Tag: ethnography

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Ethnography, philosophy, and data anonymization

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.

Complications in Scholarly Hypertext

I’ve got a lot of questions about on-line academic publishing. A lot of this comes from career anxiety: I am not a very good academic because I don’t know how to write for academic conferences and journals. But I’m also coming from an industry that is totally eating the academy’s lunch when it comes to innovating and disseminating information. People within academia are increasingly feeling the disruptive pressure of alternative publication venues and formats, and moreover seeing the need for alternatives for the sake of the intellectual integrity of the whole enterprise. Open science, open data, reproducible research–these are keywords for new practices that are meant to restore confidence in science itself, in part by making it more accessible.

One manifestation of this trend is the transition of academic group blogs into academic quasi-journals or on-line magazines. I don’t know how common this is, but I recently had a fantastic experience of this writing for Ethnography Matters. Instead of going through an opaque and problematic academic review process, I worked with editor Rachelle Annechino to craft a piece about Weird Twitter that was appropriate for the edition and audience.

During the editing process, I tried to unload everything I had to say about Weird Twitter so that I could at last get past it. I don’t consider myself an ethnographer and I don’t want to write my dissertation of Weird Twitter. But Rachelle encouraged me to split off the pseudo-ethnographic section into a separate post, since the first half was more consistent with the Virtual Identity edition. (Interesting how the word “edition”, which has come to mean “all the copies of a specific issue of a newspaper”, in the digital context returns to its etymological roots as simply something published or produced (past participle)).

Which means I’m still left with the (impossible) task of doing an ethnography (something I’m not very well trained for) about Weird Twitter (which might not exist). Since I don’t want to violate the contextual integrity of Weird Twitter more than I already have, I’m reluctant to write about it in a non-Web-based medium.

This carries with it a number of challenges, not least of which is the reception on Twitter itself.

What my thesaurus and I do in the privacy of our home is our business and anyway entirely legal in the state of California. But I’ve come to realize that forced disclosure is an occupational hazard I need to learn to accept. What these remarks point to, though, is the tension between access to documents as data and access to documents as sources of information. The latter, as we know from Claude Shannon, requires an interpreter who can decode the language in which the information is written.

Expert language is a prison for knowledge and understanding. A prison for intellectually significant relationships. It is time to move beyond the institutional practices of triviledge

– Taylor and Saarinen, 1994, quoted in Kolb, 1997

Is it possible to get away from expert language in scholarly writing? Naively, one could ask experts to write everything “in plain English.” But that doesn’t do language justice: often (though certainly not always) new words express new concepts. Using a technical vocabulary fluently requires not just a thesaurus, but an actual understanding of the technical domain. I’ve been through the phase myself in which I thought I knew everything and so blamed anything written opaquely to me on obscurantism. Now I’m humbler and harder to understand.

What is so promising about hypertext as a scholarly medium is that it offers a solution to this problem. Wikipedia is successful because it directly links jargon to further content that explains it. Those with the necessary expertise to read something can get the intended meaning out of an article, and those that are confused by terminology can romp around learning things. Maybe they will come back to the original article later with an expanded understanding.

xkcd: The Problem with Wikipedia

Hypertext and hypertext-based reading practices are valuable for making ones work open and accessible. But it’s not clear how to combine these with scholarly conventions on referencing and citations. Just to take Ethnography Matters as an example, for my article I used in-line linking and where I got to it parenthetical bibliographic information. Contrast with Heather Ford’s article in the same edition, which has no links and a section at the end for academic references. The APA has rules for citing web resources within an academic paper. What’s not clear is how directly linking citations within an academic hypertext document should work.

One reason for lack of consensus around this issue is that citation formatting is a pain in the butt. For off-line documents, word processing software has provided myriad tools for streamlining bibliographic work. But for publishing academic work on the web, we write in markup languages or WYSIWIG editors.

Since standards on the web tend to evolve through “rough consensus and running code”, I expect we’ll see a standard for this sort of thing emerge when somebody builds a tool that makes it easy for them to follow. This leads me back to fantasizing about the Dissertron. This is a bit disturbing. As much as I’d like to get away from studying Weird Twitter, I see now that a Weird Twitter ethnography is the perfect test-bed for such a tool precisely because of the hostile scrutiny it would attract.