Working Papers: Vanessa Dirksen

Vanessa Dirksen’s paper, Getting the “Co” in Ethnography, explores the notion of connective ethnography as a modern form of ethnography. In the concept of connective ethnography presented in this paper, the sensitivity to ‘the making of context’ includes both the sense of a local physical context as well as the increasing connections between information resources in the form of people, systems and texts. Hence, it incorporates experiences of immediacy in the form of physical nearness, discursive practice, and as enabled by computer-mediated communication.

In exploring the concept of connective ethnography, the paper will draw on a research concerned with the appropriation of the ideology and technology of virtual community in a large, nationally distributed, computer company. The study aimed to investigate how the idea of virtual community is translated, enacted and modified in the various contexts of organization. It is for this reason that discourse analysis, interview, both online and offline participant observation and content analysis, and online social network analysis (OSNA) were integrated in the study.

To begin with, the research traced how the idea of virtual community is taken over from the relevant, academic and popular, literature and subsequently ‘landed in locality’. Second, interviews with employees distilled the various user experiences and participant observation subsequently enabled to connect these stories to the natural setting. Third, a social network analysis of the log file data stored by the system showed the extent to which the proposed virtual communities were enacted in terms of actual information sharing relations between people and groups of people. Fourth, online participant observation and content analysis were used in order to understand how the various appropriation patterns relate to the purpose of communication and content of the messages posted. Last, including not only how the idea of virtual community is enacted but also how it is resisted and worked-around, the interviews and social network analysis directed attention to the wider context of alternative resources in the form of both systems and people that employees call upon in their everyday work practices.

Together, the various methods applied in the connective ethnography integrate the different levels of translation and enactment of the virtual community idea and add context to the ethnography in terms of intertextuality and the interconnection of people through computer-medicated communication. Sensitivity to the making of context in connective ethnography thus means showing the larger discourse and the wider network of social and ‘objectual’ relations of which it constitutes a part. It is therefore better equipped to catch the complexities of modern work practices.

Vanessa Dirksen is a lecturer at the department of sociology of the University of Constance (Germany). She received her (MA) degree in Anthropology, and will hold the public defense of her PhD thesis in September 2007. This work is part of her dissertation project at the University of Amsterdam, co-supervised by Sally Wyatt of the VKS, who will also participate in the Working Papers day as respondent. Vanessa’s research interests include: social studies of technology, the study of occupational knowledge and expert cultures, workplace ethnography and virtual methods of research. Her doctoral research can be characterized as a connective ethnographic study of knowledge practices in a distributed computing firm. Using insights from anthropologically inspired studies of organizations and social studies of technology, it explores the ways in which digital technologies mediate visions of practice and whilst being appropriated are reinscribed by their users. Here is another working paper by Vanessa on the paradox of design–an issue that is addressed by several of the papers contributed for the working papers’ day.

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