‘thick description’, big data and meaning making with maps

A map showing a cosmoramic view of London

(de) Cosmoramic View of London – http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

I’ve recently used some research methods that involved interview participants producing maps/drawings, which where then explored and developed in a subsequent discussion/conversation. I’m still in the process of co-writing a paper about this but the research builds on some collaborative cognitive mapping research that I was part of carrying out. I’ve also previously reflected on the benefits of getting people to create as part of the research process in a post on using Lego for research purposes.

You could consider this type of research activity with a limited number of participants (eleven in this case) and the data gathered as being an instance of small scale data. And perhaps viewing this as ‘small data’ is an easy – but I would argue not very useful  – classification in this time where there is often a focus on ‘big data’, which I take mainly to mean data from a lot of people and/or possibly a lot of data points – such as instances of social media activity or in the case of higher education, the number of times students access a virtual learning environment, use online resources, view video captured lectures or access any number of institutional systems.

However, as my anthropological roots continue to manifest themselves, and I realised how rich the visual maps and discussions turned out to be in terms of developing our understanding*, I couldn’t help but remember the classic notion of ‘thick description’ associated with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Although as Geertz himself notes in the chapter ‘Thick Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture’ the term itself he borrowed from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Very briefly the idea of ‘thick description’ is for the anthropologist to not only present descriptions or facts about another culture (Geertz’s argument is also that such ‘objective’ descriptions are not possible, there is always interpretation and analysis, layers of meaning upon meaning) but to present detailed interpretive descriptions of actual behaviour, which allow for context that give the data presented meaning and is a way to understand the world in which the anthropological subjects live.

‘…to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.’

(Geertz 1993, p. 24)

So in short it is a way to make meaning that can develop our understanding of the why and how (and everything else) of other peoples’ lives – I should also say I really like the idea that the reason for this is to be able to have conversations/enter into a dialogue. But what I take away as a really important point is that it is the contextualised interpretation that makes meaning. And, this is what I think the ‘interviews with maps’ accomplished to some extent. I think it also important to note that in the interviews we were doing at least some of the interpreting together when we were exploring what bits of the maps meant and why they had chosen to represent some things and not others. I hasten to add that the notion that interviews are instances of joint meaning making is not new (see for instance Kvale 1996).

And this brings me back to why some of the hype about the power of ‘big data’ to ‘deliver insights’ doesn’t sit very well with me because very often there is little context added and therefore very little potential to understand what the data actually means or can tell us about the peoples’ lives represented by the data points. This is not to say that large scale data, quantitative or survey data is not useful and it was, in fact, an analysis of large scale data that highlighted that some students were not accessing the university library as much as others, which informed the design and focus of the qualitative research that was carried out.

In thinking about this I wanted to avoid setting up dichotomies, eg. between quantitative and qualitative research or big data and small data, so I hope that is clear from the above musings.

*I am not sure it really matters what the research topic was but in case you are wondering it was to learn more about academic study practices of students – I’ll possibly write about this in more detail in another post.


Geertz, Clifford (1993). The Interpretation of Cultures. Original printed 1973

Kvale, S. (1996). InterViews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. London:Sage.

Posted in anthropology, ethnography, user experience | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2018: building the #LTHEchat community

It’s a new year and it’s a new day.

Last year Chrissi Nerantzi invited me to be part of the organising team for the #LTHEchat, which involves coordinating and organising activities from Jan-April 2018. I have joined in these chats over the years and really enjoyed the conversations and connections made so I was pleased to be able to join in a different way and support the activities.

For those that don’t know the LTHEchat, it is a weekly Learning and Teaching in Higher Education chat created by the community for the community and takes place Wednesday 8-9pm. The weekly chat is open to anyone interested in higher education and provides an opportunity to share practices, as well as ideas, and connect with other practitioners on a regular basis.

One of the outcomes of an initial conversation with my fellow organiser, Kiu Sum, a MRes student, is the aim to involve more students directly in the conversations. As a first step we are asking all the guest facilitators to promote their themed chats to students in their organisations. We are also exploring different ideas for involving students more directly as partners in the teaching and learning conversations in this new year of LTHEchats. If you have some thoughts on this please get in touch with us.

This year’s first chat is Wednesday 10th January and the questions are posed by Prof Dilly Fung with the theme ‘Connected Curriculum’. To me this approach with its focus on connecting students and faculty is a great way to enable positive partnerships.

Download the free version of A Connnected Curriculum from the UCL Press Website.

Posted in collaboration, Open education, Partnership | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Making the familar unfamiliar- why anthropology matters

I find myself in a pensive, reflective mood and in a frame of mind to put down some thoughts on the benefits of anthropology and the ethnographic approach. As someone with a Bachelor and a Masters in Socio-Cultural Anthropology my focus has always been on getting an understanding of the lived experience of people and what this can tell us about the subject being explored but I see a particular value for the anthropologist to work in organisations in liminal spaces. For someone to be in a position to observe, explore and analyse current practices as part of organisational strategy seems eminently sensible and I think there is an increased recognition of the usefulness of ethnography and anthropology in a variety of settings (see https://www.epicpeople.org/).

Back in March 2014, Donna Lanclos, an anthropologist working in academic libraries, visited the University of Huddersfield and reinvigorated my enthusiasm for ethnography and anthropology*. Donna talked about how the presence of anthropologists in industry and institutional settings creates a liminal space, which in turn is an opportunity for change and innovation. Donna also made a great case for being more committed (including allocating resources and people) to qualitative research because the outcomes provide opportunities for change, moments to disrupt current practices, to dwell with the possibility of something else. In contrast, quantitative data very often tells you very little and gives you description rather than lead to new insights or explanations.

As Donna said at the time, the idea is not to thumb our noses at current practice, but to actually provide a place for the new to emerge. Anthropology can be seen as a practice concerned with making the familiar unfamiliar or strange and the strange/unfamiliar familiar. This relates to the power of cross-cultural insights, which allows fresh eyes on our own society, the practices of others helping us think critically about our own practices.

I believe that there is much positive benefit to observing and analysing our own communities, whether this is academic libraries or any organisation that needs to take into account their end users. An anthropological approach involves attention to processes as well as tools to question logic and rationale.

In my work at the Teaching and Learning Institute I have found that most useful developments of network and innovate practices arise in conversational spaces that lie in-between more defined spaces, where roles and responsibilities are delineated. As a result I have spent a lot of time thinking about and creating environments that allow such conversational spaces to exist.

*these are of course my reminiscences about what Donna talked about so she bears no responsibility for any inaccuracies in my account.

Posted in anthropology, ethnographic praxis, ethnography, inbetween, liminality, user experience | Leave a comment

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
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/weave.12535642.0001.503

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

Posted in anthropology, ethnographic praxis, ethnography, learning spaces, library, user experience | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Woolf | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

#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.

Posted in collaboration, inbetween, learning spaces, liminality, Open education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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. https://oer16.oerconf.org/


Posted in collaboration, Open education | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment