blogging as open-source research

Thanks for coming. I’m Natalie – somehow, only six months in to my PhD I’m presenting here at the ethnoforum a second time. I think it’s because I share an office with Michelle. We tell stories and she says “you should present that at the ethnoforum”. It always sounds good at the time. Two lessons to take away from this:

  1. Please, if you have interesting things to present at the ethnoforum, volunteer yourselves to Michelle and save me from another presentation!
  2. I’m in the early stages of my project, still figuring things out, and keen for your input! It’s a session on collaborative anthropology after all…

Emmaline and I are going to present two different takes on collaborative research. I’m going to talk somewhat idealistically and theoretically (and perhaps naïvely) about the possibilities I see collaborative methods offering at the start of my project, while Emmaline is going to talk somewhat more pragmatically about some of the limits she’s found to collaboration at the end of the fieldwork process and during writing up.

My presentation covers 3 rough sections.

First, I want to share with you why I’m committed to collaborative research methods.

Second, I’m going to explore some of the features of social media and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that are part of an emerging, popular (as in ‘of the people’), collaborative and creative ethic that I find persuasive and that I’m keen to employ in my project.

And third, I’m going to tell you a bit about blogging and how it might be a useful – even if sometimes a little blunt – instrument to help put into practice some of this commitment to dialogue and collaborative creativity.

Why I’m committed to collaborative research methods

I’m committed to collaborative methods because I have a high view of both the community and academia. That is, I view the community – the people we work with – as intelligent and creative, with the potential to engage in research. And I view academic research as fundamentally useful, with the capacity to contribute something of value to the community. Locking academic discussion away in an ivory tower is harmful both for the community and for academia.

Collaboration is not a new idea to anthropology. At some level all ethnography is collaborative.  But when Eric Lassiter talks about Collaborative Ethnography in his Handbook he suggests that what is new is the move to push collaboration from its “taken-for-granted background and put it at centre stage” (p16) and “that establishes as a main goal the writing of ethnography with local community consultants as active collaborators in that process” (p17).  For Lassiter, collaboration is an attempt to redress (typically colonial) power imbalances between the researcher and the researched. He asks: “When does anthropology serve the very relationships created and maintained by anthropological practice? How can anthropology become relevant for our consultants?” (p19). It views the people we work with not as subjects, but consultants, collaborators, co-creators.

Lassiter suggests that:

“a deliberate and explicit collaborative ethnography is founded on four main commitments:

  1. ethical and moral commitment to responsibility to consultants;
  2. honesty about the fieldwork process;
  3. accessible and dialogic writing; and
  4. collaborative reading, writing, and co-interpretation of ethnographic texts with consultants.”

My blog is an attempt to be honest about who I am, what my project is about, what my questions are. It’s open to anyone with internet access. One of the key features of blogs is the ability to comment on posts and in this sense it’s dialogic and collaborative. And it’s an attempt to practice these things before I even have collaborators! But I think there’s other philosophical precedent.

I understand collaborative research to be grounded in a commitment to dialogue and a responsibility to the other. I’ve tried reading some Levinas, and mostly it washes over me, but I am persuaded by his call for a responsibility to the Other merely in light of coming face-to-face with them as another being. The other places ethical demands on us, lays claim to us. For Levinas an ethics of responsibility precedes any “objective searching after truth”.

My commitment to collaborative research also comes from an expectation that I won’t be able to understand the other in a perfect sense. That my reading and translation of another’s experience – their culture – will be enriched by engaging in dialogue with them about my interpretations. Collaboration isn’t only about redressing power imbalance. It’s also about achieving deeper “co-interpretations” (Lassiter p12).

The Psychiatrist RD Laing puts it this way:

“I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.”

I wouldn’t be here, though, if I thought this doomed any social science that attempts to interpret the experience of someone else to utter failure. I think Laing would suggest that it is always limited, but that as we experience one another experiencing – as we respond to one another – we get closer to sharing something of each other’s experience. He says:

“Since your and their experience is invisible to me as mine is to you and them, I seek to make evident to the others, through their experience of my behaviour, what I infer of your experience, through my experience of your behaviour”.

