by RICK E. ROBINSON, SapientNitro It is awfully nice not to have to invent a basic tool over and over again. For ethnographers, coding and categorization is work that has to happen whether you are studying housework or neurosurgery, with novices or experts, in an exotic location or in suburban Ohio (no offense to my friends and family in Ohio). A coding structure is one of the most basic and useful tools you ought to have. Devising one that works with your data can be a great deal of work—finding and maintaining the right level of abstraction, setting parameters that make meaningful, consistent distinctions, all while balancing specificity for the frame of the immediate data and the purpose of the inquiry (is it deep cleaning or spot? open surgery or laparoscopic?) against the ability to generalize categories across investigations, to test or refute interpretations in independent engagements. All the sort of work that supports the value of any repeatable methodology. Not something one minds doing in the course of an investigation...
RICK E. ROBINSON I’d like to take a slightly approach to this topic from those of my co-panelists. I’m not going to talk about success as ‘an ethnographer,’ which I’m not, at least by training anyway, or the success of ethnography as an undertaking, an enterprise, within the setting within which I have worked. Rather, I’d like to talk about what it means –to me, because this will be idiosyncratic I’m sure – to succeed as an ethnography practice. To talk about ‘a consultancy’ as a collective succeeding over time.As soon as one begins to talk about consultancy, the elephant of ‘the client’ enters the room, along with a couple of implications that match him in scale. With a client comes the expectation that ethnographic work will be productive in the sense of actually producing some sort of artifact – a report, a recommendation, a PowerPoint deck or a workshop, but something. And there is a great deal that is entailed by that expectation that works both backwards and forwards through the work. But that expectation...
RICK E. ROBINSON “Things, not, mind you, individual things, but the whole system of things, with their internal order, make us the people we are.” Danny Miller, Stuff (p. 53) The fall of Icarus—wax melting, loosed feathers eddying as he plunges from the sky into the Aegean— is a central image in western mythology. A metaphor for the risks of hubris, it is also a provocative figure through which to think about the value which ethnographic research claims and the range of reactions to those claims. In 14th and 15th century painting, the Fall of Icarus was a relatively common theme for artists (and their patrons). But it was commonly related with a different emphasis than the way we recount the myth today: in the great Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings, it is Daedalus, father to Icarus, who is the sympathetic center of the tale. As inventor of both the fabulous wings and the labyrinth from which they enabled father and son to escape, Daedalus the craftsman, architect and inventor was resourceful, competent, and –except...
RICK E. ROBINSON Ethnographic and design work share, deeply, the challenge of conveying the truth of the work we do to interlocutors from very different backgrounds. Writing is hard work even with the shared culture that an academic discipline or a single firm can draw upon. How, then, to write well for broad and varied audiences? By writing like novelists. Literary critic James Wood encapsulates the central tradition of the novel as: “Truthfulness to the way things are […] Life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.” (2008:247) It is hard to conceive of a better description of what most of us would like to achieve. “Truthfulness to the way things are” gets nicely to all of the important moments of what we do—observation, description, interpretation, inscription. In this paper, I try to move ‘style’ up the ladder of importance in how we think, write, and talk about the work we do....
RICK E. ROBINSON As an introductory set of remarks for the theory session, this short paper sets up some issues facing both the field of ethnography applied in industry and those who undertake theoretical work in the field. The author proposes some simple dimensions for discussion: how we might consider work in industry a definite and distinct location for theory work; the nature of relationships with key interlocutors that are fundamental to working in industry; and finally, the role, opportunity, and responsibility that theory work might have going forward....
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