Qualifying exam revelation: A new methodological genre emerging(?)

If we’re lucky, one of the many little triumphs we get to celebrate in graduate school is passing our qualifying exams. A few weeks ago my committee declared me ABD. Weeks after the exam defense, I remain humbled and simply giddy about having passed. The process was nerve-racking, stressful and involved months of preparation. Now that I’ve had a month or so to rest and reflect on the experience, I’ve started to see some lasting benefits to all that studying. In the lines that follow, I will share a particular revelation (this is but one of many I had throughout the quals process) I had during my exam prep and pose a related question to the larger qualitative social informatics academic community.

My qualifying exam committee was kind and thoughtful enough to write my questions in a way that would help me prepare for breaking ground on my dissertation: An ethnographic inquiry of the ways that Midwestern Amish use new communication technologies like cell phones, social media and the internet. In preparing for the exam, my committee asked me to think about the methodologies I might use to do this inquiry. So, I looked to a number of other social informaticians who had done ethnographic studies of socio-technical phenomena and examined their methodological approaches.

Those that I drew specific inspiration from were Diane Umble Zimmerman’s (1996) Holding the Line, Mary Gray’s (2009) Out in the Country, Celia Pearce’s (2009) Communities of Play, Illana Gershon’s (2010) Breakup 2.0. and Virginia Eubanks’ (2011) Digital Dead End. Each of these authors examined a particular problem space and then assembled their methodological toolkit in order to best understand that problem space.

Socio-technical Ethnographic Books

Diane Umble Zimmerman focused on the role that new technologies (the telephone in this case) played in the changing of culture in Amish communities. Mary Gray examined the ways LGBT individuals in rural areas complicate established ideas about “the good gay life” playing out exclusively in urban areas and the role that new technologies played in this process. Celia Pearce documented her involvement in a virtual community where her informants only knew her through her online avatar. Gershon studied the ways that new technologies were used by college students in intimate moments, like break-ups, and what these mediated moments meant to them. Eubanks examined what technologies meant to underprivileged women in Troy, New York and how they used or rejected technologies in an attempt to make their lives better.

In studying these books, I realized that an identifiable genre seemed to be emerging in qualitative empirical socio-technical scholarship of which I had not previously been aware. Perhaps, there is already a name for this genre? Certainly, these are not the only books to fall into this category; they are simply the only ones I know well. These (and other authors) seem to me to be opening the door for a new branch of scholarship within the socio-technical and ethnographic arena to begin gaining traction. I find each of these projects to be very innovative and unique at one level and, at the same time, similar to one another on a more general level.

My question for the larger social informatics community is twofold. First, do you agree with the observation that this group forms a distinct genre in our field? Is it a new one? And, second, if so, what other projects fall into this genre besides the ones listed above?

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Posted on October 8, 2012, in ICT and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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