Paper Session #4: The New "Local": Evolving Use of Theory in Ethnographic Research

Susan Squires
Event Time
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Traditionally ethnography has been a local-level method for gathering direct, first-hand participant-observations and interviews in order to investigate the daily lives of a group of people, and to discover unmet needs. With the emergence of “digital communities,” “local” has taken on a new meaning for participants and researchers alike. Further, practitioners are now challenged to provide insights and recommendations, which provide value beyond product innovation and design. In this session we will look at two evolving aspects of our practice: how we are using theory to make sense of the new “digital local’ and how ethnographic research is evolving frameworks to accommodate the strategies and goals of large corporations that go beyond “local.”

The Luminosity of the Local

Michael Donovan

This paper seeks to capture the local in Locavore---both its concrete and symbolic character. Locavore itself is a kind of nascent identity that emerges from constellations of social relationships, self-defining “food communities”, made up of consumers and farmers and chefs, and food writers and environmentalists of various stripes. These communities live in the blogosphere, tweets and other media as well as face-to-face relationships and transactions. At their core are representations of the local—in foods, dishes, recipes, meals, places, and persons. Place-bound identities that in some theoretically interesting ways transcend place. Drawing on classical anthropological theory and recent studies in cultural geography and the formation of digital communities we explore ways in which the local is invented and given representational power in the creation of community. Implications for branding, marketing and understanding the continued power of place-bound identities in the very constitution of digitized and globalized worlds.

‘Mental Kartha Hai’ or ‘Its Blowing my Mind’: Evolution of the Mobile Internet in an Indian Slum

Nimmi Rangaswamy

This paper is an ethnographic exploration of on-line practices of teens in a slum in Hyderabad, India to develop concepts for building a novel user model in a unique socio- technical ecology. With little to spare upon ‘always on’ Internet enabled devices, they lead digital lives accessed on mobile phone piece meal and apportioned among peers in everyday communicative behaviours. The mobile internet has allowed the leapfrogging digital technologies, as they participate in and re-characterize the genre of virtual life: a leap discontinuous and disruptive, revolutionizing the media ecology of these teenagers. Indeed, for many of them the mobile phone is the inaugural personal gateway to a world of multi-media communications, entertainment and sociality. The paper examines contexts of youth-technology practices to identify and represent habituations of the mobile internet. These are anchored in the following contemplations: 1. the imagining of an ‘on demand internet’ rather than ‘always on’ internet 2. the forging of ‘persisting internet’ rather than ‘perpetual internet’. Our story is also about alternate infrastructures modifying constraining ecologies to endowing ecologies.

Shining a light on agency: Examining responses to resource constraints to uncover opportunities for design

Emma J. Rose
Robert Racadio

People employ creative ways to overcome the challenges of daily life. The construct of agency is a productive area of inquiry when considering how people respond to these challenges. Exploring moments of agency provides an embodied understanding of people’s motivations and helps reveal the structural and technological barriers they encounter every day. We propose a framework of agency and three corresponding categories: resourcefulness, resilience, and powerlessness. This framework was developed while working with data from two design ethnographies: one in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the other in Seattle, Washington. In these settings, many people live with resource constraints, meaning they often have to make do or do without. Viewing structures through this analytic frame provides a mechanism to critique existing systems and provide design considerations for the future.

Unclear social etiquette online: how users experiment (and struggle) with interacting across many channels and devices in an ever-evolving and fast-changing landscape of communication tools

Martin Ortlieb

How should one behave and interact online? What kind of behavior can one expect from one’s partners in the online communication/interaction/transaction spaces from Social Networking to Online auctions and from Email and Instant messaging to blogs and reviews? These concerns from participants repeatedly surfaced in recently conducted research. People raised these issues, since they feel there is no established etiquette how purely online relationships should be conducted, but also how to transform relationships that began ‘online only’ into their social environments that reach beyond the Web. In my analysis I looked for practical clues from the research data: How do people calibrate their experiences with new forms and tools of communication on the Internet? How do they make sense and keep control of the digital relationships they’re engaging in? Based on these insights from research, I will illustrate how the current models of personal relationships (most notably the model of concentric realms extending outward from ego), especially online, are now proving insufficient, contradictory and unworkable for many users to be meaningfully applied in their social activities online.

Cracking Representations of the Emerging Markets: It’s Not Just about Affordability

Renee Kuriyan
Kathi Kitner, Scott Mainwaring, and Dawn Nafus

Emerging markets have grown to be a hotbed of technological innovation and use. How do businesses capture the seemingly large market opportunity comprised of what is known as the “emerging middle classes?” In the context of technology adoption, businesses create strategies to capture this market of potential First Time Buyers of PCs based on preconceived notions and representations of what emerging middle class consumers desire. Our research asked: what are the social and cultural forces that mediate technology adoption? What are their impacts on market opportunities? The paper uses the case of netbooks, specifically its slow uptake in emerging markets, to illustrate how using certain representations of these market segments to create strategies on messaging, positioning and communications to consumers can lead to missed market opportunities. We show how ethnographic frameworks to gauge social viability of products can be used to deconstruct these notions and help accelerate growth in emerging markets.

Evolutionary Matryoshka: Mapping the dimensions of the evolutionary forces impacting survival of ethnographic insights within a large financial enterprise

Ari Nave

Corporate ethnographies generate ideas that are subject to a number of evolutionary forces. Some ideas thrive, others mutate and propagate, still others wilt. These forces include the sui generis attributes of the ideas themselves, the mechanisms and mediums of transmission, and the ecology of selective forces that are brought to bear on the ideas, such as the corporate organizational structure, power relationships, and business demands. This article will also address the impact of the ethnographer’s agency on the entire process — when he or she is a participant in the development of communications strategies, based upon the research they’re conducting. While agency-based ethnographers may try to equip insights with the “skills” they need to survive, they themselves are subject to evolutionary forces that result in cognitive biases and impact choice. Duel-inheritance theory provides a robust platform for understanding the evolutionary forces on such systems.