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Christine Hine on virtual ethnography’s E3 Internet


christine_hine_thumbnailChristine Hine is an early pioneer of virtual ethnography and has been at the forefront of movements towards redefining ethnography for the digital age. She is currently a Reader at the University of Surrey’s Sociology Department.

Editor’s note: In this post for our Being a student ethnographer series, I talked to Christine Hine about her forthcoming book, ‘Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday’ due out next year. In this interview, Christine talks about the current phase in virtual ethnographic practice, about what are her latest research interests, and about a framework that she believes can help ethnographers understand how to adapt their practice to suit multi-modal communication environments. 

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

HF: What do you think are the key challenges that ethnographers face in trying to study the Internet today?

CH: Robinson and Schulz, in their 2009 paper, describe evolving forms of ethnographic practice in response to the Internet and digitally mediated environments. They divide this into three phases that include a) pioneering, where cyberethnographers focused on issues of identity play and a separation between online and offline identities 2) legitimizing (in which my own work is situated) where ethnographers explored the use of offline methods in the online sphere and, 3) multi-modal approaches where ethnographers are concerned with how participants combine different modes of communication.

I believe that we are still in the process of having to legitimize cyber ethnography and that multi-modal approaches are a worthy goal for virtual ethnography. The key challenge here is in understanding how to do multi-modal studies. This is especially challenging since the ethnographer’s toolkit changes with every new setting. We don’t know what that toolkit consists of because every time we do a new study, we have to choose what combination of sites, methods, writing practices and techniques we need to use.Read More… Christine Hine on virtual ethnography’s E3 Internet

Digital Visual Anthropology: Envisaging the field


Screen shot 2013-11-28 at 3.40.03 PMShireen Walton is a D.Phil student in Anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford and member of the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group. Shireen studies online communities of Iranian photographers with a special focus on photo blogs.

Editor’s note: In this post for our ‘Being a Student Ethnographer‘ edition, Shireen Walton relays a conversation with David Zeitlyn at a special seminar on Digital Visual Anthropology (DVA) in Oxford earlier this month. As someone new to the online field, Shireen has been forced to think rather seriously over the past few years about some of the big questions concerning the visual sub-category of a contemporary digital anthropology. David Zeitlyn is based at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and has been a key figure in the developing relationship between Social Anthropology and ICT – especially in opening up innovative pathways for the use of multimedia, visualisation and Internet technologies in social anthropological research projects.

The main issue faced by all digital researchers, it seems, is to think first and foremost about how the traditional practice of ethnography translates to the online context. They have to do this in a manner both faithful and rigorous enough to constitute ethnographic research, whilst being adaptable enough to meet fresh challenges stemming from new zones of (online) engagement: a challenging prospect. Leading on from this, anthropologists are then forced to consider what existing methodological tools they might rely on in order to even broach these new topics whilst creatively, and rather bravely, suggesting how they might need updating.

One of the broadest issues we considered in the seminar was whether digital anthropology can these days be regarded as a new, official sub-discipline within mainstream anthropology as Horst and Miller recently declared in the introduction to their edited volume, Digital Anthropology (Horst and Miller 2012). Following on from this, might we then propose that the visual sub-field of a digital anthropological project could then itself constitute a ‘sub-sub field?’ These issues require thinking about where contemporary DVA might sit within the mainstream anthropological canon, including its established methods and epistemological boundaries.

Defining DVA essentially involves two main considerations as either site of or method of research, (or both), as Sarah Pink has identified in her seminal article entitled: Digital Visual Anthropology: Potentials and Challenges, (Pink 2011). In the case of my own research for example, studying the Iranian ‘photo-blogosphere’ constitutes both a site of enquiry – i.e. a visual system of popular Iranian cultural expression on the Internet, as well as a method of enquiry, using the online medium to access these communities and conduct online participant observation amongst them. I rely on digital and visual technologies including the Internet, the digital camera, and a digitally-curated online exhibition, in order to situate myself in the field and conduct research in a technologically-relevant manner which befits the activities of my participants.Read More… Digital Visual Anthropology: Envisaging the field

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.

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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

Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano


picture of Julia SeranoJulia Serano (@juliaserano) may be most well known for her groundbreaking book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, but she is a person of many talents. In addition to having just released a new book (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive), did you know that Julia is also a musician, a performer, and a geneticist with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Physics? And although she doesn’t work as an ethnographer, she is an insightful explorer and student of culture.  Her experiences as both an activist and a biologist give her a unique perspective on this month’s theme.

