What we’ve learned. Research note 4.

Research notes are a nice way for me to cover ground between what I’m reading, the Day Job, home and whats happening around me.

This week:

  • Continuation of the musing of the place of anthropology in technology.
  • “Hellsites”. Why I’m starting to think my research might actually be useful and timely.
  • My head: a biography
  • Learning, methods, reading, writing.
  • Interspersed musical interludes

Interlude One:

Anthropology in tech keeps fascinating me. I may have overstated my case to The Supervisor this week by claiming an analogue with the famous quote of “anthropology is the handmaiden of colonialism” by pointing out that anthropologists have helped build Foucauldian nightmare systems to better understand (and control). The response was a dry “that quote can be overused”. Lesson learned, dress your argument more subtly.

I don’t think the argument is wrong though. It seemed more relevant this week thinking about this intervention from Rachel Coldicutt:

This seemed especially relevant after going through the stuff by Diana Forsythe about the arguments you end up having as an anthropologist in business (“your research method is talking to people: just chatting is easy, anyone can do it”) best represented in ‘“It's just a matter of common sense”: Ethnography as invisible work’ [PDF] (please read it, it is fantastic).

It also reminds me of work I did years ago on group analytic psychotherapy where the “empty chair” in a group takes on significance and blame. Just like an “ethics officer”.

This also comes back to a piece that Will Mydelton put out this week about the problem with interpretation of “user research is a team sport”. It is something I agree with wholeheartedly. I know I came to user research without experience of it directly, but I came with two research methods courses and a lot of reading about digital ethnography. The idea that it’s something that can just be picked up instantly is problematic and denies the idea that there is skill and art, which there absolutely is.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m writing my literature review. I’m including stuff like Sam Ladner’s book on practical ethnography and books on “business research methods” to try and place what my informants (probably you if you’re reading this) understand by ethnography, versus what my examiners (possibly you if you’re staff at a university) think about anthropology.

Interlude Two:

This song is so beautiful you should probably pour yourself a whisky or a cup of tea before sitting with it.

Hellsites etc.

I’ve started to think broadly about the usefulness my work might be able to have. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about why I persevere with twitter. Often, it’s because I talk about the network. Why I value listening to people I work with, or people who are looking at the same problems even if in either case, I don’t necessarily agree. That’s why I can’t look away from the internet.

Then I’ve been thinking about how to be useful with this work. This week has been full of me needing to turn away from the internet. I often find government twitter too optimistic, or sometimes a little tone deaf/dissonant in contrasting the optimism of good service delivery with the evidence of failure and the impact that has on real people. That pales into nothing when I see the news, especially the use of the same tools as a tool to enhance the radicalisation and violence of people. The internet is going to be analysed within an inch of its life over the next few years for its place in democracy. That is deserved.

What can I add? I think I can add something about what works. I get frustrated with the marketing chat of civic tech: it is technology with good intentions, ergo it must actually be good. This is not true.

We want to know which civic tech interventions are useful and which are the equivalent of policy-based-evidence-making. Maybe I can help with that. I’m going to think more about this and come back with a better offer.

Interlude Three:

I’m stopping with my therapist soon after about 18 months. I’ve made a lot of changes with how I approach feeling frustrated with my life and work, and I’m hoping to be able to keep the calm going. Obviously if that doesn’t work, then I’ll be going back, but hoping to not wobble too far.

Interlude three is an interesting track. You might notice the sample at 2:30ish as being from the start of Possibly Maybe by Björk. There was a lawsuit about that on (which is interesting as Possibly Maybe was also sampled by DJ Shadow). There often are with odd phone/radio sounds. Similar to the one about the Conet Project and Wilco. That one sample can play in my head for weeks at a time. Hoping to avoid that.


This week our graduate seminar was several DPhil students who are recently back from the field talking about what that means. It seems to mean a mixture of carefully balancing your relationship, feeling isolated and lonely and learning quickly when to say no and that doing so is just fine.

I really like my course at the moment, the further-along students are friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable, interesting and interested.

I mentioned above that I’m writing a literature review. I’ll put it online as soon as it is done and signed off. You might find it useful.

This week we spent some time talking about how to delineate between time spent ‘being an anthropologist’ and time spent hanging out in your sphere. I expect this to be a difficult and porous boundary, especially considering how much of my social life is based around friendships from government/civic tech/politics.

Odd notes


I make a big deal of think tanks doing PDFs for reports on digital [pdf], but this week I tried to think of it a bit differently: as long as this filename and variations on it exist, I will be in business.