Tag Archives: software

Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.


In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/188629337/

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

Read More…

Technology and Fieldwork: Ethnographic quandaries

mcmanusJohn McManus studies Turkish football fans in the diaspora at Oxford University’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society (Compas).

Editor’s note: This event report is the final post in the ‘Being a student ethnographer‘ series. It documents a discussion – the third of the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group’s (OxDEG) events this term – dedicated to ‘technology and fieldwork’. Open to the entire university, OxDEG draws students and faculty from a wide variety of departments but is led by students from the Oxford Internet Institute and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. In this seminar, participants discussed what technologies are useful for ethnographers studying social activity in digital environments and recognized common concerns.

tech
Technology and Fieldwork, Fieldwork and Technology: this was a massive subject and we had only 90 minutes to discuss. Throw into the mix a broad range of disciplines (computing studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology), season with some striking subject matter (Wikipedia, ethnomusicology of the chip music scene, Uranium extraction in Tanzania) and what do you get?  A frank and wide-ranging debate on ethnography, in fact. The main “take away” message was, you are not alone. It was heartening to reach across the disciplinary boundaries and see that those in other departments are struggling with very similar theoretical and methodological problems.

Top on the list was the specialist language of computing – with its parsing, programming and algorithms – acting sometimes as a barrier to ethnographers engaging in innovative research methods. How to get over this hump? One suggestion was for a tweaking of anthropological methods training course. If you’re going to study Turkish village practices, you learn Turkish. Balinese Cockfights? Some sort of Indonesian might come in handy. Why, then, do we rarely hear departments exhorting potential digital ethnographers to go take a course in Python or some other programming language?  Read More…

On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Can ethnographers use software programs? Last month’s guest contributor, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu, says YES! In Part 1 of On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography?, Wendy introduced her process of using computer programming software to collect quantitative data in her ethnographic research. She received a lot of great comments and suggestions from readers. 

Part 2 of of Wendy’s Digital Ethnography series focuses on the processing and interpreting part. In fascinating detail, Wendy discusses mapping as a mode of discovery. We learn how using a customized spatial “algorithm that balances point density and readability” can reveal patterns that inform the physical spread of musicians’ fans and friends globally. Geo-location data clarified her qualitative data. We are already in great anticipation for Part 3! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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The Hsu-nami's Myspace friend distribution in Asia

Figure 0: The Hsu-nami’s Myspace friend distribution in Asia

In my last post, I introduced the idea of using webscraping for the purpose of acquiring relevant ethnographic data. In this second post, I will concentrate on the next step of the ethnographic process: data processing and interpreting. Remember The Hsu-nami, the band that I talked in the last post? The image above is a screenshot of their Myspace friend distribution, a map that I created for analyzing the geography of their community. This post is about the value of creating such maps. Read More…

Using online/offline methods: An ethnography of chip music and its scene

marilouEditor’s note: This week, Marilou Polymeropoulou, D.Phil student at the Oxford University Faculty of Music, talks about her work trying to understand creativity in chip music, a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame and computer consoles. For Marilou’s thesis entitled: “Limitation and Creativity in Chip Music: an Ethnographic Perspective”, she conducted online and offline ethnographic fieldwork among the transnational community of chip music for the last two years. The methodological focus of her work promotes an ethnomusicological perspective on creativity and assesses technology from a sociological viewpoint. Marilou developed a set of ethnomethodological tools to juxtapose and combine the online/offline binary which she talks about in her short post below. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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Desert Planet (FI) perform at Eindbaas 9 in Utrecht, NL (13/4/12)

Chip music is a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame consoles and computers such as Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amiga and the Nintendo Gameboy but also on any computer that can simulate the retro consoles’ sound chip. “Chiptunes”, “8-bit”, “micromusic” and “fakebit” are some terms associated with chip music. The chipscene is a transnational community which emerged online in late ’90s but its historical background is rooted deep into the ‘80s subcultural community, the Demoscene. Why use retro machines to create music? This is not the easiest question to answer. In some respects, it is all about expanding the limitations of these machines. “Why not?”, is a response I often receive by my informants. “It’s fun!” others acclaim.

