Tag Archives: university

Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists


Nick Seaver

Editor’s Note: Nick Seaver (@npseaver) kicks off the March-April special edition of Ethnography Matters, which will feature a number of researchers at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing on the forefront of exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers.

Nick’s post makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, perhaps even more than the ethnographers themselves.

Nick’s own research explores how people imagine and negotiate the relationship between cultural and technical domains, particularly in the organization, reproduction, and dissemination of sonic materials. His current project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems. Nick is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. Before coming to UCI, Nick researched the history of the player piano at MIT. 


When people in the tech industry hear “ethnography,” they tend to think “user research.” Whether we’re talking about broad, multinational explorations or narrowly targeted interviews, ethnography has proven to be a fantastic way to bring outside voices in to the making of technology. As a growing collection of writing on Ethnography Matters attests, ethnography can help us better understand how technology fits into people’s everyday lives, how “users” turn technologies to unexpected ends, and how across the world, technologies get taken up or rejected in a diverse range of cultural contexts. Ethnography takes “users” and shows how they are people — creative, cultural, and contextual, rarely fitting into the small boxes that the term “user” provides for them.

But ethnography doesn’t have to be limited to “users.”

Engineers in context. cc by-nc-nd 2.0 | http://www.flickr.com/somewhatfrank

My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like PandoraSpotifySongza, or Beats Music, suggest listening material to users, drawing on a mix of data sources, algorithms, and human curation. The people who build them are the typical audience for ethnographic user studies: they’re producing technology that works in an explicitly cultural domain, trying to model and profile a diverse range of users. But for the engineers, product managers, and researchers I work with, ethnography takes a backseat to other ways of knowing people: data mining, machine learning, and personal experience as a music listener are far more common sources of information.

Ethnographers with an interest in big data have worked hard to define what they do in relation to these other methods. Ethnography, they argue, provides thick, specific, contextualized understanding, which can complement and sometimes correct the findings of the more quantitative, formalized methods that dominate in tech companies. However, our understandings of what big data researchers actually do tend to lack the specificity and thickness we bring to our descriptions of users.

Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

Starbucks Listeners and Savants

Among music tech companies, it is very common to think about users in terms of how avidly they consume music. Here is one popular typology, as printed in David Jennings’ book Net, Blogs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll:

Read More… Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists

Tell Me More danah boyd: an interview with the author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”


MSR3sm-sq danah boyd (@zephoria) is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. In 2009 Fast Company named boyd one of the most influential women in technology. Also in 2010, Fortune named her the smartest academic in the technology field and “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet.” Foreign Policy named boyd one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers “for showing us that Big Data isn’t necessarily better data”. danah just published, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.  

There’s this idea that hard-core techies are code geeks. But hard-core techies also look like ethnographers. A tech ethnographer not only has to understand cultural code, but the mechanisms for how software design links back up to tech practices. I sat down with one of the most well known tech ethnographers of our time, danah boyd (@zephoria). 

Over breakfast at The Ace Hotel’s Breslin, danah and I talked about her career. This fascinating and personal interview reveals danah’s journey through industry and academia.

We’re also excited to have danah’s interview launch Ethnography Matter’s second column, Tell Me More,  featuring interviews with people who are pushing the boundaries of ethnography in unconventional and exciting ways. We conduct the first interview and then post a follow up interview with crowd-sourced questions from the audience. 

Post your follow-up question for danah in the comments or tweet it with the hashtag #askdanah by March 10. danah will select her favorite questions to answer in her second interview!  

Tricia: danah, I’m super excited that we get to talk ethnography over some yummy breakfast food! Earlier last year, you were inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame.  An ethnographer being validated by geeks! I was beyond excited when I heard this news. How did you feel when you found out?

danah: SXSW has been a very important event to me for a long time. I learned so much about the tech industry through that conference by spending late nights drinking with entrepreneurs and makers. I actually got many a job that way too. It was at SXSW where Ev Williams and I started debating blogging practices. He hired me to work for him that summer.  Oh, and SXSW was where I met my partner.

Tricia: What? Are you serious?

danah: ::laugh:: Ayup!  And now we have a baby who we’re taking back to SXSW this year.

Tricia: Shut up. That is so sweet. Where did you guys meet at SXSW?

danah. At a Sleater-Kinney show.

Tricia: That’s awesome.

danah: It’s just funny to be honored there because I’ve selfishly gotten so much out of the conference.

