Author Archives | jennaburrell

May 2013: Persuasive Formats

I wanted to focus my own contribution to this month’s special edition (about “how to talk to companies about ethnography”) on presentation formats. That research findings will ultimately be delivered or presented is a given, but the particular format varies and seems often to be a matter of the conventions within particular organizational or research cultures. I’ve participated in ethnographic projects within the corporate sector. I’ve done a bit of consulting work for an NGO. The bulk of my career I’ve spent in Academia doing ethnographic work as most conventionally defined – culminating in the writing of an 80,000 word ethnographic monograph (which was text by-and-large with just a few black and white photos). On this basis, I’ve passed through a few different micro-worlds where different presentation practices prevailed.

In our interview with Steve Portigal this month I asked him about the hierarchy of formality he describes in his new book. For delivering the late-breaking or unprocessed findings (to communicate their informality) he uses e-mail, then Word documents, and finally polished results are delivered in PowerPoint. The ascendence of PowerPoint (not as an accompaniment to a project report, but as the report itself) in corporate settings and consultancy work I find really fascinating. Maybe because of the way it seems to prioritize communicating with as few words as possible, the pressure to edit down to the essentials, to consider what to omit just as much as what to include, how daunting! It seems obvious that this is reflection of the particularly intensive pressures of productivity, of delivering on the short project cycles of the private sector.


The Office suite of applications does not, by any means, encompass the full range of formats that are our options for communicating about ethnographic research. For example, my first job title when I worked in industry (at Intel Corp) was “Application Concept Developer.” My task was to translate research findings from our team of social scientists (who used interviews, observation, diary studies, copious photographs, etc) into interactive design concepts. These were not prototypes, but rather interactive demonstrations showing how insights from fieldwork fed into novel designs for computing systems. This was an attempt to communicate between social scientists and engineers…using the language of building and by engaging through interactivity.

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#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community


In light of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz and the scrutiny it has placed on JSTOR in particular, the economics of research publications, and the ethics of keeping research publications behind paywalls, I thought there were a few more things to say about open access.

I’ve contemplated the idea for some time now about publishing from here on out only in open access journals. I already freely e-mail my own publications to anyone who requests a copy. And I just feel better (more virtuous?) when I publish a paper in an open access journal. I’ve published in both open and closed access journals. It could be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed that when I publish in open access journals, those publications tend to get more citations. That’s not proof, but it is a good sign that open access does a better job of getting your work in front of readers (which is obvious because such journals are available to the whole of the Internet, not just those who can get past a paywall). The reason I’ve published in ‘closed’ journals has to do with the pressures of being tenure-track. Some of the more prestigious journals are not open access. I’m looking at YOU Science, Technology and Human Values and New Media and Society. Anthropology journals in particular are notoriously out of step with the push towards open access (see the many posts over on Savage Minds, for example).

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Read-Along Ethnography: Struggling to Keep Up From Afar

Living with and witnessing first hand the culture / society you are interested in, the ethnographic imperative to immerse yourself in the field is a real logistical challenge. As the 18-months-in-the-field standard became a disciplinary right-of-passage, research predating the immersion imperative was downgraded (and denigrated) as “armchair anthropology.”

As ‘virtual ethnography’ has emerged, the possibilities of a genuine experience from the armchair have been, on some level, recovered. However, in ethnographies of online environments like Second Life (Boellstorff) and networked games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest (Nardi, Taylor), all participants presumably are operating from their armchairs (or office chairs, couches, etc).  Over at Savage Minds, P. Kerim Friedman suggested that the spill over of our field sites through the Internet creates a kind of “database of lived experience” that offers perhaps some greater legitimacy to forms of remote ethnography.

I recently embarked on a project with Janaki Srinivasan, a recent graduate of the ISchool PhD program. She is the lucky one who gets to actually do the fieldwork (on mobile phones and the fishing industry in Kerala, India). For me, it was an experiment to see how I might overcome my more limited opportunities to jet off for months or years.

What I’m attempting though is not remote ethnography, something I’ve heard of before and that usually seems to entail data garnered through sites like Flickr, Facebook (i.e. to learn about pop culture in India). This is rather read-along ethnography. Janaki writes notes, snaps photos, and then they appear through the magic of Dropbox. I try gamely to keep up, reading the documents as they come in, in chronological order. So far I would describe this attempt as a failure (on my part). We’re up to week 9. The struggle has forced me to think about all of the ways knowledge of a place and the people living there just doesn’t carry over in the field notes.

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The tools we use: Beyond Cassette Tapes

by Schill

The tools I used for my dissertation research were extremely simple.  I had a cassette tape recorder and a big stack of blank cassette tapes.  I was pretty cheap at the time, so I would sometimes reuse the cassette tapes after completing a transcript.  I lost the recordings for a couple of interviews that way. For my field notes and interview transcripts I used Word documents.  I should note that this was after 2000, but prior to the arrival of the iPhone and the whole world of apps that came along with it. I suppose being able to search within documents was an efficiency improvement on the practice that predated it, arranging and rearranging notecards. At any rate, the range of tools has broadened considerably. Here are a few I have tried (and recommend) or plan to try in the near future…

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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: 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.

