Ethnographies of Objects. Descriptive and analytical approaches in Science & Technology Studies

Ethnographies of Objects. Descriptive and analytical approaches in Science & Technology Studies

Julie Mewes / Josefine Raasch / Estrid Sørensen, Mercator Research Group “Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge”, Ruhr University Bochum
Vom - Bis
06.06.2016 - 10.06.2016
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Julie Mewes, Institute for European Ethnology, Humboldt University Berlin

Objects are central to all of our means of social interaction. Over the past decades Science and Technology Studies have been virtuous in developing methods for studying objects from a social science perspective. The literature often presents results pointing to the social lives of objects along with conceptual discussions of objects and materiality. It rarely discusses in detail the methodological techniques of how to go about actually studying objects. Passoth1 even points to a lack of systematic analytical concepts for studying objects.

From June 6th until June 10th the summer school “Ethnographies of Objects – Descriptive and analytical approaches in Science & Technology Studies” took place at the Ruhr University Bochum. Focusing on ethnographic approaches, the aim of the summer school was to improve observational, descriptive and analytical tools of doctoral students to interrogate the manifold ways in which objects are entangled in our everyday lives. The summer school focused on research practices and its methodological implications. It was organized by Julie Mewes, Estrid Sørensen and Josefine Raasch. Three experts in the field, JEANNETTE POLS (Amsterdam), ESTRID SØRENSEN (Bochum) and HELEN VERRAN (Darwin / Tromsø) gave lectures on methods and analyses within the ethnographic studies of objects. There was a strong emphasis on working on the participants’ own research objects. Despite the increasing attention given to objects in Science and Technology Studies and the vast amounts of concepts available for studying objects, discussions in STS are mainly of conceptual or methodological nature. They rarely engage with the practicalities of actually doing ethnography with objects:

- How are research objects sampled? How do they resist research?
- How to make research objects speak or make them visible?
- How to study these objects as symbols, tools, agents, media, etc.?
- How – and why – to avoid an ethnocentric description of objects?
- What can or cannot interviews contribute to ethnography of objects?
- How to do an object centred research?

Consequently, we asked the summer school participants to contribute questions that they were confronted with in their research practices.

Summary of the Program

The summer school alternated between lectures, discussions, an excursion and writing exercises. It also provided a space for informal intellectual and social exchange among the participants. In preparation to the summer school, the participants were asked to submit an ethnographic description of a research object central to their research and to prepare a peer comment for one other description. Additionally, Josefine Raasch and Estrid Sørensen from the organizing team commented on the ethnographic descriptions of all participants. The participants had received this feedback also previous to the beginning of the summer school. Due to this intensive preparation and the fact that all participants were familiar with at least one of the other participants´ research objects, the participants were able to start in-depth discussions from the beginning.

ESTRID SØRENSEN (Bochum), organizer and lecturer of the summer school then conducted a three-hour workshop on methods for ethnographic object descriptions as embedded in unfolding situated practices using selected sections of the object descriptions of the participants as examples. This served as an impetus to a lively discussion on how the content and form of ethnographic object descriptions allow different theoretical or analytical approaches but may also prevent them.2

The topic of the second day was Object Values as a possible category for observation. Guest lecturer JEANNETTE POLS (Amsterdam), Medical Anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam, started her keynote speech on her approach on empirical ethics 3 with an emphasis on how ethics is a product of social and material practice, in contrast to the ‘high school’ of ethics, which considers this a purely human and mental endeavour. In the afternoon, Jeannette Pols headed a two-hour training session on the practical implementations of object-centred, participatory observations. The participants were divided into small groups and asked to investigate values in consumer goods. In their presentations, the participants described how they learned to ‘see’ that ordinary things, like vegetarian sandwiches at the cafeteria or a free, give-away notebook in the design of an academic publisher, carried specific lifestyle, ecological or monetary value and how a shift of focus starting to understand a phenomenon from the object itself might shed light to the large diversity and sometimes ambiguity of social interactions it provokes. During the vivid discussion the participants analysed the researched objects collectively towards their underlying function as symbols, tools, agents and media.

The next day began with a reflection and discussion on the participants´ research object description and observation mode. As in the training session with Jeanette Pols, the participants worked in small groups. Here, the participants discussed possible approaches and their implications to research objects, as well as practical research issues such as possible samplings and means of representation. The manifold disciplinary backgrounds and research objects varying from blood to self-driving cars to satellites allowed the participants a lively discussion on methodological approaches. The group of participants was highly motivated and exceptionally cooperative and therefore all discussions during the course of the summer school were experienced as inspirational.

