Category Archives: Publications

Co-presence as ethnographic approach

Much of the ethnographic work that goes on at the VKS has been shaped by the tradition of ethnographic lab studies from Science and Technology Studies. These past couple of years, as the VKS has explored the humanities and e-research, these ethnographic methods have been adapted. A number of conference presentations and publications (this one and this one, among others) on this topic have been the result.

An upcoming contribution in Social Studies of Science is called from From Co-location to Co-presence. Here’s what it’s about:

As STS scholars increasingly study forms of knowledge production where the space of the lab (or similar locale) is much less central, other ways of conceptualizing the field may be especially useful for ethnographic research. In particular, ethnographic approaches must loosen their grip on co-location as a necessary requirement for ‘being in the field’, if they are to consider important issues about knowledge production that arise in fields, such as those in the humanities or e-research. Key STS topics, like new forms of authoritative knowledge, the changing shape of scientific work, and dynamics of innovation can be explored through ethnography. But in order to do so, the ethnographic approach must adapt in order to study these fields in which research practices are not concentrated in lab-like spaces.

By using co-presence rather than co-location as a starting point to conceptualise and articulate fieldwork, new aspects of knowledge production are foregrounded in ethnographic studies. This research note proposes and discusses co-presence as an epistemic strategy that pays close attention to non-lab based knowledge production; that can embrace textuality, infrastructure and mediation; and that draws into relief the role of ethnographer as author, participant-observer and scholar.

Because it does not assume the centrality of shared space, the notion of co-presence can be useful in ethnographies of e-research, as well as of other fields in the sciences and humanities that involve highly mediated forms of research or where the lab does not figure so prominently.

This work was discussed at the workshop In the Game, held in Copenhagen last October as an AoIR pre-conference workshop.

so much time!

A topic that has been heavily inflected (shame, guilt, embarassment…) and commented upon in that odd private/public media that is the blog–here quite recently. But oddly not in these terms: Does anyone else feel embarrassed about how much time and effort it takes before a reasonably good text is constructed?

Summer school 2007, fieldwork and ethics

In the course of our interactions with students at the summer school, the topic human subjects research procedures came up as having constrained the possibilities of fieldwork. Because of the procedures that had to be followed under the ‘human subjects research’ regime, any shift in the research became unfeasible. The ramifications of any additional interactions were such, in terms of having to obtain additional informed consent, anonymity and so forth, that students were at times extremely self-limiting as to what they would do in terms of fieldwork activities as well as to the presentation of data and communication about their research.

If one’s field is to be constructed, it seems that human subjects research procedures at U. of Washington (and I have a sense that it is not so different elsewhere in US universities) means that you have to construct it with both hands tied behind your back.

So what is this teaching these students about ethics? First, that doing something ‘ethically’ means jumping through the hoops of the human research subjects process of the university. Of all the groups in the summer school, only the wayfinders took this on (no small achievement!). Second, that ethical consideration consists of an a priori articulation of ethical issues. The research situation is meant to be fully formulated before the research begins. Any change that might be felt to be necessary for the conduct of the research (including asking different questions in the follow-up interviews) requires approval of these modifications by the said ethical authorities.

‘Ethics’, these students have learned, is a tedious, rigorous bureaucratic procedure that constrains research activities (fieldwork, use of data, presentation of research) into predetermined scripts. That is a pretty impoverished version of research ethics, and comes down to American medical-style ass-covering in a litigious context. I hope it’s clear that I’m pointing to the conditions created by the institution here, not to any shortcomings of the students or their summerschool teachers.

In discussions with the wayfinder group, we raised some issues that were not covered under this regime. For example, if the issue really to protect people from harm under this U of W regime, then why isn’t there any attention to the harm the research can do to the researcher? And that is only one of the many blindspots of this approach to ethics. In the same week as we were having these discussions, I was reading the papers that will be appearing in FQS in a few weeks, in a special issue on virtual ethnography, spearheaded by Daniel Dominguez. In several of these papers, issues of research ethics are addressed in a much richer way, and present ethical concerns as part of the research process and as an important component of a relationship between researcher and subjects–not as contractual/legal occasion that fetishes forms.

I couldn’t help but feeling grateful to be working in a context where ethics could be discussed and reflected upon rather than ‘implemented’. The way responsibility changes over the course of research, and the possibility and limitations of controlling ethical repercussions are especially important to discuss (as in the paper by Ardevol and Estalella), and I couldn’t help feeling that in an American context, it might have been difficult to even consider, let alone publish, about the possibility of covert research (paper by Isabella).

ps I’ll provide the links as soon as the papers are available.


The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Third Edition, will be making its appearance shortly–Paul Wouters just finished checking the proofs on behalf of the chapter’s authors.

The chapter written by the VKS is called Messy shapes of knowledge – STS explores informatization, new media and academic work. The chapter considers the contributions of science and technology studies, internet studies, communication science, and library and information science on the interaction between ICTs and knowledge production. These insights, often developed in isolation from each other, are drawn together to develop a theoretical framework. This framework is contextualized and integrated with our own empirical studies, including our ethnographic projects.

Nothing appears in the programme at present, but I hear there are plans for a special sessions featuring the book at the upcoming annual meeting of the Social Studies of Science Society (4S) in October, in Montreal, where a panel on network ethnography will also be held.