We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.

EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.

I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.

Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.

Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.

EM: Were you interested in that growing up?

Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.

This is all fruit fly stuff

Drawing of fruit fly with text from William Blake's poem "The Fly"

Saint Drosophila, CC BY-SA Sage Ross
(Poem by William Blake)

EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.

Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”

She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.

EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…

Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.

Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.

Bitesize, the gene

Bitesize, the gene (Figure 3)

The natural/unnatural binary

EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.

Cover of the book "Excluded"The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.

Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?

EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?

In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.

As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.

Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.Read More… Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano

Jeans, Indian film, and fashion


headshot of Clare Wilkinson-WeberClare Wilkinson-Weber (@clarewilkinso10) studies costume, fashion and performance in Indian film, and craft in the contemporary global economy. Her latest book is Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. In this post for our genes (and jeans!) edition, she writes about the social meaning of jeans worldwide, and in Indian film in particular.

Dr. Wilkinson-Weber’s contribution to this edition’s music mix is Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unwittingly turned himself into an object of ridicule for claiming that among the various freedoms denied to Iranians was the right to wear jeans. In no time at all, social media immediately buzzed into life to prove Netanyahu wrong – at least with regard to jeans-wearing.  Setting aside all the claims and counterclaims that might be made (and have been made) between Israel and Iran, what is striking about this example is that jeans-wearing should have been invoked as an indicator of a free citizenry in the first place.

Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward first drew our attention to the protean nature of denim around the world in their essay, Manifesto for a Study of Denim (Miller & Woodward, 2007).  Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though, for just as the association with youth, autonomy and individuality has valence in location after location (just ask Mr. Netanyahu), so also, as anthropologists might expect, there is also some important variation. The Global Denim Project, hosted by University College London, gives a taste of the research that is being done to probe both the continuities and discontinuities of jeans production, circulation, and consumption.

Ranbir_Kapoor_at_the_NDTV_Marks_for_Sports_event via bollywoodhungama

Ranbir Kapoor at NDTV Marks for Sports
CC BY-SA Bollywood Hungama

Wearing jeans carries few to no connotations of political liberty in India; they are, though, resiliently symptomatic of modernity, and by extension, of the wearer him or herself as modern. With the “consumer-citizen” having taken on the mantle of normativity in urban India, the more ubiquitous and familiar jeans become, the more modern the sartorial landscape appears to be.  Wearing jeans, as opposed to wearing a uniform, a business suit, or an item of “Indian” or “traditional” clothing, is an act that speaks of individual motivation, global fashion consciousness, and personal choice.  Jeans are not considered suitable for many of the same settings from which they are debarred in Western society (formal occasions, workplaces and so on).  Media events though are a key exception, and film award ceremonies commonly feature major male film stars (though not female stars) wearing jeans — sometimes quite dramatically distressed jeans — under a formal jacket and with formal shoes.

As a peculiar distillation and selection of the broader dress spectrum in India, film – even in the “realist” mode – can clothe a larger or smaller number of cast members in jeans, depending upon the tastes and preferences of director, designer, and actor.  Extras (known as “junior artists”), dancers, all can wear jeans, though only if they are, like the hero or heroine, young.  But when putting denim on lead actors, female or male, more strategic thinking comes into play. Dressing the leads communicates about the character’s flair and distinctiveness, and also serves to confirm the actor’s credibility as a style leader in their own right.

Appearing in jeans – any jeans — began in the 1970s as an unmistakable sign of heroic energy and fashion consciousness; since the floodgates have opened to allow in more global brands, as well as corporate alliances between designers and textile producers  (e.g. Diesel and Arvind Mills), having a pair of jeans by itself no longer proclaims the wearer’s sophistication and distinction from non-wearers (formerly committed to synthetic trousers and working men’s pajamas).  Now that these self-same working men (though not yet women) wear jeans to dig ditches and build offices, the rich must exploit their knowledge and access to exclusive brands to keep themselves apart – a gambit that only works to the extent that fashion knowledge becomes more widely disseminated, since jeans, to put it baldly, are difficult to make appear different one pair from another.  So it is among the topmost consumers that squabbles erupt over ever-finer discriminations in the jeans they buy, their choices basically revolving around particular brands, some of which have only entered the sub-continent in the last few years.

