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.

timeliness

Writing asthma files, on the other hand, involves creating short, media rich, analytical pieces than are heavily hyperlinked in order to juxtapose them to other pieces. These asthma files are typically written using the primary material, grey matter, and media found in the repository, and collectively aim to provide a rich mosaic of the myriad of ways that asthma is understood as a disease and social phenomenon.

The Tehran Asthma Files main page where researchers can connect with one another and coordinate their work.

The Tehran Asthma Files main page where researchers can connect with one another and coordinate their work.

Another way for ethnographers and other cultural analysts to participate in The Asthma Files is to start your own research group for a particular Asthmatic Space. Asthmatic Spaces are typically geographical entities in which asthma is an important social issue. Currently, both Tehran and Singapore have active The Asthma Files research groups that meet in person to discuss matters and events and built research tools that are then made available through The Asthma Files, but we invite others to form their own and hold their own web events that we’ll be happy to host. its own portal within The Asthma Files, Also, classes can participate as a group, or the platform can provide a way for researchers at different locations to work together.

The second kind of participant consists of peer reviewers who will be invited to comment on particular asthma files, on the ethnographic research design, or on the design of the Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography (PECE) upon which The Asthma Files is built. We’re currently experimenting with the ways in which peer review can function for online ethnographic objects and hope to create a set of workflows and best practices that will facilitate this process.

We’re also interested in having PECE itself be peer reviewed. This is important in order to ensure that it is built in a robust way that allows ethnographic collaborations, data sharing, and cross-disciplinary interactions. This peer review will ensure that PECE will be suitable to a wide range of academic and non-academic audiences, and will be able to accommodate different kinds of practices and concerns. We’re currently trying to put together a panel of social scientists who possess experience with online platforms and hope to go forward with the process within the coming year.

An ongoing web event where citizens are invited to discuss various aspects of asthma sciences.

An ongoing web event where citizens are invited to discuss various aspects of asthma sciences.

The third kind of participant consists of people concerned about asthma, as health care professionals, as scientists, journalists, or even citizens. Our repository contains information useful to a wide variety of people and groups. Also, The Asthma Files holds periodical web events in which are open to the general public. The first one, held in conjuncture with the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine, involved an online discussion about air quality in Iran.

Another web discussion just concluded regarding the nature and uses of scientific knowledge in Iran when it comes to air quality matters. Within these discussions, participants will debate and discuss the career opportunities, teaching methods, data practices, and the public understanding of science present within a particular setting.

These web events typically consist of series of questions that are posted online by our research group. Once this is done, participants are invited to contribute to the discussion by answering the questions, debating the answers (or the questions themselves) and providing new questions to answer. We hope that these web events will eventually act as a medium through which we can conduct a different kind of online ethnographic interview.

Many asthma files begin with a search through our Zotero database.

Many asthma files begin with a search through our Zotero database.

The fourth kind of participant consists of humanities and social science researchers interested in technology transfer and the use of the PECE platform for their own projects. We’re currently in the process of creating tools that will make sharing the platform easier than it currently is. These tools will function as add-ons and extensions to Plone and will allow researchers to import The Asthma Files’ various tools, structures, and Plone object types that will be created specifically to facilitate ethnographic and social analysis. These tools will allow other researchers to customize the PECE platform in order to make it fit their own particular projects.

Through collaborations between these different groups, we hope to be able to rethink the ways in which ethnography can be done to address global issues and complex conditions. The digital innovation of PECE is in a design that reflects both critical cultural theory and the concrete practice of evolving and experimental, collaborative ethnographic research.  PECE has been conceived and designed textually: it provides structure to write in new genre forms (the PECE/asthma file, for example) that reconfigures the relationship between research and writing, providing ways to traffic between writing for scholarly and broader audiences.

I’d like to close this series of posts by inviting possible forks or experimentations with the PECE platform. Currently, two other projects are attempting to make use of PECE for research: The Fracking Files, and the upcoming and still being conceptualized The Nano Files. Please contact us at bigrae [at] rpi [dot] edu or fortuk [at] rpi [dot] edu if you’d be interested in taking part with your own research project in this digital experiment.

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Categories: Guest posts, Innovation in Asthma Research, Methods

Author:Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.

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