Saturday, November 26, 2005

News Article on EPIC

There was a brief article on EPIC in the Puget Sound Business Journal. (Thanks to Ed Liebow for e-mailing me the link.) It's a good article, but what's with the obsession with Krippendorf's Tribe?

There were some great poster displays at EPIC as well. Here are a few examples, but you can review them all at the EPIC Website. And of course anyone is welcome to comment further on these displays.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The View from The Stage

Dan Bruner turned the lens onto the ethnographers while he was on stage.

Standing Ovation

EPIC ended properly with a standing ovation for Ken and Tracey, for a great job in organizing this event. And deservedly so. There was a great deal of energy throughout the second day, and people in the audience really appreciated having a place to discuss issues important to the discipline and its evolution.

Marietta Baba ended the conference with a discussion that included the pervasive theme of hybridization, but she talked about a different type of hybrid, that of theory and practice, a theme throughout the conference and a reflexive issue common to the ethnographic practice. It was a rousing talk (and it wasn’t simply the “mating” metaphors she used that raised the crowd’s temperature), and there was the palpable sense of agreement in the crowd – that the discipline has reached a point where the two can and must coexist within the Western domain of the ethnographic discipline.

In rending barriers, Marietta Baba also marked this time as the point of liberation for ethnography, that it is finally having its “coming out” party beyond the discipline of anthropology. Prior to Baba’s talk, Tracey took a quick poll of the crowd and found, while anthropology still dominates, there were people in the audience coming from sociology, cultural studies, design, engineering, business, HCI, etc. – lots of hands on this elephant (to continue with Jeanette Blomberg’s metaphor). And, as Christina Wasson said in introducing the cutting-edge session, it is in the interdisciplinary nature of this field that we can find strength.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

New Yorker cartoon

Here is the link for the New Yorker cartoon that Tracey referenced in her closing speech.

Cutting Edge (TB)

To give an overview of the first four papers in our Cutting Edge – ‘How To’ session we’ve had: workmen and ranch hands who use clothing as markers of group identity; the successful use of post-it notes and hats in collaborative business meetings between English speakers and Japanese speakers; teenage girls views on privacy as a matter of principle; and using blogs, VoIP, and other social tools to communicate and collaborate on an international research project between the US and India.

The second Cutting Edge – ‘Thinking’ session this afternoon has included: ethnographic research on patients and the sociality critically tied to their compliance or non-compliance in taking medication; a study of the work practices of software engineers; the ways in which technology is utilized in the family home in the ‘Great rooms’ in the US; and an ethnographic study of how rural sociality has influenced workforce behaviour and productivity at a car assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan.

An issue that jumped out at me: Wendy March and Constance Fleuriot raised questions regarding teenage girls understanding of privacy and ‘publicness’ and found that privacy was extremely important to the girls as a matter of principle. Scott Mainwaring and Alison Woodruff looked at ‘Great Room’s and issues of privacy, with a view to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique where she notes, “she [woman] can forget her own identity in those noisy open-plan houses”.

This is a really important dimension of some of the discussions we’ve had over the last two days. Not only does it raise questions of how we can research issues of privacy and the intimacy of people’s social relationships, it also raises concerns of how we can determine which concepts and issues are significant to our research. Moreover, that these issues and concepts must be contextualized in order to effectively understand how they impact upon our research. How is the issue of privacy similar or different in each of these studies? Does everyone in the study relate to the issue of privacy in a similar way? Is there a gendered or age related understanding of privacy? Are individuals able to exercise agency over the issue of privacy, ie. how do they get it, can one person get it more than another?

Sorry, this blog has more questions than opinions! It could be that I’m all blogged out however I think that it actually shows how rich the case studies in this final section have been. Although I’ve only picked up on one strand, I know (from eavesdropping) that the final eight papers of the day have provoked much discussion as delegates have had an opportunity to think through some of the theoretical and methodological concerns by applying them to some excellent examples of ethnographic research.

What is Cutting Edge? - Redux (by BC)

With all the questions I posted in that previous post, I don’t think I really tackled the title issue – i.e., What is cutting edge? Well, I will repurpose a term from the tech sector for this discussion, for as I review the papers presented, I can’t help but think of the term “disruptive ethnographies.” In short, these case studies present us with new ways of doing things, and at the farthest point, they can be disruptive, just as Ame Elliott was an imposing physical force in her bilingual meetings, pushing participants to new collaborative (and ultimately successful) techniques.

