Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘ethnography’

The Autobiographical Turn

In discipline, empirical, HCI, research on August 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

There has been a turn towards the autobiographical in some ethnographic research. The idea is that by sharing one’s autobiography—the relevant parts—that it will make it easier for the reader to understand the analysis process. Understand where, you, the analytic instrument starts.

When I first learnt about this I thought that that was very valuable. I thought that it would be useful to understand something about where the author stands with respect to the material. I also knew from experience in studying religion that people made various assumptions about my beliefs (ranging from atheism to fundamentalism). Realizing how any position along that continuum could be applied to my motives for the research made me think that putting something clearly out there was potentially very useful.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there is a problem. Putting something about yourself into a research publication puts it into the professional public forum. Most of the time we spend in professional forums is very carefully managed to create a good impression. But is that what we bring to analysis? If we bring parts of ourselves to analysis, is it more/as likely to be the far more complex experiences of our lives? Do the experiences that shape us mostly deeply come from the types of things that are easy to share or are far more complex and not something that we would choose to put into the professional domain? More  cynically, I began to wonder whether sometimes the autobiographic turn was being used in pursuit of professionalism (but that was me at my most cynical).

Back to the question of my religion. I have wrestled with writing about my religious position, and in the end I find that I am relatively uncomfortable in writing about it autobiographically because to make it useful in any meaningful way I would have to reveal far more and discuss a whole set of choices and experiences that I have little desire to share with the HCI research community. Here’s my religious position, I have no strong position on the question of religion. Of course that’s very convenient because it fits nicely into a professional position—the type of distance is in line with ideas about how empirical science is conducted). Also in the absence of knowing far more, doesn’t seem to be helpful. It’s a nice way (of course) of saying “its complicated.”

And now when I read these autobiographical turns I find myself asking two questions: how is what you are telling me tied to the professional image that you are trying to project, and what is being omitted as a consequence.


Doing Ethnography without the Ethnographer

In discipline, empirical, research on May 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

While catching up on some reading, I came across some references to consumer research firms’ efforts to do what I can only describe as ethnography without the ethnographer. There are a variety of ways in which this is done. Blogging is one, have people write their own stories about experience in order to understand it better. On the back end use some tools to distill it. I’ve been wondering what the implications of this are ever since.

First, it seems to me that this is part of a trend to make a retail version of a professional knowledge. The migration of ethnography into corporations as their “secret sauce” initially followed the “hire anthropologists or sociologists” model. But it didn’t have too, and apparently it isn’t always following that model any more.

Second, it looks to me like a type of deskilling. If the methods of ethnography (and I don’t just mean the data collection but also the data analysis) have been broken down into their component parts and the ethnographer replaced by technology that seems like a classic case of deskilling. I’m reminded of an article I read in Scientific American a long time ago now by Joan Wallach Scott who wrote about the processes of deskilling as breaking up work into component parts so that it could be migrated from men’s work (in its richest forms) to women’s work to the work of machines. Machines were the sign that the work was at it most routinized.

I’m troubled by this of course, its the type of work that I don’t think can be dealt with in this way, but it is and I am paying attention to the future of it.

The Difference between Theory and Practice

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research on February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

There’s a joke that goes like this

In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

I was reminded of this saying, when I read this piece in the New York Times (OK, yes, sometimes I have a backlog of reading).

This is a very strongly worded piece, and I am sure that some people will disagree with it. I find myself resonating with parts of it. That’s not terribly surprising of course. Perhaps what really resonates with me is being careful about separating economic systems from the context that surrounds them. The author says

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.

And I reasonate with that because I feel that sometimes this very same thing happens within Computer Science. Sometimes, the human-centered aspects of the discipline are articulated as not being a part of the discipline. I did say sometimes. The author is arguing that human-in-the-loop makes economics more complicated. The financial collapse is a story of humanness in all its forms… it doesn’t mean that understanding the mathematical underpinnings is not valuable, it just means its not enough.

And the same is true of a discipline of Computer Science. The Computer is a human-designed, human-built artifact. The principles upon which is it based, are human-generated (by Computer Scientists). Computers are also human-used, human-consumed. And we use these facts to talk about our solutions. Our visions of what is made possible through scientific and technological innovation in Computer Science are human-motivated. For example, people want to mine, search, and access data, stream video around their house, debug their code, connect their laptops securely to wireless networks, be supported by intelligent machines in office and house work, … the list goes on.

So, I vote for a Computer Science that pursues theory and practice, because they matter equally to our discipline.

Scholarly Debates: Revisiting Ethnography Considered Harmful

In academic management, computer science, discipline, empirical, HCI on January 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Recently, a colleague of mine Rich DeMillo blogged about Moshe Vardi’s most recent editorial in the Communications of the ACM. For those people who are not familiar with the Communications of the ACM (CACM), it is the monthly flagship magazine of the Association for Computer Machinery (a professional society to which many/most Computer Scientists in the United States, and increasingly across the world, belong).

I agree with Moshe Vardi that we, Computing professionals, could use more debate. I like the point-counter point series that was started in Communications of the ACM. My guess is that for some types of debate the columns are too short, but I’ve enjoyed the ones that have appeared and I feel it helps me understand a bit more about where some of the challenges in Computing reside. I also think written debate as part of the process of developing and refining knowledge leads to a richer more nuanced understanding of the subject matter under discussion.

But, I find myself even more in agreement with Rich’s response. Rich’s response raised a number of points, and reminded me again of how debate requires consideration, not just of the content, but of the mechanisms by which that debate occurs. And that’s what I want to focus on because if we are going to debate we should do it with decency and dignity.

Last year, the HCI community had a similar “learning how to debate” experience that involved a paper called “Ethnography Considered Harmful“, also positioned as a debate about whether non-ethnomethodological forms of ethnography made contributions to the field of Human Computer Interaction. A quote from the paper:

Closer to home, where home means that the studies take place within the researchers’ own country of residence, we find that such settings as the American Mega-church have been accorded a similar treatment, e.g.,

“ … the first thing we noticed when entering sanctuaries were the large screens on both sides of a central stage … During services screens were used extensively to accompany music, illustrate sermons, and share announcements and video. Words to hymns and Bible verse were frequently displayed over a background depicting religiously-inspired imagery. It was also common for the pastor to read selected Bible verses that would then be displayed on the screen. We observed parishioners following along and looking at screens to know what verse to turn to in their Bibles. The appearance of a new verse on the screen was followed by a flurry of paper turning.”

While ethnography has its roots in the study of exotic settings both abroad and at home, and while these sorts of study do illustrate the diversification of digital technologies in everyday life, it is imperative that ethnography provide more than surface descriptions of action and interaction. The danger is that adopting what might be called an ‘exotic tales methodology’ in design will result in descriptions that offer up little more than ‘scenic features’ of action and interaction for consideration, thus sensitizing designers to little more than the grossly observable features of a setting or culture.

The paper that they quote from in the second paragraph is one of mine, and I freely admit that I don’t share their view that it was surface description. The rest of this post, I will try to make a case not about content, but about process. Obviously I disagree with the content, but I will try to refrain from that discussion here.

The paper of mine that they quote from and use to discuss is an interesting genre of submission to the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. It’s not an archival submission, it’s actually something called a “work in progress” which I have always taken to mean exactly that. The resultant “publication” is not archival, copyright is retained by the author. So, I have always interpreted them as an opportunity to get early feedback on something that is, well yes, a work in progress. (Also, if you look at  one, you’ll see that it’s not a lot of words, so I take that as another sign that its not meant to be final, rather an outline and some ideas that will be refined or even rejected through discussion).

