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Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

WendyHsu_pinecone Editor’s note: This is the final post in Wendy Hsu‘s 4-part series, On Digital Ethnography. Wendy asks what does an ethnography beyond text and print look like? To answer this question, she calls on us to reconsider what counts as “ethnographic knowledge.” Wendy provides examples of collaborative multimedia projects that are just as “ethnographic” in nature as a traditional ethnographic monograph. The first post in the On Digital Ethnography series called for ethnographers to use computer software, the second post introduced readers to her methods of deploying computer programs to collect quantitative data, and the third post urged ethnographers to pay more attention to the sounds, sights, and other material aspects of our field research.  Wendy @WendyFHsu  is an ACLS Public Fellow working with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affair. She recently finished her term as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College and completed her dissertation on the spread of independent rock music.

Yea, as a fellow with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, I have a mission to innovate and technologize the department. I’m spearheading the department’s web redesign project — thinking about how to better articulate our work, outreach to constituents, and digitize some of our services. I’m still wearing my ethnographer’s hat, thinking about how to cull through the vast amount of data related to arts and culture here at the city, and leveraging social media and other mobile/digital data to better understand the impact of our work. I’m also working with the City’s Information Technology Agency to join efforts in their Open Data initiative with the goal to augment civic participation through innovation projects like civic hacking.

Ethnography means fieldwork or field research – a set of research practices applied for the purpose of acquiring data; but the term also refers to the descriptive representation of one’s fieldwork. In my series on digital ethnography so far, I have discussed how digital and computational methods could enhance how we as ethnographers acquire, process, explore, and re-scale field data. In this last post, I will shift my focus away from field research to discuss the process of “writing up” field findings. I ask: How might the digital transform the way we communicate ethnographic information and knowledge?

I pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of expression of academic ethnographic practices. Early in graduate school, I learned that the eventual outcome of doing ethnographic research is the publication of a monograph. People around me use the word “monograph” to refer to a book-length treatment of research of a single subject published by an academic press [they looks something like what’s shown in Figure 1]. This is, however, one of many definitions of monograph (apparently humanists have a definition stricter than scientists and librarians). Burrell attributes the scarcity of academic publication to economic reasons, and suggests online publishing as a potential solution to remedy the cost of print-based publishing and to enable the integration of visual materials in publications.

Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Figure 1: Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Ethnography, based on the Greek root of “graph,” means the representation of field experience, findings, and analysis through the medium of writing. But writing, denoted by the word “graph,” may have always been used to refer to textual means of representation (i.e. what we think of as writing), but there are instances of this root referring to non-textual means such as photograph, lithograph, phonograph, heliograph, etc. The ambiguity of writing as a medium that can be either textual or nontextual has been with us since the invention of these words.

I’m not advocating for abolishing academic book publishing. Others have and have discussed the economic and ideological structure that supports academic publishing and valorizes the monograph.) Instead, I want to make room for a serious consideration of ethnographic expressions that are not strictly based in text, either in the form of a book or a journal article, but are dynamically articulated in interactive and multimediated systems afforded by digital technology. Some of you might find this claim to be professionally irrelevant to you, if your preoccupation with ethnography falls outside of the academy. But the concerns and techniques that I will talk about may pique your interest as you consider the ways to communicate findings and analysis to clients, collaborators, and stakeholders.

If we open up the definition of ethnography beyond text and print, then we can start to envision a media-enriched, performative, and collaborative space for ethnographers to convey what they have encountered, experienced, and postulated. Utilizing the affordances of digital media, ethnographic knowledge can be stored, expressed, and shared in ways beyond a single medium, direction, and user. In what follows, I will outline a few computational practices, platforms, and projects to illustrate these points. Read More…

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Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Editor’s note: This report is the final post in the Innovation in Asthma Research series. It shares with readers how anyone can contribute to The Asthma Files’s research. Catch up on the first post in this series that explained the project history and the second post that took us into the project’s knowledge platform. In our ongoing efforts at Ethnography Matters to highlight innovative ethnographic research, we believe The Asthma Files is a great example of how ethnographers are tying insights to action. In this case, The Asthma Files is collecting data to advance asthma research and environmental public health work.

