Author Archives | Heather Ford

The Person in the (Big) Data

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This edition of is jam-packed with methods for doing people-centred digital research and is edited by Heather Ford, newly-appointed Fellow in Digital Methods at the University of Leeds and thus super excited to understand her role as an ethnographer who (also) does digital methods.

Today we launch the next edition of Ethnography Matters entitled: ‘Methods for uncovering the Person in the (Big) Data’.  The aim of the edition is to document some of the innovative methods that are being used to explore online communities, cultures and politics in ways that connect people to the data created about/by them. By ‘method’, we mean both the things that researchers do (interviews, memo-ing, member checking, participant observation) as well as the principles that underpin what many of us do (serving communities, enabling people-centred research, advocating for change). In this introductory post, I outline the current debate around the risks of data-centric research methods and introduce two principles of people-centric research methods that are common to the methods that we’ll be showcasing in the coming weeks.

As researchers involved in studying life in an environment suffused by data, we are all (to at least some extent) asking and answering questions about how we employ digital methods in our research practice. The increasing reliance on natively digital methods is part of what David Berry calls the “computational turn” in the social sciences, and what industry researchers recognize as moves towards Big Data and the rise of Data Science.

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Digital Methods‘ by Richard Rogers (2013)

First, a word on digital methods. In his groundbreaking work on digital methods, Richard Rogers argued for a move towards natively digital methods. In doing so, Rogers distinguishes between methods that have been digitized (e.g. online surveys) vs. those that are “born digital” (e.g. recommender systems), arguing that the Internet should not only be seen as an object for studying online communities but as a source for studying modern life that is now suffused by data. “Digital methods,” writes Rogers, “strives to follow the evolving methods of the medium” by the researcher becoming a “native” speaker of online vocabulary and practices.

 

The risks of going natively digital

There are, however, risks associated with going native. As ethnographers, we recognize the important critical role that we play of bridging different communities and maintaining reflexivity about our research practice at all times and this makes ethnographers great partners in data studies. Going native in this context, in other words, is an appropriate metaphor for both the benefits and risks of digital methods because the risk is not in using digital methods but in focusing too much on data traces.

Having surveyed some of debates about data-centric methodology, I’ve categorized the risks according to three core themes: 1. accuracy and completeness, 2. access and control, 3. ethical issues. Read More…

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Christine Hine on virtual ethnography’s E3 Internet

christine_hine_thumbnailChristine Hine is an early pioneer of virtual ethnography and has been at the forefront of movements towards redefining ethnography for the digital age. She is currently a Reader at the University of Surrey’s Sociology Department.

Editor’s note: In this post for our Being a student ethnographer series, I talked to Christine Hine about her forthcoming book, ‘Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday’ due out next year. In this interview, Christine talks about the current phase in virtual ethnographic practice, about what are her latest research interests, and about a framework that she believes can help ethnographers understand how to adapt their practice to suit multi-modal communication environments. 

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

HF: What do you think are the key challenges that ethnographers face in trying to study the Internet today?

CH: Robinson and Schulz, in their 2009 paper, describe evolving forms of ethnographic practice in response to the Internet and digitally mediated environments. They divide this into three phases that include a) pioneering, where cyberethnographers focused on issues of identity play and a separation between online and offline identities 2) legitimizing (in which my own work is situated) where ethnographers explored the use of offline methods in the online sphere and, 3) multi-modal approaches where ethnographers are concerned with how participants combine different modes of communication.

I believe that we are still in the process of having to legitimize cyber ethnography and that multi-modal approaches are a worthy goal for virtual ethnography. The key challenge here is in understanding how to do multi-modal studies. This is especially challenging since the ethnographer’s toolkit changes with every new setting. We don’t know what that toolkit consists of because every time we do a new study, we have to choose what combination of sites, methods, writing practices and techniques we need to use. Read More…

Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer

Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 12.53.11 PMFor four years, Bradley Garrett (@Goblinmerchant) explored abandoned hospitals, railways, tunnels and rooftops as part of his PhD ethnography studying an elite group of urban explorers. 

Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.

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Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything” documents his ethnography of urban explorers

When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.

