Category: Tools & Techniques

Digital Mess as Method

Editor’s note: This is the second entry in the Second Project Series. This series explores an often undiscussed moment in professionalization: the shift from the research you began as a graduate student to the new work undertaken as an early- or mid-career scholar. This series is especially interested in personal journeys and institutional features that enabled or constrained this transition. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Lisa. There is a scene in season two of Mr. Robot where a smart house goes bad. Lights flicker, the stereo plays loudly, then cuts off, the alarm systems blares incessantly, and the temperature of the house drops. The wealthy inhabitant flees her domicile in dread. To her management company’s suggestion on how to fix the problem, she screams, “unplug what? Everything is inside the walls!” This scene condenses anxieties about the dark manipulable side of lifestyle technologies into one long jump cut of discomfiture. Indeed, when hackers can infect your thermostat with malware and demand ransom, these fears are re-legitimized. When I watch this scene, I see something else. The glitches in the house make me think of the ripples that disrupt the smooth functioning of our digital everyday. Those ripples are good things. They indicate that the data that surrounds us is uneven, imperfect, sloppy, full of holes. What if, instead of worrying about holes, we celebrate them? (read more...)

Facebook as research field and research platform: an e-seminar

CASTAC is proud to be co-hosting, with the Media Anthropology Network and Digital Anthropology Interest Group, an e-seminar on the many uses of Facebook in anthropological research. The seminar begins today, June 22, 2016, and it is being kicked off with a set of statements [PDF] by researchers whose projects have engaged Facebook, as part of their fieldwork or as a platform for disseminating and discussing their research: Philipp Budka (University of Vienna), Jordan Kraemer (Wesleyan University), Martin Slama (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Sydney Yeager (Southern Methodist University). All readers of the blog are invited to participate in the discussion. The e-seminar is taking place on the medianthro list, so if you’re interested in joining the conversation, be sure to sign up there. (read more...)

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor’s note: Platypus is launching a series called “The Second Project Project” that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the “second project” refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book. During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of introducing myself to any of these strangers triggered butterflies in my stomach. I stood in fear of opening my mouth, thus betraying my outsider status. Right, I remembered, this is what the beginning of fieldwork feels like. It kind of sucks. This initial foray signifies a much delayed beginning of work on my “second project.” The question of my second project has been one I’ve artfully dodged since graduating in 2011 until just this past fall,  2015. The pressure of articulating a second project in my job applications—starting in my final year as a graduate student up until I secured my magical unicorn of a tenure-track position in 2014—led to a rather uncreative string of unstarted projects. These were often derivative of my first project, and ones that I felt comfortable approaching but neither inspired nor excited to work on. Only with the security of my current position did I feel I had the freedom and time to find a fieldsite that would, in fact, make me feel insecure (in both the best and worst ways). The predicament this raises is, with the realities of the current job market and ever growing expectations for what is accomplished before tenure, how do we find the time and space to develop this second project? (read more...)

Unpredictable Technologies: The need for thick description in regulatory decision-making

I call myself a scholar of information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. To that end, my motto over that last few years has been “Social Science matters!” And by that, I really mean that qualitative research, or research aimed at understanding how people and organizations actually use technology, is important for creating good law. To this end, ethnographic study, the kind that produces thick descriptions of people and culture, should be MO of any body tasked with writing regulations. Recently I was asked to participate in training a group of telecommunications regulators who want to conduct a regulatory impact assessment (RIA). A RIA is a thorough investigation of the possible impacts of a proposed or revised regulation. In the most basic sense, the investigation is used to forecast whether the new rule will achieve what it’s supposed to, and what else could happen. Countries around the world use RIAs to evaluate regulatory needs and possible interventions. US federal agencies have been required to conduct and submit RIAs since the early 1980s, and President Bill Clinton codified this requirement in 1993 with Executive Order 12866. A second executive order, 13563, requires that agencies use “the best available techniques to quantify anticipated present and future benefits and costs as accurately as possible.” (read more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part II: Building Capacity

Earlier this month, I posted about how a principled approach to citizen science could help shape the field. In this second part, I look at one novel online project that’s helping citizen scientists connect both with each other and with scientific researchers and research teams that want (or need) their help. Thanks to a Pathways grant from the National Science Foundation, a web-based resource called SciStarter 2.0 is a global public science engagement tool in-the-making. While SciStarter 2.0 is now simply a website, it may someday be much more. I asked Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and founder of the original SciStarter program, to tell me a bit about it. According to Cavalier, the NSF funding and recent move of SciStarter to ASU enabled the team to pivot from an initial emphasis on the web-based system as a project finder (helping people find science projects) toward providing more support for all participants by making it easier to find people (both fellow citizen scientists and/or researchers in need of their contributions) and to keep track of everyone’s contributions. Such an approach not only formalizes the process for finding and participating in science, but it also helps, says Cavalier, “to enhance, diversify, and validate a participant’s involvement in citizen science.” (read more...)

What Can Twitter Do to/for the Field?