I’d like to think that the confusion about the intent of this work in progress could have been avoided if the authors had engaged in a discussion with me about their upcoming paper that was going to debate the role of my work in progress for the field. Debate implies willingness to discuss with people who hold alternate positions. Perhaps if the authors had sent me a copy of their paper as they were writing it I’d have told them that I thought critiquing a work in progress as a final result was weakening their argument. I could have pointed them to final versions of this work. Also, perhaps in talking to me about my surface descriptions, they’d have found some words that would have helped me to understand their points more clearly. (To be honest, I take surface description as an insult, and find it hard to see beyond that slight to what point they are actually trying to make).

The role of the review process also came up in the Vardi-DeMillo context. Ethnography Considered Harmful made it through the review process. And the CHI Conference has a long and careful review process. But reviewing is a human process. There’s been a lot of discussion about the CHI review process, it happens each year. I personally have always blamed the randomness on the size of CHI. CHI is huge and growing at a crazy rate. Submissions climb each year. The number of reviewers required to review also grows, when I was Papers Co-Chair in 2006, it involved 2500 discrete reviewers, and I would expect the number to have passed the 3000 mark by now. I believe that there’s a lot of goodwill in the system but at that scale, things happen.

Again, I think that dependency on the review process might have been mitigated by the authors contacting any of the people whose work they sought to debate. A colleague of mine forwarded me the paper after it was accepted to the conference. Like me, the person who forwarded the paper to me had their own research similarly characterised, and it turned out that there were quite a number of us. What was common among us all was that none of us had been contacted during the writing process. What type of debate begins this way?

Finally, and perhaps this is just me. I think it’s healthier when debates are among peers in the community. Debating requires having a voice, a voice that matches that of those who hold different positions. Why, because the debate will be better, it will be richer, because it will be among peers. Some of the people’s work that the authors of Ethnography Considered Harmful held up turned out to be scholarship by newer members of the community (either through transition into HCI or as students). I am not saying that students and new members should not be engaged by debate but I think that debate requires even more thought and respect when it involves exactly the type of people we would like to recruit and retain because of the new ideas, fresh perspectives and so forth that they bring.

I’d like to engage in debates, I think there’s much to be learnt from discussion, but I’d like them to be civil and conducted around a set of principles that not only respect the products of our discourse but also the scholars that produce them.

Lucky Physicists and the Devolution of Computer Science

In academia, computer science, discipline on May 26, 2009 at 9:43 pm

There are two types of books one can read about academia.  One genre is the academic “how to” book.  I’ve just written about an example in that genre that I found particularly insightful.  The second is a genre that studies academia itself.  It’s in this second genre that I conclude that Physicists are lucky people indeed.

Many years ago I read Sharon Traweek’s Beam Times and Life Times.  It certainly explained the person I was dating—a High Energy Particle Physicist. But, to the book. The book was a multi-sited ethnography of the way that Physicists work. The division of work differs from computing, and those differences emerge at the graduate school level. Working in teams is the simplest way to describe it, hierarchical teams composed of theorists and experimentalists. Traweek’s book did a marvelous job of explaining how these teams produce the science of physics.

And yesterday I started reading another book about Physicists. This is a longitudinal ethnography, following 55 Physicists over some years, understanding how their career evolves over time and as they climb through the ranks of Assistant, Associate and finally Full Professor. I’ve only just started it, but already I’m finding it quite instructive in thinking how an academic career evolves, and what that might me for me.  (It also makes me think that I should assign the two books as an example of how ethnography is not just one thing, but a methodology that consists of numerous approaches to data collection and analysis. If you add in Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life, you have a third approach to studying scientists and the doing of science).

Computer Scientists by contrast have been woefully neglected in study. There are some books about engineering in practice (Kunda, Bucciarelli for example). But not in the academic context. And this is a shame, because Computer Science is in an interesting transitional period, and one with particular implications for the organisation of the academy. (It almost certainly has other implications but lets begin here for now).

