Ethnography Praxis in Public Organisations, Data and Spaces

Life is Sharing

Photo by Alan Levine (CC BY 2.0)

The current issue of Weave – Journal of Library User Experience has a great article about the state of ethnography in libraries including some really useful thoughts on why there aren’t, but probably should be, more library ethnographers. You should definitely go and read it. And as it is free and open access this is really easy to do.

The ethnographic approach that Lanclos and Asher are advocating goes beyond the User Experience focus (UX) and they stress the importance of long-term, open-ended research with a comparative perspective to develop an understanding of the ‘full context of the subject’s lives’.

“We are arguing, therefore, for ethnography as praxis, as a transformative practice emerging from particular theoretical perspectives that value emergent insights over simply identification and fixing problems. Providing a space for ethnography in libraries has profound implications for the nature of libraries, for definitions of work and practice, for imagining the connections that libraries have within their larger contexts, for holistic considerations of student and faculty experiences, actions, and priorities. Examples of this approach to ethnography outside of academic or activist anthropology can be found in the practices of the community of anthropologists organizing themselves within EPIC (Ethnography Praxis in Industry Conference)”

This reference to the EPIC community* made me think that there might be value in anthropologists working in non-industry (and perhaps non-academia) or simply anyone doing ethnography as praxis coming together.

And so I wonder about the feasibility of proposing a ‘Ethnography Praxis in Public Organisations, Data and Spaces Conference’. Who would this conference bring together and could it support the development of comparative perspectives (and maybe even comparing of data)?

I suppose it could be anyone doing ethnography in museums, libraries, hospitals, or working with any public archive, collection or organisation. But this leaves me with many questions:

  • What have I left out in terms of thinking about who could be involved?
  • Is there even a big enough group of people doing this work?
  • Will any of them be interested in such an event?
  • Have I imagined that such a community exists?
  • Who would be interested in sponsoring such a conference?
  • And perhaps most importantly how can a cool acronym actually be developed from all this?

As usual I end up with more questions than answers but then that is what this blog is for.

I welcome any thoughts on this idea and whether it would be of interest to people working as ethnographers.

“Ethnographish”: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries by Donna Lanclos and  Andrew D. Asher. Weave. Journal of Library User Experience, Volume 1, Issue 5, 2016

*Another similar example is the Sociologist outside academia group – a subgroup in the British Sociological Assocation.

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Woolf on the lecture

I am reading (yet another) Virginia Woolf biography. This one by Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West, who was a great friend and love of Virginia.

It is very interesting to hear his memories but I was intrigued to read about Virginia’s opinion on University lectures.

‘…she considered university lectures an obsolete practice inherited from the Middle Ages when books were scarce. Students should read, not listen. To swallow instruction from a lectern is like sipping English literature through a straw.’ (Nicolson 2000:111-112)

Of course I know that contemporary lectures are not simply students sitting and  listening but I cannot help but applaud the call for students (and anyone) to read. I totally agree with the insistence on the importance of experiencing literature for yourself and to form your own opinions.

Reading is connecting.

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#OER16 Open Culture – exploring spaces

Perhaps I have taken far too long to write these reflections on being part of the Open Educational Resources 2016 conference 19-20 April or – as I like to think of my procrastination – the experience of #OER16 has stayed with me and has been churning away at the back of my mind.

It was great to have the opportunity to co-present with Andrew Middleton. Our presentation was based on a number of conversations about in-between space and for my part specifically my interest in the concept of liminality in relation to spaces and other practices. As Andrew writes we were playing around with re-imagining the Open Educational Resources framework as Open Educational Relationships and what this might mean in terms of the R definitions outlined by Wiley  Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute)

This reimagining was in response to the OER conference theme of Open Culture and my view that culture points to a new focus on people and practices rather than the content focus that the term OER seems to imply. So we were in a process of redefining the 5Rs from the standpoint of open being about spaces, identities and networks rather than content.

It was great to see so many people focusing on re-framing or rethinking the notions of open education and what OER meant. So for example there was a lot of overlap in thinking between our presentation and the presentation by Suzan Koseoglu and Maha Bali on The Self as an Open Educational Resource where they emphasized the value of the processes and products of open scholarship.

For me the best conference moments were getting to meet and talk to people with such passion for their research and their work, some I had met before, some I followed on Twitter but also, of course, new people and this formed a great mix. It was a treat to be part of a fascinating conversation about Ravelry, knitting and weaving with Frances Bell and Jim Groom, who later went on to deliver an energetic keynote, Can we imagine tech Infrastructure as an Open Educational Resource? Or, Clouds, Containers, and APIs, Oh My! You should definitely watch the keynote and pay special attention to the unique introduction of the speaker.

The keynote, If ‘open’ is the answer, what is the question? by Catherine Cronin was great in making us think about the many interpretations of ‘open’ and levels of ‘openess’ as well as exploring participatory culture and networks. See the fantastic sketch note by Beck Pitt below.


CC BY Beck Pitt (Flickr)

For me the most important take away from OER16 is to look/think beyond institutions and institutional structures and spaces, to the level of the individual as well as the collective level. I am still working through what this means for me and what I do.

Other OER16 posts:

And for anyone interested in Open Education, the GoOpen wiki put together by Catherine Cronin and Vivien Rolfe is a great place to start.

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Open educational practice #OER16

Picture: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian Staff conference at the University of Huddersfield. PICTURE TAKEN ON FRIDAY 12 JUNE 2015

Catherine Cronin delivering keynote at University of Huddersfield Teaching and Learning Conference 12th June 2015. Picture: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian

As part of the lead up to OER16 Conference, Catherine Cronin is asking for responses to the statement:

If open is the answer, what is the question?

