The first digital ethnography skunkworks: dates, tentative program and how to prepare


I’ve booked the first train from London on Tuesday morning, which gets into Brussels just after 10.00. So I’ll miss the start but should get to you by 10.30-ish.


Dear @alberto: questions:

If we start on the 16th at 10:00 am, I need to fly from Warsaw a night before (so, need night 1 accommodation - we need to find it ourselves, right?)
When will we be done? I understand, the 17th (2nd night of accommodation, possibly), but when exactly? I have a choice of flying back to Warsaw first or flying directly home to the US - need to know the exact times for planing).
You want me to give a talk/run a seminar for 3hrs? What do I need to prepare? he general introduction to Poprebel?
Please advise. Hope you are well.



@Jan: yes, do provide for your own logistics. I think @sander is planning to go back to Brittany on the night of the 17th. Think around 18.00 as an approximate end time. However, we are doing skunkworks, which means it is by design difficult to predict what will happen exactly.

I would like you to help the ethno/netsci people in the room to sink their teeth into populism, and specifically in the research questions about populism that you most care about. Together, we need to find out if, and how, we can push our methodological edge by going out on a limb in the general direction of digital ethnography, and what this would buy us. The outcome is one or more proposed improvements to our methods. Such improvements could be in the realm of coding practices (province of @amelia and Sander himself); software to reaggregate the data (province of @melancon and @hugi); or, most likely, a combination of the two.

To give you an example, at the latest ethnography training, Amelia revealed that some ethnographers like to code “multidimensionally”. For example, you might have a set of codes related to semantics proper, and another one related to emotional states. Mathematically we can represent this state of affairs with something called a multilayer network. There would be a layer of semantic codes, and a layer of emotional codes. Codes are connected by co-occurrence both within and across layers. So, in principle you could look at how different codes or sets of codes in one layer connect preferentially to codes or sets of codes in the other layer. If you were doing an ethnography underpinning Polanyi’s Great Transformation with this method, you would expect to find codes like market, self-regulation and so on (on the semantic layer) preferentially linking to codes expressing dread and anxiety on the emotional layer.

Please, understand this semantic/emotional layer partition is totally arbitrary, and just comes from the particular example that Amelia did during that training. I am just trying to give you an idea for where we are trying to get.

So, in all this your job is to represent the issue of populism to people who know far less than you, and explain what you are looking for, and troubleshoot any wild idea that people might come up with. You and @Richard are the issue owners. But you will not speak for three hours. Take as much time as you need to introduce populism and what makes it so interesting, but no more. We will then, together, try to find a digital ethnography angle of attack. Am I making sense?

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Yup. Many thanks. On it.

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Anyway, Sander and I have thought to give everyone a brief. Here is a Doodle to plan it.

The meeting room is reserved. It’s in the center of Brussels, Place Sainte Catherine (Baksteenkaai 74 Quai Aux Briques), easily accessible from the station Gare du Midi (tram lines 51, 3 or 4). If you need additional info or any help let me know!

Update: we had the preparation call for the Skunkworks on 2019-06-27 as scheduled. Present:

  1. @sander
  2. @Jan
  3. @Richard
  4. @melancon
  5. @hugi
  6. @noemi
  7. @alberto

We used the call to:

  • Introduce each of us to the others, and take stock of the different skills that will be in the room in Brussels.
  • Align expectations as to how we will work together during the Skunkworks.

Some highlights:

  • Sander told us of his experience in coordinating 65 researchers from disciplines ranging from theoretical physics to literature history.

We had to spend the first year relinquishing our professional identities. That is a hard thing to ask, since we did not have new ones yet, so we just waded into unknown waters. Strange things happened, and people found it hard and frustrating to even talk with each other. I remember one meeting about desertification: after hours of discussion, we realized that the English-speaking people thought we were talking of ecological collapse, and the French-speaking people thought we were talking about abandoning urban areas.

  • To get over the hump and into the benefits of transdisciplinarity, we agreed to be patient, give each other plenty of time to make our points, and keep expectations low. Sander also recommended lots of food and drinking. @marina and I will think of some place where we can break bread together once in Brussels.

  • Sander also gave us an indication as to what we are looking for in the skunkworks. We are looking for research questions that are sufficiently concrete for us to latch on to with a strategy for attempting an answer; but sufficiently abstract for people across all disciplines to supply intuitions and models (I am paraphrasing, Sander please correct me if I’m wrong).

  • In operational terms, the program (scroll to the top of this topic) stands. We start from the concrete problem of European populism, in the first session; then we share our ideas for a scaled-up, math-assisted ethnography, in the second one; and finally we try to superimpose the two, and see if there is a fit. We agreed that the presentations will have no set time, and people are allowed (end encouraged) to interrupt the speaker: we don’t move to the next point until we all have understood the current one.

Ping also @amelia and @martin who were not in the call.

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I thought the zoom chat on Thursday was excellent! Looking forward to the face-to-face meeting in July. If Jan and I are going to start by discussing European populism and POPREBEL, we may need to push the start time back a little. I’m taking the first train from London on Tuesday morning, which gets into Brussels just after 10.00, so I’ll not get to you until 10.30-ish.

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Really looking forward to this! My train arrives in Brussels on Monday night around 21:00 and leaves Wednesday at 20:30.

