficult to define, but I hope these two ways of differentiating it from interdisciplinarity go some way to demystifying it. It is arguably just as hard to do as it is to explain: sometimes there are fundamental incompatibilities and the connections we attempt to make just don’t make sense. However, when a connection does work and is self sustaining, then truly new and radical ideas have the space to emerge. HighWire encourages its students to creatively join up ‘strands’ that make up the three core disciplines (design, management studies, and computing) in an almost infinite number of different ways ,with the hope that a more powerful type of creative problem-solving will imbue the research conducted at the centre.

All students who pass through the HighWire programme are required to study for a master’s in research methods. It was during that period that I first heard the term ethnography. It was but one of a number of unfamiliar and slightly daunting academic terms that I was entirely unfamiliar with back then in 2012. To be quite frank, my knowledge of the topic is only a little less unfamiliar than it was four years ago, and I find discussing the topic with ‘real’ experts as daunting as I did back in 2012. Nonetheless, I hope that writing from my position of blissful ignorance might actually reveal some nuggets of interest, and at the very least provide a platform for the other posts in the edition.

Before I go on to introduce the contributors to the edition, let me just talk a little more about my first year at HighWire. I had no prior knowledge of the huge array of academic jargon that I was suddenly immersed in, nor had I read any of the seminal and foundational texts that my colleagues all seemed to be well versed in. It’s fair to say that it was something of a shock to my system.

It turns out that this is part of the concept behind HighWire’s master’s course. It is deliberately set up make students challenge their assumptions, to encourage students to think outside of their respective boxes, and to enable the post disciplinary spirit of the programme. Everyone finds it difficult. It isn’t easy to pulled from pillar to post and bombarded with a whole range of (and sometimes conflicted) perspectives on ontology and epistemology.

As with most master’s programmes, HighWire’s course ends with students producing a thesis. Usually the thesis revolves around applying the techniques learned into a short research project. I tried to do this by creating a prototype app that embodied a concept I had come up with called ‘virtual religion’. That endeavour failed, in part because of the weirdness of the virtual religion concept, but largely because I was so utterly confused by the world of research methods that lay before me. In a moment of madness that was brought on by a severe lack of sleep (and overdose of fun resulting from visiting a brilliant summer school in Finland), I decided to scrap all of the work I had done up until that point and to reinvent my master’s thesis in the form of a self-reflective film titled Add Researchers and Stir (full film is embedded below, I’m afraid it is 20 minutes long though!)

In Add Researchers and Stir I documented – in a semi auto-ethnographic way – what it was like to be confronted by the prospect of post disciplinarity, and the challenges that it made me face. During this time I came across a text by the sociologist John Law, where he describes the concept of ‘messy methods’. Law’s approach is to look at a range of differing ways in which knowledge can be produced through research, and points out that in reality the ‘purity’ that most methods assume is simply not conducive to developing a representative view of how the world really is.

Rather, the world is a messy place, where things often don’t work quite as they should. Allowances must be given to the complexity of the world; we are routinely trying to fit ‘square things in round holes’. It is in order to address these complexities that the ‘method assemblages’ I referred to earlier are useful as a “combination of reality detector and reality amplifier”. This ability to choose elements from the most applicable way of exploring a particular problem, and to then apply those concepts to a range of different disciplinary perspectives, is integral to the creative way that HighWire students do their research.
Although all under the banner of the ‘digital economy’, the research done at the HighWire centre demonstrates huge diversity. Some examples include research into cyber-sustainability; mindfulness and mindlessness in computer interactions; digital death; and physical cyber environments. My doctorate is all about researching an emerging speculative design practice, design fiction (or, putting it in deliberately over simplified way, ‘making up stories about the future’). The list goes on… (see a list of HighWire people and research here).

So quite why am I writing this introduction to an edition for Ethnography Matters? Well, in a roundabout way my doctoral research into design fiction has, at times, stumbled into the realm of ethnography. In particular, two colleagues and I coined the term ‘anticipatory ethnography’ as a way of describing how design fiction artefacts can be looked at ethnographically. I will elaborate on this in my own contribution to the edition in the coming weeks and the two colleagues who I worked on anticipatory ethnography, Rob Potts and Dhruv Sharma, are also going to contribute to this month’s edition.

Rob is a designer, lecturer, and a director of film production company Ourus. Rob takes a special interest in a diverse range of subjects including shared narratives, urbanism, and ‘joined up’ thinking in general. As well as collaborating on our research into anticipatory ethnography, Rob’s doctoral research revolves around an ethnographic study at Hyperisland, a unique type of design school. Rob will open the edition his piece reflecting on his experiences of working with ethnography.

Dhruv – who’s name appeared in the list above because it is particularly challenging to pronounce as it includes the 14thth letter of the Hindi alphabet – has a background in anthropology, has worked in various countries as an ethnographer, and also holds a master’s degree in design ethnography from Dundee University. His research at HighWire is concerned with radical digital interventions designed to address issues of loneliness among the elderly but his contribution to the edition will be focused around how his experience with doing post disciplinary work has cemented the idea that ‘everyone is an ethnographer’.

Ding Wang, our third contributor, is another of the Dundee University design ethnography alumni. Ding has a special interest in pursuing degrees whose name consists of two random words, including: tourism management, design ethnography, and now the digital economy. The latter degree, at HighWire, is concerned with ‘smart cities’, where her research talks to two audiences. First of all, Ding’s research is classical smart cities research and directly contributes to that field by cutting through the gap between ‘what people say’ and ‘what people do’. Her research also contributes to discourse around ethnography by highlighting how design ethnography can play a unique role in illuminating what it is that ‘smart cities’ actually are and how we talk about them.

We’ll finish the edition by co-authoring a reflective piece looking at our individual contributions and asking, ‘what does this say about ethnographic work in 2016?’, and finally, we may have a surprise additional post… Where would the surprise be if that was revealed right now?

The unifying factor among our contributions is HighWire and the unique combination of people and practices that combine to make this what we believe to be a centre for truly post disciplinary research. Part of that post disciplinarity, almost inevitably, requires a relationship with ethnography. Quite how that relationship works is unique to each of us and results in unique perspectives, not only on what ethnography is, but more importantly what it could be. For example one reviewer of a paper I wrote said this: “To put it in no uncertain terms: this is not ethnography”. The contributions that make up this edition are individual and distinct, but together will form a narrative that touches upon some of the bleeding edges of contemporary ethnographic practice. It will be up to you, in the end, to decide whether this is or is not ethnography, whether it is or is not a part of the future of what ethnography will become.

This article is part the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition. Read other articles in this edition and check out past posts. Like what you’re reading? Ethnography Matters is a volunteer run site with no advertising. We’re happy to keep it that way, but we need your help. We don’t need your donations, we just want you to spread the word. Tweet about articles you like, share them with your colleagues, or become a contributor. Also join us our Slack to have deeper discussions about the readings and/or to connect with others who use applied ethnography. Help us bring ethnography to a wider audience.

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One Response to “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?”

  1. Liz J
    January 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    You know, I am always surprised that the new rhetorical discipline called New Genre Studies has not yet made fruitful contact with anthropology — or it has, (I *have* been living under a rock), I missed it. Found Herndl interesting, would appreciate being pointed in a good direction to find more.

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