Fieldwork and Ethnography: A Perspective from CSCW

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What value does ‘ethnography’ have in the design of organizational and technological change? We ask this question in light of the fact that ethnography, whatever it might mean or entail, has been a key component of systems and organization design research for some time and has become—seemingly unproblematically—almost the sine qua non of contemporary practice in Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW), the area in which we have plied our trade. Indeed, one can plausibly claim that CSCW was the first (and conceivably remains the only) interdisciplinary perspective in which some version of fieldwork, namely of an ethnographic kind, has become the default mechanism for intervening in design.

On the face of it, however, the dominance of ‘ethnography’ as this default fieldwork approach in CSCW sits rather uneasily beside the contested nature of ethnography, and particularly the examination of the reflexive relationship between fieldworker, subject and field, that preoccupies contemporary anthropology and sociology. If, for CSCW, ethnography is almost a taken for granted approach, in these other disciplines, almost nothing about ‘it’ (or even that it is an ‘it’) is taken for granted (1). Associated with this indifference, we suggest, are both...

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