Making Ethnography Work

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali's previous post here.]

The woman at the table next to me, an older woman with shoulder-length white hair and green-framed glasses, has lost it. “I don’t know where it went. It’s gone. I’m going to start over.” Squinting, she lets out an exasperated sigh and moves her face closer to the screen. The man across from her, who looks about my age, reaches into his plaid shorts for a smartphone – an opportunity to do something. The woman in the green glasses is the director of an organization; the man in plaid shorts is her tech support. They are working to fix a problem with the organization’s website, which seems to be spamming site users. The communication between director and tech support is terrible. I silently hope to myself that this is a relatively new relationship, and not something that’s been going on for very long. Digital projects are complicated enough. The last thing you’ll need is miscommunication.

I observe a version of this scene with some frequency when I work from coffee shops. (And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find myself in this scene from time to time.) Everyone wants web presence. Not everyone knows what that means, or what it takes to get it. More and more people (who may be directors, assistant administrators, project managers, or business owners) are interfacing with developers, designers, and content management systems. Knowledge gaps and misunderstandings are common between those who want and those who provide web services. There is even a growing field of professionals who facilitate such projects, thus reducing the frustration of getting or building a website. Some days, I wonder if I am part of this growing field. (The answer is, ‘yes, I unexpectedly am.’)

Over the last two years, since we began redesigning CA’s website, I have learned a lot about developers, designers, and the conditions they work in. There is MUCH more to learn. I’m far from expert. I’ve also heard, again and again, that CA’s website is not just a website. It’s a digital archive, a repository of supplemental material, indexes, teaching tools, and, increasingly, essays. The site has over 600 pages. Not only do I manage this beast, I’m also managing its redesign.

To do this meant becoming literate in web design and information architecture, blogging and digital publishing, and, most importantly, project management – and fast! If my activities extended beyond managing editor before CA’s site redesign (which they did), once the project was off the ground it often felt like I was working two separate jobs – managing editor and ? How do I describe and name this other role I’m playing? It’s been tough to nail, undoubtedly because CA Online departs substantially from what social science journals typically do. Like the woman in the green-framed glasses, whatever academic career I had before CA Online’s redesign, it was now long gone. Is this the point where I start over?

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The model of professional fieldworker that Deepa describes in her most recent post sounded a lot like my dissertation work. A multi-sited project, my time in the field amounted to five months with a grassroots organization in Knoxville, Tennessee, two months at an alternative health clinic in the Hudson Valley, a number of weeklong research trips where structured qualitative interviews were the dominant form of data collection, and a few semester length, collaborative projects. My dissertation work fits nicely with Deepa’s description of professional fieldwork – as less “immersive and much more piecemeal and formal, many subjects met once and never again, a depersonalized model of research.” “Workable” ethnography is all I have ever known. Yet if I make sense of my work for CA using this paradigm, I find that my work has, in many ways, been more immersive, continuous, informal and personalized than my dissertation project.

Thinking about my work on CA Online’s redesign, I often wish my research process had been systematic, with various tiers of questions that focused on political economy and communities of practice; conversations recorded and coded. But when I sat down to talk with people, read through discussion forums, or analyze websites, my questions were much more instrumental, my notes technical. Culture was not on my radar. Thankfully, CJ Bryan and Ryan Schenk (CA’s developer and designer, respectively) have been incredible interlocutors as well as collaborators. Both are committed to open software, building as much user agency into design as possible, and educating me, as site manager, about software, development, and information architecture. Exactly the kind of relationship I want in my work, whether that’s work understood as project management, ethnography, or both.

This is not corporate ethnography, such as the kind that Laurel described a few days ago, yet the research I’ve done for and around CA feels like its kin. And this has been more than an ethnography of contingent workers in the digital economy, although there’s that too. My research for CA Online is always situated within the context of academic publishing – what level of copyediting does the website need; what is the viability of print on demand; of open access publishing; how might CA work with university libraries to establish a digital repository; what are CA’s options for content management platforms, how much will it cost, and how long will it take to develop? This entire string of questions, of course, ties back to a larger question on my mind – what can be done with academic publishing, what might it become? How might it be distributed, not just more openly, but in forms that support undergraduate teaching or semantic web projects? Yes, open access journals, but discussed in the broader context of a digitized higher education system – smart classrooms and open universities, academia.edu and virtual conferences, the needs and resources of our libraries. How can our peer-reviewed journals, currently the most important venue for the dissemination of our work, be linked up with other trends in higher education?

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Some days I long to experience anthropology’s classic model of fieldwork, and am afraid I’ve missed my chance. But I also know fawning over established paradigms – and even feeling inadequate for missing anthropology’s rite of passage – does not serve me… or my two dogs for that matter. They appear to be very happy with my use of the professional fieldworker paradigm. The sidelines of academia are as much a site of interest for them as it is for me, along with the rest of us, I would argue.

Ali Kenner is managing editor and program director at Cultural Anthropology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also teaches Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga in Upstate New York.