In “The Worst Technology for Girls,” the data collected from the participants (what is the worst technology these girls can imagine) reveal the connections between the participants and technology (it captures their “technology narratives,” but from a different direction than what I have been doing [or attempting to do]). In “Investigating Mobility, Technology, and Space in Homes, Starting with ‘Great Rooms,’” we see an incipient space in American architecture, where an ethnographer can actually engage change as a household negotiates with this new “unsettled” place in the home. Those are two immediate examples, but as we move through these case studies, I’m keen to explore the historical ties of these studies as well. Ari Shapiro brought Evans-Pritchard into his study – and as Christina noted in her introduction, the concept of sociality is a traditional foundation for inquiry in anthropology and ethnography. Even on the cutting edge do we find these ties to the past…
"What is the Cutting Edge?" (posted by BC)

Again, to continue with the theme of building community, this section of Day Two ventures to case studies on the edge, studies that contain that element of "innovation" or "newness" that Christina Wasson cited, that form the new layer of our discipline’s foundation. Dan Bruner's study ("Social relationships in the modern tribe: product selection as symbolic markers") managed to combine elements of the old and the new. Using the term "tribes" certainly elicits a sense of "traditional" ethnography (that "old headgear" Christina mentioned in her introduction), but it was within the frame of a very modern case study – in this instance, a study of the purchase and use of workers’ clothing, with its findings reported to a client in order to better understand clothing selection and improve the process of product development.

For me, the questions are then - are these tribal patterns repeated elsewhere with other groups? When one considers the “influencer” tagged by Bruner’s study, are there other groups where this role emerges? One might consider groups of teenagers (just in thinking about a group where clothes might be important), where an influencer wears a black trench coat one day and then there are ten more similarly attired the next day … but does that actually happen? And would that conflict with other social values, such as individuality, especially as the choice of clothing was a reflection of sociality more so than function? Finally, how aware are the participants in this flow – from “individuals to persona to sociality”? If the client targets these influencers (singling them out, as it were), could that cause a breakdown in the tribal structure?

Yes, I am posting more questions than analysis, but I think that is part of the value in exploring edge, which is to see where these new techniques can take us, take all of us, in our work.
Mocha Cheesecake...

After yesterday's boxed lunches I was a little worried about the American perception of vegetarian food. However, today's delectable buffet of salad, carrots, asparagus (!!!), and gnocchi, I felt most definitely reassured that I wouldn't starve whilst here!

I don't eat chicken but I understand that the chanterelle pecan chicken was very good (thanks Francoise)...

Traversing the Divide (TB)
The question that emerged most prominently for me out of this morning’s session was how do we as industrial ethnographers traverse the theory/practice divide? Using the concept of sociality as a guiding theme for the conference, Nina Wakeford asked us to think about how sociality is made visible or invisible and whose sociality is left out? Do we include the sociality of the participants and exclude our own? Do we discuss it and theorize it?

These questions pulled out some of the concerns from Day 1 that emerged out of the theory papers in that ethnographers need to theorize and examine more critically their own positionality. It’s not enough to say that we are social researchers (or whatever the label may be) because one’s identity will invariably impact upon how one conducts their research. Knowledge is a social construct and something that is produced through a dialogue. Moreover, engagement with the field is not an easy business and can be messy at times. Brinda Dalal, Pat Swenton-Wall, and Simon Pullman-Jones all alluded to this messiness and the practicalities of the field in exploring issues regarding gifts and reciprocity and ways of conducting research.

Still, participants asked, how do we put ourselves into our research? I’m not sure the reply answered the question in suggesting that theory can be a lazy term and instead there should be a focus on disciplinary sensibilities (I’m actually not sure what that means).

Again we returned to feminist theory to explore Harding’s discussions of ways of knowing and how we decide what counts as legitimate knowledge. There was a call to mobilize and problematize the word ethnography. Something I know was taken up at the coffee break by many of the conference delegates, the general buzz being – we know it’s significant so how can we start a discussion of it.

The seeds have definitely been planted for greater growth in our ‘landscapes of possibilty’.