In a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy.

Film stars are in this top layer as personal consumers, although as product endorsers, they attach their names to brands as mundane as Levis and Wrangler.  And in a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy.  Stars are by no means universally lauded for their personal taste: far from it.  Even designers lament the “cluelessness” of some of the celebrities they have to dress.  But tales from the film world contain plenty of evidence for stars issuing firm directives that they will only wear the most exclusive, most hard to get jeans, meaning that the “regression to the mean” to which denim is strangely prone can befuddle the most enlightened consumer.

Stars want top brands because they feel they have “earned” them, but the intensely personal experience of wearing jeans is a factor in their choices as well.  From the point of view of the wearer, fit, finish, and internal detailing set apart the exclusive brand label from the cheapest variety.  There is also the “feel” of denim, where – in one of the curious paradoxes of jeans that simultaneously explains their massive popularity – the softer, the more relaxed, the more “used” it feels, the more comfortable and desirable it is.

In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans as casual wear… That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography.

In 2013, jeans are so common for film heroes as to have become banal.  Young women wear jeans in films to a marked degree as well, but the as-yet unquestioned propriety of saris and salwar-kameez in India means that play with women’s costume remains more complex — spanning Western and Indian styles, and incorporating fusion where possible, to a much greater degree.  What one doesn’t see in film so much is the irruption of jeans into the dress of characters that are in fact much more prone to sartorial reductionism than either heroes or heroines: I mean here older character actors.  In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans either as at-home wear or as casual wear to put on at weekends.  Women pair their jeans – typically of the loose “Mom” variety – with a kamiz (tunic top); men opt for a kurta.  This is not the stuff of “fashion” in the conventional sense, although it does suggest some shifts in fashion understood as a variety of self-making, with clothes as its primary device.  That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography.  In films, for the most part, jeans maintain their association with youth while older characters stick to their saris and suits, in keeping with the expectation that the young hero and heroine are the ones with emancipatory ideas in mind, while the oldsters stick to the values of tradition.

Which in turn provokes a final thought: if it is a small matter these days for youth to get access to jeans – in India, in Israel, in Iran – what does it mean when jeans spread into other generations? Do the wearers thereby acquire the “freedoms” of youth? Or do they take on the dress the better to suppress such imaginings?


References:
Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim*. Social Anthropology, 15(3), 335–351. doi:10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00024.x

A clip from the film Dulaara featuring Clare’s contribution to this edition’s music mix
Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy/”My Pants are Sexy”) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay:

Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA


Alondra_1.5

Alondra Nelson

Ed. Note: Alondra Nelson (@alondra) is an interdisciplinary social scientist who writes about science, technology and inequality. Her forthcoming book is The Social Life of DNA. In this interview we did via Skype, she talks about the implications of the expanding use of genetic analysis, touching on subjects such as the early Black Panthers’ use of community-based genetic screening for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are.
(PS: This edition of EM comes with a soundtrack. We asked Dr. Nelson what music the topics she is researching brought to mind for her, and she followed up with an email noting all the songs contained in this post, which will also be in our playlist.)

(Slideshow image:  DNA CC BY MIKI Yoshihito)

I wanted to ask you first about what you’re working on these days. I think you have a new book coming out.

My book The Social Life of DNA (@sociallifeofdna) is coming out next year with Beacon Press. “The social life of DNA” is both a methodological phrase and also an analytical or theoretical claim. The methodological use, you won’t be surprised to hear, comes from Arjun Appadurai and his edited collection The Social Life of Things, which was about material culture – much more material than the genetics ancestry testing that I follow in my work. Appadurai’s mandate is that scholars can understand social meaning, in part, by following things around. That important insight was from the late 1980s. And, then more proximate to us, about six or seven years ago Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts wrote a book called Born and Made, which was on preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In that book, they discussed what they called “the social life of PGD;” as ethnographers, they were in some regards following tests around and following users around. People who had done the diagnostic tests, and the various stakeholders who were involved in the tests…

I think what’s different about the way that I’m using [the social life of things model] is that there’s an ephemerality to genetics; you can’t see or follow necessarily with your eye — the gene or the genome. You can’t even really follow the genetic ancestry tests, which are often inferences about forms of identity: racial identity, ethnic identity. Increasingly, they’re inferences about health factors and the like. It’s harder to follow these around.