My own motivations are not just philosophical, but also theological; deeply grounded in a theology of service and a responsibility to the other before the self. The theorist/theologian John Milbank I think would agree with Laing when he describes the way receptivity to the other should be ontologically primordial.

“Since we are created, we are received, even as ourselves, before ourselves. Likewise, in order to exercise strength we must first be sensitive and attentive, which always involves a vulnerable exposure to risk, failure and the tragic misinterpretation by others of our own ventures….On the other hand, just because receptivity is for us ontologically primordial, it cannot begin as a passivity in the ordinary sense: as I am entirely received, even as an I, there is no original ‘I’ that could be the subject of a passivity. Reception is therefore from the outset active and affirmative and this ontological circumstance is reflected ontically in our best attention towards others. Since we cannot be in their position save by falsely feigning an absolute sympathy which secretly seeks to displace them, our true attention weaves further the interval ‘between’, such that we most accurately sympathise by creatively responding with our own perspective. In this way the work of solidarity in its essence promotes, in their shared compossibility, both the power of others and our own”

One of the key criticisms of an approach which seeks to give power to the research subject over representations of themselves is that they will hide the ugly truth about themselves. Or what happens when your ‘translation’ is contested by the people you’re working with?

I think I want to follow Talal Asad in drawing a distinction between translation and critique. In his essay in Writing Culture, he argues that explaining why the actions of another make sense does not equate to justifying the right-ness or wrong-ness of those same actions. Producing an account of another culture that makes it coherent is not an act of charity, but one of accuracy in translation.

Working in collaboration with a community should give you more rather than less right to produce social critique. If Asad can say:

“Criticising ‘savages who after all are some distance away’ in an ethnographic monograph they cannot read, does not seem to me to have the same kind of purpose [as his own academic critique of Gellner]. In order for criticism to be responsible, it must always be addressed to someone who can contest it”.

So, working collaboratively with people actually opens up more opportunities to ethically critique practice and culture than non-collaborative methods for the very reason that it does create the space for open disagreement.

These philosophical commitments to dialogue, an acknowledgement of the creative contribution to the other, an expectation of creativity happening in the spaces in-between, and open disagreement seeking consensus find remarkable parallels in the community of participants in ICTs and especially web 2.0. These ideas are being embodied every day in the lives of a whole bunch of software engineers and programmers. Which could be surprising if you have a stereotypical image of engineers and programmers…

Collaborative and creative ethics of ICTs

Before I get technical, it will help me to know a bit about what you know about these kinds of things…

Who uses the internet?
Who uses facebook? Twitter?
Who has ever read a blog?
Who writes a blog?
Who feels confident they know what ‘open source’ means?
What about crowd-sourcing?
Creative Commons?
Perpetual Beta?
The cloud (note: it’s not made of water vapour)?

So, it sounds like most of you know what a blog is. It’s short for web log. Like an online journal. You can post text, images, video, and audio. Posts are enabled to allow users to comment on their content. There are a couple of fascinating anthro-blogs around; Material World, Savage Minds.

“Open source” describes software which is both free and for which the source code is freely available. If that’s goobledegook – imagine software is a cake. Traditionally, you’ve gone to the shops and bought a cake. You’ve been able to use it for the purpose it was made (eating). Now imagine you can go to the shop and they give you a cake for free! That’s what we call freeware – software that’s given away for free. But open source is like going to the shop getting a free cake and being given the recipe. It gives you the opportunity to make and modify the cake for yourself. In fact, lots of open source projects could be described as inviting you into the kitchen and allowing you to comment publicly on ways you’d make the recipe better. It’s about honesty, dialogue, and iterative improvement. Have a listen to these guidelines for creating good open source software from Eric Raymond’s important essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – replace software with ‘project’ and developer with ‘researcher’ and see how much it sounds like collaborative research:

  1. Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
  2. Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
  3. Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.
  4. If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you.
  5. When you lose interest in a program, your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor.
  6. Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
  7. Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.
  8. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.
  9. Smart data structures and dumb code works a lot better than the other way around.
  10. If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
  11. The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.
  12. Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.
  13. Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.
  14. Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.
  15. When writing gateway software of any kind, take pains to disturb the data stream as little as possible—and never throw away information unless the recipient forces you to!
  16. When your language is nowhere near Turing-complete, syntactic sugar can be your friend.
  17. A security system is only as secure as its secret. Beware of pseudo-secrets.
  18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.
  19. Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

I’m using blogging through the set-up phase of my project as a way to try to practice ‘open source’ social research. The things I read, the reflections I have on them, the way I put different ideas together and shape my research question, I think these are my anthropological ‘source code’.

