Tue 25 Apr 2006
There has been a lot of well-deserved discussion and praise around Paul Dourish's Implications for Design paper at this year's Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference. (Or so I've read, since I'm not actually there.) For the unfamiliar, CHI is a multi-disciplinary but computer science and design dominated conference. Many of the practitioners and researchers in that community have adopted various versions of ethnography in recent years, mostly bastardized, and almost always subsumed by a technology and design-centered focused.
Much of what Paul has to say mirrors debates that have been going on inside of anthropology over the last 25 years or so. (Writing Culture and after. For a nice, succinct synopsis of the last 75 or so years of anthropology see this.) More recently some of them have spilled out into the applied anthropology community, primarily I think because it is multi-disciplinary and hierarchically aligned much the way CHI is. I mention this not to degrade what Paul says – actually the opposite. One of the greatest challenges of applied anthropology is what we might call cultural brokerage – a translation between stakeholders inside of diverse groups. (Disclaimer: Wikipedia's discussion of applied anthropology is pretty good IMHO, up until it gives a set of 4 example problems that do a remarkably terrible job of capturing what applied anthro. is about today.)
Paul clearly believes in the potential of ethnography but is keenly aware of the prevalence of misuse and misunderstanding. Case in point – and my own personal pet peeve – the widespread misconception that ethnography is a qualitative method. (In fact, ethnography is a mixed-methods approach that entails a specific perspective and analytical frame.) The paper is well organized and written, and does a clear job of illustrating his main points: that ethnography is too often poorly or incorrectly applied in the CHI community in a way that both misrepresents what ethnography is about (e.g. theory AND practice) and drains it of much of its potential for informing ongoing understanding about the design and use of technology in everyday life.
I tried to make many of these same points in my paper Cultural Assessment for Sustainable Kiosks which I'm presenting at next month's International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, but I haven't been nearly as eloquent about it as Paul has. Still, I hear a lot of people asking healthy questions like "What's *is* ethnography really?" and thinking about how to apply it in the most meaningful way. I hope that signals a shift out of this transitional period where folks seem to know that ethnography is a powerful tool but have very little concept of how or when to use it, what to do with data once they've got it, or how to ground ethnography in theory.
I really appreciate what Paul is trying to do, and I think he's uniquely positioned to do it. He's someone who is extremely accomplished and respected as a member of the CHI and CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) communities, but clearly has a command of the disciplinary history of anthropology and the theoretical and analytical foundations of ethnography. That his paper has sparked so much interest and debate at CHI (including a nomination for the best paper award) is a testament to his quality as a thinker and writer.