PgR, Open Lab
Please describe your current research interests/projects.
I’m an anthropologist working in an interaction design research lab. I believe tech should support people and communities and come from a digital social innovation background.
In my PhD I’m interested in learning how data translates the complexities of our lives with an environmental focus. For example, can data interfaces help us adjust our environmental actions?
I am conducting an ethnography of the Urban Observatory and am looking to understand how data is reproduced and how data ‘came to be’, including the infrastructure of data production from the servers, cables, transfers etc.
Why did you choose this field?
I worked in Digital Social Innovation for 9 years and it was so technology-development orientated but I could see we were making people adapt to technology rather than the other way around. And I guess I’m interested in rebellion and taking alternative approaches, unwriting the norms and finding better ways of doing things.
Tarde the Sociologist had the vision to be able to read statistical journals and understand the story behind the data and this for me is a design question. What must happen that we can achieve this goal?
And then I am also concerned with the environment and want to find ways to improve things in that area. It’s a subject close to my heart so that’s what I’ve chosen the topic I have.
What are the main methods you use, how and why?
I predominantly use ethnography.
Which methods excite you?
Beyond ethnography, I really love methods around Human Computer Interaction (HCI), design and anthropology. Looking at ways we can extend ethnography within the field using devices like prototypes, maps and open-source technology.
There’s a book called Ethnography for a Data-Saturated World and I always return to it. And then also Infrastructures and Social Complexity, which looks at how infrastructures are embedded in our values and lives even when they’re invisible.
And then lastly there’s a book entitled Design Anthropology Theory and Practice (Ed: Wendy Gunn). This is the most relevant for me at the moment as it’s about having an anthropological sensitivity to every step of the design process. What are the concepts we have in mind when we come up with ideas? It helps to bring ethnography to the practicality of design and service design. Value maps, ecosystem maps. My task is to come up with some dialogical tools that will support interviewing and communicating my aims and create space for people to bring their own meaning onto these tools. These will complement the interviews and the notes from my observation of the observatory.
Who inspires you methodologically?
I still lack methodological inspiration. I have theoretical ones, but I haven’t found anything too similar. I am so keen to learn more about design anthropology and to seek inspiration from there.
What, about methods, did you wish your younger self had known?
I’m still working on this, but it would be about flexibility. Knowing what is the core of the method and what is flexible and can be amended. In this sense, I feel sad that I’m doing an ethnography without participation and it took me a while to feel ok with that. I think it’s important to work out what the core of your method is and have a stable starting point, particularly if other people are going to work from your work and add layers to it.
That’s also why I think methods are important in general. I’d like to be more secure and confident in allowing these different paths to open in that way. Maybe it’s the PhD and fear of the unknown, but I’m happy with where I’m at.
Having a community that surrounds you if you want to experiment or do something is really important. I have seen people try to go against the grain and try something different without being supported and they really struggle, they have to justify at each step why what they’re doing is important.
I wish I’d known that it is still academic when you are experimenting! If somebody had told me early on that testing new ways of doing things was part of academia, I would have arrived at academia much earlier on.
Have you had any memorable methodological blunders?
I ran a book sprint which is an event where people come together to write a publication, this is my biggest failure. Now when I think about it I realise it was super difficult. It was a publication about open education and sharing exchange but we struggled early on with the political agenda. We tried to find a solution to our differences of opinion but 6 hours later of a 3-day book sprint it ended in some people leaving. There was a lot of mansplaining and everybody was totally drained. I was 22 when it happened and the person who initiated the conflict was an established academic sat at the front and feeling very relaxed. It was very difficult for me and there was a massive power struggle.
Ultimately I felt the solutions I offered were in line with the values behind the project but when somebody was claiming otherwise it was very difficult. Egos were involved! Another female researcher stood up next to me to support me and it was a significant moment.
Which upcoming ECR or PgR should we look out for?
Colin Watson, he works with Shelter. He developed a PIP Kit which helps people monitor why they are missing their appointments with the welfare service.
If you could recommend students read just one text on methods (book or journal article), what would it be?
Experimental Collaboration by Adolfo Estaella. It's 100% methods oriented