One of the most potent forces in social media is the hyperlink. If you are writing a blog post – or even a facebook update or tweet – and you refer to someone else (or someone else’s work) it’s good manners to link to them. On a blog, this will sometimes come in the form of “The Hat Tip” – at the bottom of a post, you’ll see h/t and a link to a person/blog. There’s an expectation in the online community that people ought to be recognised for their contribution – for the knowledge they contribute.

The final correlation between collaborative methods and web 2.0 I want to talk to you about is the idea of ‘Perpetual Beta’. Beta is the term given to software that’s in ‘testing phase’. It belongs to a model of production that creates a prototype, tests it and then releases a final – static – product into the market. Perpetual beta is the idea that a program is never finished. It’s constantly in a state up being updated, refined, in a state of process. It’s dialogue if ever I saw it.

Blogging as a collaborative tool

And so the fact that there is this philosophical synergy between the commitments of collaborative researchers and the ethics of social media means it feels pretty natural to use a blog to experiment with ‘open source’ research;  research that exposes my reading and thinking, that links to books, articles and resources, that allows people to comment on, challenge and refine the project.

There’s a bunch of work done (see for example Christine Hine’s collection Virtual Methods) on doing research online. It’s good. But it focuses on using the Internet as either a source of data or as a recruitment/data collection tool. You see, it considers ‘computer mediated communications’ (I think this means pretty much any form of electronic communication) as a new form of input into the research process. It is something new that you can study. Alternatively, information and communication technologies can be seen as a tool; for recruiting participants, conducting interviews and discussion groups.

But what Hine hasn’t (yet) explored are the ways in which the Internet creates new possibilities for research output; for releasing information, providing access to the inner workings of a project, and imagining new ways to organise and display research results. My use of a blog is an attempt to use the internet as a form of output. It’s about using the Internet to share data. Instead of using old methods on new communities, it’s experimenting with using a new methodology in an old-school type project.

So, to summarise…

1. I’m using a blog in an attempt to honestly reveal my anthropological process and working. This is my open source source-code.

2. I’m using a blog to encourage dialogue, criticism and to refine my thinking and project through encounters with other people.

3. I’m using it as a way of making connections between people and ideas in non-linear (but still very much narrative) ways – a way of providing recognition for the intellectual capital other people contribute to the project.

4. I’m using it as a way of manifestly demonstrating that research is process. A thesis is part of a much bigger, and hopefully ongoing, process of creation, dialogue and iteration.

LET ME SHOW YOU MY BLOG…

Some of the Pros of using a blog:

Really flexible

Hyperlinking – being able to tell non-linear stories

Password protection

Multimedia

Provides scope for different opinions to be given air-time and to interract with one another

And some of the Cons:

Difficult to control – what do you do about flaming? Or people who release data about other people?

How do you decide what’s relevant? where does the project begin and end? How much of yourself do you need to reveal?

What if nobody reads it? What if people don’t want to collaborate?

Can reproduce social structures – it’s not ‘free’

If you put something on your blog it is published? What are the implications for your thesis? and any subsequent publication?

But, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly…

Don’t hear me wrong! This is not a maxim for the lazy – but for the perfectionist. If something is genuinely worth doing, then it’s more important to do something (even if it is imperfect) than to do nothing. Collaborative methods are difficult – if not impossible – to realize in perfection. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try. I’m going to have a go at doing it badly.

References

Asad, T. (1986) “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology”, pp 141-164, in Clifford, J and Marcus, G. (eds) Writing culture : the poetics and politics of ethnography, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lassiter, L (2005), The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Milbank, J (2006) Theology and social theory: beyond secular reason (Second Edition), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Raymond, E (2000) The Cathedral and The Bazaar, accessed from: http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/

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