For me striving to be an open practitioner in terms of academic research and practice makes sense as an approach to connect me as much as possible to people, ideas, networks, research, conversations etc. (these are obviously not discrete categories). In my experience it is by sharing ideas (even at initial stages, though I still find this quite difficult/scary) that you find out perspectives you had not thought about and others are able to make connections for – and with – you to ideas, scholars, research or sometimes simply articulating an argument that you have been struggling with.


So in some ways I guess open is the answer to the question: how can we best think out loud to inform, develop and share what we do.

Share your response on twitter with the #OER16 tag

OER16: Open Culture. The 7th Open Educational Resources Conference will be held on the 19th-20th April 2016 at the University of Edinburgh.


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Exploring in-between space

Inbetween_webinar_ccbyIn a Teaching and Learning Conversation* webinar (26th Nov) Andrew Middleton and I wanted to present and explore some ideas about in-between spaces drawing on the concepts of liminality and third space/place and use this as an opportunity to talk about informal learning.

By in-between spaces we were referring to spaces that are outside pre-defined boundaries (and where there is the potential for people to step outside/transcend existing roles/identities). A lecture room or an institutional virtual learning environment are examples of bounded spaces that are well established and where the roles and expected contribution of staff and students can be said to be almost ‘built in’. In contrast in-between spaces are characterised by having less structure and less well-defined roles and therefore potentially they are spaces where less formalised interactions and conversations can happen.  In-between spaces are thus characterised by boundary crossings. 

In the webinar I talked about the ‘Students as Teaching and Learning Consultants‘ project and my analysis of the liminal conversational space that developed in the process (see references below). And when we asked participants where and when they learn, ‘in conversation’ and ‘in collaboration’ featured frequently. They also identified the activity of connecting across contexts and public/private, home/work spaces as key to their learning.

Mapping the constituent parts of the idea of in-between space

I have been trying to do a sort of initial mapping of the ideas influencing the notion of in-between and the different disciplines they originate in. In the image below I have tried to trace the influences that come together in the notion of in-between space. From Anthropology and Victor Turner‘s analysis of liminality comes the idea of the transformative power and ambiguous nature of the in-between. From Sociology and the work of Oldenburg (influenced by Georg Simmel‘s work on sociability) comes the idea that the in-between space is characterised by equality and community. From the thinking of Homi Bhaba in Cultural studies and the way Kris Gutierrez combines Bhaba with Vygotsky and Goffman, come the idea that the in-between space has the potential for boundary crossing and is characterised by negotiation and translation.


Depicting the aspects of different disciplines and writers that influence and come together in the notion of in-between space. CC-BY

*TLC is an informal cross-institutional collaboration to provide joint CPD opportunities for everybody teaching and/or supporting learning in Higher Education.

More information:

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Virago Collectors’ Cards – authors known and unknown

I came across a small selection of Virago collectors’ cards (1-6) in an Oxfam bookshop. The cards all had short author profiles and said they were part of a series of 40 issued in May 1982. I really like the design with the scroll at the top and the photo portraits.

Rosamond Lehmann and Ada Leverson

Rosamond Lehmann and Ada Leverson






Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair

Charlotte Mew and May Sinclair


I was intrigued to read snippets about these authors, who I readily confess were almost all unknown to me, though they certainly knew and influenced authors I like, such as Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Siegfried Sassoon. Finding these cards made me think about how many lives and voices are filtered out along the way and goes to show that if you just go and look for them they are there and you can find them.




Rebecca West and Antonia White

Rebecca West and Antonia White


As a caveat, I should add that possibly many people will be familiar with these authors and so they are perhaps not the best example of voices that are ignored, forgotten or erased (they did after all get featured on a card).

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De Certeau on space and place

In a recent blog post on Places, Spaces, Teaching, Learning, Planning, Donna Lanclos (Library Anthropologist) talks about her research into active learning classrooms at UNC Charlotte. This included her reflections on how building the spaces is just the beginning and that:

“…these spaces without people, without programming, without communities of practice making them living breathing growing parts of the university’s mission, become accessories, mere performances of teaching, and learning opportunities lost.” (Lanclos, 11th August, 2015)

This is an absolutely key point in relation to learning spaces regardless of whether this involves online/digital and physical spaces. (And yes, I realise they are not distinct or separate. If you are interested in this, you might want to look at what Nathan Jurgenson has written on Digital Dualism).

However, my point is that Donna’s blog post reminded me of the difference between space (espace) and place (lieu) that Michel de Certeau writes about in ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’:

“A place is…an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs, as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken…In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.” (de Certeau 1988:117)

I confess that I find the writing incredibly difficult to grasp (so please don’t ask me to explain the many terms in the quote) and convoluted (could be the translation I guess) but I think there is some useful insight here. After all the reference has been lodged in my mind as a useful idea since I first read this as an MA student in social/cultural anthropology (a fair few years ago).

So my main insight from this quote is really the notion that ‘space is a practiced place’ by which I understand that it is really people interacting in and with the place that makes it into a space. I think this is a powerful way of understanding how spaces are constructed (or maybe produced?) and takes into account that this could be in different ways and for different purposes and perhaps with different meanings and outcomes depending on who (and maybe what) is happening. Anyway, I will carry on thinking about the processes and characteristics of learning spaces…

More on Digital Dualism:

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