@amelia and @melancon: the three of us are on session 1. I propose a joint “stereo” presentation by Amelia and Guy. It should work like this:

  • Amelia explains one step in the process (eg. online conversation and how ethno data are generated from it).
  • Guy translates that step into network terms (a post is an edge in a social interaction network, etc.)
  • then Amelia moves on to the next step, and so on.

Main thing here is: I want to highlight the model of collective intelligence underpinning SSNA, and the mapping of real-world events (like conversations, interviews etc.) onto ethno data, and from ethno data onto their network form. SSNA is only as good as the way it maps real-world stuff onto a mathematical object. Which, when you think about it, is true of all models!

Do you agree?

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Sounds good!

@melancon, are you in?

BTW: I also invited our co-author @markomanka :slight_smile:

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Everyone, here is an indicative program for the two days of the Skunkworks.

Tuesday 16/7

  • 09h30 - arrival and welcome coffee
  • 10h30 - 13h00 - Session 1
  • 13h00 - lunch at: Velvet Peck (right across the street) or Les Filles (very good veggies, more spacious, 7 minutes walk)
  • 14h30 - 18h00 - Session 2 with a coffee break at the venue
  • 18h00 - participants can go to the hotel to change and rest
  • 20h00 - dinner at Strofilia. Reservation made to the name of Alberto Cottica.

Wednesday 17/7

  • 09h30 start - coffee?
  • 13h00 (or later) end
  • lunch in one of the options above or everyone is free to go. If you want to stay, we have the room for the whole day.

About the meeting room: Attic
Contact person: Hannah Vanrintel (

I’m in!
I’ll be in Brussels on July 15, arriving downtown somewhere around 4pm – in case we need to prepare anything. I’ll drop you both a text message. @amelia is your mobile phone still the +44 75 … 1056 ?

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Tuesday 16/7

My plane leaves Brussels at 6:20pm, so I guess I’ll have to depart from the meeting at 5pm.

Yes, come to the house! @amelia will be staying with us anyway.

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Dear All,

I have prepared a sketch of what I want to say. Here it is (it is more detailed than what I will focus on, but I want to remember what I want to signal, at least):

Brussels meeting, July 16-17

POPREBEL with EDGERYDERS: framing of our study of the rise of populism

  • Begin with the problems the humanity is facing. For example:

    • Concilium Civitas (the event I co-organized in Warsaw, July 9-10):
      • Ladislao Dowbor: “The times, they are a-changin’. Well, not everything is changing. If we have shown fantastic technological and intellectual capacity, on the other hand, we can be seen as the same old morons when it comes to organizing ourselves into a civilized society.”
      • Krzysztof Pomian: “Democratic politics does not exploit the friend/foe dichotomy. Its culmination is not war and its aim is not defeat and annihilation of the enemy. Democratic politics operates with a three-way division: the followers/the hesitant/the opponents. Its purpose is convincing the hesitant and gaining a majority. The friend/foe dichotomy appears only when democracy is threatened and a state of emergency has to be declared. Nevertheless, a state of emergency does not reveal a democracy’s true nature, but it does reveal that of a totalitarian form of government, which is essentially a state of emergency regime.”
  • Globalization: four dimensions and their problems/challenges:

    • Economic:
      • Extraction of energy from the environment without barriers (profit motif: coal/oil curse)
      • Unconstrained trade: disrupted communities
    • Political: coordinating collective existence: what scale is optimal (local, national, global)?
    • Social: population movements: how to organize them? How to incorporate newcomers?
    • Cultural: information systems needed to understand that world: how to create thoughtful citizens?
  • Challenges:

    • Economic:
      • Climate change
      • Open trade: imbalances (at last temporary)
      • Inequality
    • Political:
      • Scale and type of political regime (democracy or not?)
      • Illiberalism: challenge to the rule of law and human rights
    • Social:
      • Population movements
      • Gender inequality
    • Cultural:
      • Optimization of information (culture as a information system) about all problems.
  • Response to challenges: can be thwarted by:

    • The lack of resources
    • Political suppression (power)
    • Misunderstanding (cultural cover-up leading to risk mis-perception):
  • Cultural systems to deal with these changes:

    • Globalizing, inclusive
    • Particularizing, exclusive
  • Populism: its errors:

    • Simplicity of solutions
    • Excessive mythologization/moralism
    • Polarization: vertical (“bad elites”) and horizontal (“bad people”).
    • Impoverished sociological imagination: mythical “people”
  • Search for solutions: how to coordinate three information circuits:

    • Experts
    • Politicians
    • “Ordinary” people
  • Poprebel and Fatigue: Edgeryders’s role:

    • Clifford Geertz: people’s points of view
    • How many points of view? Can we create a typology of diagnoses?
    • How many solutions? Typology of solutions.
    • How are “problems” defined? How are they embedded in broader meaning (cultural) systems?
    • How much of the diagnosis and solution comes from the “outside”?
      • What is “outside”? Ideology versus common sense.
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Dear All - to confirm: I’m in town. See you tomorow. - regards, Martin

p.s @alberto Did you had time to makee contact wih people from the projcet?

p.p.s. See:

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Hi @alberto have I lost a message from you? :slight_smile: Can we catch up so you update me on what can I do? :slight_smile:

No, @markomanka, as far as the skunkworks are concerned you already warned me that you could not make it.

However, I do have a new proposal for you:

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