The Value in the Debate & Ethnographic Imagination (by BC)

The opening foray into methods highlighted one of the fundamental benefits of EPIC - to provide a place where we can debate these fundamental issues of what constitutes ethnography, where multiple disciplines (what Jeanette Blomberg portrayed as pieces of the elephant) reach in to this debate and bring their unique perspectives (or foci).

The notion that I want to pull out of the paper "Fieldwork and Ethnography in Design - The state of play from the CSCW Perspective," by Dave Randall, Mark Rouncefield, & Richard Harper, is their term of "ethnographic imagination," which strikes at the fundamental issue of what to capture. Moving forward, we can look to the photographic data set presented by Simon Pulman-Jones as an example of flexing one's ethnographic muscles, taking a thin data set from a large-scale project and applying one's abilities (one's eye) to see the story contained within (the "particularity" of what the data contain).

What constitutes that ethnographic imagination? Certainly Tina's post hits on a big issue of positionality. Coming from a CSCW perspective can bring different foci to the ethnographic work at hand. But also, as also noted in the Harper et al paper, this ethnographic imagination builds on the past - finding what prior studies have uncovered, how they struggled in determining what to capture and then in imaging the future from these data. There is a Kuhnian aspect in this - building on this community of practice we occupy. That, I think, brings us back to one of the core values of the EPIC conference, which is in bringing this community together, to provide a place for this discussion.

Workshop Summaries (TB)

Defining the Impact of Physical Spaces on Social Interactions
We started with the notion of being here and the subject of conversation and discussed how we were grounded in materiality and social interaction. What emerged was people’s locatedness as they come from such diverse backgrounds

Business Ethnography for the Bottom of the Pyramid
Our main theme looked at how you can convince companies to see value in the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) as well as commit to social responsibility? What we concluded with was that we need a call for a radical change and perhaps we should start with what the findings from the bottom of the pyramid can feed back into the top of the pyramid.

Working the Process: Anthropological Approaches to Designing and Evaluating Organizational Work Processes
We unpacked the concept of work process and decided that it always gets recontextualized, methods always need to be adjusted when you study and what we need is for these methids to be transdisciplinary so that we can share our work and share our results.

Holy Hanging Out: Exploring Spirituality and Religion in the Corporate Environment
Religious groups represent a market and we need to understand the significance of religion in society. We need the tools and techniques to study and communicate this research. Religion transcends god, it’s a practice and a huge business opportunity. If we don’t consider religion and spirituality, we’ll become irrelevant because it is so key to people in the world.

Framing Ethnographic Praxis for Innovation
What are the theories for ethnographic praxis? What are the dialogic dimensions? Who are the people that we’re talking about? What are the dimension of engagement? What are the contexts of creativity. We concluded with a mapping out of the space of production of innovation as a social process.

Collaborating across social, organizational, and siciplinary distances
What are our challenges with collaboration? We worked with video clips to think about how we observe. If we start with a picture of how we executed research – how do we get there – what are the problems that then emerge of framing ethnographic research?

Studying Distributed Sociality - Online and Offline
We started with preliminary remarks about our backgrounds and asked questions such as – how do you get informed consent from an avatar? and what is happening for participant observation as we move into online and offline research?

Object Sociality. Researching Living Things
How we should conceptualize objects? We looked at contemporary theory such as the social life of things and actor network theory. We shared personal stories about objects, demonstrating the thickness and richness of relationships and the biographical dimensions and timelines of people's connections to objects.

The Sociality of Fieldwork (or Personal Experiences with Interpersonal Connections)
Our session spiralled out of control and we discussed things like what do you do when you hear or see people cry during an interview? Or when you start off listening and ending up counselling? What are the social and cultural issues issues of truth? How do we define the concept of truth?

"The Coming of Age of Hybrids," Jeanette Blomberg (by BC)

It seems that Tina had a stroke of brilliance in citing Donna Haraway. Jeanette discussed the notion of hybridization in her introduction for Day Two in tackling the initial question of "What is ethnographic praxis?" The constituents of the EPIC crowd represent a variety of differing perspectives on this question, a testament to size and variety in this field, as well as the difficulty in answering this question.

The workshops from the previous day also served to tackle this lumbering beast of hybridization - with an examination of the links between differing elements, e.g., business and religion, the social and the technical, real and virtual, in the practice of ethnography. These elements are not as distinct as prima facie assumed. From her own example, Jeanette cited the relation of the social and the technical as inextricably linked but not as a one-way relation or even fixed in influence. Technology shapes the possibilities, trajectories, and forms of sociality just as the latter can influence or even dictate the use and design of technologies.

