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.

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