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random academic musings on ethnography - Accretions — LiveJournal

Fata Morgana
2006-06-09 14:22
random academic musings on ethnography
academics, chi, ethnography, research
I went to a great talk this morning, and then this and this show up in my RSS feed. It's going to be one of those high-energy research-ideas days, I can tell already. (And I remind those of you who think the day's half-over already that I'm not a morning person. :~))

It does make me wonder what all these folks really mean when they talk about "ethnography," though. I'm still learning what it means myself, and I probably won't start to have a good answer until I spend a few years in the field doing it (and of course, my definition would surely continue to shift and evolve past that, too). The inimitable Jean Lave, while liberal and accepting in so many ways, holds a very strict definition of ethnography (as do many ethnographers). Among other things, she says that one must have a long-term immersion in the culture under study (where long-term is on the order of years, not days). None of this "rapid ethnography" that seems to be popular in HCI, and none of this substituting the term "ethnographic" for "qualitative" willy-nilly. Long amounts of time are necessary for many reasons: it takes time to really understand all of the intricacies and different points of view within a community (and such an understanding both pays respect to the lives of one's subjects and to the research process), it takes time to realize and challenge the assumptions the researcher brings to the table, and it takes time to collect enough data to start building hypotheses from the ground-up, based on observations rather than preconceived notions of what might be interesting. And there are many more reasons, too.

There's another factor Jean Lave talks about in realizing and challenging our implicit assumptions, the second point above. Ethnographers seem to traditionally require that the culture under study is sufficiently different from the anthropologist's because otherwise, important cultural influences are as invisible as water is to a fish (or as the air we breathe is to us, I suppose). While having this as a hard-and-fast rule has been questioned and stretched to an extent, most still recognize that cultural familiarity does breed many assumptions and unspoken understandings.

Speaking of which, this is one thing that makes me most uncomfortable about quantitative studies. They can be immensely powerful, summarizing more data and investigating more users than a qualitative study ever could, but naturally there's still a degree of interpretation that is often not discussed: what is interesting to focus on, what kinds of data is collected, what kinds of hypotheses are made and what assumptions are built into them. There aren't as many opportunities to "test" assumptions "in the field" when one is doing quantitative research, and it's so easy to miss what's really important or find oneself at a loss when challenged with questions of why or how a community does what it does. Here it's unclear whether having familiarity with a culture is more of an asset or liability: it can lead to the same kinds of assumptions but it can also give you insights that you couldn't get from the data alone. It's a drawback on quantitative research generally, I guess. Just one of the many reasons I'm trying to figure out how to walk the line between the two ...

Another thing that intrigues me about the talk this morning is how the speaker integrates design into the research process. It seems that many social scientists, even those doing research on technological artifacts in various ways, don't think directly about design ... even though some fora where they present their work expect it, as Paul Dourish said so well at the recent CHI conference. Others are more adept at design and system-building, and their social analyses seem to, at the very least, be lacking from the point of view of social science communities. But here's someone who seems very adept in both spaces, and that's impressive to me. I'd love to get the chance to work with this person (and also folks like Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson at Intel ... just while I'm naming names :~)) and find out how to do the blending effectively.
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2006-06-10 14:18 (UTC)
(no subject)
I have a lot to say about this... but no time to do it in right now.

Short version: there was a nice paper at EPIC by Richard Harper and a few others. One of the points they made was that anthropologists *don't have a monopoly on ethnography any more.* Everyone does it. And, arguably, they never did -- the Chicago school predates Malinowski, and while they talk about it less they still do it a lot. Also, theoretically-informed long-term ethnographies are just one way of doing it: you can do un-theoretically-laden ethnography -- ethnomethodology, for example -- and there's no particular reason why not. It may not be ethnography like they mean it but it doesn't mean it's not ethnography.

If you have a sec, I think you might get something out of reading the Ethnomethodology in HCI/CSCW paper I posted the other day, which engages with some of this stuff in a pretty hands-on way. Definitely let me know your thoughts.
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Fata Morgana
2006-06-10 17:40 (UTC)
(no subject)
I've downloaded them both! I started on the history of HCI first, though. I'm looking forward to reading them! And the Harper paper sounds interesting too.

Lave's actually in the education department ... and I think she'd agree that anthropologists aren't the only ones who can do ethnography. But she still doesn't like the dilution of the term - e.g. calling half a day of participant observation an "ethnography." She mentioned ethnomethodology once or twice, but I don't remember what she said about it - I should look back in my notes. I feel like I'm still processing what I learned from that class (hence the somewhat hasty, somewhat rambling post).
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