In her example of "project rooms," we looked to how the physical space defines social interaction ("physical space shapes the possibilities of interaction") - but also how social interaction defines the physical space as well, how the people who are using the rooms, and the expertise they bring, influences how these spaces are used in a given moment. Further, with Jeanette's discussion of meetings we see another dualism arise with the "real" and "virtual" (online) spaces. For example, people are meeing in a physical space (at an office) while other people, also at the meeting, are dialing in while on a train or at an airport, following the meeting's artifacts with a laptop and NetMeeting. Here we see another example where ethnographers can flex their analytic muscles in conceptualizing and categorizing these two areas and examining how they work together in a very ordinary, "mundane" way to create those everyday events that are at the core of our study.

And - for my own confession - I was amazed to see the extent of this trend of hybridization of business and spirituality, that of exploring spirituality as a means to corporate and management philosophy.

Last night's trip to the Seattle Public Library demonstrated how elegance and beauty can be produced through an urban, industrial, modern setting in a globalized era. It was evident from strolling around the library that people from all walks of life looked at the space as more than just a place to learn and this was reflected by the music area with it's practice rooms and the wonderfully titled 'Mixing Room'.

Although I felt a little overwhelmed by the size and grandiosity of the place (not to mention all the aluminum and steel!), spaces such as the meeting level, also known as the heart of the library due to it's red walls and floors, created a sense of intimacy and warmth.

What was most interesting to me was the installation at the Fourth Ave. check-out desk. The floor, designed by Ann Hamilton, features opening lines from famous books in [I can't remember how] many languages! All of the text is actually written backwards and reversed, as though it were a mirror reflection, evoking a sense of how difficult it is to learn another language.

It was this thought that lodged itself in my brain as I decided to do a little 'participant observation' at dinner and ask how people found the first day of EPIC. The most repeated comment was that there simply wasn't enough time for Q & A as most of the participants felt that many people's individual research experiences would have been valuable starting points for debate and discussion of the theory papers. Secondly, a few of the delegates suggested that it might have been useful for people to identify themselves as having particular interests or links to certain disciplines. I believe the exact phrase was 'we want to meet more people like us'. This made me think long and hard about who this 'us' actually was and if there is an 'us' surely there must be a 'them'...? I have to admit I felt slightly defeated that the optimistic vibe of EPIC had been permeated by this dichotomous 'Othering'. The floor in the library demonstrated to me how difficult and isolating it is to translate one's self or be illiterate (in any language) and one of the hopes I had for EPIC was to become 'industrially' literate. I'm not sure that can happen if the people I want to hang out with don't want to hang out with me....

However, I have high hopes for today as I did for yesterday. I think theory is the only way to kick off a conference and I think that the methods sections today will allow us to think reflexively about some the problematic epistemic concepts and concerns that we were raised by yesterday's papers.

Try and see the slideshow online if you couldn't make it to the library!!
EPIC Day One (by BC)

So, with the first official day of blogging at an end, I was able to step back to observe this long, snaking column of text that has somehow coming into existence. It serves as a testament to those first harried moments, as the speakers took the stage and now something meaningful had to spill forth from my fingers. In fact those first few posts read to me like the first set of fieldnotes as one enters a new site, testing the boundaries, discovering what is and isn’t possible. Of course we were constantly renegotiating our interaction with this space, moving to longer posts in an appeal for calm in our own selves and also having to deal with intruders (what would you call them – spam comments, spam posts, which are the unrelated comments added to a blog that contain misrepresented links to sites like online gambling?).

With today’s (Tuesday) papers, we will hear from some researchers who have employed these blogging methods in their research – to promote better group cohesion, to improve how work gets done. I’ve even talked to EPIC attendees about the use of blogs in the academic sphere, to offer a space similar to a class discussion for remote students. Blogging thus to me seems both firmly established and wildly emergent. One enters with a set of expectations (and I have tweaked past entries when finding them lacking) but also with that sense of uncertainty – how the users will claim and repurpose this space? I doubt that CBS could have anticipated the bloggers’ role in Memogate scandal. Or, moving further out in the Internet space, how about the phenomenon of Google bombing?