Setting up the gear at the Analog Attack event, London, UK (7/4/12)

Ethnography assisted me in finding a meaningful truth of chip music and of what it has to offer to the academic discourse of music studies. The question is however, how does one conduct and juxtapose multi-sited and online ethnography with a transnational group of people? I used a selection of ethnographic methods, which can be summed up in the following bullet points:

  • Snowballing. My story with the chipscene begun when I met Tonylight a chiptune artist who was visiting Athens, Greece for an event. Tonylight introduced me to Javier, a director who was working on a documentary about the chipscene: “Europe in 8 bits” (see video). And from then on I met several people that were somehow connected.
  • Lurking. I lurked online in 8bitcollective.org (servers are down for about a year now) and micromusic.net for enough time in order to learn the dynamics of the community online.
  • Participant observation. I followed Javier’s team in Europe and I experienced chip music in a different cultural setting – in Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and Germany. In addition, I attended virtually events which were broadcast online (e.g. Eindbaas 8 in Utrecht and the last Blip Festival in Tokyo) where users had the opportunity to interact via a chat room.
  • Interviews. This was the starting point of my ethnography. However, chip music is part of club culture and it was not always possible to interview people for a variety of reasons. While I was in the field, I attempted to record an interview at every opportunity. With some informants I found correspondence via e-mail or Facebook to be more efficient.

Read More…

Anonymous and I [guest contributor]

Editor’s Note: Anonymous may still be a mysterious network, but there is one researcher who has helped the world better understand their activities, Gabriella Coleman. In this month’s guest post, Gabriella discusses how her research on Anonymous changed the way she conducted fieldwork: she moved from being a traditional anthropologist to a more public anthropologist.

Her post brings up issues that are central to the founding of Ethnography Matters – how to be an ethnographer today. Increasingly, ethnographers are engaging with the media either as commentators, pundits, or experts. By opening up our work to the public, we make it more accessible and immediate, but how does public engagement change the work we do? Especially when the engagement becomes a mode of access for data.

Gabriella’s intro to her post on Limn highlights the tensions she has experienced as her fieldwork with Anonymous has evolved over time. Is her work more about Anonymous or journalism? Or perhaps it is about something else? Share your thoughts in the comments.

With such a controversial topic, many institutions may shy away from hosting Gabriella. But not McGill University, where she holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department. Trained as an anthropologist, her work examines the ethics of online collaboration/institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. She’s writing a new book on Anonymous and digital activism. Follow her on twitter @biellacoleman.

Gabriella’s first book is coming out next month, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking. You can pre-order it on Amazon!  In the meantime, Gabriella’ sresearch publications and non-academic writing will keep up busy until the book arrives. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Ethnography Matters is always lining up guest contributors.  Send us an email!

–Tricia 

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When I first dove into the ethnographic study of Anonymous—the global protest movement known best for its digital protests tactics—I  never thought my project would also become one on journalists and hence the media.  But after about the 40th interview, it became pretty evident that this was a central part of my larger project and my ethnographic experience.

To have to be public about your work, while you are doing that work is no easy task; in fact it went against everything I was used to as anthropologist, which was to delve and burrow as deep as I could into a topic/world, and come out the tunnel on the other side, about a year later, ready to start conveying some insight and arguments. Read More…

The tools we use: Supporting Wikipedia analysis

The Ethnomatters team has been wanting to do a review of software tools for a while now but when we got down to writing them, we realized that there are already very comprehensive software reviews in places like the University of Surrey’s website. So we decided to rather compile short posts on the tools that each of us used in our last ethnographic project, highlighting what worked, what didn’t work and what we’re thinking of trying in the future. We’d love to hear from you about your own experiences so please feel free to add yours in the comments below for further reading!

For my latest project (“Understanding sources“), I needed to collect data from a really wide variety of sources. I had interview data, articles and papers from web, and then a multitude of Wikipedia talk pages, edits, history versions, related articles and image and video sources. For interviewing, I use my beautiful and incredibly trustworthy Zoom H2 audio recorder. I do my own transcriptions (as suggested by Jenna in order to get a really close understanding of the data) and for that I use ExpressScribe which seems to work pretty well. I like that you can use “hot keys” to stop and play and that the speed dial is in a good place for slowing down the dictation. Read More…