Interpreting genetic ancestry tests

[Jeans by Quadron]

In my earlier ethnographic work, I was trying to understand what people got out of the tests, because you’re basically sending cheek cells to a company in a FedEx package, and you get back pieces of paper that give you inferences about who you are. In some instances you’re getting sets of genetic markers written down on these pieces of paper, but the untrained eye doesn’t really know what to make of all of those As, C, G, and Ts. At any rate, these lists of genetic markers or “certificates of ancestry” that one receives are the outcome of the process. These artifacts aren’t always interesting in and of themselves. Far more interesting, I found, was the social life of the test results. I came to follow the way that these genetic ancestry tests came to be used in ways that we couldn’t necessarily anticipate.Read More… Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)


Jan-H. Passoth

Jan-H. Passoth

Nicholas J. Rowland

Nicholas J. Rowland

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.

____________________________________________________________________________

Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better if you try that second time or a third time, and at any point after that. The writing of a genius wordsmith and the report of a serious scholar; how could they be comparable in any meaningful way? But because this series of blog-posts is exactly about fiction and ethnography, we will try to answer our own question, nevertheless, and, if we are lucky, harvest a few insights from creative writing to improve our academic writing. Not being literary experts, but scholars – and free time readers of David Foster Wallace´s works – we are neither willing nor able to deliver an exegesis on Wallace’s work or hazard any reconstruction of his style, inter-textual analysis, and surely we won’t – we cannot – document all the pop-cultural linkages Wallace employed in his work. But there is something that we can offer; when we read his dense, immersive prose, we cannot help but thinking that it sounds like ethnography … really, really good ethnography.

Post-Irony and Reportage

Easting Lobsters

“Lobsters” by Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The germ of an approach to writing-up qualitative results, which lives-on in Wallace’s works, is actually quite funny … and Wallace was dead-serious about that … about being funny. Take the plain and bold reportage of  Consider the Lobster: When Wallace adds footnote 6 – the one he is sure will not survive magazine-editing – to the disgusting description of the main eating tent and admits that: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience“, we are given an example of what a post-ironic reportage could be. This is not funny, it is not clever and not highbrow ironic. Despite the talk of late date modernity, ontology and a Lacan-like desire, this is dead serious. It is filled with details and disgust, detailed coverage blended with a firm attitude. Some folks are calling Wallace’s tone-turned-technique for writing a ‘post-ironic’ writing style. The term post-ironic is not new, it is not without its critiques, and, from what we can tell, lives mainly in film and literature (and explicitly not the social sciences). For example, in The Comedy, comedian and anti-humorist Tim Heidecker, both in form and content, portrays an individual living a post-ironic life,

… a man with unlimited options. An aging hipster in Brooklyn, he spends his days in aimless recreation with like-minded friends … in games of comic irreverence and mock sincerity. As Swanson grows restless of the safety a sheltered life offers him, he tests the limits of acceptable behavior, pushing the envelope in every way he can. (movieweb.com)

Serious humor can also be found Werner Herzog’s film Bad Lieutenant or nearly anything from Wes Anderson. Wallace is something of a poster boy for post-ironic prose, because his stories are hilarious, but, at the same time and with the same words, dead serious. Or, in the case of The Pale King, the unfinished and posthumously published last big work, the other way round: incredibly dry and serious, but awfully touching and even funny in a playfully, Kafka-esque fashion.

Reflexivity

Again, any comparison between Wallace and qualitative research reports seems so unfair. David Foster Wallace was maybe the only author ever who was able to make the world of taxes fascinating; sorry record-keeping buffs, even Garfinkel, no matter how hard he wrote about the workplace during the 1940s and 1950s, simply cannot hold a candle to The Pale King. So, despite the unfairness of the comparison, there is still something to learn from Wallace about what our ethnographic accounts could be like. And our answer “What would Wallace write?”, of course, cannot be about mimicking Wallace’s writing style; that would be a dead-end for everyone but Wallace, and, after all, even Garfinkel, the master of ethnomethods, probably couldn’t match Wallace verb-for-verb, so we’re toast. It also cannot be about – and on this we are insistent – the ability to reach a wider audience; our reports in this endeavor called qualitative social science research cannot hinge on opening-up our audience or transforming how we target our work … if only because who knows what it would mean for tenure committees deciding on our fates in the academy. Of course, and above all, our research reports cannot be altered by delving into the fine art of crossing the boundary between fiction and serious scholarship; to wit, fictional ethnography would not constitute scholarship in the social sciences, would it? It worked for Daniel Defoe, but Robinson Crusoe was pretend; the reason to read ethnography, in contrast, is precisely because Mitch Duneier’s characters in Sidewalk were for sure real people. Instead of any of those sterile distractions, the only route forward involves considering – deeply – a concept at the heart of ethnography, qualitative methods, and “being” human, and that is reflexivity.

