Author Archives | Luisa Beck

The Joy of Uprooting (One’s Own) Assumptions

Editor’s Note: There’s much to find on the Internet that is either ethnographically-inspired or that may inspire ethnographers.  Here our guest contributor Luisa Beck offers some comments on a blog post and a TED talk. She presents them in the style of the original weblogs that curated good finds from around the Internet. – Jenna

This week, a bit of browsing indulgence led me to discover a blog post and TED talk with a common theme – the delight of having one’s own assumptions undone.  It’s an experience ethnographers often seek out. But it’s refreshing to hear it described by others as something positive, even joyful.

In a recent blogpost, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Civic Media Lab and co-founder of Global Voices, an international blogging platform, describes a trip to Kenya in which he and his students wanted to test out an idea for a piece of hardware designed to help people in nations where electric power is scarce sell power to their neighbors. Once in Kenya, Ethan and his grad students travel to Baba Dogo, an intended industrial area on the outskirts of Nairobi where thousands of people live (the people Ethan talks to call it an “upscale slum”, using terms that have become common in a place where slum tourism is a lucrative business). They discover that their assumptions about power scarcity, people’s reluctance to pay for power, and the effort it would take to convince people to start micro-scale power businesses, were wrong. People living in Baba Dogo had ways of dealing with power scarcity that made sense only in the cultural, social and economic context particular to the place.  “We had to understand that not all commerce in the neighborhood was about the exchange of money for goods or services – often businesses provide favors to one another in complex webs of obligation,” Ethan writes.

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