I do want to revisit this notion of product elasticity – this theme from Kris Cohen that “products have a more diverse life” than we can anticipate. (Heck, movies like The Terminator and Screamers have been saying this for years. Even C-3PO goes from mere protocol droid to Ewok God.) I can’t help but think of examples from my own research of MMORPGs, where gamers navigate and play in an online space populated by many other users. Here we see products that exist within the game crossing that virtual line (could one say breaking the fourth wall, i.e., the computer screen?) and are being traded, bought, and sold in the “real” world. This practice is against gaming policy but happens nonetheless, for social relations and character status are in large part tied to the possession of certain, high-level objects (object-centered sociality, perhaps?). The game designers intended these objects to be highly prized, yes, but it would appear they did not anticipate that these products would exist and have such currency outside of this “virtual” gaming world. Here we see the unintended consequences of that product-oriented design. (And in the realm of ethnographic study, it is natural that we attempt to predict future uses, for to paraphrase David Hume, there is an inductive assumption in science that today will resemble the next. It is just that tomorrow does not always resemble today.)

I think at this point I can return to the theme of object-centered sociality, which was discussed throughout EPIC’s first day. Stokes brought it expertly into his presentation on grassroots campaigns by commenting on how, in large part, these campaigns start as a reaction to or against certain objects. It was also a recurrent theme in Tim Plowman’s talk as he reconciled de Certeau and Knorr Cetina. I personally like Kris Cohen’s example of homeless mothers using cell phones to control their social life, which I mentioned in a previous entry. As ethnographers looking into the field, we are facing a reality in which social relations are formulated and in large part governed in relation to objects. (At this point I will just put forward the question – is this a particularly Western way of looking at the world? I don’t have an answer to that, so I’ll just leave it for now.) The ethnographer has the unique position of being at that point of interaction, the point at which a participant/user/person encounters and negotiates use of an object, and brings that interpretation into social world. The ethnographer is “capturing” the “emergent behavior” Stokes referenced in his discussion. As we venture into the Methods section of the EPIC agenda, we will discuss ways of capturing this behavior as well as means to explore the spectrum of use in both time and space, to see “the way in which the products that we use become extensions of ourselves,” to quote from Tina’s earlier entry, and then use them to occupy a social world. And the theory section has done us the benefit of forcing us to reexamine the assumptions we are carrying into this field.

EPIC Workshopping - and the Triple Door

(by BC)

After lunch, as the attendees dispersed to their different buildings, I was fortunate on my way out to encounter Steve Portigal, the leader for my scheduled workshop The Sociality of Fieldwork. At least walking with him I knew I wouldn’t be late – and with a few other participants, we shared in the confusion of finding the entrance.

Once inside, with unused sketchpads leaning against the walls, the participants had, quite simply, the time and space to discuss their experiences in the field and to reflect on the connections they had made, connections with clients, with participants, with organizations. They shared a broad range of experiences – from doing research on children’s play habits to doing fieldwork on a shrimp boat to the emotional experience of working with an organization during the most recent tech bust. I shared one of my humiliating fieldwork moments (the failure to recruit participants from a user segment that quite simply didn’t want to engage in the research – and that’s about all I’m going to say about it here) – and we did have one story of a researcher who had to dress as a hedgehog to accomplish his fieldwork – but in total what came out of the experience was a very genuine and candid discussion about the role of the fieldworker and the point at which that role connects with others. It is a complex role – the ethnographer can be the buffoon, the expert, the comrade, the confidant, the counselor, the empowered, the powerless. But often it is the basics – listening, empathy, the ability to connect with people – that are fundamental in forging these connections that constitute doing “our work.”

Of course these connections include the relationship with the client or the stakeholder, which brings up another very practical question of – how do you relate bad news? Of course in some instances the client already knows things are going awry – the ethnographer wouldn’t be there otherwise – but relating problems in digestible and actionable ways can be a challenge. Perhaps the clients don’t yet own the problem – or at least are seeking the wrong solutions. I even see a connection back to Kris Cohen’s paper and his example of the homeless mothers and cell phones, for what is that example if not an attempt to prevail on a client to recast its segmentation? The prevailing answer in the workshop tied back to fieldwork – but in this case “fieldwork on the consumers of our data.” In knowing the dynamics of your relationship with your client, you can better answer the question of how to deliver that bad news.

