Tag Archives: *series post*

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Carla Borsoi’s Summer Reading [guest contributor]


Carla Borsoi is a new contributor to Ethnography Matters. This month, she’s sharing her summer reading list in the Ethnographer’s Reading List series. One of my favorite books about the history of the internet is on her list, Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.  I’ve always been interested in Carla’s work because her work with industry has always been tied to producing insights with qualitative research.  After spending five years at Ask.com, she is currently the VP of Consumer Insights at AOL where she gets to drive product and marketing strategy for mail and mobile products by drawing on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, digging into web analytics, measuring marketing effectiveness, and monitoring social media. We’ll have to interview Carla in depth in soon about how she uses qualitative research at AOL. You can find more about Carla on her website or if you have questions for Carla, send her a tweet!  

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

______________________________________________________________________

I love summer. I love reading. I maintain an ongoing reading list on GoodReads, which means that there is never a lack of content to consume. Next year, my eldest will be attending high school. We got her summer reading list and I was surprised to see some books that have been languishing on my to-read list. Then, as Ethnography Matters has put together other people’s summer reading lists, it was inspiration to smash these all together and create a list of must-reads by August.

While books directly related to research and methodology can be interesting, what’s more compelling is what comes after the data collection. How do you tell a story with data? How do you suck people in and get them to internalize what has been learned? What can we predict for the future? To that end, this list is comprised of books that cover this topic in various guises.

1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

This is actually a re-read, but is hands down the best book on using storytelling that I’ve read. It’s nice to revisit and take the lessons back in, reinforcing them.


2. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

This is about taking a bunch of studies related to happiness, filtering it through a personal lens and then weaving a story around it. I’m also interested in understanding how people manage their time and achieve goals.

3. You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

More of a manifesto. How does one weave together history with a vision of the future? Many folks have told me that they disagreed with some of ideas put forth in this book, but at the least we know Mr. Lanier can be provocative.

4. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture Edited by Kenneth Haltman & Jules David Prown

This book is a compilation of essays covering America’s connection to products and what that has to say about American culture. I can’t wait to read about chapters about corsets, lava lamps and the telephone.

5. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner

A history and a book which looks to the past to get ideas of the future. How can one weave together a cohesive explanation of how a culture arose based on various influences?

I just finished one of these, and will be looking forward to digging into the rest of these over the coming weeks.  At the end of the summer, I’ll report back and let you know what you think the value of each of these and how I might apply these to my work.

Ethnographer’s Reading List: Jay Owens’s Summer Reading [guest contributor]


A first time contributor to Ethnography Matters, Jay Owens shares her summer reading list with us in the Ethnographer’s Book List series. I became familiar with Jay through liking and reblogging many of her tumblr posts. I eventually wandered over to Jay’s website that had the byline: tech + culture: patterns, trends, lines of flight.  I soon found out that Jay is a social media research at FACE, a research and innovation agency in London. And like many of us who find our way to projects and friends online, Jay got her job through Twitter (@hautepop). Jay tells me that she wants to write an ethnography of teenage Tumblr. (We hope you start that project soon!) Previously Jay studied social anthropology at the LSE. You can learn more about Jay’s research on her twitter, tumblr, or her website

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

_________________________

As a commercial researcher I look somewhat enviously at the rhythms of the academic year, when the summer can be a time away from reading lists or teaching schedules allowing for – hopefully – some wider reading and exploration. Nonetheless, working at the intersection of qual & quant research, social media technology and online behaviour means there’s a lot of areas I need to read up on this summer – below is only a fraction of my to-read list.

Research methods are a crucial area: with little in the way of established methods in my field, rigorous thinking about data, analysis and epistemology is essential for producing robust results. Theoretically, too, working on contemporary Western society means I want to add ideas from media studies, geography and economics to the anthropological grounding I gained at university. Finally ethnography, bringing it all together and asserting the primacy of people’s lived experiences.