IRS

“IRS” by Alyson Hurt on flickr (CC-BY-NC)

Although most of David Foster Wallace texts are plainly reflexive endeavors, the one that stands out most is The Pale King – the unfinished piece about ways into and experiences working for the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Wallace wrote it, some say, for more than a decade. The piece stands as a good example of how much research must be done to produce such a text, which, we imagine, is quite similar to the sort of research necessary to produce a dense ethnographic report. From what is know about his work process, the book took years to mature. In the process, Wallace dug deep into the dry prose of IRS reports, the broader U.S. tax system, novels on the IRS, and, from what we hear, he even took accounting classes. For information rich reports to contain even a shred of serious humor or post-ironic wit, we need to understand how reflexivity figures into what ethnomeths-mogrels call ‘an accountable state of affairs’ – and reflexivity is a tool that David Foster Wallace was a true master of … an uncrowned king. Conceptualizing our ethnographic projects as preparatory work to produce a novel instead of a research report is tempting … quite tempting. But writing a novel, while it might seem more freeing and a more direct route to a different kind of truth, is not a practical solution for many of us in academia hired to work in social science departments. And, writing a novel seems likely awfully hard work. But we don’t have to. Wallace’s novel – and not just because of the so called “Author´s foreword” about 70 pages after the first word opened a fascinating, hidden-in-plain-sight world of taxes – is an incredible example of how to engage in reflexivity after all the lame turmoil of post-modern, meta-reflexive, self-positioning and the uber-lame deadlocks they have provided us with along the way. Wallace’s reflexivity, as we shall see, worked because it was self-exemplary.

Infra-Reflexivity

footnotes

“footnotes” produced by Nicholas J. Rowland and Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The upshot for us? We must recognize that reflexivity is a beloved and feared cornerstone of our ethnographic writing, as well as all other genres of producing reports based on qualitative methods, and, in a very special way, the only way to producing research on research. This is especially valuable for us because we need reflexivity to conduct research about research in Science & Technology Studies. But now, after years of trying to make our reports more and more reflexive – after Writing Culture and Ashmore´s wonderful, but ridiculous dissertation – we have the feeling that while we cannot stop being reflexive, because all accounts are automatically reflexive or they could not be communicated in the first place, there is no way to be more or less reflexive. Reflexivity, to cite Mike Lynch, is not an “academic virtue and a source of privileged knowledge” (Lynch 2000), but a practical and intransigent part of each and every human practice. Let’s return to Wallace for instruction on this matter; he writes: “Author here. […] David Wallace, age 40, SS No. 947-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deducible home office […] to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true” … and he means it. His comment is not a clever, ironic move toward self-positioning in the text and he is also not simply playing with fiction-truth in a fiction about truth. Wallace’s excerpt above is an exercise in what Latour (1988) called “infra-reflexivity”. As Latour long-ago instructed, Wallace found a way to let the book show marks of its own production; he offered the lived world and wrote it. Whether or not each detail in the story is true, in a scientific sense, simply does not matter. Whether or not the David Wallace in that passage is the David Foster Wallace that wrote The Pale King, simply does not matter. What does matter is that Wallace found a way to communicate to us how it is possible that anyone is able to provide such a clear and detailed account on the dullness and boredom that he experienced and which subsequently tries to capture for the reader. Though it is fiction, some of it must be true. No doubt, the account in the book is pretend – of that there can be no debate – however, there must have been years of research that went into the book, and, in principle, not all of can be made up – of that we are certain – it is totally implausible, if not impossible, that this fiction is fiction. We remember the secret pleasure we felt when not only browsing, but seriously digging through the masses and masses of footnoted footnotes that already made “Infinite Jest” so remarkable. We remember the James O. Incandenza filmography in footnote 24 and how it created the same kind of joy: the joy of reading not a good piece or fiction, but great piece of (ok, made up) research. We learn so many different things, we are even forced to remember so many details about sponsored years, tennis, special effects and films, spies and substance abuse. And what strikes us most is the fact that we enjoy it. We are not threatened away by rich descriptions, lists, cross-references and footnotes. We embrace them.