By Andrea Ballestero, Baird Campbell, and Eliot Storer* Between June 15 and 22, 2015, a group of anthropologists and graduate students convened by the Ethnography Studio linked our fieldsites via Twitter. The experiment, entitled “Ethnography Studio in the Field: #ESIFRice,” was designed to open conversations about how being in the “field” might shape the ways in which we conceptualize our problems of inquiry. How are the problems that mobilize us imagined once we are “in situ”? So we set up a structure for a parallel co-inhabitation of different sites. Each participant tweeted from her own location and with her own research interests in mind. The idea was not to establish a single multisited space or a joint research project but to keep the separation between sites alive, while linking them as an attempt to think together. If there was any purpose to the experiment, we could say that it was to craft an experimental system (Rheinberger 1997), that is, to set up a “system of manipulation designed to give unknown answers to questions the experimenters themselves are not yet able clearly to ask” (28). The experiment was related tangentially to ongoing conversations in anthropology about the uses of social media in fieldwork (Juris 2012; Horst 2015; Kraemer 2015; Sanjek and Tratner 2015), or what Kozinets has called “netnography” (2009). Yet, the purpose was not to explicitly discuss social media, but to create a space of structured play where we could see what Twitter might do to shape our analytic fields in real time. And so it was that a group of us, in different stages of our training, enmeshed in different geographic sites, and from different professional locations, got together to think about the field. The experiment generated a set of familiar and unfamiliar impressions. This post is an initial reflection on the effects of the experiment, not a report on results. The Ethnography Studio wrote up #ESIFRice! Field / Experiments cc @aballes2 @ethosITU @BairdCampbell #fieldwork #yes — Rachel Douglas-Jones (@kaisirlin) September 22, 2015 (read more...)

From Cave to Rave: What Digital Technologies and Social Media Could Mean for Paleoanthropology

A month ago, global science news was abuzz with the addition of a new ancestor to our human family. The revelation of the discovery and recovery by paleoanthropologists of more than 1,500 hominid bones belonging to the new genus Homo naledi from a South African cave was momentous. And while the discovery may be of interest to CASTAC Blog readers simply as anthropological news, what I think makes it particularly germane to our ongoing colloquy is how the research was planned and conducted and how news of the discovery was disseminated by digital means. From FaceBook to Twitter, from digital imaging to scientific visualization, and from National Geographic to eLife, the pervasive use of digital technologies and social media in the project made possible the acceleration of an extraordinary scientific discovery that is already challenging established paleoanthropology dogma. The tale of how Homo naledi went from cave to rave is intriguing, but the story behind the story, of how the digital practices the researchers used stand to become the modus operandi for future projects, is even more so. (read more...)

Understanding How People Use Technology: A Primer on Human Factors Engineering and UX Research

Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the  anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn’t coincidental, of course–there’s long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies. (read more...)

Notes from Art of the Archive: Rethinking Archival Practices in a Digital Era

This post describes a workshop on archival practices in the digital era that took place on May 21, 2015, at the University of California, Davis. The essay is co-authored by Alessandro Delfanti, Allison Fish, and Alexandra Lippman. Delfanti, Fish, and Lippman are postdocs with UC Davis’ Innovating Communication in Scholarship (ICIS) project. On May 21, 2015, the Innovating Communication in Scholarship project at the University of California, Davis held a one-day workshop on Art of the Archive. Papers given by the fifteen invited speakers explored the changing nature of the archive given the emergence of new information and communication technologies. These presentations largely focused on how these new digital archives are not merely technical creations, but are also constructed through social processes, have social impacts, and are not seamlessly implemented in everyday life. Instead, these digital storehouses are vibrant spaces for curating, organizing and publishing cultural heritage and expressive culture in new ways. In taking up this discussion three primary topics emerged and are described below: questions about access, circulation, and research design. (read more...)

In the QDA Test Kitchen, or, What Does It Matter Who Barbara Is?

2014 was the year that the major players in qualitative data analysis (QDA) software released native versions for the Mac. For me, the timing was perfect: my dissertation fieldwork in North Dakota had drawn to a close by summer’s end, and my advisor was encouraging me to roll up my sleeves and start working through my material. I wasn’t sure which software package would serve me best, though, and most of the guidance I could find around the Web declined to make head-to-head comparisons. Then, too, I was mindful of the critiques charging that QDA software of any stripe contributes to the mystification of method and amounts to an overpriced means of avoiding index cards, glue, and scissors. I have nothing against index cards, but with operating system issues off the table and student licenses available for under $100, I decided to see if one of these tools could help me to organize my data and get writing. After sizing up the available options, I downloaded trial versions of two well-known QDA products: NVIVO and Atlas.ti. I knew I was looking for an attractive and intuitive user interface that would allow me to code data in multiple formats: handwritten field notes, interview transcripts, documents I collected in the field. I had little faith that calculating the frequency and co-occurrence of the codes I assigned would unlock some deep, hidden structure of my material. But, taking a cue from one of the founding texts of software studies, I resolved to approach QDA software as an object that “deserves a reciprocation of the richness of thought that went into it, with the care to pay attention to what it says and what it makes palpable or possible.” How, I wondered, would my choice of software package make some kinds of analytical thinking possible and forestall others? What would my choice commit me to? (read more...)