Ethnography, philosophy, and data anonymization

by Sebastian Benthall

The other day at BIDS I was working at my laptop when a rather wizardly looking man in a bicycle helmet asked me when The Hacker Within would be meeting. I recognized him from a chance conversation in an elevator after Anca Dragan’s ICBS talk the previous week. We had in that brief moment connected over the fact that none of the bearded men in the elevator had remembered to press the button for the ground floor. We had all been staring off into space before a young programmer with a thin mustache pointed out our error.

Engaging this amicable fellow, whom I will leave anonymous, the conversation turned naturally towards principles for life. I forget how we got onto the topic, but what I took away from the conversation was his advice: “Don’t turn your passion into your job. That’s like turning your lover into a wh***.”

Scholars in the School of Information are sometimes disparaging of the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy. Scholars, I’ve discovered, are frequently disparaging of ideas that are useful, intuitive, and pertinent to action. One cannot continue to play the Glass Bead Game if it has already been won any more than one can continue to be entertained by Tic Tac Toe once one has grasped its ineluctable logic.

We might wonder, as did Horkheimer, when the search and love of wisdom ceased to be the purpose of education. It may have come during the turn when philosophy was determined to be irrelevant, speculative or ungrounded. This perhaps coincided, in the United States, with McCarthyism. This is a question for the historians.

What is clear now is that philosophy per se is not longer considered relevant to scientific inquiry.

An ethnographer I know (who I will leave anonymous) told me the other day that the goal of Science and Technology Studies is to answer questions from philosophy of science with empirical observation. An admirable motivation for this is that philosophy of science should be grounded in the true practice of science, not in idle speculation about it. The ethnographic methods, through which observational social data is collected and then compellingly articulated, provide a kind of persuasiveness that for many far surpasses the persuasiveness of a priori logical argument, let alone authority.

And yet the authority of ethnographic writing depends always on the socially constructed role of the ethnographer, much like the authority of the physicist depends on their socially constructed role as physicists. I’d even argue that the dependence of ethnographic authority on social construction is greater than that of other kinds of scientific authority, as ethnography is so quintessentially an embedded social practice. A physicist or chemist or biologist at least in principle has nature to push back on their claims; a renegade natural scientist can as a last resort claim their authority through provision of a bomb or a cure. The mathematician or software engineer can test and verify their work through procedure. The ethnographer does not have these opportunities. Their writing will never be enough to convey the entirety of their experience. It is always partial evidence, a gesture at the unwritten.

This is not an accidental part of the ethnographic method. The practice of data anonymization, necessitated by the IRB and ethics, puts limitations on what can be said. These limitations are essential for building and maintaining the relationships of trust on which ethnographic data collection depends. The experiences of the ethnographer must always go far beyond what has been regulated as valid procedure. The information they have collected illicitly will, if they are skilled and wise, inform their judgment of what to write and what to leave out. The ethnographic text contains many layers of subtext that will be unknown to most readers. This is by design.

The philosophical text, in contrast, contains even less observational data. The text is abstracted from context. Only the logic is explicit. A naive reader will assume, then, that philosophy is a practice of logic chopping.

This is incorrect. My friend the ethnographer was correct: that ethnography is a way of answering philosophical questions empirically, through experience. However, what he missed is that philosophy is also a way of answering philosophical questions through experience. Just as in ethnographic writing, experience necessarily shapes the philosophical text. What is included, what is left out, what constellation in the cosmos of ideas is traced by the logic of the argument–these will be informed by experience, even if that experience is absent from the text itself.

One wonders: thus unhinged from empirical argument, how does a philosophical text become authoritative?

I’d offer the answer: it doesn’t. A philosophical text does not claim authority. That has been its method since Socrates.