Tag Archives: methods

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

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

November 2013: Being a student ethnographer


THeather Ford his month’s theme is about what it means to be a student ethnographer and is edited by Ethnomatters co-founder, Heather Ford (@hfordsa), a current DPhil (PhD) student who believes that she will forever be a student of ethnography.

I remember the first time I adopted an ethnographic persona – very tentatively and with a great deal of trepidation. I’d applied for a job as an ethnographer with Ushahidi after graduating from my Masters degree and was miraculously accepted – miraculous because most ethnographer jobs require at least a PhD, not to mention loads of ethnographic experience. The stars were aligned… or were they?

This was the first time that Ushahidi had hired an ethnographer; it was the first time that the funding body that would help to pay my salary had invested in ethnographic research; it was my first ethnography job and my first ethnographic project. Firsts for everyone are really exciting, and I was lucky to be working for an organisation that supported me despite my lack of ethnographic experience. But ethnography doesn’t accord with the usual tenor of development projects and we faced a number of challenges that, looking back on it now, were bound to happen; challenges that, in the end, had really good results but meant that things weren’t exactly plain sailing en route.

In my first few months at the job, I heard things like: ‘You really need to have a PhD to say you’re an ethnographer’ or: ‘Only anthropologists can claim to do real ethnography’. This was all very interesting but I’d just received a job as an ethnographer and I couldn’t exactly ask for them to take it back. So I did what I always do when faced with a crisis: I gathered a bunch of much more experienced and knowledgeable people together to help me discover what exactly it meant to be an ethnographer. I knew that there were many of us who were asking similar questions and that the “ethnography + digital/networked/technology” space was burgeoning in many quarters.Read More… November 2013: Being a student ethnographer

Objects of Journalism: Bar Rags and the AIDS Virus


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Editors’ note: Joe Cutbirth (@joecutbirth) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, New York. He writes about politics and the media for the Huffington Post and at his home blog, joecutbirth.com, a blog by a Texas expat adjusting to life as a New Yorker. In this interview for this month’s ‘Ethnographies of Objects’ edition, Joe talks about his fascinating work investigating a particular object of journalism produced in his home state of Texas in the 1980s: the “bar rag”. Here, he talks about the journalism, the AIDS virus and what it means to live through a time in which he now is a scholar. 


EM: How can a deadly virus and a free entertainment guide become objects of journalism?

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‘This Week in Texas’ cover image. March 17-23, 1979

One of the key lessons in modern media history is that journalism exists in a host of forms and delivery systems that are created and shaped by social, political, economic, and technological forces. Journalism is a term for both a set of social practices and the commodities those practices produce. Neither is static. Journalistic practices and products vary in different times and in different places and when done by different people for different audiences. They are fluid forms of inquiry that produce a fluid set of products that reflect factual events of public interest. Journalism is shaped and supported by objects. Some are innately journalistic; others are not.

Journalistic objects include cameras, tape recorders and other technologies that make it easier for journalists to practice their craft. They also include public records, news releases and other documents that assist in the inquiry that is the heart journalistic practice. So, what about nonjournalistic objects, items that aren’t created to help journalistic practice or to function as a journalistic product?

Nonjournalistic objects, such as the AIDS virus and free entertainment guides known as “bar rags,” are easy to overlook because they exist outside the routines that make up the everyday world of journalism. Yet, that very condition makes them essential to explore. A scholarly examination of the circumstances and processes that bring nonjournalistic objects into the world of journalism opens an important window into both journalistic practice and product.Read More… Objects of Journalism: Bar Rags and the AIDS Virus

About a bot: Materiality, multiplicity, and memory in the study of software agents


Stuart Geiger (@steaiou)

Stuart Geiger

Editors’ note: The next post for our Ethnographies of Objects edition is by one of the people who inspired it when he talked about an ‘ethnography of robots’ for EM last year. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou) is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and long time Wikipedia editor who has been studying Wikipedia bots for many years and who has brought us really great insights: not only into how Wikipedia works but also on new ways of thinking about how to do ethnography of largely-online communities. In this thoughtful post, Stuart talks about how his ideas about bots have changed over the years, and about which of the images below is the “real” bot.     

A few weeks ago, Heather Ford wrote to me and told me about this special edition of Ethnography Matters, focusing on the ethnography of objects.  She asked me if there was something I’d like to write about bots, which I’ve been struggling to ethnographically study for some time.  As I said in an interview I did with EM last year, I want to figure out how to ethnographically study these automated software agents themselves, not just the people who build them or have to deal with them.  Among all the topics that are involved in the ethnography of objects, Heather briefly mentioned that she was asking all the authors to provide a picture of their given object, whatever weird form that may take for bots.

At first, I started to think about the more standard epistemological questions I’d been wrestling with:  What is the relationship between the ethnographer and the ethnographic subject when that subject isn’t a human, but an autonomous software program?  What does it mean to relate an emic account of a such a being, and what does ethnographic fieldwork look like in such an endeavor?  How do classic concepts like agency, materiality, and the fieldsite play out when investigating what is often seen as more of an object than a subject?  What do we even mean when we say ‘object’, and what are we using this term to exclude?  I could take any one of these topics and write far too much about them, I thought.

As always, after jotting down some notes, my mind started to wander as I entered procrastination mode. I shelved the more ‘theoretical’ questions and moved to what I thought was the easier part of Heather’s request: to provide a photo of a bot.  I thought that finding an image would be a fun diversion, and I had so many great cases to choose from.  There were humorous bots, horrifying bots, and hidden bots.  There were bots who performed controversial tasks, and bots whose work was more mundane.  There were bots I loved and bots I hated, bots that were new and bots that were old.  There were bots I knew backwards and forwards, and bots who were still a mystery to me.  I just had to find an image that I felt best encapsulated what it meant to be a bot, and then write about it.  However, I didn’t realize that this simple task would prove to be far more difficult than I anticipated — and working out how to use imagery rather than text to talk about bots has helped me come to articulate many of the more complicated issues at work in my ethnography, particularly those around materiality, multiplicity, and memory.

Read More… About a bot: Materiality, multiplicity, and memory in the study of software agents

An object of journalism: the hyperlink


Juliette de Meyer

Juliette de Meyer

Editors’ note: Juliette de Maeyer (@juliettedm) kicks off this month’s edition focusing on Ethnographies of Objects with a response to two questions posed to her: ‘Why is the hyperlink an interesting object of journalism?’ And ‘What’s the best way to approach this object methodologically?’ Her work on hyperlinks is a fascinating exploration of materiality, stubbornness and methods for trailing the object. 


An object of journalism?

First things first: why do I even claim it is an “object”? A link is not exactly a thing that can be touched… However, a link has a material existence in the digital realm, with a beginning and an end — it is clearly defined by chunks of code, the <a> and </a> HTML tags that border it. We can define what’s a link, what’s not a link and, even, what’s almost a link: the six news sites I have extensively studied for my dissertation all contain what I call « plain text links », that is a URL effectively written in the text of the news story, but which is not a link. The idea of indicating another place on the web is there, it’s a reference to another web page or site, but it’s unclickable.

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The 3D hand cursor that appears over a hyperlink. Image by StockMonkeys on Flickr CC BY

The material boundaries that define the object itself suddenly become blurry, and that’s exactly where it becomes interesting. Why did the journalists produce almost-links or anti-links? Same goes for the apparently very simple distinction between internal and external links: internal links lead to pages in the same site, the same domain, defined by its URL, whereas external links point to other sites. Alright, but what about links that lead to other sites belonging to the same owner? News site A is the online counterpart of a tabloid, and sometimes links to articles published by news site B, the online counterpart of the quality paper — all are owned by the same company, and due to convergence efforts, news sites A and B are produced in the same newsroom. Formally, that’s still an external link. The material boundaries again become interesting when they are challenged.

A link also has an unambiguous existence for the actors involved in online news making. Ask a journalist, a blogger or an editor: they know what a link is. They can recognize one, they know when they produce one. This may seem a very mundane quality, but many things that we claim to study academically don’t have such an obvious existence. Try to ask journalists about their Bourdieuan habitus… Of course, this is not to say that the Bourdieuan habitus is an invalid concept. There might even be a portion of habitus involved in the ways journalists deal with links. It’s simply a question of vantage point: studying objects—things that exist—is a bottom-up approach that allows to iteratively discover concepts, theories and issues. It’s an empirically-driven, inductive perspective: instead of saying “Hey! The issue of sourcing is an important concept in news, let’s see how journalists use links to show their sources”, the logic sound more like this: “So there’s this thing that seems quite unique to online news, it’s called a hyperlink: let’s see why journalists use it… They use it to show their sources, but also for many other reasons!”.

Approaching the study of the hyperlink methodologically

A link. Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2261628/Britney-Spears-close-signing-lucrative-deal-perform-Las-Vegas-ending-relationship-Jason-Trawich.html

A link

Studying a single object of journalism has a great advantage: because it is so focused, it allows the use of mixed methods. It’s a very pragmatic argument, verging on stubbornness: I’m studying the link, and just that. Sure, other online news features are fascinating, but I don’t want to know anything about the latest multimedia fad or the craze of users’ comments. This is why I can cope with doing a big data content analysis, a historical discourse analysis, and some ethnographically-inspired newsroom observations — and graduate in due time (hopefully). All these methods are extremely time-consuming: being highly selective about what I was actually going to look at was a matter of survival.

And it produced interesting results. Let’s consider, for example, the ancient debate of how outdated CMS weigh on bad or non-existent linking practices. I’ve conducted ethnographically-inspired work in two newsrooms. CMS-wise, one of the newsroom was a classic case of print-centric tools forced upon web people: journalists in charge of online news had to use the same tools as print folks. Visually, it meant that they had to write their stories in an interface that looks like a printed page, with columns and stuff. No HTML allowed, of course. Hence, no links — or more particularly, no inline links: side-column links are another story. If they wanted to add inline links in their stories, they had to circumvent the automatic workflow and log in into another system. Everything was incredibly ugly and counter-intuitive. It involved many clicks and did not exactly fit well with the pressure to publish fast. When asked about their linking practices, journalists in that newsroom complained that there were many technical barriers. They claimed that they did not produce a lot of links, because of the print-centric tools they had to use.

In the other newsroom I’ve visited, journalists worked with a spanking new CMS, a blog-like interface where everything could be dragged and dropped effortlessly. The possibility to add inline links was smoothly integrated and it could be done at any stage of the process. Journalists claimed they added links “whenever it is necessary”.

Guess which site produced more inline links? The first one, with the print-centric CMS and many alleged “technical barriers” to linking. This surprising result was only visible when looking at aggregated data over a long period of time, it wasn’t obvious when looking at a handful of articles because both sites produced rather few inline links (around 10% of articles contained at least one inline link in the second site, whereas the proportion was a bit more than 20% for the first newsroom). This is exactly why it was important to complement newsroom observation with a large-scale content analysis. Or to complement the content analysis with newsroom observation, if you prefer. Looking at a specific object allowed me to do just that: multiply the vantage points while keeping my research feasible with the time and resources I had. Nothing new, really, just good old triangulation with a pragmatic twist.

All in all, the “object” is a very useful lens. It allows a research stance focused on what’s material, but does not limit it to the study of artifacts. Discourses, representations and meaning all play an important role in my research — as much as large-scale content analysis and ethnographic inquiries. Focusing on the “object” is the only way I know of keeping it all together.

Featured image by JanneM on Flickr CC BY NC SA

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects


This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?

"Hardware"

Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’.Read More… August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal


Steve Headshot B (Small)

All rights reserved

Editor’s Note: This post for May’s Special Edition on ‘Talking to Companies about ethnography’ comes from Steve Portigal who has a new book out this month titled Interviewing Users. As someone who’s been in the trenches for decades now running his own successful consultancy, Steve has done a great deal of both ‘interviewing users’ and ‘talking to companies about ethnography.’ Below we take the opportunity to interview him! We at Ethnography Matters are also big fans of the ‘War Stories‘ series on his blog where interviewers report on the unexpected things that happen to them in the field.

Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. Over the course of his career, he has interviewed hundreds of people, including families eating breakfast, hotel maintenance staff, architects, rock musicians, home-automation enthusiasts, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of mobile devices, medical information systems, music gear, wine packaging, financial services, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. He blogs at portigal.com/blog and tweets at @steveportigal.

This interview is available en Español – Habitantes Experiencia Diseño Innovación

interviewing-users

Image courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

Ethnography Matters: First all Steve, congrats! We are so excited to have a copy of your book. Before diving into the specific questions, we want to know what motivated you to write this book?

Steve Portigal: Thanks! I’ve wanted to write a book from the time I was a little kid. I didn’t imagine it would be non-fiction, though! A lot of folks in the user experience and design worlds were feeling the need for a good book about this and my name came up as the author they’d want to see something from. I had been talking with Rosenfeld Media for a while about writing something, but it seemed like a daunting commitment. But when your peers are asking for it, it’s pretty compelling!

EM: So which part of the book was the most fun to write? Which part was the hardest?

SP: There were creative and intellectual challenges and rewards all the way along. A lot of the writing process was taking topics I had been speaking about for years and crafting the kind of text that is appropriate for a practitioner book. It was fun to revisit familiar points and find a better way to convey them. And then once in a while I’d hit on something that I maybe would typically gloss over in a presentation and realize I’d better dig a little deeper into myself and find away to explain something. The details of some of those moments are lost to memory, but the part of the process where I was discovering something by articulating it was pretty wonderful.

Read More… Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights


Editor’s Note: This post for the February ‘Openness Edition‘ comes from Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina who discuss their project to facilitate personal storytelling by homeless youth from Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The team from the Media Design Practices/ Field Track program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California had so much success with the timeline structure that they’re packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. and releasing it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field. This kind of repurposing of ethnographic tools is exactly the kind of sharing that we get excited about at EM and we encourage others to share their own tools and work processes in similar ways.

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Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Ethnography has a lot to offer design, as evidenced by the growing field of design and design-related research informed by the methods and practices of anthropology.  Within this emerging interdisciplinary space, the design community and the anthropological community now have an opportunity to ask the question – “If anthropology has offered so much for design – what can design offer anthropology?”

We explored this question as part of our work with Jovenes, Inc., a center for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for youth to tell their personal stories and experiences. These stories would assist the organization in learning more about its constituency and support applications for additional funding to improve its programming and services. We worked in the vein of Participatory Action Research, by Alice McIntyre, taking a collaborative approach to the design and storytelling process, ensuring that both the youths’ untapped creative abilities and our expertise and research were consistently utilized throughout the experience.Read More… Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap


Editor’s note: In this guest post, James Robson discusses how he used Google docs as a platform to conduct a series of life history interviews with Religious Education subject teachers in which he would ask interviewees to write about their lives in response to a few questions and then build on their responses with requests for clarification over the period of about 2 months. James writes that this format benefited from what is often seen as a weakness of email interviews  (the ability of interviewees to tap into the stories that people told about themselves) and enabled him to build sufficient trust among interviews to request face to face meetings, where he was able to use the narrative documents that they had produced as a stimulus for further questions. 

James Robson is a DPhil student at the Department of Education at Oxford University who is interested in ICT and religious education. He is currently focused on the contribution ICT can make to secondary school Religious Education (RE) teachers’ aspirations for their subject and how RE teachers perceive ICT as an aid to forging subject meaning.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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There are a few issues that always seem to come up again and again in the context of digital ethnography, but one of the most prominent is the issue of how to study phenomena or groups that exist across online and offline contexts.  An increasing number of studies take such a focus, often using various forms of multi-sited ethnography as suggested by Marcus.  However, such an approach can involve issues of disconnection between sites when the ethnographer moves between online and offline contexts and disconnected data gathering methods.  This problem is exemplified by a common research design, much criticized by Boellstorff in his chapter in Horst and Miller’s recent book, Digital Anthropology (2012), where researchers conduct interviews in isolation, paired with analysis of text from online communities.  This raises ontological and epistemological concerns relating to the extent to which culture can be consciously known by those within it and risks becoming a disconnected light analysis of more expansive issues.

This was a major concern (although there were many more) that I grappled with when starting my doctorate – investigating teachers’ use of online social spaces, focusing particularly on how online engagement with peers influences the construction of their professional identities.  Now that I’ve finished my fieldwork, am writing up, and am (hopefully) in my final year, I want to share here how I came up with a solution to the online-offline issue since it worked pretty well for me. Hopefully it might be useful for somebody else.

From the beginning it was clear to me that my field constituted multiple sites, both online and offline since secondary school teacher identity, even if partially constructed through interaction online, is still rooted and negotiated in other spaces – most obviously schools, but also conferences and continuing professional development (CPD) activities (e.g. training afternoons).  Therefore, I knew that I needed a way of bringing the online and offline together in a meaningful and holistic way (without failing to note the inherent differences between them).  My research design was essentially based around participant observations in three main online social spaces and several offline settings (mainly conferences and schools) and life history interviews.  Therefore, in the first instance, in order to ensure my observations were properly linked with my interviews, I recruited interviewees online through my own participation in the relevant online sites.

I then developed a slightly modified method of life history interviewing which would take place in both online and offline ethnographic contexts and would enhance certain aspects of each.  Building on the life history approach where the interviewer is viewed as a co-constructor of the participants’ narratives, I set up an online collaborative document, in this case a Google Doc, for each participant.  In it were some basic questions eliciting their life story in relation their use of the online social spaces I was studying, but also going further into their stories of how they became teachers, descriptions of their schools and examples of how their online interaction fits into their daily lives.  Then as part of an ongoing iterative process, lasting around two months, I placed questions inside the text and highlighted sections that required more information or clarification.  As time went on, these documents grew and grew into lengthy co-constructed narratives that were incredibly detailed and rich.Read More… Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap