[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]
KAT JUNGNICKEL. ethnographer. maker.
ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.
I’ve always made a bit of a mess. I’ve splashed around darkrooms, attempted to stitch interdisciplinary collaborations, and knit a research blog. I’ve hosted exhibitions, printed ‘zines and folded origami-inspired data boxes. I regularly collaborate with colleagues to build and perform dubiously welded “Enquiry Machines,” and I’m currently sewing a range of new Victorian women’s cycle wear as a means of thinking about public space, mobility, and gender.
I am by training a social scientist and my key methodological approach is ethnographic; for the last decade this visual, material, and messy approach has been central to my work. I’m increasingly drawn to a hands-on, object-oriented and embodied practice for the potential it holds for unlocking new expressions and transmissions of the social. It is a practice that is sometimes compared with a designer-ly approach, yet for me it comes from a background in Communications, Visual Culture, and Sociology.
I see ethnography and design intersecting on many levels, from topics and contexts of study to the rich material methods we employ to develop thick description of the world around us. I’m particularly interested in how the ubiquity of digital technologies has transformed not only the subject matter for many researchers but greatly expanded the possibilities of communicating and circulating findings. In addition to a palette of new skills and tools, there is an open mindedness to experiment with design practices, a desire to look beyond conventional “knowledge exchange” to alternate forms of transmission and entanglements with bodies, technologies, materials and places.
Ethnography + design become particularly productive for me in relation to making. Making is a fascinating lens for thinking about how things come into being, how they are made, where and from what, and who can and cannot participate. The fact that making remains suspended in a dynamic state of practice means it can always be something more or different. Much of my work involves the study of grassroots or fringe communities who customise and adapt existing technologies, re-inscribing them with new meanings and re-imagining possibilities of use. I also, as noted above, consider making central to my own practice.
I make things to make sense of things.
WHAT I DO.
I’ve worked on ethnographic research projects in industry and academic contexts for over a decade. Topics have been diverse but they generally coalesce around new digital technologies, cultural practices, mobilities and gender relations.
For instance, my study of the digital cultures and practices of the largest community WiFi networking group in Australia describes the collective work of individuals committed to designing and building their own version of the internet, or what they called “Ournet, not the internet”. Recently published, DiY WiFi: Reimagining Connectivity (Palgrave Pivot 2013) tells ethnographic stories about a handmade, deeply local communications network forged around barbeques, located in backyards and on sheds, and made from found, adapted, and off-the-shelf materials, with trees, insects, makers’ skills, and the fierce summer weather all contributing to its distinct shape and character. It’s all about people, materials, contexts and things that work as well as things that don’t always go to plan. While these makers clearly imbue a Do-it-Yourself (DiY) ethos they do not do it alone–they Do-it-Together (DiT).
The relevance of rich descriptions of how people design things from the ground up lies in how they render visible large socio-technological systems and infrastructures, drawing attention to other shapes and possibilities of use. They ask new questions about things we take for granted. Here, WiFi makers shift the register–not by asking what we can do on the internet, but what we can do with it. Their design practice signals ways of connecting with each other that circumvents familiar and dominant telecomunication relationships. Fundamentally, what their messy, make-do methods and tales of resourceful ingenuity permit is another way of seeing how technologies come into being–and how things might be different.
Methodologically, there is a growing movement in the social sciences to embrace mess (Law 2004), liveness (Back & Puwar 2012), and inventive methods (Lury & Wakeford 2012) as generative of new ways of knowing and understanding social worlds. Inspired by this and the open source ethics of many of my research participants, I’m interested not only in how we as researchers do our research but also how we translate and transmit our processes and findings to different audiences.
How might our methods of making knowledge be different? What happens when we use the same design tools/methods as those we study? How can we resist tidying, fixing or flattening our ideas in order to represent them? What can and cannot be transmitted in certain forms?
These questions invite new ways of imagining how we might re-inhabit our research and the social worlds in which they are situated. It is approach, as Jackie Orr has written, “that insists on its own undoing.”
I’ve written about sticky tape methods, particularly in the context of DiY technology practices and maker communities . Here, sticky tape is an everyday tool and an evocative way of working. It is not irrevocably binding but rather temporarily holds stuff in place, enabling things to be re-stuck in alternate configurations. It is about being responsive to changing conditions, interpretations, and opportunities.
Sticky tape reminds us that design innovations do not have to be new or revolutionary to have novelty and impact. Inventiveness emerges in re-combinations of existing materials and problems. Because it evokes a particular method of binding, sticky tape epitomises an experimental hands-on approach, an openness to ideas and resourceful adaptability. It’s a tactic that fits with what Lury and Wakeford (2012) call “inventive methods,” which are methods that cannot be separated from the research problem at hand. They arise in the process of doing the research,transformed by the subject under study and vice versa. I apply this pedagogy to my teaching. I have organised enquiry machine workshops, 16mm filmmaking training days, and an open source electronics prototyping session to see if, how, and in what ways these practices might interrupt and intervene in students’ modes of ethnographic storytelling.
HOW I SHARE.
In addition to journal articles, book chapters, talks and lectures I make websites, exhibitions, machines, performances, and, most recently, frocks to think about, make, and share my research.
- Performance: Enquiry Machines (EM) are a series of performed artefacts that explore ideas or methods. EM #1, for example, focuses on the interview: a classic social science research method. Made of a constellation of bicycle parts, rubbish, and duct tape, itrequires two operators to co-pedal, collaboratively setting in motion a series of chains, chainrings, and cogs to power a dynamo light. Julien McHardy and I interview each other about interviewing as a method, bringing to light the sensual, social, physical, environmental, and technological skills required to elicit and make sense of data. The point is less about materializing answers or prototyping ideas and more about rendering visible the labour of making knowledge, formulating new critical approaches and literally seeing and touching methods in new ways. EMs are not meant to be finished or polished objects that speak for themselves. In fact, most fail in some way. They remind us that mistakes and tangents are just as important to our insights as the things that “work.” EMs are performed at academic conferences, in public streets, at design salons, and in workshops.
[vimeo 16281282 w=500 h=375]
- Objects: Bikes & Bloomers. Freedom of Movement: The Bike, Bloomer, and Female Cyclist in Late Nineteenth Century Britain. This project explores public space, new technology (clothes, bikes, new media, etc.), and gendered forms of mobile citizenship through the lens of cycle wear patents lodged by middle- and upper-class women between 1890-1900. The novelty of the research lies in interweaving archival data with the making of new Victorian cycle wear in collaboration with contemporary craftspeople–tailor, weaver, artist, and filmmaker. Sewing and wearing these historical garments literally enables me to get into my research. I’ve also been running DiY Bicycle Bloomer Making Workshops, which involve talking, making, and performing as a way of inviting others to do the same.
- Exhibitions: Bike Portraits.The challenge of spatially configuring sociological arguments in three-dimensional form ensures exhibitions take a regular and dynamic role in my practice. Planning an exhibition involves choreographing not only a select series of objects but also dealing with site specificities and complex relationships between actors. I am drawn to what happens, both planned and unplanned, when I take my research back into social contexts from which they originate. For the Cycling Cultures research, I exhibited a series of Bike Portraits—large, jagged, edged photographic collages made in collaboration with respondents, their bikes, and favourite places. Part of me—a shoe, shadow, or arm—is visible in each portrait as a symbol of the messy collaborative work. Portraits were distributed in five popular bikes shops/cafes across central London with viewers encouraged to cycle between sites to piece together the exhibition.
Kat Jungnickel is a lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She uses ethnographic and visual methods to study hands-on DiY and DiT (Do-It-Together) technology cultures and practices, and the creative use (and mis-use) of ordinary, everyday materials. She experiments with knowledge translation and transmission in the way she makes, curates, and circulates her research findings. Past projects have explored WiFi networks, maker communities and mobility cultures. Her recent book, DiY WiFi: Re-imagining Connectivity (Palgrave Pivot 2013) examines ethnographically the innovative socio-technology practices of Australian grassroots wireless networks. She is currently working on an ESRC (Economic Social Research Council) funded project that brings together her three of favourite things—sociology, cycling, and sewing.
Back, L and N, Puwar, eds. 2012. Live Methods. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.18-39.
Hine, C. 2007 Multi-sited Ethnography as a Middle Range Methodology for Contemporary STS. Science, Technology & Human Values 32(6):652-671.
Jungnickel, K. 2014. Jumps, Stutters, Blurs and Other Failed Images: Using Time-Lapse Video in Cycling Research In Video Methods, by C. Bates, ed. Routledge’s Advances in Research Methods Series.
Jungnickel, K and L. Hjorth. 2014. Methodological Entanglements in the Field: Methods, Transitions & Transmissions.Visual Studies, Special issue: Transformations in Art and Ethnography 29(2): 138-147.
Jungnickel, K. 2013. DiY WiFi: Re-imagining Connectivity. Palgrave Macmillian Pivot.
Jungnickel, K. 2013. Getting There… and Back: How Ethnographic Commuting (by Bicycle) Shaped a Study of Australian Backyard Technologists. Qualitative Research.
Jungnickel, K. 2010. Research as a Form of Making. Making & Opening: Entangling Design & Social Science Conference. Goldsmiths, University of London.
Jungnickel, K. 2010. Exhibiting Ethnographic Knowledge: Making Sociology about Makers of Technology. Street Signs; Centre for Urban and Community Research. Goldsmiths, University of London.
Law, J. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London: Routledge.
Lury, C. and N. Wakeford, eds. 2012. Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, London: Routledge.