Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Design ethnography and the crisis of time

Tour Bus Ethnography: "Looking at my travel schedule for the next few months I'm left wondering what can I expect to learn from the relatively short amounts of time spent the field in different countries? At what point does spending a few days in a culture become nothing more than tour bus ethnography? Hop off the bus, stick a microphone in someone's face, take a few photos and tell everyone back home what a wonderful time that had by all and boy didn't we learn a lot."

Whenever I read Jan Chipchase's blog I simultaneously think how much I want to do work like that, and how I never want to do work like that. When I read posts like the one above, I remember being taught how the discipline of anthropology really only emerged when we gave up the colonial past-time of "armchair" anthropology and actually got out in the field ourselves. But the relationship between armchair-anthro and fieldwork is not an easy one: not then and not now.

When scholars were tasked with making sense of all the data brought back from the colonies, they had plenty of time to reflect on it. (In fact, I've always suspected that the sheer amount of "down" time and distance from the people studied actually encouraged anthropologists to come up with those complex hierarchies of cultural traits that became so instrumental in the administration of the colonies and the oppression of so many people. You know, idle hands and all...)

So when Jan gets concerned that he may be doing "nothing more than tour bus ethnography" and admits that "without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise" he's pointing to very real concerns in the practice of anthropology outside academia.

If armchair anthropology was a product of colonialism, then design ethnography is a product of capitalism. Both suffer similar political and ethical issues, but it seems to me that "tour bus ethnography" additionally suffers a crisis of time that was lacking in the era of armchair anthro.

In a cultural era often characterised in terms of speed, Jan asks:

"Given the constraints - what is an optimal and what is a sufficient amount of time to spend in the field? And if your project involves cultural comparisons - how much time is enough to rest, reflect and analyse between field trips?"

Very good questions, I think, but sadly deferent to current constraints. Oh, I appreciate the need for pragmatic responses, and I know that work still needs to get done, but I can't overlook the need for change. Where is the questioning of the constraints that bring about these crises in time? Where is the challenge to the cultures of speed?


Anonymous Francois Lachance said...


What about the "down" time spent travelling between destinations? Wouldn't that be the opportune time to scrub data and organize files as suggested in Jan Chipchase's blog entry?

The time for reflection is of course not merely the time of preparing the collected material.

However there are more than two temporalities to juxtapose here. One is not caught in a dichotomous choice between colonial arm chair mores and capitalist design reasearch. The technologies that allow the ethnographer(s) to conduct research and organize the findings are also available to distribute access to the collected material for, you guessed it, collective cogitation. Yea old socialist division of labour :)

Blogger Anne said...

Oh yes, I think there are many space/times going on here!

For my part, during long-term fieldwork I did not find I wanted to spend my "down" time working. (I have issues about the separation of work and play ;)) But you're right to point out that there is no one time for reflection. Or rather I think that I cannot help but to (re)collect all the time.

It's also been brought to my attention on numerous occassions that design ethnography should not - indeed cannot - be productively evaluated according to the criteria of (which kind of?) anthropology. So fine, by which criteria can it be evaluated? And who decides?

I also think about this "collective cogitation" quite a bit. Have I reached the point where I can say, reasonably, that my dissertation has been subject to the forces - good and bad - of some sort of co-creation (a.k.a. hive-thinking)? At what point might it shift from co-creation to the appropriation (conscription?) of labour?


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