In our previous posts, we’ve talked about why we chose to study asthma ethnographically, and how working with the platform helps us rethink the way we do ethnography. In this concluding post, we’ll talk more about how other researchers and citizens can become involved with The Asthma Files.

Participating in The Asthma Files can take on many forms. Whether a researcher, student, or member of the non-academic public, it is possible to take part in the research project. Since its onset, the project was designed to draw in many kinds of participants.

The first kind of participant consists of ethnographers and other cultural analysts who want to work with materials archived in The Asthma Files, contribute new materials or create new asthma files.

For example, one researcher recently uploaded a series of photographs and images from Compton, CA, to document the heavy historical presence of chemical and petroleum refineries around an area heavily populated historical disadvantaged groups.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

Our repository is publicly accessible, and contains sections to archives such things as primary material, grey matter, and media files. We’ve provided step-by-step instructions on how to upload material to the site once you’ve created an account. This will allow your material to be easily available to anyone wishing to use it for research or informational purposes.

timeliness Read More…

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

Editor’s Note: This post for the February ‘Openness Edition‘ comes from Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina who discuss their project to facilitate personal storytelling by homeless youth from Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The team from the Media Design Practices/ Field Track program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California had so much success with the timeline structure that they’re packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. and releasing it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field. This kind of repurposing of ethnographic tools is exactly the kind of sharing that we get excited about at EM and we encourage others to share their own tools and work processes in similar ways.

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jovenestimeline1

Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Ethnography has a lot to offer design, as evidenced by the growing field of design and design-related research informed by the methods and practices of anthropology.  Within this emerging interdisciplinary space, the design community and the anthropological community now have an opportunity to ask the question – “If anthropology has offered so much for design – what can design offer anthropology?”

We explored this question as part of our work with Jovenes, Inc., a center for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for youth to tell their personal stories and experiences. These stories would assist the organization in learning more about its constituency and support applications for additional funding to improve its programming and services. We worked in the vein of Participatory Action Research, by Alice McIntyre, taking a collaborative approach to the design and storytelling process, ensuring that both the youths’ untapped creative abilities and our expertise and research were consistently utilized throughout the experience. Read More…

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool

JSpyerEditor’s note:  In this post for February’s Openness Edition, Juliano Spyer (@jasper) explains how he created a video logging (vlogging) survey that took on a life of its own within the YouTube vlogging community, and discusses how his research instrument became valuable not only for the himself, the researcher, but for the researched community. Juliano has invited us to respond to his initial post and to experiment with this exciting new survey form. 

Juliano is a Brazilian ethnographer who is currently doing his PhD at University College London’s Anthropology Department where he is part of the Social Networking and Social Science Research Project.

Check out other posts from the Openness Edition: Jenna Burrel’s ‘#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community‘ and Sarah Kendzior’s ‘On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet‘.
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Think of a survey where the presence of the researcher is not required. Think of a questionnaire that is spontaneously answered and also recommended to others inside a network of friends and peers. Think of a situation where the research results do not go exclusively to the researcher, but remain within the researched community and operate as an archive of group knowledge. I have found that all this is possible through video tagging.

What are video tags?

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

In 2011, as I conducted an ethnographic study of YouTube beauty gurus, I learned that the vlogging community uses roughly two genres of videos: tutorials, which are step-by-step instructions on how to create a makeup look, and “video tags” or just “tags”, a more personal type of communication which consists of questionnaires created and circulated inside the community.

The term “tag”, here, has at least two meanings: tag as the topic or subject of the questionnaire and tag as the action of inviting (“tagging”) your friends at the end of the questionnaire so they can also answer the questions and bring more people to participate. Levels of participation begin with watching and commenting, then answering tags created by others, then creating original tags.