Of course we discussed many more elements of the sociality of fieldwork, including moral issues, the need for objectivity, and the ethnographer’s own personal involvement in the research relationship. But I would also encourage others at the conference, if they have feedback on their workshops, to post a comment to this blog with your stories and experiences.

And following the workshop was the gradual migration to the buses for the library tour and then the buffet and drinks at The Triple Door. I’ve got the pictures, but Tina will be able to fill in a few more details here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

‘Who is pruning the hedges of these ‘Landscapes of Possibility?’ - Tina Basi

Considering Tracey and Ken arranged for a cocktail party the night before, I have to wonder how wise it was to start the first day of EPIC with the richly, theoretical papers by Rick Robinson, Kris Cohen, Stokes Jones, and Tim Plowman. All four papers raised extremely poignant issues regarding the theoretical seeds for ethnographic research in industry however, I was struck by the fact that we were listening to four white men talk about theory – again.

But before I even get into that, let me just pull together some of the ideas and issues that they put forward for our consideration.

Rick Robinson, our keynote speaker, suggested that every conversation has a beginning. Starting with the simple statement ‘I am here’, Rick asked us to think about where that ‘here’ actually was? Industry is the place, he tells us, where theory is dropped in but never really puts its foot down and in this way there are all sorts of gaps and spaces that require articulation, but perhaps, he suggests, it’s not so much a question of locating the ‘here’ as it is an issue of engaging the place in which we’re already in.

I think it’s useful here to think about Homi Bhabha’s contributions to postcolonial theory and his use of the ‘Third Space’. It strikes me that the notion of hybridity might be the one that we are searching for in articulating a discourse that is located between academia and industry. This hybridizing process was also visible to me in Tim Plowman’s paper as he talked about ‘second production’ or ‘productive consumption’, the way in which products that we use become extensions of ourselves – in essence that we are the producers of our own lifestyles “through the art of recycling objects, adapting, and transforming products’.

Rick also suggested that the nature of the enquiry and the scope of the enquiry shape the direction of the enquiry; that we are actively engaged in shaping our work. More to the point, we act at this intersection and in this way have a great deal of power and responsibility. We, industrial ethnographers, change the way that companies shape the everyday world.

Seemingly in response Kris Cohen offered us a detailed exposition of a research project that involved homeless mothers and the way in which they used mobile phones as a gateway to interact with friends and relatives whilst simultaneously effacing their identities as users of social services. Kris’s use of words such as ‘sanguine’ and ‘suture’ evoked a real sense of subjectivity and corporeality in discussing user research as he argued “products imagine their uses, their users, and their sites of use – with gruesome results for the people they exclude”.

Some of the questions from the delegates asked how we can deal with these issue and understand ways to empower ‘Other’ users, a point that Stokes Jones took up effectively with his paper ‘Grass roots campaigning as Elective Sociality’. His (very entertaining!!) presentation concluded with the suggestion that grass roots campaigning is not necessarily a form of politics but can also function as a way of protecting some aspect of life, or as one of his respondents said ‘I see things that need sorting out and I try to sort them’.

So, as my title asks, who is pruning the hedges of these ‘landscapes of possibility’? As Kris rightly points out, these landscapes point to an opportunity that is distinctly political. But surely, haven’t feminists asked all these questions before. It’s no coincidence that both Kris and Stokes mention Donna Haraway in their papers when deconstructing their epistemic approaches as Haraway argues for a greater consideration of ‘situated knowledges’.

So why play the ‘God-trick’ and omit reflexive discussions of positionality? Contributions made by feminists, postcolonial theorists, and queer theorists (just to name a few) would have been more than just valuable here. Drawing on such critical discourses, perhaps we could have deconstructed the position of the academy (colonial) and the industry (the colonized). Or, as Genevieve Bell suggested, perhaps ethnographers in industry have become the new subaltern? Industry has its own theorizable potential and to fulfil that potential we need to start by deconstructing the discourses that shape our dialogue.

