The Ethnography Praxis in Industry conference was in NYC earlier this month, and I was delighted to have a chance to attend. I followed the #epiconference twitterstream avidly when they were in London last year, but couldn’t attend because I was busily applying for funding for the research I did in March.
I wanted to attend for several reasons (NYC was just one of them). Primarily, I wanted to be in a room full of people who do private-sector ethnography, because increasingly I am in contact with people, in libraries, in higher education generally, and also in architecture and computer science, who are interested in ethnography as a methodology but not necessarily in anthropology as a disciplinary frame for that method. I need to have more familiarity with the range of ways “ethnography” is being talked about, used, justified, critiqued in practical contexts. Industry is just one, but it’s an increasingly visible one, and is one that actually inspired the creation of library ethnography jobs, starting with Nancy Fried Foster at Rochester.
You can find the history of EPIC as an org, as well as the papers from all 10 years of the meetings since they began, here. And the draft papers from this year’s meetings are here. They are all worth reading.
If any of you follow me on Twitter, you know that I live-tweeted nearly the whole damn thing. I will say again that is now one of my favorite ways of experiencing a conference–there are connections you can make in Twitterspace, not just with the attendees, but with people who are not in the room with you, around the content of the discussions. I find it stimulating and enriching. It’s like doing the reading for graduate seminars and getting to have the discussion all at the same time–I think better, IMO, in groups, I understand more, I have questions that can be thrown back at me and more interesting questions take their place. I attend conferences alone, without Twitter, at my peril these days. I was also lucky to be able to attend with my colleague Nicole Peterson, whose impressions of the conference you can read here.
I was struck by a few things. The first thing was how much of an anthropology conference it seemed to me. This despite the fact that those in the room were not exclusively anthropologists, but were also designers, programmers, other kinds of social scientists, like sociologist Sam Ladner. Perhaps I was swayed by the unapologetically anthro-centric keynote of Christian Madsbjerg of Red Associates. Perhaps this sense varies from EPIC to EPIC. Nonetheless, I felt very at home in the discussions about the work and its implications. I got a lot out of (to pick just a few out of a great sea of content) Sam Ladner’s discussion of embodied practice, Emilie Glazer, Anna Mieczakowski, James King, Ben Fehnert’s (from Eclipse) discussion of trust as an important part of motivating people to engage with digital devices, and Kate Crawford’s electric keynote about Big Data.
Part of the anthro-centricity too was the explicit contrast that EPIC-goers and presenters offered to academic work, and to anthropology in particular. The insistence on the word “practice” in contrast to “applied” anthropological or ethnographic work was evidence of this, too. I think I understand the reasons for it, but it was something to think about. I still, for all of the practical work I am doing these days, identify as an academic, and I felt distinctly neither fish nor fowl in that sense while in the room at EPIC.
I loved that it was basically a plenary conference, with a few exceptions for workshops. Everyone heard the same papers, attended the same keynotes, saw the same Pecha Kucha sessions. I think it made for a richer conversation about the content of the conference, as people’s experiences were not fragmented across several small rooms.
The Pecha Kucha sessions. I adored them. And Simon Roberts has already said a lot of what I was thinking. But I would also point out that I think that as a form, as a provocation, I wish the AAAs would do Pecha Kucha sessions at least as much (if not more often ) than regular paper sessions. They are limited in time, visually arresting, and felt like really good uses of everyone’s attention.
I really enjoyed being in such a high-energy room full of people who wanted to think critically and engagingly about the practice of ethnography, and what it meant to their work, the work of the people who hired them, and to the wider world. I may not make it to Sao Paolo in 2015, but will be happy to get to Minneapolis in 2016, to be in that room again.