Methods

Recommendations here would be particularly welcome if you believe there are better books I should attend to in these areas first. But so far, these are the key three:

1. John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004)

This book proved essential during my Masters thesis on the cultural meaning of dust (!), offering a much-needed way to think about something really fundamentally messy and impossible to fix within any theoretical paradigm I examined.  Now, I’m really curious what its core arguments about indeterminacy and othering look like when read through my current lens of social media data. What’s more, Law’s argument that “methods don’t just describe social realities but are also involved in creating them” is a massive and necessary provocation for anyone working in this field. The work we do with for example public Twitter API data – performing analyses essentially inaccessible to the people creating the information – clearly, politically, this raises questions Law should help me to better address.

Donald Norman’s Living With Complexity may make a useful adjunct to pursue the complexity theme through to empirical implementations in user experience design.

2. Sarah Boslow & Paul Andrew Waters, Statistics in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference (O’Reilly Media, 2008)

Call it the digital humanities or the ‘quantitative turn’ in social sciences research – knowing what to do with quantitative data is becoming essential for cultural and communications research. The social media data I analyse includes hundreds of different distributions, be they frequency of tweeting, number of people followed, or reblogs per photo – and I want to get a better grasp of how to model and analyse them. This book has two particularly attractive features: Chapter 6 on critiquing statistics and understanding common pitfalls, and an orientation towards uses and applications rather than mathematical proofs.

3. Mark Newman, Networks: An Introduction (OUP, 2010)

Continuing in a quantitative vein, I also hope to make time for this comprehensive introduction to network theory and computational methods. Working in commercial research gives me the luxury of not having to run all the analysis myself – we work with a developer team – but nonetheless the more technical knowledge I gain, the more interesting questions I can ask. This book appeals for its breadth, bringing together network studies from biology, computing and physics as well as the social sciences.  In this way I hope it’ll offer more than a typical social sciences guide to social network analysis (e.g. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology by Christina Prell, 2011) which seems a bit small-scale to speak to the million-message datasets we use in social media research.

Theory

4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Electronic communication is the very matter I research and yet I’ve never read McLuhan properly. Looking back to a classic from 1964 will hopefully cut through the distractions of much writing on contemporary social media  – all the books from 2011 claiming Google+ as the future, or those from 2007 heralding the era of MySpace – and demand some serious thinking about how the now fits into thousands of years of technology and information. (Failing that it’ll provide a lucrative source of quotations for Powerpoint presentations…)

5. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (Verso, 2012)

In attempting to keep thinking about things post-university (I’m 26), as much as I’ve done so it’s been through two channels: Twitter and an urban politics reading group. The city provides a valuably approachable terrain for thinking about how power and systems interoperate – a way of fixing abstractions of capital or modernity into something familiar and tangible. As the recession double-dips and the financial crisis lurches on, Harvey’s book will – I hope – offer a way of thinking from a Marxist perspective that will feel practical, reasonable and actionable.

6. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011)

Little needs to be said here other than a shame-faced confession that I’ve still not read it.

Ethnography

7. Suzanne Hall, City, Street and Citizen: The Measure of the Ordinary (Routledge, 2012)

A shame this has been published at university-library-only prices (£80!) – as an ethnography of south London’s Walworth Road, City, Street and Citizen could surely be of interest to many. Multiculturalism has become hugely devalued in British political discourse and yet it’s undeniably a lived reality in the capital. I’m fascinated to read Hall’s account of the micro-politics of relationship and difference, performance and exchange among small shopkeepers on this Southwark street – I think it’ll be a real case of making an area I know quite well both familiar and strange, as the best ethnographies should.

Suggesting comparison is Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Matthews (University of Chicago Press, 2011)  – an account of the most globalised building on earth.

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


Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

As promised here is the final installment of my short series about ‘big data.’ I started out by declaring myself a ‘small data’ person. My intention was to be a bit provocative by suggesting that forgoing or limiting data collection might sometimes be a legitimate or even laudable choice. That contrast was perhaps overdrawn. It seemed to suggest that ‘big data’ and ethnographic approaches were at the opposing ends of some continuum. ‘How much’ is not necessarily a very interesting or relevant question for an ethnographer, but who among us hasn’t done some counting and declared some quantity (1000s of pages of notes, hundreds of days in the field, hours of audio or video recordings) that is meant to impress, to indicate thoroughness, depth, effort, and seriousness?

