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Reflections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW

Abstract

In this article we focus attention on ethnography’s place in CSCW by reflecting on how ethnography in the context of CSCW has contributed to our understanding of the sociality and materiality of work and by exploring how the notion of the ‘field site’ as a construct in ethnography provides new ways of conceptualizing ‘work’ that extends beyond the workplace. We argue that the well known challenges of drawing design implications from ethnographic research have led to useful strategies for tightly coupling ethnography and design. We also offer some thoughts on recent controversies over what constitutes useful and proper ethnographic research in the context of CSCW. Finally, we argue that as the temporal and spatial horizons of inquiry have expanded, along with new domains of collaborative activity, ethnography continues to provide invaluable perspectives.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In fact, the initial, influential article on multi-sited ethnography by Marcus (1995) has been criticized for ‘its lack of attention to processes of bounding, selection and choice’ that are central in ‘constructing the field site’ (Candea 2009, p. 27). We want to avoid this by starting with the topic of ‘constructing the field site’ before continuing to ‘multi-sited ethnography’.

  2. 2.

    Cited literature include, Marcus’ foundational article on multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995) and further developments on multi-sited program (Marcus 1998), two edited books that discuss both theoretical and practical challenges in doing multi-sited ethnography (Falzon 2009a; Coleman and von Hellerman 2011a), and criticisms of multi-sited ethnography (Hage 2005; Candea 2007, 2009).

  3. 3.

    Büscher et al. 2011 offer another way of understanding this shift as a ‘turn to mobilities’.

  4. 4.

    We have chosen not to review the literature on the development of formal representations, design methods, schemas, scenarios, personas, experience models, and the like that have been developed to connect ethnography and design (see for example Hughes et al. 1995, 1997; Sommerville et al. 1992; Viller and Sommerville 1999; Twidale et al. 1993; Blomberg and Burrell 2012; Carroll 2000; Nardi 1992; Bødker et al. 2004; Pruitt and Grudin 2003; Pruitt and Adlin 2006).

  5. 5.

    Plowman et al. (1995) note that most workplace studies in CSCW employ an ethnographic lens.

  6. 6.

    Randall et al. (2001) makes a similar argument in response to Nardi’s (1996) critique of situated action.

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Acknowledgments

Karasti’s work has been supported by the Academy of Finland.

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Correspondence to Jeanette Blomberg.

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Blomberg, J., Karasti, H. Reflections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW. Comput Supported Coop Work 22, 373–423 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10606-012-9183-1

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Key words

  • anthropology
  • critical studies
  • CSCW
  • connecting ethnography and design
  • constructing the field site
  • ethnomethodology
  • multi-sited ethnography
  • sociality and materiality of work
  • work practice
  • workplace studies