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Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.

In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

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