So the game of numbers is one we all probably play from time to time.

Now to answer my few remaining questions:

1) How might big data be part of projects that are primarily ethnographic in approach?

My first exposure to ‘big data’ came from a student who managed to gain access to a truly massive collection of CDR (call detail record) data from a phone network in Rwanda. Josh Blumenstock was able to combine CDR data with results from a survey he designed and carried out with a research team in Rwanda to gain insights into the demographics of phone owners, within country migration patterns, and reciprocity and risk management. I was terribly excited by the possibilities of what could be found in that kind of data since I had been examining mobile phone ownership and gifting in nearby Uganda. I wondered how larger patterns in the data might reflect (or raise questions) about what I was coming to see at the micro-level about phone ownership and sharing, especially its gendered dimensions. Indeed Josh’s work showed a strong gender skew in ownership with far more men than women owning phones and women phone owners more affluent and well-educated. My work explained the marital and other family dynamics that put far fewer phones into the hands of women than men.

However, combining these two approaches is more a standard mixed methods approach than anything new. Is something more innovative than that possible?Read More… The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Conclusions (part 3 of 3)

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List


For the Ethnography Matters Reading List Series, we’ve invited several ethnographers to share their reading lists with our readers. I want to thank Roy Christopher for giving us the inspiration to create the Reading List series! Every summer, Roy asks friends and colleuage to create a reading list in which he laboriously compiles and links to Powell’s online store. After we saw his list, we wanted to create an onoing one at Ethnography Matters. Do  check out Roy’s 2012 list that has contributions from Howard Reingold to Douglas Rushkoff. First in the line up is Ethnography Matters contributor Tricia Wang, who is coming back from a year and a half of fieldwork and has curated a list ethnographic monographs  and non-fiction books. Carla Borsoi from AOL and Jay Owens from FACE also contribute for July.

We would love to feature your book list! Please contact one of our contributors or email us!
——————————————————–

I haven’t read any books because I’ve been in fieldwork, so I don’t even know where to start. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.

LIST 1: ETHNOGRAPHIC MONOGRAPHS
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. I am quite obsessed with this topic because what I see happening in China is people learning capitalism – like learning how to be a consumer, investor, borrower, and credit card users. Insurance ads are plastered to billboards, malls are open til midnight, and teenagers are learning how to shape their identity through products. Though I’ve always felt helpless when I am observing “capitalism.” Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a  commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that address the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address and that will hopefully help me better understand my field site.Read More… The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Tricia Wang’s List

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


Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

I’ve come away from the DataEdge conferencewith some answers…and some more questions. While I don’t intend to recap the conference itself, I do want to take advantage of time spent with this diverse group of participants and their varied perspectives to try to offer the bigger picture sense I’m starting to develop of the big data/data analytics trend.

The idea that big data might usher in a new era of automatic research and along with it researcher de-skilling or that it would render the scientific method obsolete did not prove to be a popular sentiment (*phew* sigh of relief). The point that data isn’t self-explanatory, that it needs to be interpreted was reasserted many times during the conference coming from people who occupy very different roles in this data science world. No need to panic, let’s move along to some answers to those questions I raised in part I.

What is big data? Ok, this was not a question I raised going into the conference, but I should have. Perhaps unsurprisingly there wasn’t a clear consensus or a consistent definition that carried through the talks. I found myself at certain points wondering, “are we still talking about ‘big data’ or are we just talking about your standard, garden-variety statistics now?” At any rate, this confusion was productive and led me to identify three things that appear to be new in this discussion of data, statistics, and analysis.

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

From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures


Annie Lin. Pic by Guillaume Paumier CC BY 3.0

I’ve been trying to talk to Egyptian Wikipedia editors for a project about the experience of Wikipedia editors in the Middle East and am finding it really difficult to connect to relevant people through their Talk pages. And so I went to talk to Annie Lin, Global Education Program Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation about how she engaged with editors in Egypt at the start of a project to get students in local universities to write Wikipedia articles. In this interview, Lin talks about ways for outsiders to gain access by giving up power, encouraging participation and changing communication styles and platforms where the culture demands it. She’s given me some great things to think about as I build a more grounded understanding of editing in the Middle East, and I’m sure there are some gems in here that will help others as they think about doing ethnography starting from online places. 

Annie Lin is excited. The first pilot project that she oversaw in Cairo, Egypt to encourage students in local universities to contribute to Wikipedia has been a success – and although the term has ended, many students are still editing.

May was the last month of classes but a lot of students say they’ll keep editing. It seems that the students are excited about the idea that they’re contributing Arabic topics in the Arab world.

The pilot project, involving 60 students from 7 classes in 2 universities, had students create articles in Arabic Wikipedia either as part of the curriculum or as an extra curricula activity. An initial survey asking students what would motivate them to edit Wikipedia had a sense of contributing information about Egypt or the Arab world as the most common motivation. Lin says that when they show maps of Portuguese Wikipedia compared to Arabic Wikipedia, professors and students are shocked at the low numbers of Arabic articles.Read More… From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures

Nymwars and Culture Clashes


Walking home from the downtown Oakland BART station a couple weeks ago I passed a young man standing on a street corner next to his bike. He was dressed all in black, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Kind of like this guy:

Image of protester wearing Guy Fawkes mask

Occupy PDX Anonymous ~ Image in public domain

I was freaked out and even vaguely offended by the mask, which seemed a bit hypocritical of me. I’m a big supporter of masks [1] of a sort online: the use of pseudonyms, multiple identities, and some forms of anonymity — and here was a guy wearing a mask linked to a group actually called Anonymous. So why was his  ‘real life’ mask disturbing? In a chapter from Communities in Cyberspace, Judith Donath observes:

In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor… The virtual world is different. [2]

Maybe I was freaked out by an implicit violation of the body as “stabilizing anchor” in the physical world?

But there are so many forms of media that extend people beyond their bodies. People write books (sometimes under pseudonyms), circulate tales through oral traditions, and are captured on audio and video and in photographs.

There’s something unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face, though.

My reaction to the guy in the mask reminded of Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger’s recent comments on a change in Google+’s policy on pseudonyms. Following several months of backlash (#nymwars) against the lockout of  G+ users suspected of using names they aren’t commonly addressed by in the “real” world, the policy was modified to prohibit names that aren’t “name-shaped”. Pseudonyms are acceptable, but the nym has to look like a “real name” (or “wallet name,” i.e., a name on official identification in your wallet) to Google [3].

Yunger explained this policy as an attempt to avoid “culture clashes,” writing:

Generally, if you know at least one person who has an unusual name, you’re likely to know a lot of such people; i.e., people with unusual names travel in tightly-connected clusters. That’s largely because these names tend to be tied to particular subcultures. The problem we’re really encountering here is of culture clashes: people from one culture absolutely freak out when they encounter people from a very alien culture.

Read More… Nymwars and Culture Clashes

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


Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new year with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?” where she described academics’ critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate. In her second post, Sam proffered methods for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In this, her final post, Sam discusses how to maintain reflexivity in ethnographic practice.

Maintaining Research Quality Through Reflexivity

In his wonderful short book On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus (2009) argues that online learning differs from face-to-face in one significant way: online learners are physically removed from the learning environment, making it hard for them to feel their discomfort physically. Dreyfus argues that this discomfort is a key aspect to learning; we must be uncomfortable to learn.

If discomfort is learning, then ethnography offers a wealth of learning opportunities!  Ethnography necessarily entails becoming immersed in that which you study. This immersion presents a wonderful – if sometimes uncomfortable – opportunity to continuously improve research. Immersion means you are “out of your element” and a guest in someone else’s location, be it their home, office, garage, or local grocery store. You are going to make mistakes. But these very mistakes provide an opportunity for both corporate and academic ethnographers to reflect on their practice.Read More… Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Online reputation: it’s contextual


This post is the first in a new category for Ethnography Matters called “A day in the life”. In it, I describe a day at a workshop on online reputation that I attended, reporting on presentations and conversations with folks from Reddit and Stack Overflow, highlighting four key features of successful online reputation systems that came out of their talks.