I won’t go into why users do what they do here. It is enough to say that video tags are a way for participants of a certain community of practice to socialize, to get to know more about the people they admire, as well as to forge new relationships. And for those who decide to respond to the tags, it is a way of becoming known by others in this “informal realm” (Winkler Reid 2010) where a person’s reputation corresponds to the number of subscribers that person’s channel has. Read More…

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet

sarahkendziorEditor’s note: In this thoughtful piece for February’s Openness Edition, Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) discusses the ways in which the internet has transformed the relationship between the writer and the people about whom he or she writes. Sarah has written extensively about open access to scholarly publications (‘one paper (she) uploaded to Academia.edu… helped Uzbek refugees find a safe haven abroad’, according to one interview). In this post, Sarah writes about a deeper question regarding the openness of the research process and the ways in which the internet has led to a leveling of the playing fields in a way that some anthropologists would rather ignore than confront. After all, when the “subaltern speaks” and anyone, not just anthropologists, can hear, who exactly is doing the exposing?

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist and communications scholar who studies digital media and politics. Her home blog is at sarahkendzior.com

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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In the hallway of my anthropology department there was a map of the world. The map was covered with photos of students in the field, their exact location pinpointed by an image on a string. Every year, the academic coordinator would send out a call to students for a representative photo to add to the map, and every year, I failed to respond.

During the bulk of my dissertation fieldwork, I lived in Missouri. The people I wrote about, Uzbek exiled political dissidents, lived all around the world — in Sweden, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, the United States, Turkey. Having fled a brutal crackdown following a massacre of civilians, they lived lives of constant upheaval, on the move and on the run. They thought less about where they were than they did about Uzbekistan, the one place they could not go. They spent most of their time online, talking to each other and talking to me. I could not go to Uzbekistan either, since my previous articles criticized its authoritarian regime.

birdamlik_computer

This picture shows the inside of the truck of the leader of the Birdamlik People’s Movement, an Uzbek opposition group. Birdamlik has branches in over a dozen countries (including Uzbekistan) but they are organized through the internet. The leader of the movement works in the US as a truck driver, and he calls this his “mobile office” — a communications center set up inside his 18-wheeler. The computer screen shows the Birdamlik website, which is banned in Uzbekistan. Pic by Sarah Kendzior (all rights reserved)

The online communities of exiled dissidents made for an interesting dissertation. But it posed a problem when it came to the department map. Should I mark every point on the map or none of them? Should I designate Uzbekistan somehow – a skull and crossbones, a circle with a slash? What was my “representative image” – an activist curled up with his laptop, updating his Facebook status? A blogger staring at Cyrillic on a screen? Me, alone at my desk, checking my email?

No one wants to see these things. No one wants to see visual documentation of their own online lives, much less the lives of others. It is the academic version of the tabloid reveal – “Uzbek dissidents – they’re just like us!” Such banality runs counter to anthropological advertising. The purpose of the department map was to show visitors that our research subjects are not just like us – but that we, for a time, could be just like them.

I was like the people I studied too, in that none of us have a place within the traditional conception of anthropological fieldwork. We were too much on the move, or we were not moving enough. Read More…

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s note: While ethnographers sometimes encounter resistance from their research subjects, it’s not everyday that these subjects threaten to harm or otherwise humiliate the researcher. In her second guest post,Whitney Phillips @wphillips49  tells us how she responded to threats from the community she was studying. Whitney also shares with us how she adjusted her everyday life to her research, how she handled professors’ concerns, and how her analysis evolved over time.  

Whitney also reflects on earlier criticisms of her work, giving us an intimate sense of how she negotiated her position within her fieldwork. 

 Her second post is a fantastic follow up to her riveting post from last month about her ethnographic work on an anonymous community, internet trolls.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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As promised in my last post, this post will discuss my role as a participant observer in the 2008-2012 troll space. It was weird, I hinted, which really is the only way to describe it. Because space is limited, I’m going to focus on three points of overlapping weirdness, namely troll blindness, real and perceived apologia, and ethnographic vampirism. There are other stories I could tell, and other points of weirdness I could discuss, but these are moments that taught me the most, for better and for worse.

sagan trollsss

It’s Just a Death Threat, Don’t Worry About It

For the first few years of my research project, I kept the lowest public profile possible. I had published a short thought piece on trolls’ relationship to 2009’s Obama/Joker poster, but otherwise was conducting my research in stealth mode. My friends knew what I was working on, sort of, and whenever I could I angled seminar papers towards my dissertation project (an especially neat trick in the Piers Plowman class I took during my third year of coursework). So my work wasn’t top secret, but it wasn’t something you could easily find just by Googling my name — which was exactly how I wanted it.