"Grass roots campaigning as Elective Sociality (or Maffesoli meets 'social software'): Lessons from the BBC iCan project," by Stokes Jones (posted by Brian Canny)

So what does it mean when "the numbers" say that political apathy is low? The project Jones' cites had its start in a quantitative study - which could have never revealed those "unsung moments" (being those emergent moments that often are the flashpoint of grassroots campaigns) Stokes highlighted in his discussion - which in itself is a prime endorsement for ethnography. Yet even on the qualitative side, the data forcedreexaminationion of the biases of the project - and ultimately a redefinition of the notion of grassroots campaigns not as something political but an extension of sociality, one that has meaning in its social connections. This timeline and analysis of this study showed to me not just what numbers often fail to reveal (people are not exactly "apathetic") but also the biases often built into the work that can misdirect any project.

In the iCan example, as present by Stokes Jones, these biases conspired to alienate its intended users. The biases were toward action, as well as a teleological bias and a bias toward innovation (which I will mention later). With these biases at the foundation, the project initially failed to capture the emergent behavior that is grassroots campaigning - that it is non-functional, often without an ideological basis but linked to community, to "encounters, situations, and experiences." This example I think really brought us a great case study of going back to theory and reexamining that which operates at the foundation of our work. Here, the concept of grassroots campaigning itself was recast, built upon theory (in this case, Michel Maffesoli) which posits a relationism - "the linked series of attractions and repulsions" in group dynamics - which in effect captured what the data were showing. Bringing Robinson back into the discussion, we see theory engaged in the space "where we are already" - the "here" that is the work we do - and grounded in our findings.

And, as promised - I found it quite useful to note the bias toward innovation - the tendency to put all the bells and whistles into a product plan. It harkens me to the early days of wireless home networking, when there were still debates, and often quite harsh exchanges, about what was to be the standard (mainly Wi-Fi vs. HomeRF) for the home. Well, in the end, the simplest solution won (I am oversimplifying, of course, which itself has its own Ouroboros-like implications for my discussion) - and in the iCan example, especially in juxtaposing the first iteration of the iCan site (with the onerous Start Campaigning! button) with the final shot of more information-based site highlights the value of simplicity and how that very often can best capture a user's needs and imagination. Of course the term "complex product" carries some baggage as well. A mouse is not a complex device to me, but my first-time users class would strongly disagree. In fact, in my classes, they build community around their general displeasure with the mouse.

What better way to kick off EPIC 2005 than with a cocktail party! Amid the clinking of the glasses all around the room we could hear exclamations of ‘You look so different from your website photo’ as E-Relationships sprang into the ‘real’ world.

Conference delegates, some rather harried and jetlagged, arrived fresh and excited about the possibilities for debate and discussion that the next two days were sure to bring. Amongst the introductions, delegates shared details of their research projects revealing the expansive network of the EPIC attendees and the detailed engagement and involvement of their work reaching the four corners of the world.

Details regarding the papers exploring theory, methods, and ‘cutting edge’ ways to ‘do’ and ‘think’ about research were available in the conference pack and amid questions asking what it really means to be an ethnographer was what the digital clock really does??? (my favourite theory is that is a time-travelling device!).

"Who we talk about when we talk about users," by Kris Cohen (posted by Brian Canny)

Kris's example was much more cogent than mine - airbags are designed with a certain Who (i.e., the users for a particular product) in mind, which can have devastating effects on those excluded - in this case, women and children. This issue is of course much more critical than store design (although the latter might seem more immediate to a client that needs to expand its clientele).

Judging from the questions following Kris' talk, the EPIC attendees were interested in how to get clients involved in this notion of responsibility. As we move our notion of Who further away from the predefined set of "users" for a product, will the client follow? Is the Who and the What so intertwined as to be inseparable in this client context? The real "tell" here is that the homeless mothers that Kris cited in his papers (those generally excluded from the notion of users) did in fact use mobile phones. Their particular "technology narrative" was quite fascinating actually as they used these devices to frame their interaction with others, in short supporting their social life while going through their particularly difficult circumstances. However, they are just simply of a group deemed "non-users" in this standard (and perfectly understandable) product research context.

From the comments that followed, there is cause for optimism (not the least of which is the presence of the EPIC conference). Although there are differing experiences, I have heard rumblings of an increasing attention to these issues of corporate responsibility (as well as an increasing appreciation for ethnographic methods). For example, there has been an increase, although a quiet increase, in the amount of venture capital going into environmental products and solutions. Of course there the corporate world is investing based on hopes of a (long-term) return, whereas the return potential is not as obvious in the example with the homeless. Yet even in the nonprofit sector, many of the organizations looking at community technology initiatives are just now starting to expand the notion of the "digital" in the digital divide to include such broader concepts as wireless technologies (beyond just the PC).

