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On Digital Ethnography


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  • When Tricia asked me to contribute a series on Ethnography Matters, I thought that I would take this opportunity to bring together the notes on digital ethnography that I have collected over the last couple of years. I would like to push the boundaries of computational usage in ethnographic processes a bit here. I really want to expand the definition of digital ethnography beyond the use of computers, tablets, and smart phones as devices to interact with online communities, or to capture, transfer, and store field media.

    In this three-part series, I am going to discuss how working with computational tools could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I will stay mostly within the domain of data gathering in this first post. In the second post, I will talk about the process of field data interpreting and visualizing; and the last post, I will focus on how the digital may transform ethnographic narrative and argumentation.

Myspace friend distribution of The Hsu-nami

On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

halftone album art zoomed in

On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

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Innovation in Asthma Research


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  • As ethnographers, we are familiar with origin stories, and The Asthma Files possesses its own. Mike Fortun and Kim Fortun first envisioned The Asthma Files while participating in an NIH-funded collaborative effort (led by health policy researcher Alexandra Shields, director of the Center for Genetics, Health Disparities and Vulnerable Populations at Harvard) to develop gene-environment interaction research responsive to health disparities, using asthma as a case study. A key event in this collaborative effort was a June 2006 workshop at Harvard brought together diverse researchers to consider possibilities and challenges. A key goal was to identify genetic study designs that incorporated sound environmental indicators.

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

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Ethnography of Trolling


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  • My name is Whitney Phillips, and I study trolls. Well, not just trolls. I’ve also written about meme culture, so-bad-it’s-good fan engagement (my essay on the kuso aesthetic in Troll 2 is forthcoming in Transformative Works and Cultures), and online shaming. But for the better part of five-ish years, my life has revolved around trolls and the trolls who troll them. The title of my dissertation—THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embeddedness of Online Trolling—pretty much says it all.

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (3 of 3)

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (3 of 3)

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Ethnographer’s Reading List


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Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data


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  • Research is hard to do. Much of it is left to the specialists who carry on in school 4-10 more years after completing a first degree to acquire the proper training. It’s not only hard to do, it’s also hard to read and understand and extrapolate from. Mass media coverage of science and social research is rife with misinterpretations – overgeneralizations, glossing over research limitations, failing to adequately consider the characteristics of subject populations. Does more data or “big data” in any way, shape, or form alter this state of affairs? Is it the case, as Wired magazine (provocatively…arrogantly…and ignorantly) suggests that “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete” and “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves?”

The Ethnographer's Complete Guide to Big Data: Answers  (part 2 of 3)

The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Answers (part 2 of 3)

The Ethnographer's Complete Guide to Big Data: Conclusions (part 3 of 3)

The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Conclusions (part 3 of 3)

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Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?


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  • Corporate ethnography’s emergence ignited criticism that its quality and rigour was not as good as the ethnography practiced by academics. Academically trained social scientists have argued that private-sector practitioners are often not trained in anthropology or sociology, much less in the actual method of ethnography. Academics have argued that using ethnography for marketing and advertising is just more evidence of underhanded marketers attempting to dupe people into consumerism (Caron & Caronia, 2007). And they are right.

Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

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“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”


Phoenix JacksonPhoenix Jackson is a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a Cornelius Hopper Diversity Fellow with UCSF, and a Somatic Counseling Psychotherapy graduate student at John F. Kennedy University.
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This post is re-blogged from the Center for Critical Public Health.

Editor’s note: My colleague Phoenix Jackson wrote these poignant field notes after we went out to recruit focus group participants for a study on health inequities among African American youth.

While following the #dangerousblackkids tag (started by @thewayoftheid and Mikki Kendall @karnythia) over the past few days, we were struck by parallels between Twitter users’ pushback against perceptions of Black youth as “dangerous” and the lived experiences of study participants evoked in these notes. 

Like #dangerousblackkids, this post highlights what’s omitted from dominant narratives about who is afraid and who is dangerous. Perhaps Michael Dunn was afraid of a group of teenagers in a car playing loud music. So afraid, in fact, that he took the life of a 17 year old child.

Who’s dangerous again?

(Rachelle)

[Slider image via @taciturnitis]

Street-level recruiting, downtown Oakland, Broadway 13th to 16th, Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly but officially known as Frank Ogawa Plaza). We’ve been talking to all kinds of people – students, workers, merchants, customers, pimps, players, hustlers, dealers, addicts, sex workers and eyeballing the BART police roust a youth for nothing that I saw. I’m standing in clouds of cannabis smoke exhaled from the people we’re talking to, and no longer feel how cold my head is. We’ve finally got our posse of people walking back to the office, and I’m struck by how secure one feels in a mass of people traditionally feared. People walking in the opposite direction make wide berth around us, and some look at me disapprovingly, and I wonder about what microaggressions these young men deal with as they move through their lives. And then the hardest and loudest of the bunch paces Rachelle and I talking strategy.

“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

There’s a smile, but it’s pointed, and I know they are checking my reaction. I smile at him as if to say, “I hear you,” but then gesture to my colleague known for being even more quiet than I am, saying with a chuckle, “You know, I’m not sure she and I can take all six of you in a head to head.”

Drawing by focus group participant

Drawing by focus group participant

Brother with the neck tattoo has been inside before. Jail. I know it without knowing it. We’re on the tail end of the three quarter mile walk back from street-level recruiting. One of the little hoppers (young hustlers) has already very pointedly asked if we’re FBI or with any kind of police. “Where? That building that got FBI in it?” He might as well not ask – my reassurances that they will leave our company unmolested are met with a tough-generous smirk and posture that lets me know he thinks the whole thing smells no matter what I say, but the steady footfalls and banter of the bigger, older muscle along with the joint being passed back and forth between them placates them enough for me to drawl, “They gone. They moved out of the building.”

