11 June 2012

Ethnographic research in a world of big data – Part 2

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Following up on her earlier piece on ethnographic research in a world of big data, Jenna Burrell, sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Information at UC-Berkeley, continues her argument against the idea that big data might usher in a new era of automatic research and along with it researcher de-skilling or that it would render the scientific method obsolete.

Her latest post in structured through two questions: “What is big data?” (and therefore “What is beyond the easy reach of big data?”) and “Where do we stand in relation to this phenomenon as ethnographers, or more generally, as researchers with a bent towards qualitative and interpretivist approaches?”

Here are a few sentences that I found quite illuminating:

“There’s something that ethnographers have in common with big data enthusiasts though neither group perhaps realizes this. Though ethnography has sometimes inaptly been equated out in the wider world with interview studies, it is the immersion of the ethnographer in a social world and the attempt to observe the phenomenon of interest as it unfolds that more distinctively characterizes such a methodological stance. […] It is this the closeness to the phenomenon of interest that is a shared concern. There is a common understanding that what people say (out of context, in a private interview or survey) is not a transparent representation of what they do. Ethnographers get at this the labor-intensive way, by hanging around and witnessing things first hand. Big data people do it a different way, by figuring out ways to capture actions in the moment, i.e. someone clicked on this link, set that preference, moved from this wireless access point to that one at a particular time.

Of course a major and very important point here – ethnographers’ observations are NOT equivalent to what data logs record…and a critical point is that ethnographers don’t stop with the observation or treat it as inherently meaningful, but do a whole lot of complementary work to try to connect apparent behavior to underlying meaning.” [Emphasis by author]

A part 3 is still forthcoming.

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