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The Ethnographer’s Complete Guide to Big Data: Small Data People in a Big Data World (part 1 of 3)

Statistics House, Kampala, Uganda

Part I: Questions

Research is hard to do. Much of it is left to the specialists who carry on in school 4-10 more years after completing a first degree to acquire the proper training. It’s not only hard to do, it’s also hard to read and understand and extrapolate from. Mass media coverage of science and social research is rife with misinterpretations – overgeneralizations, glossing over research limitations, failing to adequately consider the characteristics of subject populations. Does more data or “big data” in any way, shape, or form alter this state of affairs? Is it the case, as Wired magazine (provocatively…arrogantly…and ignorantly) suggests that “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete” and “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves?”

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The Demise of the Ethnographic Monograph?

As ethnographic practice has spilled out into the broader world of design and policy-making, business strategy and marketing, the monograph has not remained the singular format for presenting ethnographic work. In the spaces I’m most familiar with, the design community and high-tech industry, it is the conference paper (see EPIC, DIS, CSCW, and CHI, etc), the technology demo, and within corporate walls, the PowerPoint slideset or edited video that have become established formats for delivering ethnographic outputs. There is great pressure in some subfields to offer clearly outlined implications and propose practices alongside (or instead of) the theory and holistic description of the more conventional format.

In light of the publication this week of my own ethnographic monograph titled Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, I thought it worth considering the question: why should someone outside of the Academy read my book or any other of this genre?
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On Opting-Out at the Airport

airport security playmobile set

pic by ShoZu CC BY-SA 2.0

When I teach qualitative research methods the first assignment involves a participant-observation exercise in public spaces and I encourage students to disrupt those settings, at the very least by asking questions, but even better by participating in ways that provoke a response in others. For the very brave these may become what Garfinkel calls “breaching experiments” where behavior is strategically designed to go beyond the realm of acceptable or predictable. The idea is that one can reveal some of the inner-workings of social interaction in the way those subject to such behavior try to resolve and make sense of what is, essentially, senseless. I like to show this flash mob – Frozen in Grand Central – in my class to illustrate the point.

For a couple of years students chose to do participant-observation in a local DMV office (Department of Motor Vehicles) and we started to talk about what sort of site this was and how it differed from the bus stops, farmer’s markets, and public parks other students had selected. The DMV offered a space where citizens encounter their government, its rules and regulations, its efficiency (or lack thereof) and from their field notes this seemed to often generate a lot of talk between strangers about government.

I recently became intrigued by the idea of pursuing this thinking on my own, looking at where we as citizens encounter government most directly and apparently, but at the federal level. One way to do this was to reflect on experiences of airport security. I offer this here in this blog (with our particular thematic focus) as a way of thinking about how a research mindset might inform and enrich our own personal experiences and our conversations with one another. This is method meant not simply for scholarly write ups, or for applied spaces of design, policy, etc. but to sharpen our awareness in the way we go about daily life and reflect upon our own experiences. In this case it offered an opportunity to think about certain government regulations (relating to security and the war on terror) and our position as citizens pulled into this security apparatus. Read More…

Challenges of Urban Fieldwork: A Scavenger Hunt Approach

street scene, Ring Road, Accra, Ghana

My favorite and most longstanding site for fieldwork is a city, Accra, Ghana. There are some peculiar difficulties of urban fieldwork. The size and scope of such a “site” makes it difficult to know what to do, where to go, what to observe, etc. It can also be difficult given the element of anonymity and social distancing in cities. Cities contain diverse populations. You can never really arrive at the sense that you’ve mastered such a place, that you understand it comprehensively. Cities are culturally layered and contain much that is transitory and impermanent, they reflect the promiscuous intermingling of influences.

Beyond the particular topic you might be studying, how can you come to get a sense of the flavor or style of a city? I’ve been compiling for some time a list of questions that might be useful to ethnographers who are trying to figure out what to do, where to go, and what to ask in urban settings. Especially for short-term research stints, seeking out the answers to these questions (scavenger hunt style) could be a way to ramp up research quickly and get richer context for more specific research questions. As this is an evolving list, I invite additional suggestions.

On a related note, over at Ken Banks offers a list of 15 suggestions for travel habits when traveling in Africa that are usefully oriented to the demands of research. In particular, his suggestion to buy local newspapers and consume other local media I totally agree with. Having a TV where I’m staying I find indispensable, just to see what issues are presented on the local news and especially how they are presented as well as the kinds of local and foreign media content that are available to people living there. I tend to bring home piles and piles of newspapers from my fieldwork excursions with interesting articles marked with post-it notes. Read More…