A field trip brought us to the German Mining Museum in the afternoon. As an introduction, the head investigator of the history department, LARS BLUMA (Bochum), held a public lecture on ‘Material culture as a Research Project at the German Mining Museum’. The following guided tour through the museums´ collection was used in order to develop the participants’ skills for observation and description of objects. In a hands-on session, the participants and organizers discussed research approaches to some of the mining machines and the situations in which they were and have been used. They discussed their use, their symbolically loaded design, their practicalities, their transport, their supply, their maintenance and many other aspects of the entanglement of the objects in the everyday activities in a mine, but also in a museum. The objects of the museum once again provoked a reflection on the necessity of social contextualisation and different forms of visibility of researched objects.

The fourth day was devoted to ‘Data Analysis’. Our second guest lecturer HELEN VERRAN (Darwin), Philosopher of Science and History at Charles Darwin University, began with a one-hour keynote speech on her concept of ‘Disconcerting Objects’ as a possible analytical tool in the ethnographic debate on socio-material configurations.4 In preparation for the workshop the participants were asked to watch two ethnographic films ‘Dreamland’5 and ‘Sunset Ethnography’6 and compare the different ways of object representation which led on a fruitful discussion on what Verran calls a postcolonial moment – the moment of different epistemic commitments and their practicalities coming together. These, she argued, are the moments where disconcerting might arise in ethnographers. Helen Verran discussed different options of how to deal with data collection, data analysis and data presentation when dealing with disconcertment.

In the afternoon, participants could revise their object descriptions with the support of the organizers Estrid Sørensen, Josefine Raasch and Helen Verran and the inspirations of the first three and a half days.

The final discussion and reflection of the individual outcomes for the participants on Friday morning led to a conversation on the possibility of a joint publication continuing the collaborative work mode of the summer school involving a peer reviewed process of writing and re-writing empirical data and analyses.

In summary, the summer school was devoted to the discussion and further development of descriptive and analytical approaches. The high motivation and strong engagement of all participating young researchers and their promising research objects point towards great ‘things to come’ in and for the ethnographic study of objects in Science & Technology Studies.7

Conference overview:

Panel I Object descriptions

Julie Mewes (Humboldt University Berlin):
Welcome and Introduction

Estrid Sørensen (Ruhr University Bochum):
Object descriptions

Panel II Object values

Jeannette Pols (University of Amsterdam):
Objects & Values

Observations of objects with Jeannette Pols

Panel III Day trip to the German Mining Museum

Discussion on descriptions in groups

Lars Bluma (German Mining Museum / Ruhr University Bochum):
Material Culture as a Research Subject at the German Mining Museum

Guided tour German Mining Museum

Panel IV Analysis

Helen Verran (Charles Darwin University / Arctic University of Norway):
Numbers, fire, rock

Discussion on movies with Helen Verran
Session on analysis with Helen Verran
Consulted re-writing

Discussion on possible publication in groups & final discussion

1 Jan-Hendrik Passoth, Dinge in der Wissenschaft, in: Sabine Maasen et al. (eds)., Handbuch Wissenschaftssoziologie, Wiesbaden 2012, pp. 203–211.
2 Estrid Sørensen / Ernst Schraube, Exploring Sociomaterial Mediations of Human Subjectivity, in: Subjectivity 6(1) (2013), pp. 1–11; Nana Benjaminsen / Estrid Sørensen, Circulation of Authorisations in the Classroom: A Socio-Material Process, in: Science as Culture (2011), pp. 1–21; Estrid Sørensen, The Materiality of Learning- Technology and Knowledge in Educational Practice, Cambridge 2009.
3 Jeannette Pols, Towards an Empirical Ethics in Care: Relations with Technologies in Health Care, in: Medicine Health Care and Philosophy. 18(1) (2015), pp. 81–90.
4 Michael Christie / Helen Verran, Digital Lives in Postcolonial Aboriginal Australia, in: Journal of Material Culture 18(3) (2013), pp. 299–317.
5 Britt Kramvig / Helen Verran / Rachel Gomez Andersen, Dreamland, Documentary film, Tromsø 2015.
6 Aaron Burton, Sunset Ethnography, Documentary film, Broome 2013.
7 The Summer School was funded by Ruhr University Bochum Research School Plus and the Hans Böckler Foundation.

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