The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”. Read More…

November 2013: Being a student ethnographer

THeather Ford his month’s theme is about what it means to be a student ethnographer and is edited by Ethnomatters co-founder, Heather Ford (@hfordsa), a current DPhil (PhD) student who believes that she will forever be a student of ethnography.

I remember the first time I adopted an ethnographic persona – very tentatively and with a great deal of trepidation. I’d applied for a job as an ethnographer with Ushahidi after graduating from my Masters degree and was miraculously accepted – miraculous because most ethnographer jobs require at least a PhD, not to mention loads of ethnographic experience. The stars were aligned… or were they?

This was the first time that Ushahidi had hired an ethnographer; it was the first time that the funding body that would help to pay my salary had invested in ethnographic research; it was my first ethnography job and my first ethnographic project. Firsts for everyone are really exciting, and I was lucky to be working for an organisation that supported me despite my lack of ethnographic experience. But ethnography doesn’t accord with the usual tenor of development projects and we faced a number of challenges that, looking back on it now, were bound to happen; challenges that, in the end, had really good results but meant that things weren’t exactly plain sailing en route.

In my first few months at the job, I heard things like: ‘You really need to have a PhD to say you’re an ethnographer’ or: ‘Only anthropologists can claim to do real ethnography’. This was all very interesting but I’d just received a job as an ethnographer and I couldn’t exactly ask for them to take it back. So I did what I always do when faced with a crisis: I gathered a bunch of much more experienced and knowledgeable people together to help me discover what exactly it meant to be an ethnographer. I knew that there were many of us who were asking similar questions and that the “ethnography + digital/networked/technology” space was burgeoning in many quarters. Read More…

An exchange platform for “trash”: Stories from the Object Ethnography Project

Editors’ note: In this final post of our Ethnographies of Objects edition, we talk to Max Liboiron, Founding Member & Project Leader of the Object Ethnography Project (OEP). The OEP is a project to facilitate the donation of objects among strangers. You can participate in the exchange by telling a story of what attracted you to the object and what you’ll will do with it, and then anyone else can trade an object for a new story. Here, Max shares some of the site’s most interesting stories – some strange, some wonderful and some just plain heartbreaking. Circulating objects in this way shows us how objects can be performative: their meanings arise through a performance with the object in particular contexts. The material boundaries of the object are important to understand in order to imagine their possible futures, but perhaps more important are the spaces they take up in peoples’ lives – in homes, within memory, as gifts and symbolic exchanges. We can’t wait to be a part of an OEP exchange and we’re sure you will too after you read this…

EM: What was the inspiration for the project? 

Originally, the Object Ethnography Project (OEP) was going to be an exchange platform for trash. NYU’s Lucrece Project was sponsoring interdisciplinary methodology projects, and I put out a call for people to create a cultural laboratory looking at waste and value. The original plan was basically an extension of my art practice: I create large-scale miniature dioramas made of trash, and people can interact with the art according to one or two rules of exchange. I use their behaviours to map spontaneous, usually non-capitalist economies.

But the OEP evolved beyond that through a collaboration with Marisa Solomon, an anthropologist, and Vincent Lai, a member of the Fixers Collective. We came together because we were all keen on waste, but we opened up the project so all sorts of objects could be part of an investigation about how terms of value are manifested via circulation and the varied relationships between people and things. Read More…

Faked photographs and objects of journalism in the late 19th Century

tucherEditors’ note: In our installment of August’s Ethnographies of Objects edition, we hear from Andie Tucher about the curious image below that of a ‘Silent City’ that was later found to be fake and about the celebration of faking as a response to the so-called “ultra-realism” of the time. Andie Tucher is an associate professor and the director of the Communications PhD Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her exploration of faked photographs is part of a work in progress investigating the evolution of truth-telling conventions in journalism. A former journalist, she earned her PhD in American Civilization from New York University.

