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“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

Phoenix JacksonPhoenix Jackson is a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a Cornelius Hopper Diversity Fellow with UCSF, and a Somatic Counseling Psychotherapy graduate student at John F. Kennedy University.
This post is re-blogged from the Center for Critical Public Health.

Editor’s note: My colleague Phoenix Jackson wrote these poignant field notes after we went out to recruit focus group participants for a study on health inequities among African American youth.

While following the #dangerousblackkids tag (started by @thewayoftheid and Mikki Kendall @karnythia) over the past few days, we were struck by parallels between Twitter users’ pushback against perceptions of Black youth as “dangerous” and the lived experiences of study participants evoked in these notes. 

Like #dangerousblackkids, this post highlights what’s omitted from dominant narratives about who is afraid and who is dangerous. Perhaps Michael Dunn was afraid of a group of teenagers in a car playing loud music. So afraid, in fact, that he took the life of a 17 year old child.

Who’s dangerous again?


[Slider image via @taciturnitis]

Street-level recruiting, downtown Oakland, Broadway 13th to 16th, Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly but officially known as Frank Ogawa Plaza). We’ve been talking to all kinds of people – students, workers, merchants, customers, pimps, players, hustlers, dealers, addicts, sex workers and eyeballing the BART police roust a youth for nothing that I saw. I’m standing in clouds of cannabis smoke exhaled from the people we’re talking to, and no longer feel how cold my head is. We’ve finally got our posse of people walking back to the office, and I’m struck by how secure one feels in a mass of people traditionally feared. People walking in the opposite direction make wide berth around us, and some look at me disapprovingly, and I wonder about what microaggressions these young men deal with as they move through their lives. And then the hardest and loudest of the bunch paces Rachelle and I talking strategy.

“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

There’s a smile, but it’s pointed, and I know they are checking my reaction. I smile at him as if to say, “I hear you,” but then gesture to my colleague known for being even more quiet than I am, saying with a chuckle, “You know, I’m not sure she and I can take all six of you in a head to head.”

Drawing by focus group participant

Drawing by focus group participant

Brother with the neck tattoo has been inside before. Jail. I know it without knowing it. We’re on the tail end of the three quarter mile walk back from street-level recruiting. One of the little hoppers (young hustlers) has already very pointedly asked if we’re FBI or with any kind of police. “Where? That building that got FBI in it?” He might as well not ask – my reassurances that they will leave our company unmolested are met with a tough-generous smirk and posture that lets me know he thinks the whole thing smells no matter what I say, but the steady footfalls and banter of the bigger, older muscle along with the joint being passed back and forth between them placates them enough for me to drawl, “They gone. They moved out of the building.”


“Dunno, and don’t want to. Ugh. We don’t get off into all that. Don’t nobody want to talk to the police more than they have to.”

Their thoughtful silent assent keeps us walking. Read More…

The ethics of openness: How informed is “informed consent”?

SteepRavineEditor’s note: In this final post for February’s ‘Openness Edition, Rachelle Annechino takes us on a journey with her to the homes of her research participants and asks some really important questions about the wild “foreign languages” (legalese/medical-ese) that supposedly produces “informed consent”, about the genesis of our understanding and practice of informed consent and challenges us to think about how we might redesign informed consent in our own projects. 


One open window (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

One open window (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Today I’m interviewing a couple of people who participate in a free program offered through a local hospital. The program mainly serves older adults who are dealing with a range of health issues, like diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Many of the participants belong to groups that are affected by health disparities (or “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations” as defined by the US CDC [1]).

After hanging out at the hospital for a bit to check out the program, I go to the home of a woman in her 60s who couldn’t come to the hospital today. We talk about the study, its risks and benefits. It’s a small exploratory study, some semi-structured interviews; the hospital IRB gave it an expedited review.

The benefits, I explain, are that this might help improve the program or keep the program going. There aren’t really any direct benefits to you though. We wish we had something to give you to thank you for participating. Basically what we’ll do is just sit here and talk. A risk is that some of the questions could be uncomfortable, but we can skip anything you want. If it’s okay with you, I will record the interview. We won’t put your name on the recording or use your name in reports on the interviews.

We have this standard consent form that the hospital uses, I say. It’s kind of long. We can go over what’s in it together, and please feel free to take as much time as you want to look it over…

Et cetera. As I’m saying this stuff, I’m cautiously drawing out the consent form.

Which is eight pages long.

And crazy.

Read More…

A Day in the Life: 3-wheeled Vehicle-based Fruit Vendor

imageEditor’s Note: A few weeks ago Fulbright Fellow Zach Hyman @SqInchAnthro introduced readers to the world of low-resource creativity in China. In this post he takes us into a day in the life of a 3-Wheeled Vehicle-based Fruit Vendor. Below is a rich ethnographic description, giving deep glimpses into the detailed financial exchanges and intricate processes that unfold in just one day. Zach concludes his post with several reflections on the social interactions that hold a day like this together.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers


Introduction: My preferred method for researching  how owners use and modify their vehicles is engaging in participant observation by riding along and working with them. Once I am able to break through the barrier of convincing vehicle owners that I am not afraid of “getting my hands dirty” and am eager to help them work, the stage is set for a day filled with insights as I work side by side with users in context and see firsthand the role their vehicle plays in their lives. This particular ride-along came relatively early on in my research, where I had the privilege of riding along with a fruit vendors who uses their three-wheeled vehicle 1) to transport fruit from the market to the point of sale, 2) as a means of displaying the fruit to customers, and 3) a storage solution for the fruit when the vehicle is parked at his home at the end of the day. In this post, I explore the first of these uses.

Market Time-Map 012113 JPEG

Click for larger version

6:50 AM: I am standing at the junction of the ShiQiao Bridge, in Chongqing, China. The sun is trying to pierce through the heavy morning mist. It is early October, I can barely see my breath, and the smell of diesel and exhaust begins to intensify with each passing minute I spend standing at this intersection of a tunnel and the 4-lane road that feeds into it. I am surprised at the lack of guidance provided to the lanes of merging drivers, and I stop keeping track after witnessing a dozen near misses. Surprisingly, there is not much honking, just labored, steady merging. I am not alone here – there are other people who have congregated at this natural pick-up point. Unlike myself, they are dressed for office jobs – two girls in matching formal uniforms and sporting gold plastic nametags. Another man wearing a loose-fitting suit, resting his black leather briefcase on the concrete divider as he leans against it on a piece of newspaper, eats dumplings held in a plastic bag. At 7:00 AM, a late-model Volkswagen Passat pulls up and the women jump in. The man continues to eat his dumplings.

Read More…

Where does ethnography belong? Thoughts on WikiSym 2012

On the first day of WikiSym last week, as we started preparing for the open space track and the crowd was being petitioned for new sessions over lunch, I suddenly thought that it might be a good idea for researchers who used ethnographic methods to get together to talk about the challenges we were facing and the successes we were having. So I took the mic and asked how many people used ethnographic methods in their research. After a few raised their hands, I announced that lunch would be spent talking about ethnography for those who were interested. Almost a dozen people – many of whom are big data analysts – came to listen and talk at a small Greek restaurant in the center of Linz. I was impressed that so many quantitative researchers came to listen and try to understand how they might integrate ethnographic methods into their research. It made me excited about the potential of ethnographic research methods in this community, but by the end of the conference, I was worried about the assumptions on which much of the research on Wikipedia is based, and at what this means for the way that we understand Wikipedia in the world. 

WikiSym (Wiki Symposium) is the annual meeting of researchers, practitioners and wiki engineers to talk about everything to do with wikis and open collaboration. Founded by the father of the wiki, Ward Cunningham and others, the conference started off as a place where wiki engineers would gather to advance the field. Seven years later, WikiSym is dominated by big data quantitative analyses of English Wikipedia.

Some participants were worried about the movement away from engineering topics (like designing better wiki platforms), while others were worried about the fact that Wikipedia (and its platform, MediaWiki) dominates the proceedings, leaving other equally valuable sites like Wikia and platforms like TikiWiki under-studied.

So, in the spirit of the times, I drew up a few rough analyses of papers presented.

(Wikipedia and its platform, MediaWiki are but one of a host of other wiki communities and platforms which is why I’ve distinguished between Wikipedia and others.)

It would be interesting to look at this for other years to see whether the recent Big Data trend is having an impact on Wikipedia research and whether research related to Wikipedia (rather than other open collaboration communities) is on the rise. One thing I did notice was that the demo track was a lot larger this year than the previous two years. Hopefully that is a good sign for the future because it is here that research is put into practice through the design of alternative tools. A good example is Jodi Schneider’s research on Wikipedia deletions that she then used to conceptualize alternative interfaces  that would simplify the process and help to ensure that each article would be dealt with more fairly.

Talking about ethnography?

I am still intrigued by the fact that so many quantitative analysts wanted to know about ethnography during our open space session. We started the session with those who had done ethnographic work talking about their experiences: Stuart Geiger talked about his ethnographic work on Wikipedia bots, Isis Amelie Hjorth talked about her ethnographic enquiry into Wreckamovie, the collaborative movie outfit from Finland and Paško Bilić discussed how he studied breaking news stories on Wikipedia. Others wanted to know how you even begin to do ethnographic research on Wikipedia when editors are a) anonymous and b) located all around the world. One participant said, “I’m faced with 3 million edits (in my dataset) and I have to say something about them. How do I even begin?” Read More…

From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures

Annie Lin. Pic by Guillaume Paumier CC BY 3.0

I’ve been trying to talk to Egyptian Wikipedia editors for a project about the experience of Wikipedia editors in the Middle East and am finding it really difficult to connect to relevant people through their Talk pages. And so I went to talk to Annie Lin, Global Education Program Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation about how she engaged with editors in Egypt at the start of a project to get students in local universities to write Wikipedia articles. In this interview, Lin talks about ways for outsiders to gain access by giving up power, encouraging participation and changing communication styles and platforms where the culture demands it. She’s given me some great things to think about as I build a more grounded understanding of editing in the Middle East, and I’m sure there are some gems in here that will help others as they think about doing ethnography starting from online places. 