This changed after I started working on Facebook memorial page trolling (RIP trolling for short), which could run the gamut from harassing so-called “grief tourists,” people who post condolence messages onto the Facebook RIP pages of dead strangers, all the way to attacking the friends and family of murdered teenagers. By 2010, and spurred by that year’s series of gay teen suicides (the coverage of which trolls were more than happy to exploit), memorial page trolling was shaping into a pretty major news story. Because my University of Oregon student bio had recently been updated to include information about my research on the subject, media outlets began reaching out. I did one newspaper interview, which lead to another, which resulted in my name and information being posted onto 4chan’s /b/ board, one of the internet’s most notorious trolling hotspots (my article on /b/ can be found here). Read More…

On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)

WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Unlike other posts that start off text or images, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu opens up her third post in her guest series on digital ethnography with sound. She wants us to click PLAY before reading on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use sound in your fieldwork, you’ll still find this to be a useful exercise in opening your ethnographic ears.

After you click PLAY,  you’ll appreciate Wendy’s message: our fieldsites are rich with sound data that carries a lot of meaning. She closes her post with a great discussion theorizing digital ethnography as horizontal versus vertical immersion.

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Above is a field recording of mini pinball machines that I collected in the Lungtan township in Taiwan. In it, you can hear the sounds of the machines, scooters, and a conversation that I had with my father while we were trying to figure out how to play the pinball machines. This field recording is rich in texture and meaning.

I know that not all ethnographers work with sound. But I do think that it could be useful to reconsider the sonic (and by extension, the visual) dimensions of our work. I propose an engagement with the textures of human speech in its original sonic. This approach counters the traditional emphasis on text and its impulse to textualize sound in ethnography. This perhaps is most on conspicuous in the practice of transcribing interviews.

You all can probably recall moments of dealing with the complexity of meaning embedded in the tone or the delivery of oral content in interviews. There are sounds of the environment that the informant has chosen to carry out an interview or interact with. Do these sounds reveal anything about the speaker and her relationship to her physical and social environment? Are there other voices in the room? Incidental sounds? Does the tone of the speaker react to and interact with the sounds of the environment in anyway? Where are the points of dissonance and resonance? Read More…

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)

whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s Note: Reddit. Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. These days it’s difficult to go anywhere online without encountering an anonymous troll (or ten). Debates about trolling, which is best described as deliberately antagonistic or otherwise provocative online speech and behavior, have even seeped into congressional hearingsIn research conducted between 2008 and 2012, Whitney Phillips @wphillips49 –who received her PhD in English with a Digital Culture/Folklore emphasis from the University of Oregon– investigated the origins and subcultural contours of online trolling. Using a combination of cultural studies, new media studies and ethnography, Whitney postulated that there is more to trolls and trolling behaviors than detractors might initially think. 

The subject of Whitney’s research leads us to ask, how does one conduct ethnographic research on an anonymous, and at times malicious, online population? In the first post of her three-part guest series, Whitney shares with us how she tackled the ethical pitfalls of her groundbreaking research. She also discusses how these pitfalls allowed her to make larger claims about trolling, with particular focus on the striking overlap between trolling and mainstream behaviors.  We look forward to her next post on her participant observation expeditions with trolls.       

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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My name is Whitney Phillips, and I study trolls. Well, not just trolls. I’ve also written about meme culture, so-bad-it’s-good fan engagement (my essay on the kuso aesthetic in Troll 2 is forthcoming in Transformative Works and Cultures), and online shaming. But for the better part of five-ish years, my life has revolved around trolls and the trolls who troll them. The title of my dissertation—THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embeddedness of Online Trolling—pretty much says it all.

As I will discuss in this and several subsequent guest posts, my research experiences have been something of a mixed bag. Writing about trolls (to say nothing about working with trolls) has certainly been engaging, but has also proven to be the most consistently frustrating, challenging, and at times downright infuriating endeavor I have ever attempted. Which is one of the main reasons it has been so engaging, go figure.

