Posts Tagged ‘Ethnography’
One of the dilemmas of ethnography is how to create a picture of the “now” of an event or experience that is not shaped by expectations or other unacknowledged (or unconscious) interpretations of the ethnographer. Bracketing ones reactions and biases is the classical anthropological technique to deal with such distortions. The effect of temporality on ethnography has not received the same degree of attention (with the exception of the work of Johannes Fabian). In tw0 recent strips, the ever-perceptive Mimi and Eunice present dilemmas presented by the temporal constraints of looking back on the “now.”
For an interesting exposition of the concept of mnemonic arbitrage go to the original post: Mnemonic Arbitrage.
This is the second in a series of lessons from notable fiction writers that provide guidance (or at least inspiration) for core techniques used in ethnographic storytelling. The first entry was a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene (Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami). The second lesson, also from Murakami, addresses how to create convincing characters that blend the “factual” and the “true.”
A lesson from Haruki Murakami in creating characters
One need in any storytelling is to create compelling characters. As in fiction, ethnographies frequently require the creation of characters that represent more than a single individual: a typical member of a social group, whether it be a music fan, an elder in a community, a customer for a product, a technology user. Whether the story is addressing a problem or issue within the realm of ethnomusicology, anthropology, design or UX, convincing, compelling characters are a baseline requirement — if you can not believe in the characters, you will not believe in the points being made in the story. The following passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle illustrates the need to rely upon both the factual and the true in creating characters (and in storytelling in general):
He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he suceeded in telling the story.
A nice piece by Betsy Mason on Wired‘s Wired Science blog on the under-appreciated value of hand-drawn illustrations in nature studies in the digital age — Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes. It set me to thinking about the value of “artful” field notes outside of nature studies (where there is a strong tradition of artist-scientists, including the venerable work of Darwin and Audubon). In the “softer” sciences (humanities, social sciences and their hybrids), less value has been placed on the art of field notes. In my own work as an ethnomusicologist, the sketches, diagrams, and doodles that accompany my written observations of a musical event often provide insights that might otherwise fall through the cracks of a strictly left brain operation, focused on accuracy and completeness.
- Harvard’s collection of scientists’ field notes (boingboing.net)
A while ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose (Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction). This fascination arose from my longstanding dissatisfaction with the lifeless quality of so much ethnographic prose and conviction that good research could be related in good writing. While I applaud the efforts of writer-scholars such as Tobias Hecht (After Life: An Ethnographic Novel) to open up new territory for ethnographic representation, I have to admit that I have yet to read a work that successfully utilizes fictional techniques to create a convincing and engaging ethnography. The question arises if it’s simply a problem of blending two very different skill sets: those of a researcher and those of a writer? But so many fiction writers have done such thorough research and then related it in masterful prose — if you want proof, read the opening section of Don Delillo‘s Underworld , which recreates the deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant race. Maybe, it is best to turn to fiction writers for tips on how to tell a story. Below is a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene in what may be the first entry in an occasional series here on Deciphering Culture.
A lesson from Haruki Murakami in setting the scene
One need in any storytelling is to set the scene. Sometimes, you do that by (in cinematic terms) taking a long shot to set the context before moving in to capture the details. Murakami is a master of this and often uses this device to set a scene. For example, this passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:
Like a make-believe bird in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details. Each detail carries much significance, of course, I check each one in turn examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next,there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little.
One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:
Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.
Goals of the Workshop
This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.
And added to my reading list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:
Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.
Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.
With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.
A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.
- Design Fiction: Design Culture Lab workshop, C&T 2011, Brisbane (wired.com)
- New Film: Guillermo Gómez Álvarez’s “Una identidad en absurdo Vol.1″ (repeatingislands.com)
- Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting (decipheringculture.com)
On the value of ethnography in a business setting (from very different perspectives)
(1) part of a series on the PARC blog last year)
27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti
I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.
What is ethnography?
First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.
In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.
But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:
“What’s it good for, in my business?”
Ethnography adapted for industry
In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.
Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)
Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.
Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied. (for the rest)
(2) a more explicitly design-centered take from KnottedCord
While conducting research for my next presentation (as part of Module 2), I am becoming intrigued and interested (REALLY interested) in Ethnography and then on a separate note, Design Thinking.
The following excites me in relation to ethnography:
-’ its a tool for better design’…..’informs design by revraling a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.’…….’a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.’……’helps…create more compelling soloutions’…’it lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others.’…….’allows us to discover meaning, understand norms…make communications powerful…be worldy….observe reality….identify barriers….’
In a previous job, I had a boss who would say things like “We’re great, sure everyone on the street is talking about us, they all want to come here, people tell me all the time.” Getting Increasingly frustrated by this (and his lies) I eventually said “How do we know? What research have we conducted? The only facts we have is the amount of profit at the end of the year! Why don’t we just get out there and ask questions?”
If anything, adpoting a ethnographic model of research will help me understand the group / community of interest I eventually end up collaborating with. The following diagram, recently sourced also intrigues me and brought the areas of ethnography and design thinking to my forefront and attention. (for the rest)
- Over the Wire (inequalitiesblog.wordpress.com)
Excited that the first piece of my “ethnographic poetry” was published on January 7, 2011 by the UK literary journal The View From Here. The poem, “My Father Chased, Never Caught” is based on family history but as my biography in The View From Here says,
Jeffrey Callen is an ethnographer and writer living in San Francisco. Along the way to receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, he learned the bracketing of reactions, the deep hanging out, the willingness to be surprised that are the sine qua non of the ethnographic method. An ethnographic approach is integral to all his work as a writer, including his fiction and poetry. His writing on music and popular culture regularly appears in scholarly publications and popular outlets, such as PopMatters, The Beat and Afropop Worldwide. He is currently writing a book on alternative music in Morocco and can be contacted through his professional blog Deciphering Culture.
Gorgeous, Eye Catching, Coffee Table Worthy! The View From Here – The Best of the Best in the new and emerging literary scene!
Interviews with … Naseem Rakha, Michael Kimball & Penny Legg.
Original Fiction: Kirie Pedersen, Lauren Butler & Iain Campbell.
Original Poetry: Magdalawit Makonnen , Jeffrey Callen & Rich Murphy.
Chapter 1 of our serialisation of Death Knell by Kathleen Maher
Reading Underground by Jane Turley
Book Review: You Against Me by Jenny Downham.
The “dancing guy video has become viral — over 3 million hits for the original. And it’s making its way into business presentations. I saw Gentry Underwood of IDEO use it to illustrate the herd aspect of human behavior in a talk on ethnography and design at PARC in Palo Alto. And below is a link to an article by music business strategist Derek Silvers on whaa we can learn about leadership from Dancing Guy (the video gives a capsule version — the text is available on Silver’s blog, a new find I’m bookmarking today).
Also worth checking out is Silvers’ entry on the human need for drama:
I was at a Kurt Vonnegut talk in New York a few years ago. Talking about writing, life, and everything. He explained why people have such a need for drama in their life. He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.” (read more…)