But all these organizations, profit and nonprofit, are interested in who their users are. Is it not the ethnographer's role to discover and then communicate exactly what constitutes this body of users? Maybe through this entree can these efforts, specifically efforts in recasting the frame for Users [I can't help but think of Tron when I see that term capitalized], find some traction in the practical world. Of course the notion of the client is fundamental in this discussion, for the client is the one using the results, often even repurposing the data. Robinson's inclusion of the client in his triad of "who" is an important point that will be revisited throughout EPIC. Does the ethnographer need to know her client as well as her participants?
Conference Introductions & Keynote: by Brian Canny

Tracey and Ken introduced the conference theme as a space where we can talk about "our work" - with those terms in large part to be defined as we go along. And this conference will be a great opportunity to define "our work."

We moved to the keynote, then, and Rick Robinson framed the introduction to the theory section in a useful metaphor as "situating a conversation" - and the need to engage the client in this conversation, the third part in that ongoing conversation of practitioner, client, and participant, the conversation that compromises "our work."

It is crucial to emphasize the client - for one, these are the people who will be using our research. That brings with it the moral obligation embedded in the work we do, the power and responsibility that comes with shaping the future. Our work does not just stop with the present - but in large part works to shape the future. The conversation about theory is significant in that frame, for it does account for those moral obligations in our work.

Kris Cohen took up this important moral discussion with his theme of "exclusion." By defining users, one is making a political decision - defining Who is in one group makes a political decision on who is excluded. In going through the notion of exclusion, I think about the ink spilled recently on the design and atmosphere of electronics stores - which are oriented to a specific Who, (in this case, younger men) thus becoming an unwelcome place for others - in essence, flattening the notion of who uses the store. How a product gets used, who goes in to a store, etc., are all actually very complex issues to unpack.
Sunday Reception: from Brian Canny

The conference officially started last night with the evening reception, where attendees filled the room with an anticipatory buzz, with colleagues meeting - often for the first time face-to-face - and each sharing an enthusiasm for the next two days.

The energy seemed to build off the unique mission of this conference, and the group was a broad, multigenerational swath of ethnographers. I talked to one student who had spent a year studying businesses in China's Silicon Valley, an ethnographer who ran his own consultancy in the upper Midwest (U.S.). , people just starting out and those who have been in the field for a while ... and I am in awe of the fieldwork experiences I have heard already. Makes me think my own theme song is "Never Did No Wanderin'," by The Folksmen.

Of course much of the time I was also taking pictures.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Introductions from Tina Basi

Hello everyone! I am the other student (well… I've just finished my PhD actually) blogging EPIC 2005. As well as having a BA in Women’s Studies and an MA in Gender Studies, I am also the first student to be awarded a PhD from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Leeds in the UK.

My areas of interest include feminism and feminist theory (in case that wasn’t obvious!), globalization, social theory, identity, labour, development studies, and international relations. My PhD topic looked at the ways in which women working in Delhi’s transnational call centre industry constructed their identities.

Unlike Brian I have no fixed abode… In the words of Bob Dylan, I am more of a rolling stone, no direction home… Looking forward to meeting as many of you at the conference as possible…

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Photo: from Brian Canny

Not too glamorous but hopefully enough to spot me in the EPIC crowd over the next few days.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Introductions: from Brian Canny

Greetings to all! I will be one of two students blogging the EPIC 2005 conference. Let’s start with a little background information. My name is Brian Canny, and I am a graduate student in applied anthropology at the University of North Texas. I have an undergraduate degree in English and philosophy and currently work in systems support at a market research firm in north Dallas.

My areas of study include the interaction between people and technology, how one influences the other (and vice versa) as well as the local and cultural factors that influence adoption and usage. Currently I am starting a project with the Denton Community Network to help expand its computer training and instruction courses to targeted communities throughout the Denton area.

I live in Denton, TX, with my wife, Jennifer Canny, who is working on her graduate degree, with a focus in environmental anthropology. I will be blogging throughout the conference, so please feel free to approach me with any comments or feedback. I will post a picture as soon as I can recharge the batteries in my camera.