In 1888 Dick Willoughby, a prospector and certified “character” in Alaska, was charging 75 cents apiece for copies of this photograph, which he said showed the mirage of a “silent city” arising from the Muir glacier. Soon, however, critics unmasked it as the image of a random English city superimposed on one of a glacier, and explicitly condemned it as a “fake.” But while that effort at faking was clearly bad, it’s also not representative of what for a brief time photographic faking was understood to be. Less than a decade after Willoughby’s disgrace, many commercial and artistic photographers were cheerily and publicly discussing how faking could be good and deliberately applying the otherwise disreputable term to a range of generally benign retouching techniques.

For my research into the evolution of conventions of journalistic truth-telling, I often find it useful to analyze the ways a particularly resonant word was used by journalists and the public in the general and professional press—the closest a historian can come to exploring social meanings through participant observation. Read More…

Objects of Journalism: Bar Rags and the AIDS Virus

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Editors’ note: Joe Cutbirth (@joecutbirth) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, New York. He writes about politics and the media for the Huffington Post and at his home blog, joecutbirth.com, a blog by a Texas expat adjusting to life as a New Yorker. In this interview for this month’s ‘Ethnographies of Objects’ edition, Joe talks about his fascinating work investigating a particular object of journalism produced in his home state of Texas in the 1980s: the “bar rag”. Here, he talks about the journalism, the AIDS virus and what it means to live through a time in which he now is a scholar. 


EM: How can a deadly virus and a free entertainment guide become objects of journalism?

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‘This Week in Texas’ cover image. March 17-23, 1979

One of the key lessons in modern media history is that journalism exists in a host of forms and delivery systems that are created and shaped by social, political, economic, and technological forces. Journalism is a term for both a set of social practices and the commodities those practices produce. Neither is static. Journalistic practices and products vary in different times and in different places and when done by different people for different audiences. They are fluid forms of inquiry that produce a fluid set of products that reflect factual events of public interest. Journalism is shaped and supported by objects. Some are innately journalistic; others are not.

Journalistic objects include cameras, tape recorders and other technologies that make it easier for journalists to practice their craft. They also include public records, news releases and other documents that assist in the inquiry that is the heart journalistic practice. So, what about nonjournalistic objects, items that aren’t created to help journalistic practice or to function as a journalistic product?

Nonjournalistic objects, such as the AIDS virus and free entertainment guides known as “bar rags,” are easy to overlook because they exist outside the routines that make up the everyday world of journalism. Yet, that very condition makes them essential to explore. A scholarly examination of the circumstances and processes that bring nonjournalistic objects into the world of journalism opens an important window into both journalistic practice and product. Read More…

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?

"Hardware"

Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’. Read More…

Onymous, pseudonymous, neither or both?

Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: For our Virtual Identity edition, contributing editor Heather Ford (@hfordsa) explores the complications of attribution and identification in online research. Are members of online communities research subjects, research participants, amateur artists? When is online participation public, private, or something in between?

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Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

Pic by moriza on Flickr, CC BY NC SA

When I published one of my first studies of online communities as part of my master’s research, I came up against one of the most challenging aspects of online research: how to reflect the identity of one’s research participants. I had been observing an open educational content community and quoted one of the participants’ missives from the publicly available mailing list without referring to his name or username. I had thought that this was the right thing to do: to anonymize the data, thus protecting the subjects. But the “subject” was angry that he had been quoted “without attribution”. And he was right. If I was really interested in protecting the privacy of my subjects, why would I quote his sentence when anyone could probably Google it and find out who wrote it.

Since then, my process has evolved a lot, but I still send my research participants a draft of my paper before it gets published so that they can choose whether I a) anonymize their statements b) attribute according to their usernames or c) attribute their full (“real”) names. But the process becomes unwieldy when doing detailed content analysis (or “trace ethnography” as per Geiger and Ribes) on Wikipedia where only some editors accept email and where other editors may have left the project. These are publicly available statements on a website that is explicitly open for copying and remixing, but I’m also taking those statements out of the context in which they are written. This is technically a “remix” but may make some editors uncomfortable.

So, do I quote users and attribute their comments to their username on publicly accessible websites like Wikipedia? Or do I need to get their written permission where they choose whether they want me to attribute their name, username, both or neither? Read More…

Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Heather Ford

Heather Ford

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.

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A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

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In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations. Read More…