Because in the end, it was the complications—the incomplete data sets, the trolls’ endless prevarications, the incessant march of subcultural change—that gave rise to my basic argument, the nutshell version of which can be found in my response to the Violentacrez controversy. As I argue, trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scavenge and repurpose mainstream content, allowing one to extrapolate what’s going on in the dominant culture by examining what’s going on in the troll space. I could not have written my way into this argument if things had gone according to plan. I needed those roadblocks, even if at the time they made me want to rip out my hair.

Read More…

“Curious Rituals”: behind the scenes of a speculative ethnographic project

Cell phone inserted in a helmet

Cell phone usage by a courier in Seoul, Korea.

Curious rituals” is a research project I’ve conducted last summer as a visiting researcher at the Art Center School of Design (Media Design Practice program) in Pasadena, CA. The aim was to (a) investigate the gestures and postures people do when using digital devices,  and (b) speculate about their near future. The project book can be found for free as a PDF and printed as a book on Lulu.
General interest

There’s a quote by Science-Fiction author William Gibson that I like a lot; it reflects what I am interested in.

I’m trying to make the moment accessible. I’m not even trying to explain the moment, I’m just trying to make the moment accessible.” (from a documentary film called No Maps for These Territories“).

The reason I find it fascinating is simply that there’s a great value in producing description and making social situations and people’s behavior intelligible. Although the field studies conducted in ethnographic research can (and do) help craft theoretical constructs or models, the accurate and detailed description of what happens before our eyes is also important. This descriptive dimension is probably of interest to me because I work in the design department of an art school. A descriptive understanding of reality may be sufficient enough to inspire or frame the work of practitioners (while theories may be a bit more difficult to be digested). This is a general starting point in my work, which does not necessarily means that it’s a-theoretical (this choice itself emerges out of my interest in Grounded Theory anyways).

Why this topic?

Over the last five years, I’ve worked on different projects related to digital technologies: gesture-based interface in video-games, remote-control as gaming devices, touch interfaces, the user experience of virtual reality goggles, etc. The investigation addressed various angles but I noticed a common thread in the results: the body language people develop when using digital devices such as cell phones, laptops, robots, game controllers, sensors or any interface that involved ICTs. I started compiling examples, mostly via pictures one can find in my Flickr stream. The intuition was that it would be intriguing to explore that domain, and understand the underlying issues related to such habits. The opportunity to spend two months at the Media Design Practice department at Art Center College of Design in California then came as relevant context to investigate this topic more thoroughly.

With the team (Kathy Myiake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu), we chose to use the term “rituals” without the religious or solemn connotation, referring instead to a series of actions regularly and invariably followed by someone. Read More…

Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes

anxiao.headshot.headshoulders.200pxEditor’s Note:  At Ethnography Matters, we love featuring the new generation of ethnographers who are experimenting with innovative techniques.

An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio is a researcher, design strategist, and artist. She moved to Uganda for a few months to conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Instead of just using a traditional field toolkit (audio recorder, camera, notebook, laptop), An Xiao also incorporated social media apps into her documentation practice. In her first guest post on Ethnography Matters, An Xiao shares with us her methods for using Instagram and Tumblr to live fieldnote

An Xiao plays a central role in leading the ethnographic documentation of global memes. Her most recent talk dissects the political nature of memes in China. She writes about design and people on Core 77.  She has a  beautiful piece on the close collaboration of artists and villagers to save a Chinese village from demolition in Design Observer. And follow her on Instagram (@anxiaostudio) and tumblr for live fieldnotes! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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xinhuanateete

In October and part of November, I had the privilege to live and work in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and to spend additional time in nearby areas such as Masaka in Western Uganda and Oyam in Northern Uganda.  As I was traveling to explore technology use in urban and rural contexts around the country, I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice live fieldnotes on Tumblr and Instagram, a technique I picked up from Tricia Wang’s ethnographic practice.

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I found that live fieldnotes came naturally to me.  I took photos with multiple cameras–a Canon SLR, a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot, and of course my iPhone.  Thanks to Apple’s camera connection kit, I used my iPad to consolidate images, highlight my favorites, and then queue them up on Instagram.  Since I did not have regular internet access either via wifi or 3G, I would wait until I reached home to post them all.  The great convenience of Instagram is that it would then port the images directly to Tumblr and Flickr, where they would be tagged and sorted. Read More…