Why Is Information System Design Interested in Ethnography?: Sketches of an Ongoing Story

Why Is Information System Design Interested in Ethnography?: Sketches of an Ongoing Story

Giolo Fele (University of Trento, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0303-5.ch001
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The chapter reviews the main stages of the collaboration between ethnographers and information system designers, highlighting the reasons and motives for their mutual relationship. Is it possible to consider the ethnographic approach to information system design a “success story”? How is it that information system design— a field seemingly distant from the concerns, history, or tradition of ethnographic research—is today so interested in the approach, the methods, and the “philosophy” of ethnography? What has ethnography to offer information system designers?
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Information Systems And Ethnography

The study of information systems is a field of inquiry, which encompasses various disciplines, ranging from management to artificial intelligence, from informatics to software development. This article is devoted to the interest that information science—in particular, the design and evaluation of systems—has for some time shown in ethnography. Indeed, over the past twenty years the analysis of information systems has been one of the fields in which ethnographic approaches have received most attention, been subjected to serious consideration, and obtained the most significant results. But how has this happened? In what does the ‘success’ (if it can so be called) of ethnography consist? How has a field so apparently distant from the history or tradition of ethnographic research been ‘infected’ by the philosophy, methods, and ‘gaze’ of ethnography? How does a ‘hard’ discipline like informatics consider a ‘soft’ one like ethnography? Does ethnography have something to offer to informatics? What in particular? Moreover, how can this interest among information technologists concern the disciplines that have traditionally drawn on ethnography? Is this a merely ‘sectoral’ or ‘niche’ interest, no more than a passing intellectual fashion, or does it reveal something profound concerning the value of ethnographic methods. Can it challenge what is often termed, with a certain emphasis, the ‘interdisciplinarity’ (in the weak sense) and sometimes ‘hybridization’ (in the strong one) of disciplines? Can discussion of such topics be made in a journal addressed to a broad audience and diverse academic communities, or must it be confined to specialist journals and conferences? The aim of this introduction is to clarify these questions1.

The first novel feature of the interest shown by information engineers in ethnography is its direction, for it is information engineers who are interested in ethnography, not the other way round. There is long tradition of ethnographic studies on organizations2, work in scientific laboratories3, and technology4 where the social or anthropological (and similar) disciplines have concerned themselves with the world of engineering and technology. Yet it is now the managerial and engineering disciplines, which are interested in the work of ethnographers. Of course, informatics deals with ethnography because it needs it for practical reasons: this concerns, not ethnography by engineers, but ethnography for or with engineers, which entails interdisciplinarity (a somewhat worn-out term but which seems to have acquired new currency). As Baba (2006, p. 37) writes:

Designers are considered ‘creatives’ (i.e., there is an artistic aspect to their work), and their marriage with intellectuals and researchers (anthropologists) is an interdisciplinary challenge. The creation of ‘design ethnography’ thus represents the birth of a new interdisciplinary subfield that joins together anthropology and/or other qualitatively-oriented social sciences with the design profession.

Engineers have always constituted an interesting case for study with ethnographic methods5. But anthropological and sociological accounts have frequently failed to consider the actual work of engineers (Bruni & Gherardi, 2007). In these cases, ethnographers (sociologists, anthropologists) are interested in describing phenomena such as the construction of identity or the self in the profession, or in reflecting on the boundaries (mobile, rigid, or mutable) that separate technology from ‘humanity’6. In the case considered here, when information engineers design information systems jointly with anthropologists or sociologists, the ethnography examines the organization of knowledge and information. Yet the problems—and their technical, technological and expert solutions—cannot be ignored, for they constitute the core itself of the ethnography to be pursued. Whilst this approach may involve ‘technicisms’ difficult for a layman to handle, it should not bother an ethnographer, trained as he or she is to know all the ‘technical details’ of building a canoe or the ‘technical details’ of navigation by the natives of the Western Pacific (Malinowski, 1922)7.

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