“Where?”

“Dunno, and don’t want to. Ugh. We don’t get off into all that. Don’t nobody want to talk to the police more than they have to.”

Their thoughtful silent assent keeps us walking. Read More… “Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions


WendyHsu_pinecone Editor’s note: This is the final post in Wendy Hsu‘s 4-part series, On Digital Ethnography. Wendy asks what does an ethnography beyond text and print look like? To answer this question, she calls on us to reconsider what counts as “ethnographic knowledge.” Wendy provides examples of collaborative multimedia projects that are just as “ethnographic” in nature as a traditional ethnographic monograph. The first post in the On Digital Ethnography series called for ethnographers to use computer software, the second post introduced readers to her methods of deploying computer programs to collect quantitative data, and the third post urged ethnographers to pay more attention to the sounds, sights, and other material aspects of our field research.  Wendy @WendyFHsu  is an ACLS Public Fellow working with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affair. She recently finished her term as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College and completed her dissertation on the spread of independent rock music.

Yea, as a fellow with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, I have a mission to innovate and technologize the department. I’m spearheading the department’s web redesign project — thinking about how to better articulate our work, outreach to constituents, and digitize some of our services. I’m still wearing my ethnographer’s hat, thinking about how to cull through the vast amount of data related to arts and culture here at the city, and leveraging social media and other mobile/digital data to better understand the impact of our work. I’m also working with the City’s Information Technology Agency to join efforts in their Open Data initiative with the goal to augment civic participation through innovation projects like civic hacking.

Ethnography means fieldwork or field research – a set of research practices applied for the purpose of acquiring data; but the term also refers to the descriptive representation of one’s fieldwork. In my series on digital ethnography so far, I have discussed how digital and computational methods could enhance how we as ethnographers acquire, process, explore, and re-scale field data. In this last post, I will shift my focus away from field research to discuss the process of “writing up” field findings. I ask: How might the digital transform the way we communicate ethnographic information and knowledge?

I pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of expression of academic ethnographic practices. Early in graduate school, I learned that the eventual outcome of doing ethnographic research is the publication of a monograph. People around me use the word “monograph” to refer to a book-length treatment of research of a single subject published by an academic press [they looks something like what’s shown in Figure 1]. This is, however, one of many definitions of monograph (apparently humanists have a definition stricter than scientists and librarians). Burrell attributes the scarcity of academic publication to economic reasons, and suggests online publishing as a potential solution to remedy the cost of print-based publishing and to enable the integration of visual materials in publications.

Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Figure 1: Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Ethnography, based on the Greek root of “graph,” means the representation of field experience, findings, and analysis through the medium of writing. But writing, denoted by the word “graph,” may have always been used to refer to textual means of representation (i.e. what we think of as writing), but there are instances of this root referring to non-textual means such as photograph, lithograph, phonograph, heliograph, etc. The ambiguity of writing as a medium that can be either textual or nontextual has been with us since the invention of these words.

I’m not advocating for abolishing academic book publishing. Others have and have discussed the economic and ideological structure that supports academic publishing and valorizes the monograph.) Instead, I want to make room for a serious consideration of ethnographic expressions that are not strictly based in text, either in the form of a book or a journal article, but are dynamically articulated in interactive and multimediated systems afforded by digital technology. Some of you might find this claim to be professionally irrelevant to you, if your preoccupation with ethnography falls outside of the academy. But the concerns and techniques that I will talk about may pique your interest as you consider the ways to communicate findings and analysis to clients, collaborators, and stakeholders.

If we open up the definition of ethnography beyond text and print, then we can start to envision a media-enriched, performative, and collaborative space for ethnographers to convey what they have encountered, experienced, and postulated. Utilizing the affordances of digital media, ethnographic knowledge can be stored, expressed, and shared in ways beyond a single medium, direction, and user. In what follows, I will outline a few computational practices, platforms, and projects to illustrate these points.Read More… Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)


Editor’s note: This report is the final post in the Innovation in Asthma Research series. It shares with readers how anyone can contribute to The Asthma Files’s research. Catch up on the first post in this series that explained the project history and the second post that took us into the project’s knowledge platform. In our ongoing efforts at Ethnography Matters to highlight innovative ethnographic research, we believe The Asthma Files is a great example of how ethnographers are tying insights to action. In this case, The Asthma Files is collecting data to advance asthma research and environmental public health work.

In our previous posts, we’ve talked about why we chose to study asthma ethnographically, and how working with the platform helps us rethink the way we do ethnography. In this concluding post, we’ll talk more about how other researchers and citizens can become involved with The Asthma Files.

Participating in The Asthma Files can take on many forms. Whether a researcher, student, or member of the non-academic public, it is possible to take part in the research project. Since its onset, the project was designed to draw in many kinds of participants.

The first kind of participant consists of ethnographers and other cultural analysts who want to work with materials archived in The Asthma Files, contribute new materials or create new asthma files.

For example, one researcher recently uploaded a series of photographs and images from Compton, CA, to document the heavy historical presence of chemical and petroleum refineries around an area heavily populated historical disadvantaged groups.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

Our repository is publicly accessible, and contains sections to archives such things as primary material, grey matter, and media files. We’ve provided step-by-step instructions on how to upload material to the site once you’ve created an account. This will allow your material to be easily available to anyone wishing to use it for research or informational purposes.

timelinessRead More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer


Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 12.53.11 PMFor four years, Bradley Garrett (@Goblinmerchant) explored abandoned hospitals, railways, tunnels and rooftops as part of his PhD ethnography studying an elite group of urban explorers. 

Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 8.39.51 AM

Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything” documents his ethnography of urban explorers

When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.

The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”.Read More… Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer