Tag Archives: *series post*

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


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Unlike other posts that start off text or images, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu opens up her third post in her guest series on digital ethnography with sound. She wants us to click PLAY before reading on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use sound in your fieldwork, you’ll still find this to be a useful exercise in opening your ethnographic ears.

After you click PLAY,  you’ll appreciate Wendy’s message: our fieldsites are rich with sound data that carries a lot of meaning. She closes her post with a great discussion theorizing digital ethnography as horizontal versus vertical immersion.

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[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/67710832″ params=”color=ff6600&auto_play=false&show_artwork=true” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Above is a field recording of mini pinball machines that I collected in the Lungtan township in Taiwan. In it, you can hear the sounds of the machines, scooters, and a conversation that I had with my father while we were trying to figure out how to play the pinball machines. This field recording is rich in texture and meaning.

I know that not all ethnographers work with sound. But I do think that it could be useful to reconsider the sonic (and by extension, the visual) dimensions of our work. I propose an engagement with the textures of human speech in its original sonic. This approach counters the traditional emphasis on text and its impulse to textualize sound in ethnography. This perhaps is most on conspicuous in the practice of transcribing interviews.

You all can probably recall moments of dealing with the complexity of meaning embedded in the tone or the delivery of oral content in interviews. There are sounds of the environment that the informant has chosen to carry out an interview or interact with. Do these sounds reveal anything about the speaker and her relationship to her physical and social environment? Are there other voices in the room? Incidental sounds? Does the tone of the speaker react to and interact with the sounds of the environment in anyway? Where are the points of dissonance and resonance?Read More… On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)

Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)


Culture close up Bomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Culture close-up by biomedical scientist, Nathan Reading on Flickr (CC BY)

Last month’s Wired magazine showed an infographic with a headline that read: ‘History’s most influential people, ranked by Wikipedia reach’ with a group of 20 men arranged in hierarchical order — from Jesus at number 1 to Stalin at number 20. Curious, I wondered how ‘influence’ and ‘Wikipedia reach’ was being decided. According to the article, ‘Rankings (were) based on parameters such as the number of language editions in which that person has a page, and the number of people known to speak those languages’. What really surprised me was not the particular arrangement of figures on this page but the conclusions that were being drawn from it.

According to the piece, César Hidalgo, head of the Media Lab’s Macro Connections group, who researched the data, made the following claims about the data gathered from Wikipedia:

a) “It shows you how the world perceives your own national culture.

b) “It’s a socio-cultural mirror.

c) “We use historical characters as proxies for culture.

And finally, perhaps most surprising is this final line in the story:

Using this quantitative approach, Hidalgo is now testing hypotheses such as whether cultural development is structured or random. “Can you have a Steve Jobs in a country that has not generated enough science or technology?” he wonders. “Ultimately we want to know how culture assembles itself.”

It is difficult to comment on the particular method used by this study because there is little more than the diagram and a few paragraphs of analysis, and the journalist may have misquoted him, but I wanted to draw attention to the statements being made because I think it represents the growing phenomenon of big data analysts using Wikipedia data to make assumptions about ‘culture’.Read More… Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)

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


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Can ethnographers use software programs? Last month’s guest contributor, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu, says YES! In Part 1 of On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography?, Wendy introduced her process of using computer programming software to collect quantitative data in her ethnographic research. She received a lot of great comments and suggestions from readers. 

Part 2 of of Wendy’s Digital Ethnography series focuses on the processing and interpreting part. In fascinating detail, Wendy discusses mapping as a mode of discovery. We learn how using a customized spatial “algorithm that balances point density and readability” can reveal patterns that inform the physical spread of musicians’ fans and friends globally. Geo-location data clarified her qualitative data. We are already in great anticipation for Part 3! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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The Hsu-nami's Myspace friend distribution in Asia

Figure 0: The Hsu-nami’s Myspace friend distribution in Asia

In my last post, I introduced the idea of using webscraping for the purpose of acquiring relevant ethnographic data. In this second post, I will concentrate on the next step of the ethnographic process: data processing and interpreting. Remember The Hsu-nami, the band that I talked in the last post? The image above is a screenshot of their Myspace friend distribution, a map that I created for analyzing the geography of their community. This post is about the value of creating such maps.Read More… On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

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


Editor’s Note: Global health research is not easy to coordinate. Publicly shared global health research is even more complex. That is why last month, Ethnography Matters was so excited to feature Erik Bigras‘s and Kim Fortun‘s innovative research methods for The Asthma Files, a project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where ethnographers gather and publicly share data about asthma. We believe their work signals to an important turn in policy oriented and public ethnography. 

In Erik’s and Kim’s first post, Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3),  they focused on why The Asthma Files is necessary and introduced some of the technical logistics for creating a crowd-sourced qualitative data health gathering project. 

In this month’s Ethnozine, Erik and Kim’s second post details the exciting process of choosing the best data sharing platform for their project, Plone. We learn about how the Tehran Asthma Files was born out of a close collaboration with the  Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. 

We look forward to their final post in this series that will discuss how other researchers from social scientists to epidemiologists and global health experts can participate in the research project and make use of the data. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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spacestehran

Choosing the Right Platform

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Our ethnographic experiments are made possible partly because of the choice of online platform that The Asthma Files uses. Choosing the right platform is anything but simple. Each platform has its own capabilities, and these don’t necessarily align with the goals of the project. For The Asthma Files, we’ve so far been through three different platforms. We eventually settled on Plone because it was the one most suited to our needs.

As we said in our previous post, one of the goals of The Asthma Files is to rethink the everyday work of ethnography. In order words, we’re trying to understand how digital environments can transform the everyday, mundane, things that ethnographers do. As such, one of our primary audiences is ourselves as ethnographers and researchers. For this purposes, we needed an online platform that would be more than a delivery mechanism. We needed something that would act as a fully developed workspace where we could share, store, and create material.Read More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)

Where does ethnography belong? Thoughts on WikiSym 2012


On the first day of WikiSym last week, as we started preparing for the open space track and the crowd was being petitioned for new sessions over lunch, I suddenly thought that it might be a good idea for researchers who used ethnographic methods to get together to talk about the challenges we were facing and the successes we were having. So I took the mic and asked how many people used ethnographic methods in their research. After a few raised their hands, I announced that lunch would be spent talking about ethnography for those who were interested. Almost a dozen people – many of whom are big data analysts – came to listen and talk at a small Greek restaurant in the center of Linz. I was impressed that so many quantitative researchers came to listen and try to understand how they might integrate ethnographic methods into their research. It made me excited about the potential of ethnographic research methods in this community, but by the end of the conference, I was worried about the assumptions on which much of the research on Wikipedia is based, and at what this means for the way that we understand Wikipedia in the world. 

WikiSym (Wiki Symposium) is the annual meeting of researchers, practitioners and wiki engineers to talk about everything to do with wikis and open collaboration. Founded by the father of the wiki, Ward Cunningham and others, the conference started off as a place where wiki engineers would gather to advance the field. Seven years later, WikiSym is dominated by big data quantitative analyses of English Wikipedia.

Some participants were worried about the movement away from engineering topics (like designing better wiki platforms), while others were worried about the fact that Wikipedia (and its platform, MediaWiki) dominates the proceedings, leaving other equally valuable sites like Wikia and platforms like TikiWiki under-studied.

So, in the spirit of the times, I drew up a few rough analyses of papers presented.

(Wikipedia and its platform, MediaWiki are but one of a host of other wiki communities and platforms which is why I’ve distinguished between Wikipedia and others.)

It would be interesting to look at this for other years to see whether the recent Big Data trend is having an impact on Wikipedia research and whether research related to Wikipedia (rather than other open collaboration communities) is on the rise. One thing I did notice was that the demo track was a lot larger this year than the previous two years. Hopefully that is a good sign for the future because it is here that research is put into practice through the design of alternative tools. A good example is Jodi Schneider’s research on Wikipedia deletions that she then used to conceptualize alternative interfaces  that would simplify the process and help to ensure that each article would be dealt with more fairly.

Talking about ethnography?

I am still intrigued by the fact that so many quantitative analysts wanted to know about ethnography during our open space session. We started the session with those who had done ethnographic work talking about their experiences: Stuart Geiger talked about his ethnographic work on Wikipedia bots, Isis Amelie Hjorth talked about her ethnographic enquiry into Wreckamovie, the collaborative movie outfit from Finland and Paško Bilić discussed how he studied breaking news stories on Wikipedia. Others wanted to know how you even begin to do ethnographic research on Wikipedia when editors are a) anonymous and b) located all around the world. One participant said, “I’m faced with 3 million edits (in my dataset) and I have to say something about them. How do I even begin?”Read More… Where does ethnography belong? Thoughts on WikiSym 2012

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Sam Ladner’s summer reading list mixes creativity with time, religion, & humor [guest contributor]


We welcome back Ethnography Matter’s first guest contributor, Sam Ladner! Instead of telling us why corporate ethnography can suck, Sam shares with us her summer reading. She discuses an experience that many of us are familiar with – how graduate school ruins the joy of reading. Much to her surprise, Sam tells us that she still loved theory post-grad school! 

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia

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Grad school has a way of ruining the pleasure of reading. You have stacks of books and articles, many of which you have no hope of ever finishing, much less enjoying. Since leaving grad school, I’ve reveled in the freedom to read whatever I want. Imagine my horror when I realized I continue to read academic books! Yes, when left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate to heady theory and dense research.

Below are a few of my crazy picks. Unlike when I was in grad school, however, I allow myself to read as much or as little as I choose.

1. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi blew my mind when I read his famous Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, so I was pretty interested to learn what he has to say about creativity. He interviewed dozens of eminent scientists, writers, artists and business leaders. I’m personally intrigued about their working processes, which is not at all what I expected.

This book will give you insight into your own ethnographic practice. I’ve already learned about the conditions under which I am more creative in doing my analysis and writing up my findings.

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Sam Ladner’s summer reading list mixes creativity with time, religion, & humor [guest contributor]

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Nicolas Nova takes us back to objects, public spaces, and lines….yes lines [guest contributor]


Credit: Matt Cottam

A few months ago we interviewed Nicolas Nova in A Retrospective of Talks by Ethnographers at Lift Conference. Now we finally  have Nicolas grace  us with a peek into his brain with his summer reading list.  A bit more about Nicolas from his bio: 

Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher at the Near Future Laboratory. He undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. Nicolas applies this in the domains of video games, mobile and location-based media as well as networked objects/robots. He also teaches user research in interaction design at HEAD-Geneva and ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL, Switzerland). He is also editorial consultant for the Lift Conference. In his free time, he collects video game controllers and peculiar interfaces dug up in flea markets here and there.

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia

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This summer I’m spending the months of July and August in California for a visiting researcher’s residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, working on a project about rituals and gestures of the digital everyday. Because of that topic, the books I’ve bought for the summer are quite influenced by this project. They’re not about methodologies, but more about case studies concerning design, material culture, ethnography and architecture. Each of them seems to be feeding our investigation here:


Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century (Alison J. Clarke Ed.)

An interesting anthology describing various case studies about how different designers benefit from observing people when making new things. What caught my attention here is the wide breadth of examples presented and the description of what happens beyond data collection. As a matter of fact, several books (and presentations) I’ve read recently address the data part but are less verbose about how to turn this into “something”. And I have to admit that I’m interested in that “something”, be it a commercial product, a design fiction or a good discussion with friends. Some essays are of course more relevant to me than others but it was overall a good compilation that also covers examples beyond commercial products sold next year.

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Nicolas Nova takes us back to objects, public spaces, and lines….yes lines [guest contributor]

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Christina Dennaoui brings us some science, emotion, & pain [guest contributor]


We have another first time contributor on Ethnography Matters! Christina Dennaoui was a graduate student of anthropology, media, and religion at the University of Chicago. After graduate school she started a new chapter as a digital planner and strategist for a digital marketing agency in Chicago. I met Christina through her amazing tumblr blog, Modern and Im/Material Things. Christina isn’t an ethnographer, but she’s a crazy smart social theorist working in industry, so we immediately bonded. Here’s some more about Christina from her bio: 

Off the clock, she is an artist, and producer of electronic music. She also volunteers on the Associate Board of Chicago’s largest LGBTQ resource center. She is currently working on a project, which she jokingly calls “post-colonial dubstep.” The project combines elements of critical theory with dance music. This project began with a transatlantic collaboration with Parisian musicians to “remix” Zizek’s Occupy Wall Street speech and is now expanding to include other contemporary philosophers. She’s not much for the Twitters but she tumbls and is fond of email.

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia

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In my ideal world, I would use the summer season as an opportunity to catch up on recently released works of fiction or non-fiction. This summer, however, has been the start of a somewhat ambitious project: actually reading all of the books on my bookshelf in their entirety. Crazy, right?  My goal is to take my time with each book, actually “sitting with” the author’s arguments rather than voraciously consuming theory like I did in graduate school. My graduate studies focused on religion, anthropology, and communication theory, which means that I have shelves full of work that relate to my professional work in digital strategy and planning. Although there is no grand theme uniting all of the books on my list, there are a few sub-themes worth calling out: archiving and identity, personal branding, quantifying individual interests, and the meaning of “strategy.”

The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s Economic Anthropology

Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay
(A
PDF of the book)

Though short in length, Latour and Lepinay’s introduction of Gabriel Tarde’s  Psychologie Economique is dense but remarkably clear. Situating Tarde’s work in a larger context of economic and political theory, Latour and Lepinay tease out some the aspects of Tarde’s work that provide useful conceptual frameworks for articulating the more esoteric aspects of economics as a field of study. One area that is of particular relevance to my work is Tarde’s interest in the qualitative measures of economies, such as conversations, tastes, ideas, etc. For Tarde, one of the shortcomings of his contemporaries was that their economic methods often focused on the study of wealth and production to exclusion of other available data. It wasn’t that one approach was better than the other but that a narrow focus creates methodological problems because it often results in the construction of the very structure it aims to study. It’s a simple enough argument, yes, but one that was lost in the wake of Marx’s work.

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Christina Dennaoui brings us some science, emotion, & pain [guest contributor]

The Ethnographer’s Summer Reading List: Elisa Oreglia brings us something old, something new, and something borrowed [guest contributor]


Elisa Oreglia (left) interviews local women in a village in China’s Hebei province.We finally have Elisa Oreglia join Ethnography Matters for a guest post! Elisa is a PhD candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Information. She studies the circulation and use of mobile phones and computers in China, especially in the countryside, and despite two summers spent helping out in the fields, she’s still a hopeless farmer. 

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia

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… something borrowed, something blue… no, I’m not talking about ethnographies of weddings, even though weddings, funerals, and all social rituals are a staple of anthropological writing. This is my guiding rhyme to choose summer readings, and make sure that they deviate from the usual goal-driven reading of the rest of the year.

Read More… The Ethnographer’s Summer Reading List: Elisa Oreglia brings us something old, something new, and something borrowed [guest contributor]

Beyond reliability: An ethnographic study of Wikipedia sources


Almost a year ago, I was hired by Ushahidi to work as an ethnographic researcher on a project to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during breaking news events. Ushahidi cares a great deal about this kind of work because of a new project called SwiftRiver that seeks to collect and enable the collaborative curation of streams of data from the real time web about a particular issue or event. If another Haiti earthquake happened, for example, would there be a way for us to filter out the irrelevant, the misinformation and build a stream of relevant, meaningful and accurate content about what was happening for those who needed it? And on Wikipedia’s side, could the same tools be used to help editors curate a stream of relevant sources as a team rather than individuals?

Original designs for voting a source up or down in order to determine “veracity”

When we first started thinking about the problem of filtering the web, we naturally thought of a ranking system which would rank sources according to their reliability or veracity. The algorithm would consider a variety of variables involved in determining accuracy as well as whether sources have been chosen, voted up or down by users in the past, and eventually be able to suggest sources according to the subject at hand. My job would be to determine what those variables are i.e. what were editors looking at when deciding whether to use a source or not?

I started the research by talking to as many people as possible. Originally I was expecting that I would be able to conduct 10-20 interviews as the focus of the research, finding out how those editors went about managing sources individually and collaboratively. The initial interviews enabled me to hone my interview guide. One of my key informants urged me to ask questions about sources not cited as well as those cited, leading me to one of the key findings of the report (that the citation is often not the actual source of information and is often provided in order to appease editors who may complain about sources located outside the accepted Western media sphere). But I soon realized that the editors with whom I spoke came from such a wide variety of experience, work areas and subjects that I needed to restrict my focus to a particular article in order to get a comprehensive picture of how editors were working. I chose the 2011 Egyptian revolution article because I wanted a globally relevant breaking news event that would have editors from different parts of the world working together on an issue with local expertise located in a language other than English.

Read More… Beyond reliability: An ethnographic study of Wikipedia sources