I have been giving a lot of thought over the course of the last few years to the question of what it means to be an “ethnographer” on the kinds of projects that we do.
Ethnography is much more than qualitative coding. It requires, most fundamentally, participant-observation. This is why I’ve theorised before that the Edgeryders team actually does ethnography in a collective, distributed fashion: through community management + qualitative coding + qualitative data analysis. And as I think about this more, it means a kind of poetic extension of the notion of collective intelligence that is so central to Edgeryders work. From my perspective, we are not only mapping collective intelligence through ethnographic practice: we are using it to undertake that ethnographic practice as well.
In a sense this means that it may not be the worst idea to have people doing both community management and coding at the same time, as doing both could lead to a more robust total ‘ethnographer’ role. At the same time, and as I’m sure @noemi and @johncoate would attest, the role of a community manager is actually above and beyond that of an ethnographer in terms of participation — they aren’t just tasked with understanding the community, but also with creating the conditions possible for the community to function in a healthy way. This is ultimately why I think the roles should remain separate, while also closely connected (just as in Open Care).
Instead (and above and beyond) I think it will be important for our ethnographic coding team to be deeply immersed – interacting with posts and even, if they feel so inclined, contributing their own content to the platform. I got a lot out of the post I made in Open Care: it made me understand the vulnerability one has to feel to post one’s experiences, often intimate, and what it felt like to interact back and forth with other community members. This kind of insight is invaluable to an ethnographer trying to understand lived experience. I’d like to participate more this time around, through commenting and engaging in conversation with community members.
By definition, the kind of qualitative coding we do on the platform requires in-depth engagement with community members’ stories: we aren’t just coding our own field notes, we are directly coding the interactive contributions of community members, aggregating and theorising as we go to try to map the collective intelligence of the community. This, to me, is the most engaged kind of coding I’ve ever done, because a) it isn’t just coding one person’s contributions, whether in interview form or in the form of my own field notes and b) people can actually see and interact with my codes! It was very cool to be talking with @alex_levene and @johncoate (among many other generous community members who gave us their time) at Open Village not only around the ethnographic findings, but around the actual process of coding itself. Alex got to see the codes associated to his post and give feedback, see how it was visualised (with the help of @jason_vallet and @alberto) , and give coding a go himself, all of which helped me get an even more detailed and nuanced understanding.
In short – collective ethnography for collective intelligence has a methodological resonance to me, and I’m looking forward to exploring and furthering it even more.