Annie Lin is excited. The first pilot project that she oversaw in Cairo, Egypt to encourage students in local universities to contribute to Wikipedia has been a success – and although the term has ended, many students are still editing.

May was the last month of classes but a lot of students say they’ll keep editing. It seems that the students are excited about the idea that they’re contributing Arabic topics in the Arab world.

The pilot project, involving 60 students from 7 classes in 2 universities, had students create articles in Arabic Wikipedia either as part of the curriculum or as an extra curricula activity. An initial survey asking students what would motivate them to edit Wikipedia had a sense of contributing information about Egypt or the Arab world as the most common motivation. Lin says that when they show maps of Portuguese Wikipedia compared to Arabic Wikipedia, professors and students are shocked at the low numbers of Arabic articles. Read More…

Nymwars and Culture Clashes

Walking home from the downtown Oakland BART station a couple weeks ago I passed a young man standing on a street corner next to his bike. He was dressed all in black, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Kind of like this guy:

Image of protester wearing Guy Fawkes mask

Occupy PDX Anonymous ~ Image in public domain

I was freaked out and even vaguely offended by the mask, which seemed a bit hypocritical of me. I’m a big supporter of masks [1] of a sort online: the use of pseudonyms, multiple identities, and some forms of anonymity — and here was a guy wearing a mask linked to a group actually called Anonymous. So why was his  ‘real life’ mask disturbing? In a chapter from Communities in Cyberspace, Judith Donath observes:

In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor… The virtual world is different. [2]

Maybe I was freaked out by an implicit violation of the body as “stabilizing anchor” in the physical world?

But there are so many forms of media that extend people beyond their bodies. People write books (sometimes under pseudonyms), circulate tales through oral traditions, and are captured on audio and video and in photographs.

There’s something unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face, though.

My reaction to the guy in the mask reminded of Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger’s recent comments on a change in Google+’s policy on pseudonyms. Following several months of backlash (#nymwars) against the lockout of  G+ users suspected of using names they aren’t commonly addressed by in the “real” world, the policy was modified to prohibit names that aren’t “name-shaped”. Pseudonyms are acceptable, but the nym has to look like a “real name” (or “wallet name,” i.e., a name on official identification in your wallet) to Google [3].

Yunger explained this policy as an attempt to avoid “culture clashes,” writing:

Generally, if you know at least one person who has an unusual name, you’re likely to know a lot of such people; i.e., people with unusual names travel in tightly-connected clusters. That’s largely because these names tend to be tied to particular subcultures. The problem we’re really encountering here is of culture clashes: people from one culture absolutely freak out when they encounter people from a very alien culture.

Read More…

Online reputation: it’s contextual

This post is the first in a new category for Ethnography Matters called “A day in the life”. In it, I describe a day at a workshop on online reputation that I attended, reporting on presentations and conversations with folks from Reddit and Stack Overflow, highlighting four key features of successful online reputation systems that came out of their talks.

A screenshot from's sub-Redit, "SnackExchange" showing point system

We want to build a reputation system for our new SwiftRiver product at Ushahidi where members can vote on bits of relevant content related to a particular event. This meant that I was really excited about being able to spend the day yesterday at the start of a fascinating workshop on online reputation organised by a new non-profit organisation called Hypothesis. It seems that Hypothesis is attempting to build a layer on top of the Web that enables users, when encountering new information, to be able to immediately find the best thinking about that information. In the words of Hypothesis founder, Dan Whaley, “The idea is to develop a system that let’s us see quality insights and information” in order to “improve how we make decisions.” So, for example, when visiting the workshop web page, you might be able to see that people like me (if I “counted” on the reputation quality scale) have written something about that workshop or about very specific aspects of the workshop and be able to find out what they (and perhaps even I) think about it.

The organisers write that a reputation will be “a way for the user community to collectively calibrate the contributions of its members”. And if work of the new system will be “annotating” content on the web, then the reputation model will be an important part of that system. It turns out that calibrating contributions is not as easy as developing a scale and then marking a measure on a measuring jug. First you have to work out what the measure is. When is comes to peer production projects, the goal might be an vibrant volunteer community that comes together to produce something of public value. Wikipedia, for example, wants to see a growing volunteer community working together to build and improve a free encyclopedia, especially in areas that the encyclopedia is weak. Ushahidi, on the other hand, might want to see volunteers deploying and organizing around content in order to improve decision making and effective action in crisis situations.

When co-founder and general manager of the tremendously successful Stack Overflow and Reddit talked yesterday about how they developed their reputation systems, I was struck by the organic nature of their reputation model building process. Building reputation systems, it turns out, relies on an effective process more than a fancy algorithm. Successful codified reputation systems like those used by Stackoverflow and Reddit have developed their codes the way doctors grow skin on different parts of the body in order to use on other parts. Organically, along with the community, evolving in a process of increasingly shared responsibilities. Just the right amount of adherence to what the community currently values and how they already distribute rewards and attention, with just the right amount favoring or weighting of activities and values that achieved desired communal goals. Read More…