The Asthma Files: Anthropological Learning Through Technical Practice

February 5th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Asthma Files is a collaborative ethnographic project focused on the diverse ways people in settings around the world have experienced and responded to the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis. It is experimental in a number of ways: It is designed to support collaboration among ethnographers working at different sites, with different foci, such that many particular projects can nest within the larger project structure. This is enabled through a digital platform that we have named PECE: Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography. PECE is open source and will become shareable with other research groups once we work out its kinks.

PECE has been built to support collaborative, multi-sited, scale-crossing ethnographic research addressing the complex conditions that characterize late industrialism – conditions such as the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis; conditions that implicate many different types of actors, locales and systems – social, cultural, political-economic, ecological and technical, calling call for new kinds of ethnographic analyses and collaboration. The platform links researchers in new ways, and activates their engagement with public problems and diverse audiences. The goal is to allow platform users to toggle between jeweller’s eye and systems-level perspective, connecting the dots to see “the big picture” and alternative future pathways.

The Asthma Files has taken us “beyond academia” in a number of ways. Ethnographically, we are engaging an array of professionals, organizations and communities, trying to understand how they have made sense of environmental public health problems. We want to document their sense-making processes, and what has shaped them; we also want to facilitate their sense-making processes – through ethnography that help them understand their own habits of thought and language, and those of others with whom they likely need to work cooperatively. For example, we’ve recently been contacted by a New Orleans housing contractor who wished to know the kind of research being done on asthma and housing in Louisiana. PECE is designed to support this, making space for different kinds of participants at different points in the ethnographic process.

We’ve also gone “beyond academia” to learn how to think about and build a digital platform to support ethnographic work. One step involved selection of the best – for our purposes, for now – online content management system. Quickly, it became apparent that most technical professionals had strong preferences, sometimes based on assessments of functionality, sometimes – it seemed – as a matter of habit. Through a long, comparative process, we ultimately decided on Plone, an open source content management system known for its security capabilities (important in creating space where groups of ethnographers can work together with material, perhaps IRB restricted, out of sight even though online), for its capacity to archive original content (such as interview recordings), and for the ways it supports our effort to nest multiple projects within a larger project structure.

Another important step, which we are still figuring out, is to hire the ongoing technical help we need for PECE. We need ongoing technical help because the platform isn’t finished, as we now envision it. But also because we want the platform to continually evolve as we continue to figure out what kinds of functionality we need to support collaborative ethnographic work. And this may be specific to each project housed on PECE. So we need on-going, ever learning relationships with people who can provide the technical support PECE requires, such as computer scientists, IT specialists, or programmers. As ethnographers, we know that technical professionals will think very differently about the work that we do. And we need to learn to work with this. We need to engage with skills and knowledges that are traditionally outside of the discipline of anthropology by taking on, in a practical way, the continual anthropological challenge of figuring out how difference works.

The Asthma Files and PECE are experiments that have taken us in many new directions – beyond academia, as well as back to basic questions about what should be considered ethnographic material, where theory is in ethnography, how ethnographic findings are best presented, etc. We keep open a call for new collaborators. Let us know if you would like to be in our mix.

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