Reflexive ethnographies in HCI

This course aims at introducing some key issues in contemporary ethnographic practice, emphasizing the role of the writing style and the epistemic position of the fieldworker in shaping a particular perspective on the observed phenomena.

It outlines the theoretical assumptions that lie behind the traditional “realist position” of HCI ethnographies to propose methodological tools for conducting and writing reflexive ethnographies, valuing the role of the ethnographer and her subjective experiences.

The way ethnographies are told implies a stance on the reality that has been observed. Such awareness has spread for quite a long time in anthropology, while only recently it has been highlighted in HCI community. Within HCI, the ethnographer has been represented mostly as a “realist teller”, whose voice is far removed from the text “preventing discussion of how the researcher’s presence in the field […] have shaped the ethnography” [Johnson et al., 2012, p. 1136].

Consequently, different ways of “recounting the fieldwork” hardly found a place in HCI research. For example, confessional or impressionistic styles, which value the ethnographer’s subjective point of view, are rarely used in HCI ethnography, whereas are more and more common in modern anthropology. Recently, however, the awareness that the “realist” ethnographer is only a particular writing strategy among the others, and the “realistic” way of recounting the fieldwork is nothing but an attempt of making the ethnography “objective” by concealing the ethnographer’s perspective started spreading also among HCI researchers.

In this course, we aim at describing the theoretical and methodological assumptions that lie behind the “traditional” way of doing ethnography in HCI, suggesting alternatives for accounting the fieldwork and narrating the collected data. The ethnographic method is becoming more and more popular in HCI and design, in forms that span from auto-ethnography to “rapid” ethnography: it is then necessary to look at how the methodological debate about it evolved in anthropology over the years, drawing inspiration from there to find novel opportunities for conducting valid and reliable HCI ethnographic works.

For more information please see the full course proposal.