Tricia: Well I remember very clearly when I read the transcript of the keynote you delivered at SXSW in 2010. It was about Facebook’s issues with privacy. Your talk generated so much discussion. How did you settle on this topic?

danah: I thought, what could I do that would provoke this audience to think? I saw it as a political platform; not big P but small p. I wanted to use this opportunity to challenge norms inside tech industry. I decided to take on the underlying values and beliefs in tech industry regarding privacy because my research was showing that the rhetoric being espoused was naïve. My topic was not surprising for academics, but it was for practitioners.Read More… Tell Me More danah boyd: an interview with the author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”

Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education


wasson Christina Wasson (Professor of Anthropology, University of North Texas) investigates communication, collaboration, and community-building in face-to-face and virtual settings. She was a founding member of the EPIC Steering Committee.

Editors note: A collaboration of social, economic, and technological factors have contributed to the flourishing of MOOC’s – massive online open courses. With public universities’ tuition more than tripling since the mid-80’s, fewer people have been able to access a traditional four-year undergraduate education. While this seemingly places MOOCs in a position of strength, this fast-moving frontier of education is still young, and suffers from design issues.

One such issue lies in the fact that while students are beginning MOOCs in record numbers, far fewer actually finish. This and other challenges plays to  Christina Wasson’s strengths, and particularly her penchant for researching “communication, collaboration, and community-building.” Here, she gets beneath statistics and surface level assumptions, employing ethnographic research techniques to study the students in her course. Her ethnographic study of online learning revealed serious limitations to the potential of MOOCs.

As one of the founders of EPIC and lead developer of the online Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Texas, her considerable experience in academia and online education come through in her post this month.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

ECONOMIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL UPHEAVALS

Jung-picture

The coexistence of destruction and creation,
Image 70 in Jung’s The Red Book

People are inventing creative ways to respond to today’s economic and technological upheavals. In the American educational sector, we see the extraordinarily rapid rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as a potential way to manage escalating college costs. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” and Time Magazine heralded MOOCs as “revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges.”

But what do MOOCs look like from the students’ point of view – the users? Considering that typically 85% of students drop out, it would be useful to find out how they experience MOOCs. As of fall 2013, no substantive studies had been published about MOOCs targeted at college students. However, I did lead an ethnographic study of a small-enrollment online course, and its findings have clear applications for MOOCs.

THE PROMISE OF MOOCS

MOOCs have captured the imagination of the business press, venture capitalists, and university leaders because they seem to solve knotty problems created by shifts in educations costs, while generating business opportunities.

In the US, states have increasingly reduced their subsidization of public universities, shifting the financial burden onto individual students. As states provided less funding, tuition went up. This graph from the College Board shows that even adjusted for inflation, tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1984.

tuition-riseRead More… Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education

Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco


ed_team_brannen-m-y A well-known international scholar in multinational affairs, Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) received her MBA with emphasis in International Business and PhD in Organizational Behavior with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Having taught at various Universities in the United States, Japan, China and France, Professor Brannen’s consulting specialty is helping multinational firms realize their global strategic initiatives by aligning, integrating and deploying critical organizational resources. Born and raised in Japan, having studied in France and Spain, and having worked as a cross-cultural consultant for over 20 years to various Fortune 500 companies, she brings a multi-faceted, deep knowledge of today’s complex cultural business environment. She has published many papers. In addition to publishing papers, she speaks to the press about her bicultural work.

Editor’s Note: In 2011, TESCO had stumbled. With dipping market share and profits, they were desperate to reverse the trend and called upon the research skills of Mary Yoko Brannen, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore,  and Christopher Voisey,  drawing upon their deep experience and the company’s myriad potential sources of knowledge to turn itself around.

Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) presented this work at the most recent EPIC conference, and I’m delighted they’ve decided to further share their work here. One reason I love this project is because it illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic methods to one of the world’s largest retailers, showing that there are few limits to the range of organizations that it can serve. I also believe this research was key for negating a common misconception in many global companies: the flow of insight is not “one way.” Creative ideas to improve the service offerings of more established branches in Europe and America can just as easily come from their more recently-established branches in emerging markets (although I disagree with and avoid using the term “reverse innovation”).

