Public ethnography

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: events, public scholarship, research work | Comments Off on Public ethnography

I recently presented some of my dissertation research at a conference on public ethnography, organized by the folks behind the e.m.a.c. network.  The idea behind “public ethnography” is much like that behind “public scholarship.”  Namely, that academic work should be useful in the real world, that it should have connections to people’s lives and lived experiences, and that it must be used to improve people’s situations, at least in some small way.

At the conference Dr. Phillip Vannini gave a very interesting talk on how researchers can make their ethnographic work public, thus achieving some of these goals.  In his talk he discussed the following tips and strategies:

  1. For every journal article that you write, produce a magazine article too.  Since fieldwork often involves travel, sometimes to unusual destinations, it can be good and translatable material for popular outlets.
  2. Collaborate with journalists.  Give them time, interviews, and material for stories.
  3. Focus on the local.  Emphasize how your work speaks to issues of local importance and relevance.
  4. Radio is often a more accessible medium than TV, so try doing stories and/or interviews for radio stations.
  5. If you’re on the web, be sure to cross-link between channels.  Don’t just post a blog article — tweet about it, link to your research videos (if you have them) and to other sites that you are present on.
  6. Look to local media outlets.  If you can get your stories picked up by local channels, there’s a chance that they’ll be picked up by larger ones, too.
  7. Invest in learning about public relations.  Publicity doesn’t happen by wishful thinking.
  8. Carefully consider the audience and the medium for each story and adapt the content accordingly.

For more details on these points, see Phillip’s post “Early reflections on public ethnography” on the e.m.a.c. network website.

Strategies for ensuring validity and reliability in ethnographies of communication

Posted: October 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research work, theory, writing | Comments Off on Strategies for ensuring validity and reliability in ethnographies of communication

When you are engaged in doing an ethnography of communication, how do you ensure that you are assessing your key concepts accurately?  How do you make certain that your readings of the data are correct? There are a number of strategies that can be used to test the validity and reliability of work done under the aegis of the ethnography of communication.

First, does the researcher make it a point to use key terms, concepts, descriptions, and explanations used and/or provided by the people under study?  (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49) One excellent model for this approach is an article on an Osage community by Pratt and Wieder (1993).  In this article, Pratt and Wieder provide readers with a step-by-step description of the speech events under analysis, including detailed information on who (gender, age, experience, role) can speak for others (and why); who participates in these speech events (speaking for others) and how; how these events start, proceed, and end; how they are regulated; how/where people sit/arrange themselves; how stages of the events are ordered; the underlying reasons for the events; how people prepare for the events; what expectations govern the events; may and may not be said; how listeners comport themselves; and the delivery (eye contact, gaze, volume, tone) of speakers.  In this way Pratt and Wieder use informants’ terms and also describe very carefully, down to the smallest details, how informants see these speech events playing out.

Second, does the report expound on something that the people under study would actually acknowledge as a facet of their lives?  In other words, would community members recognize the findings as something real and true about their world? (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49) One great example of this is Manning’s (2008) analysis of online forums for Starbucks baristas.  In the forums the baristas let off steam about “SCOWs” (stupid customer of the week), a local concept.  Manning uses the baristas’ own words to elucidate what, exactly, stupid customers are (what they do, say, etc.)

Third, does the researcher produce an analysis that actually helps people from the community under study to “better to understand [their] own social world?” (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49)  When sharing your work with your informants, do they report back that it helps them to analyze, understand, or deal with the issues better, more effectively, or more successfully?

Fourth, (how) does the researcher seek out checks and/or validation of the findings from members of the community under study?  (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002)  Such checks can do a great deal to validate the accuracy of the findings, because ultimately an ethnographer of communication seeks to discover the meanings and understandings of the informants themselves.  Two model studies of this are Baxter (1993) and Bailey (1997).  In both of these cases, the researchers test their findings by sharing them with informants, asking them if they got things right, and having them provide further explanations where necessary.

Fifth, having multiple researchers on the project can function to ensure validity.  Pratt and Wieder (1993) are a good example of this, with Pratt’s inside knowledge as a member of the Osage community working in combination with the experience of Wieder.

Sixth, another good strategy is to have comparative data at hand. Bailey’s (1997) article is a good model for this because he shares transcripts of typical service interactions from multiple perspectives.

Finally, intercoder reliability checks can be a very effective way of ensuring reliability in the data analysis.  To do this, one must engage a second (or third, etc.) person to look over the data not only to make sure that the codes and categories seem logical, but also to test whether or not they code it consistently with the primary researchers.

What methods do you use to ensure the validity and reliability of your qualitative work?


Bailey, B. (1997). Communication of respect in interethnic service encounters. Language in Society, 26(3), 327-356.

Baxter, L. (1993). “Talking things through” and “putting it in writing”: Two codes of communication in an academic institution. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 21, 313-326.

Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative communication research methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Manning, P. (2008). Barista rants about stupid customers at Starbucks: What imaginary conversations can teach us about real ones. Language & Communication, 28, 101–126.

Philipsen, G. (1982). Linearity of reserach design in ethnographic studies of speaking. Communication Quarterly, 25(3), 42-50.

Pratt, S., & Wieder, D. L. (1993). The case of saying a few words and talking for another among the Osage people: ‘public speaking’ as an object of ethnography. Research on Language and Social Interaction 26(4), 353-408.

AoIR taking place in Seattle this week

Posted: October 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: events, research work | Comments Off on AoIR taking place in Seattle this week

The annual Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference is in Seattle this week, and promises an exciting line-up of panels, keynote speakers, and events.  See this link for the conference program and this one to learn more about AoIR in general. If you can’t make it to the conference you can always follow the AoIR Tweets, which are tagged with #ir12.

This morning I gave a talk on online labor, a topic that I have mentioned in previous posts.  My talk dealt with the pros and cons of being an online laborer in one particular community that I have studied.  The pros I discussed included enhanced feelings of freedom and flexibility vis-a-vis the work; better choices for jobs and new opportunities for professional development; and the chance to engage in meaningful communication with clients and colleagues alike.  The cons that I included in my talk were increased surveillance and monitoring; the control of employee communication through the use of service scripts; and tensions between increasing the scale of communication services and having to (de)personalize service communication.

This is a topic that I am increasingly interested in, so please do contact me if you’d like to learn more about this research.

What books, articles, and/or websites on the subject of online labor do you recommend?

The old new challenges of online labor

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research work | 2 Comments »

This is an updated version of an older post that I wrote on some of the inherent tensions and contradictions pertaining to online labor (including, but not limited to service interactions) that I’ve seen manifested in my data. I’ll be doing a presentation on this material at AoIR 12.0.  Please contact me if you’d like additional information.

Freedom versus Control:  Every Little Click You Make

For the online laborer there are tensions between increased freedom and intensified control.  You have enhanced flexibility to work anywhere (provided that you have a smart device and an Internet connection), anytime.  However, your online employer has many tools at his/her disposal for monitoring and controlling your behavior at work.  Your communication (calls, messages) can be easily recorded, and most likely is.  Such digitized information can also be quickly and easily archived and shared, meaning that there are potentially semi-permanent records of your work and/or interactions out there in cyberspace for others to see.  Companies can monitor the exact amount of time you spend on any given task, as well as the degree to which you adhere to scripts and protocols.  While your thought process may be private, not every little click that you make is.

Independence versus Dependence

For the online laborer there are tensions between independence and dependence.  On the positive side, now more than ever before you might have increased options as to who you’d like work for, for how much, for how long.  Is your employer on the other side of the planet?  No problem — you work from home, or your local coffee shop or Internet café or library.  You can do the work when and where you like.  On the negative side, you might be giving up any chance of job security.  Freelance service providers are a dime-a-dozen and can be cut off at any time, with no explanations provided.

Identity Management

For the online laborer there are tensions around identity.  Workers might have more control over their identity management, since they can potentially choose what information to share about themselves online.  Gender, ethnicity, age, accent, appearance – all of these may (finally) be moot points to the employer.  Or maybe not.  With online labor it seems to me that there is more potential for an organization to control and manipulate your online identity for their own purposes.  It might not matter to the company who you really are, but for customer service purposes maybe they need to present you (through icons, scripts, insinuations, etc.) to clients in a particular way.  Think of the cultural masking that goes on at call centers, for example.

Technology:  Making Work Easier or More Difficult?

One of the common tropes about technology is that it makes work easier, faster, and more efficient.  But does it?  In my own research, I’ve found that technology can actually make some tasks more complex, more unwieldy, and more difficult to complete.  For the online laborer, there may be increased pressure to do more work at a faster pace than ever before, with less and less time for reflection and analysis.

Culture versus Procedure

There is no doubt that technologies are connecting more and more people around the world, and that all of us, especially those of us involved in online service interactions, are engaging in more and more intercultural communication.  In terms of conflict though, is culture really the sticking point? Scholars often make culture out to be a major stumbling block, but in my research I am finding that it’s actually procedural knowledge (by which I mean information about how to do online interactions) that causes the most confusion.

The Great Question of Scale and Quality

Technologies allow online laborers to reach out to more and more people and they provide support for more frequent and convenient contact.  As companies scale their online service, however, contact potentially becomes less and less personalized.  Organizations might find themselves in the position of having to script personalization into their interactions, which arguably makes them less natural, and therefore less appealing to customers.  For those in charge of writing and/or evaluating an organization’s customer service scripts, decision trees, flow charts, etc. this issue is naturally one of concern and importance. It’s also an area where focused communication research can really pay off.