Computer Science is in a period of devolution. Devolution into entities that will be the intellectual home for an increasingly divergent number of research problems and pursuits that go under the banner of Computer Science. One can view this devolution as entirely pragmatic. The field is still fairly young and has enjoyed explosive growth and rapid change (both can be attributed to not just the increased presence of computing technologies, but also the radical transformations that they’ve undergone in terms of size, power, form factor, that fuels a series of alternate possibilities, there are certainly other reasons, these just strike me as some obvious ones). In response to this explosive growth and rapid change, so Computer Science has expanded to accommodate the new research problems and domains made possible. And, here’s the really pragmatic part, the organization of Computer Science as a discipline is now stretched, well it seems to be. Perhaps it’s because no-one wants to have faculty meetings with 100 people that you see an increasing devolution of previously single, monolithic Computer Science entities (such as the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, or the Information and Computer Sciences School at Irvine into a series of smaller organizational entities). (There’s more to say about Computer Science organized inside Engineering and the rise of the ISchool movement, and perhaps I will at some future date).

These smaller entities interest me greatly. Again comparing GT and UCI, we see three different sub structures: Computer Science, Informatics, and Statistics at Irvine, while Georgia Tech has Computational Sciences and Engineering, Computer Science, and Interactive Computing. Do the names matter. Yes, I think so. For many other departments these names are the names of their disciplines (such as finding Physics, Chemistry, Civil Engineering departments that characterise what goes on in them and with what disciplinary entity that research work is associated).

So, lets take a case of a particular speciality in Computer Science, Software Engineering. At GT you’ll find it in Computer Science, but at Irvine it shows up in Informatics. What implications does that have for the practice of Software Engineering? Right now, I don’t know. But will it, that’s what I wonder. When will what we have become institutionally become what we do, our community of practice professionally.  Then there’s a question of contested turf. The name Computer Science is not without problems, particularly when applied to one piece of the organization. Is the implication that what is not within Computer Science is not Computer Science research?  If my boss read my blog, I think he’d groan about this particular comment, one way I have experienced this is rather personally (yes, I certainly do research that’s unusual in Computer Science, I thought that that’s what taking risk meant, but I have always taken the risk identifying myself and my purpose as being invested in the future of Computer Science research).

But there’s far more on the table here than my own ego (big as that is). I think what might be on the table is institutional legitimacy and disciplinary organization and discourse. If an organization is structured to make something possible, it simultaneously hinders other things. What is organizationally near (i.e., in the same organization, sharing a common reporting structure, the more the better) is far easier to accomplish than what requires crossing organizational divides. So, we can view the organization of Computer Science as a set of bets, bets about what will happen if we put some things in the same place and separate others.  I wonder how to place those bets, but that’s because I find organizations absolutely fascinating. At the same time there’s an undercurrent—a suggestion—of a separation that might result in a smaller discipline of Computer Science, and something larger that encompasses the full span of activities that formerly used to be Computer Science (and a question of what that larger entity is, what it’s project is, what space does it occupy at the national level). Transition can be difficult, graduate school is a preparation for a career of identity management and assessment (my vita speaks volumes about Computer Science research, and says nothing about Physics research, not just in content, but also in the mechanisms used to produce that content like whether I choose to write books, journals or conference papers). The Institutional legitimacy I think turns on this somewhat, that identity is not just what we do, but what is given back to us by our ability to affiliate with a particular research discipline.

So, I wish someone had studied us. I wish I could pick up a multi-sited ethnography, preferably also longitudinal, to get some ideas about what if anything my colleagues are doing about the devolution of Computer Science. How they handle identity and legitimacy. What organizations are being created and how that gives rise to new areas of research, and what it might potentially close off. Lucky Physicists as their field evolves they have a series of guides to stimulate and frame questions. But, perhaps we are lucky enough even despite not having these studies because what we have an abundance of right now is opportunity. Opportunity to rethink it all, if we are quick, thoughtful, and open to devolution.