What Wallace offers us is an exceptionally rare and, thus, profoundly valuable example of infra-reflexivity. To appreciate infra-reflexivity, one must acknowledge the ‘sterile distraction’ (Booth 2000, 1) and ‘suicidal’ move (Adkins 2002, 337; Latour 1988, 169) that is meta-reflexivity, which is best defined as:

[a]n exercise in introspection [which] is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connection between analysis … and the objects [under analysis] … Far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort (Woolgar 1988, 22).

Self-referential looping and claims for methodological superiority, these forms of lame meta-reflexivity are not what Wallace has to teach us. In contrast, if, as Latour (1988, 170) writes:

meta-reflexivity is marked by an inflation of methods, infra-reflexivity is characterized by their deflation. Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

In this context, reflexivity refers to “any text that takes into account its own production,” but it is utterly unremarkable to be reflexive, and, on this point, Latour (1988, 168) and Lynch (2000, 34) appear to find common ground. What we don’t need is more self-referential looping in our texts; instead, we need texts that self-exemplifying. Thus, in true infra-reflexive form, we have learned that no number of additions, subtractions, self-referential looping, or any other reflexive gymnastics will make a paper more, less, definitively, or woefully reflexive. However, we did detect a wrinkle in Latour’s insistence that accounts be self-exemplary. As we read Wallace, the reflexivity comes through his prose without being the target of his prose or an explicit part of his narrative strategy; he is reflexive without telling us that he was being reflexive. He doesn’t wink. He being clever but does not insist on being clever. The openness of his reflexivity, which we consider self-exemplifying, is up to the reader. And we think Wallace might very well agree with Latour on this final point. Latour (1988, 171) writes, “my own text is in your hands and lives or dies through what you will do with it,” a comment he makes, without irony, in his writing about his writing. So, what might Wallace teach us that Garfinkel didn’t (or couldn’t)? We guess Wallace wouldn’t teach us anything; he’s shown us, and he did. He showed us what Latour (1988, 170) dared we should aspire to:

Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

The only difference between Latour and Wallace is that Wallace did it, and so should we when writing-up our qualitative results.


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Ethnography and Speculative Fiction


Clare Anzoleaga

Clare Anzoleaga

Editor’s Note: In this third post in our “Ethnography and Speculative Fiction” series, Clare Anzoleaga (@ClareAnzoleaga) from Fresno City College and Porterville College discusses the potential of fictional accounts of ethnographic work. In doing so, she complements the piece by Anne Galloway and the article by Laura Forlano: this time it’s less about design or design fictions and more about writing. More specifically, she highlights the rhetorical possibilities of such approach for understanding knowledge and shared meaning.

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In 1991 famous ethnographer, Dwight Conquergood, published a piece titled, “Rethinking Ethnography.” One important point from this piece deals with the ethnographer’s challenge to appropriately convey the experience of the “Being There” of fieldwork with the rhetorical final product of the “Being Here.” It begs the question: What rhetorical/communicative strategies should we use to adequately tell the story of a culture? This came into play a bit further for me the other night when I had a dinner party for some colleagues. One of the topics we playfully debated had to do with whether ethnography should reside in the field of Communication theory or not (to me, this is a no-brainer). Ethnography is Communication because whether the researcher is in the field talking to people or at their laptop storifying analysis, one of its intents is to elicit a communicative and performative response. Ethnography sends a message through the form of a story either through text, performance, images or all of the above. This got me thinking, however, about this article on speculative fiction and ethnography that I was writing for ethnographymatters.net. While many speculative fiction writers have been incorporating the practice of ethnography into their work, few Communication scholars incorporate speculative fiction into their ethnography. Thus I began to wonder about Conquergood and his discussion on the rhetorical possibilities of ethnography and the differences between a researcher who writes ethnographic, peer-reviewed journal articles who uses speculative fiction, and a writer who uses ethnography as a way to write in the genre of speculative fiction. In this essay, I direct my focus of inquiry at some of the benefits and challenges of the ethnographer in the field of Communication who uses speculative fiction in their research. While my focus is oriented in the field of Communication, I acknowledge these concepts are also applicable to the broader work of any social researcher.

