Distraction Free Reading

Update on Big Data and Ethnography, Ethnography of Documents

Readers of the CASTC blog may recall my posting earlier in the year regarding Big Data. I offer the following comments as an update on my previous comments and in hopes of contributing further to the discussion of this topic.

My first comment is that the topic continues to be of considerable interest. Doubtless some of this follows from the fact that capacities to provide/make sense of Big Data are now an important part of corporate advertising, if not necessarily delivery of substantive benefits. Also, under more acceptable guises of things like “Data Science,” academic programs like mine in Informatics at Indiana University are moving feverishly to try to take advantage, of both the hype and any potentially real benefits. That despite the change in term, the actual concern in my view remains about quantity is revealed by the academic efforts underway to decide just what “big” implies, e.g., at least hundreds or tens of thousands?

I also think there remain issues here for ethnographers. One is clearly the claim of Big Data advocates that their tools for getting and analyzing digital data allow better (even “scientific”) study of complex social phenomena that, in some cases, we ethnographers have claimed. These include things having to do with senses of identity or motivation. In addition to finding ourselves in competition with Big Data-ers, I also think there may well be uses of Big Data tools that can usefully contribute to ethnographic work.

Out of both these motivations, Kalpana Shankar (University College Dublin, School of Information and Library Studies) and I organized a workshop on Ethnography and Big Data as part of the Social Informatics program of the Department of Information Science and Engineering at the University of Trento, Italy. In addition to clarifying the range of issues involved, the workshop also identified a number of additional relevant resources. Preparatory readings for workshop, presentation slides, and links to the additional readings are still available at: http://disi.unitn.it/~dandrea/workshop/

At the same site are posted similar materials for another workshop Kalpana and I organized. This one was on the ethnography of documents, a growing issue in my ethnography of Information teaching, both in Indiana and Trento. The topic is one about which we have proposed to write an article for the upcoming 4th Edition of the Science and Technology Studies Handbook. I of course would like to hear from CASTC members interested in either of these issues.


1 Comment

  • Melissa says:

    These discussions were both a focus and continued thread of discussion at the just finishing Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) in London. The first paper session addressed topics in and around this rather head on — per your second thought, the merging of these data types, you might find John Curran’s paper of particular interest. Anxst, embrace, debate and uncertainty, talk of a manifesto, abound. A draft of the proceedings can be found here http://epiconference.com/2013/

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