Companies with the opinion that more developed markets have a monopoly upon good ideas are missing a broad spectrum of different perspectives that could lead to new and refreshing initiatives from other contexts. The researchers’ refining of a method to systematize the building of a “bicultural bridge” is, as they say, potentially groundbreaking for the fields of anthropology and management alike. Read the Globe’s recent coverage of Mary and her team’s work.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

tesco_2161591b

In 2011, the retail giant Tesco UK  was in crisis mode. Tesco’s profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 percent—a rude awakening after having been the market leader in the U.K. and the third most profitable food retailer globally. At the same time that Tesco’s profits were falling in the UK, however, worldwide profit had actually risen 30 per cent, thanks to its Asian subsidiaries.  That year, the company tasked me and my colleagues, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey with identifying and assessing “the Essence of Tesco”, i.e., parts of the firm’s culture which were distinctive to Tesco and which could be transferred abroad to other parts of the firm’s global reach. The project had the dual objectives of helping Tesco (1) understand and evaluate the core practices that comprised the essence of Tesco’s home country advantage, and (2) identify sources of learning from Tesco’s foreign subsidiaries to aid in reinvigorating its core in order to make it more competitive at home.Read More… Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco

Ethnography in Communities of Big Data: Contested expectations for data in the 23andme and FDA Controversy


IMG_2834 Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) is a PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Washington and she holds an MA in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. Her research focuses on the relationship of technology and emerging cultural and organizational forms. Her work cited in this article was supported in part by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and an Intel grant.

Editor’s note: One of the disciplines big data is most strongly influencing is medicine, and here Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) applies her expertise to examine the interplay between health and technology to understand the implications of today’s unprecedented levels of patient data collection and analysis (although, notably, seldom including access to the data by those very patients who produced it).

Brittany hits upon a key issue with her post: seeing “big data” as a means of eliminating uncertainty through statistical analysis. While the elimination of uncertainty through statistical analysis is nothing new, the difference today is the scale at which collection and analysis of such data is unfolding and the diversity of the fields in which it is occurring.

Read on to discover the nature of conflict between the main personal genetics testing company 23andme, the importance of and difference between big data, small data, thick data, and DaM data, and the role that “Blue Suede Shoes” play in all of this.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.
23andme box

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid laughingsquid.com

Across the field of health and wellness there is a lot of talk about data, from consumer self-tracking and Quantified Self data, to data-driven, personalized health care, to data-intensive, crowd sourced, scientific discovery. But what are these different stakeholders talking about when they talk about data and are they talking about the same thing?

At EPIC, in the “Big Data/Ethnography or Big Data Ethnography” session, I presented on this topic drawing from our ethnography of the impact of consumer big and small data on institutions of healthcare. In this post I use the recent controversy between the FDA and personal genetics testing company, 23andme, to exemplify many of the concepts my co-author, Dr. Gina Neff, and I develop in our EPIC paper “What we talk about when we talk data: Valences and the social performance of multiple metrics in digital health”, rather than simply re-present them.  I also demonstrate how ethnography can be leveraged in the context of so-called “big data” or data intensive transformations in science and practice.Read More… Ethnography in Communities of Big Data: Contested expectations for data in the 23andme and FDA Controversy

A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use


Dan_Lockton.width-300Dr. Dan Lockton (@danlockton) is a senior associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, at the Royal College of Art in London. Originally a design engineer, he became interested in including people better in design research while working on mobility products. For his PhD at Brunel University, he developed the Design with Intent toolkit, a multidisciplinary collection of design patterns around human behaviour which Tricia blogged about in 2011. Since then, he has worked on a number of domestic and workplace energy-related behaviour change projects, including CarbonCulture and currently SusLab, a large pan-European project. There is a ‘SusLab at the RCA’ blog; this article is based on the paper Dan presented at EPIC 2013.

Editors note: Energy usage and conservation can be a seemingly mundane part of an individual’s daily life on one hand, but a politically, ecologically, and economically critical issue on the other. Despite its importance, there is a startling lack of insight into what guides and influences behaviors surrounding energy. 

With conventional quantitative analyses of properties and income explaining less than 40% of variations in households’ consumption, Dr Dan Lockton (@danlockton) and Flora Bowden set out to unpack some of the behavioral nuances and contextual insights around energy use within the daily lives of British households, from the perspective of design researchers. Their interviews had them meeting everyone from “quantified self” enthusiasts to low-income residents of public housing, and involving them in the design process. What they discovered bears significant implications for design which seeks to influence behaviors around energy, for example, where policy makers and utility companies see households as “using energy”, household members see their own behavior as solving problems and making their homes more comfortable, such as by running a bath to unwind after a trying day, or preparing a meal for their family.

Read on to see what else Dan and Flora learned in their ethnographic research, and how understanding “folk models” of energy – what energy “looks like” – may hold the key to curtailing energy usage.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

Gas prepayment card

A householder in Bethnal Green, East London, shows us her gas prepayment card.

It’s rare a day goes by without some exhortation to ‘reduce our energy use’: it’s a major societal and geo-political challenge, encompassing security, social issues and economics as well as environmental considerations. There is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem, both technological and behavioural.

However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something fungible—homogeneous even—to be addressed primarily through giving householders pricing-based feedback, with an assumption that they will somehow automatically reduce how much energy they use, in response to seeing the price. There is much less emphasis on understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing?Read More… A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use

An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices


daniel-millerDr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has specialised in the study of material culture and consumption.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is an anthropologist who has contributed foundational theoretical and empirical work to the study of material culture. Even though Danny’s work is in academia, his research on consumption continues to influence the commercial world. As such, EPIC invited Danny to be one of the keynote speakers in London.

After reading Danny’s work for over a decade, I was beyond excited that I got to meet him at EPIC. In this interview, Danny tells us about his applied research on hospices and his current massive, multi-year, global social media research project that recently led up to what some called the “facebook kerfuffle.”

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

theory-of-shopping the-comfort-of-things2 417dC-J121L cache_46_ea_46eae409706da6c82c8046c5f650c494Did you ever imagine that your work would become required course reading and end up on almost every anthropologist’s and sociologist’s shelf?
It’s something of a paradox that anthropologists who specialise in social research are still often represented in the highly individualistic mode of popular culture which is devoted to the individual as a `name’. I come out of a more European tradition which is why there is very little out there about myself.  The work that I do and is found on people’s shelves is not really about me as an individual. I derive most of my ideas from a specific literature, mainly in anthropology, such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but also from many other academic disciplines, such as insights from the sociologist Simmel or the philosopher Hegel. In turn my own work will be reflected mainly as citations in other people’s academic writings and interests. So really I am part of a process, trying to employ an extraordinary legacy of ideas to help us understand our contemporary world.

Read Danny Miller's piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

Read Danny Miller’s piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

I guess one reason for the popularity is that word `contemporary’. While anthropologists tended to look to things with long traditions, I am currently writing about `snapchat’ and I think my work coveys my excitement and enthusiasm for the world we actually live in. By the same token I think people have responded to my desire to leave behind the more obscure jargons of academic and try to create a writing style that re-integrates the humanity and poignancy of people’s lives alongside our more abstract and academic concerns. I hope people enjoy this intense engagement, which is just fine, because I certainly do, and in some ways I feel I have only just started my work.

Hopefully this also reflects a wider realisation, that approaches such as `big data’ and perspectives modeled on science, look terribly important and promising. But again and again people come to the realisation that to understand the world there are no short cuts, and the best way is the patient qualitative and engaged research that is the delight of anthropology.

Why did you agree to speak at EPIC?

To be honest I knew very little about EPIC, and the main reason for my involvement was that my Department at University College London was partly hosting this year’s EPIC and so it was natural for me to be involved. Having said that I have been a long term supporter of acknowledging and fostering the relationship between anthropology and applied work, including commercial work. Most students in anthropology will end up somewhere in that sector and I think it is appalling the way many academic anthropologists try and ignore the importance of this relationship and pretend all their students are going to end up as pure academics.  As I argued in my talk I think anthropologists have just as much to learn from the applied sector as the other way around.Read More… An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview about ‘Unpleasant Design’


Unpleasant Design

The Unpleasant Design, Picture by the editors.

Unpleasant Design” is a stunning book by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic (@unpleasanting). It’s a collection of different research approaches to the pervasive presence of “defensible space”, i.e. physical features that prevent people from doing certain activities. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey the book is made of various case studies, photographs and essays about these “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities.

Given the relevance of this theme to the “Infra/Extraordinary” column of Ethnography Matters, I took this opportunity to ask the two editors a couple of questions.

EM: I have always been fascinated by the type of anti-design features you describe in the book, collecting examples myself in my travels. Both because it says something about our society and because of the design process behind them. On your side, what made you focus on this?

Unpleasant or anti-design is present all around the globe. We could observe a particularly widespread use of them in Europe. At the time we started this research, we were living between Rotterdam and The Hague and we still think that the Netherlands are at the forefront of applying Unpleasant Design. Unpleasant Design is of course not something that is practised on a national level, but it is very typical of Dutch cities to have strong control over public space and to regulate what can or cannot be done within it. This might have something to do with the weather not permitting a vibrant life on the street, but it also has something to do with the distribution of shared common goods (reflected in the lack of common staircases in buildings, each apartment havin their own street number). So we decided to give it a try, to start collecting and categorising unpleasant applications; hoping that we will arrive at a theory of Unpleasant Design – how is it made, by whom, against what and what does it bring to public space.

Anti-skateboard devices, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

EM:If you had to summarize your typology of anti-design features, how would you express it in terms of design as well as purposes?

On our blog, http://unpleasant.pravi.me we collected some typical unpleasant applications which we divided up into devices and objects. Within the devices group, we have light, sound and surveillance devices, while in the objects group we observe static things, such as benches, obstacles, surfaces and tactile objects. Typically, objects from the device group are addressing our basic human senses. This is by no means a final typology. It is a way to orient oneself within a wide variety of Unpleasant Design applications. It is also a way to distinguish Unpleasant Design from unsuccessful or failed design. What is really important in our research is that Unpleasant Design is foremost intentional. It is not a chair gone wrong. It is a chair which should make you get up after 15-20 minutes (in fast-food chains, this was reinforced by the design of uncomfortable seats, to keep up the fluctuation of customers and faster turnovers.)

The second very important thing about Unpleasant Design is that it always has a target audience, a group of people or a behaviour that it aims to discourage. In our research, we discovered it is usually one or all of these: homeless, youngsters, drug addicts (hello target group!). There is a funny metaphor for this in our case study of repellent systems against pigeons, which represent a paradigm for homeless, someone dirty and unwanted in your proximity. It is quite normal not to want to run into drug addicts injecting themselves in a public toilet, but there is something intrinsically mean about installing a blue light to discourage this behaviour. It is also a question of limits – today these three groups are the ones organised targeted by Unpleasant Design. Tomorrow it can be women on high heels, or men wearing a tie or a pair of glasses. Or it can be you.

EM:The resistance strategies you address in the book are also very informative. My best example for this is a pillow used on a very nasty fence in Lima so that people can go from one house to another. In your research, did you encounter this type of reaction? What do you think of them?

This is a great challenge for anyone with a critical mind and affinity for speculative design. So as soon as we identified the unpleasant agenda in urban spaces, we started thinking about ways to subvert it. In many cases, the resistance strategies highlight the very gist of the problem.

No one can sit under the Cross in Peru, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Travelling to different cities, we encountered some humorous interventions and adaptations to unfriendly surfaces and objects. We also organised a competition for Unpleasant Designs, asking for both pleasant and unpleasant submissions. Some very good ideas came out of this. There are also artworks that offer fun ways to overcome Unpleasantness which are featured in our book. From strategies addressing people’s basic needs and conditions (like the BAUM Lav’s SI8DO ‘pleasant’ urban furniture for immigrants or Michael Rakowitz’s ParaSITE housing units for homeless) to the more technology oriented interventions (like the CV Dazzle surveillance camouflage by Adam Harvey) they all uncover subtle attempts at conditioning or designing our behaviour in public space.

EM:Who benefit from these? Is there a class of citizen/institution that benefit from these anti-design features?

In the beginning we assumed all unpleasant installations are orchestrated by the city authorities, to secure order and raise the image of the city. For example, one of the most basic and most pervasive cases of Unpleasant Design is a park bench with armrests. When parks and metro stops are redesigned these days, they are equipped with such benches to ensure no one is going to use them as a bed.
After some research, we found that there is a whole other world of applications that are designed for private persons and companies to address unwanted users of space or unwanted behaviour. For example, shopping malls use unpleasant objects and devices to prevent young people from loitering. In some cases, we could argue that their video surveillance systems also begin to discriminate people who are potentially “no-consumers”. Systems equipped with computer vision software can target persons wearing hoodies or look for faces from a database of known criminals. A very popular device used by property owners – both private and commercial – was the infamous “Mosquito”, a buzzing teen deterrent that emits high frequency noise to ensue youngsters under 25 won’t spend too much time in their vicinity. All these examples are described in the essay “Technology Enabled Discrimination” in our book.
Unpleasant Design could also influence property value as an relational parameter on rental prices in the city, for example.
As we can see, both city policy makers, private property owners and citizens benefit to some extent from Unpleasant Design. But the application of these systems is not subject to any global standard for public spaces or human rights legislation. Subsequently, private interest groups start using unpleasant applications to influence the demographics of a place, and they can just do it on their own. What is the human scale of those installations? As a side-effect, by looking for Unpleasant Design we found out that public space is very often semi-privatized.

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.

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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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