I should start with making two distinctions here first. On one hand, there is the question of where and how ethnography, which weaves in speculative fiction scenarios as part of the ethnographic analysis, is being produced in such scholarly fields as Communication. I ran a quick keyword search of “ethnography” and “speculative fiction,” at “Communication & Mass Media Complete” and found no journal article or book results on this matter. This means there are few ethnographers in the Communication field who are currently producing peer-reviewed journal articles who use speculative fiction in their storified analysis (but I hope they start soon, ahem!).

Read More… Ethnography and Speculative Fiction

Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?


Laura

Laura Forlano

Editor’s Note: Laura Forlano (@laura4lano) is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012-2013. Her research is on emergent forms of organizing and urbanism enabled by mobile, wireless and ubiquitous computing technologies with an emphasis on the socio-technical practices and spaces of innovation. In her contribution, Laura describes the lessons ethnographers can learn from Science-Fiction and a sub-domain of design referred to as “speculative design”.

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In the recent science fiction film Elysium, by South-African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp and Matt Damon, the world has descended into a dystopia in which the poor, non-white population must live in squalor on Earth working for a factory that makes robots while the wealthy have moved to a man-made country club in the sky. A recent segregation-mapping project profiled in WIRED illustrates that extreme geographic divisions between rich and poor are not reserved for Hollywood but are actually part and parcel of our current social realties (Vanhemert, 2013). Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. For example, for over a decade, the film Minority Report has inspired technologists and designers alike as a classic, deterministic vision of a future in which gestural interfaces and biometric technologies are commonplace.

Ethnography as Time Travel

Ten years ago – about one year after I had acquired my very first mobile phone, a silver Samsung clamshell style with a distinctly awful ringtone – I remember standing in a cramped elevator compartment at the Central European University in Budapest with a number of senior colleagues when I announced that I had decided to focus my doctoral research on the wireless Internet. One colleague snorted and laughed, stating, “You can’t study something that doesn’t exist.”

Yet, as ethnographers and designers of emerging technology, this is exactly what we must find ways to do. And, in 2002, I set out to explore the many ways in which it is, in fact, quite possible to study the future. In my case, it did not matter that, in reality, Bryant Park, a park near Times Square in mid-town Manhattan, had had a fully functioning free, public wireless network since 2001. The important thing was that, in the public imagination, even among telecom experts, the technology was not yet part of everyday life.

Read More… Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?

Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design


Galloway

Anne Galloway

Editor’s Note: Anne Galloway (@annegalloway) is Senior Lecturer at the School of Design (Victoria University of Wellington,) and Principal Investigator at Design Culture Lab. Coming from a background in anthropology and STS, Anne’s work focusses on relations between humans and nonhumans, and the development of creative research methods for understanding issues and controversies around science, technology and animals. In this first post of this month’s edition about Ethnography and Fiction, she gives her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction. More specifically, she describes various authors who inspired her work as well the relationship between ethnography and design.

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For the past five years I’ve worked as a design ethnographer. I haven’t always called myself that—I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and a PhD in Sociology—but I’ve always studied what people make in, and of, the world. And although I don’t feel much disciplinary allegiance, it would be disingenuous to say my disciplinary background, and their methods in particular, haven’t been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Perhaps because of my multidisciplinary education, I tend to have a rather idiosyncratic view of what design ethnography means. First, I do not use ethnography as a means to privilege people, and my approach to design ethnography is different from that which underpins much human- or user-centred design. My ethnographic practice is strongly informed by science and technology studies, most notably in their recognition of nonhumans as agents in everyday life, and by “multispecies ethnography“, which explicitly involves doing research with nonhuman animals. More generally, I see both ethnography and design as practices that re-assemble the complex assemblages to which we are already attached. And although I also see the need for ethnographic studies that directly inform design practices and products, and respect the people who do this valuable work, I don’t enjoy playing a support role to ‘real’ designers. I much prefer to find new ways of doing both ethnography and design.

So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Read More… Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design