A screenshot from Reddit.com's sub-Redit, "SnackExchange" showing point system

We want to build a reputation system for our new SwiftRiver product at Ushahidi where members can vote on bits of relevant content related to a particular event. This meant that I was really excited about being able to spend the day yesterday at the start of a fascinating workshop on online reputation organised by a new non-profit organisation called Hypothesis. It seems that Hypothesis is attempting to build a layer on top of the Web that enables users, when encountering new information, to be able to immediately find the best thinking about that information. In the words of Hypothesis founder, Dan Whaley, “The idea is to develop a system that let’s us see quality insights and information” in order to “improve how we make decisions.” So, for example, when visiting the workshop web page, you might be able to see that people like me (if I “counted” on the reputation quality scale) have written something about that workshop or about very specific aspects of the workshop and be able to find out what they (and perhaps even I) think about it.

The organisers write that a reputation will be “a way for the user community to collectively calibrate the contributions of its members”. And if work of the new system will be “annotating” content on the web, then the reputation model will be an important part of that system. It turns out that calibrating contributions is not as easy as developing a scale and then marking a measure on a measuring jug. First you have to work out what the measure is. When is comes to peer production projects, the goal might be an vibrant volunteer community that comes together to produce something of public value. Wikipedia, for example, wants to see a growing volunteer community working together to build and improve a free encyclopedia, especially in areas that the encyclopedia is weak. Ushahidi, on the other hand, might want to see volunteers deploying and organizing around content in order to improve decision making and effective action in crisis situations.

When co-founder and general manager of the tremendously successful Stack Overflow and Reddit talked yesterday about how they developed their reputation systems, I was struck by the organic nature of their reputation model building process. Building reputation systems, it turns out, relies on an effective process more than a fancy algorithm. Successful codified reputation systems like those used by Stackoverflow and Reddit have developed their codes the way doctors grow skin on different parts of the body in order to use on other parts. Organically, along with the community, evolving in a process of increasingly shared responsibilities. Just the right amount of adherence to what the community currently values and how they already distribute rewards and attention, with just the right amount favoring or weighting of activities and values that achieved desired communal goals.Read More… Online reputation: it’s contextual

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


Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new years with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Suck?” In Part 1, she proceeded to dissect this divisive question with a cultural analysis of academics critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate forms of ethnography. Her post incited a lot of great discussions and surfaced many tensions that have long been difficult to articulate in both communities. 

In this second post of  her three part installment, Sam extends the cultural analysis from her first piece and offers methods that are more fitting for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In her final post, Sam will discuss how to maintain reflexivity in the both the private and academic settings.

Sam points out that research output can be compromised regardless if the ethnography is working in corporate or academic settings. What methods do you use to avoids compromising research in private-sector ethnography or academic setting ethnography? Please share in the comments!

A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

“The fact that there is no such thing as a perfect anti-sepsis does not mean that one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer.”

— Robert Solow

Robert Solow was an economist, but he could tell anthropologists a thing or two about how to deal with real constraints on the research process. Solow became famous for the “Solow Residual,” or contribution to productivity growth that remains “unexplained” even after careful, empirical analysis. Solow asserted that this unexplained residual was due to technological change.

Is it possible that Solow was wrong? Certainly. Economic growth during that period was accompanied by several other significant shifts, including but not limited to a rise in homeownership, more women entering the workforce, and the elimination of “separate but equal” education systems. Solow could have been wrong in so many ways, but the relevant question is not whether he was right, but whether he contributed insight to an empirically observed phenomenon.

This anecdote is a roundabout way of addressing the question: is rapid ethnography possible? Of course it’s possible. Will it provide us with unequivocal evidence of a given social phenomenon? Will it provide as deep insight as traditional ethnography? Will it be “perfect”?  No, no and definitely no. But, again, the relevant question here is whether it will give us meaningful insight into an empirically observed phenomenon.Read More… Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]