Entangled inversions: Actor/analyst symmetry in the ethnography of infrastructure

Charles Hahn, Andrew Hoffman, Sarah Inman, Steve Slota, David Ribes 

pp. 124 - 139, download




In this paper we argue that the normal work of practitioners engaged in the design and use of information systems involves socio-technical reflections on these systems that are essentially symmetrical to the reflections that we social scientists make in our ethnographic observations of those actors and their systems. This has important consequences for research methods because it shifts ethnographic fieldwork amongst such practitioners from a ‘study of’ a given community or project towards an entangled process of semi-collective reflection on these systems and practices. To articulate this reframing, we first explore the notion of “infrastructural inversion” to show how information infrastructure studies has always in theory understood actors and analysts to be both doing infrastructural analyses, and we extend this insight to our understanding of ethnographic fieldwork and methods. Next, we relate two of our recent fieldwork experiences amongst designers of information systems in the sciences to show practically how, through the course of research, we became entangled with our subjects through the sharing of notes and analytical insights, engaging in jointly authored papers and otherwise collectively making sense of the partially connected worlds in which we work. Finally, we move to a discussion of what we see are the entailments of this reframing of fieldwork, focusing on how all of this changes our understandings of collaboration and reflexivity in ethnography. Overall we suggest that our frame promotes an attunement to the field as a place of heterogenous engagements rather than simple observation, and asks the fieldworker to be both conceptually and ethically open to the possibilities and consequences of collaboration with those that they study. 


Keywords:  ethnographic methods, reflexivity, Information Infrastructure Studies, information and communication technologies


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