Ethnography as theory

I’m at the University of Warwick for a seminar on ethnography as theory. The two papers we were asked to read in advance have duly been read, and I’ll be interested to see what we make of them and of other sources during the short event. I’m quite prepared to be very out of my depth, but fully Iooking forward to this, I do love a bit of a natter about theory.

The Nader paper I read first, and was not hugely impressed by. Nader is clearly an experienced researcher, and presented a history of the ways in which an ecological or holistic perspective (contra a scientific perspective) has been used by anthropologists from Malinowski to Leach, but has always been tempered by the inevitability of the implication of the ethnographer with colonialist attitudes etc. This is seen in the desire of the ethnographer, in aiming to avoid treating their research subjects as Other, to go to the other extreme and to try to portray Them as Like Us, imposing an alien standard of rationality onto Their practices. Nader explains how Gregory Bateson’s Naven allowed the practices of other cultures to stand as exotic and nonsensical to Western eyes, challenging ideas of interpretation/translation and rationalisation by showing how non-holistic forms of description can allow a more naked and less ideological form of ethnography to be undertaken.

Candea’s paper, on the other hand, the post-PhD ruminations of a much younger researcher, I found really interesting and full of sentences that drew me in and made me think differently. My copy of the paper is covered in asterisks, underlines and marginal comments. In a much longer paper than Nader’s, Candea starts with a compelling analogy, using Peter Jackson’s approach to filmmaking and the Dogme approach to set up a framework within which to discuss freedom and constraint in approaches to “realism”. Candea is frank about his own experiences and doubts as a novice ethnographer, and discusses the idea of constraint and the drawing of arbitrary boundaries as an essential methodological step in ethnographic research that ought to be paid more attention.

His paper can be summed up in one five word phrase
         Boundedness is a methodological issue
(Candea, 2007:172)

There are many subtleties within each paper that I haven’t time to write about now… time to go find the room :-).

I hope to post again later with my thoughts after the event.

Presentation on the concept of ‘technologies’ in my research

I gave a 15 minute presentation at my university’s postgraduate research conference today. I was planning to record my voice as I spoke to help get some feedback on my delivery, but in my slight anxiety I completely forgot to record. I tried to say too much within the time, so skipped past a couple of slides. Anyway, I thought I’d embed the presentation file here. It will make only limited sense at best, without me speaking to it. Happy to have any comments on content.

The image on slide 3 should work as a link to a video on vimeo.com. I showed from 0:10 to about 1:25 as part of my presentation, just as a way of introducing an adventure playground as a potential field of study.

Thoughts on the train

Sitting in some peace on the train home from a wonderful day out in Exeter to participate in Tara Woodyer‘s Playability workshop.

This was an ESRC-funded workshop hosted and organised by Tara and colleagues in the Exeter University Geography department.

It’s nearly always a pleasure to go somewhere new, and to meet interesting people and to explore. It is enjoyable to wander round other university campuses and pick up their particular feel and style and to wonder what it is like to be a student there, what their issues and priorities and subcultures and traditions are.

We were made really welcome in the large, light circular Senate Chamber. A great room for a meeting, though not completely customisable if you want to do games in the middle (Play Torbay!)

There were four presentations in the morning, with questions, followed by introductions. In the afternoon we split into two groups for discussions on topics arising from the morning and from the questions outlined on the Playability website.

It was really good to chat afterwards to Seth Giddings, whose own research has drawn on many of the influences I am now looking at. For example, we talked briefly about Latour, Haraway, McLuhan; and I almost mentioned Ihde, Stiegler and Simondon, but didn’t, yet I see from his various websites that his work has also drawn on these thinkers.

It struck me again (I can’t remember when it last struck me, but it has done!) how there is a whole lot of research work in the area of media and technology studies around play and games that doesn’t tend to specifically reference children’s play, but that playworkers and playwork-oriented researchers could benefit from. Not to mention all the other work going on around play and performance and public gaming by people like Hannah Nicklin, Andy Field, Hide’n’Seek etc. Anyway.

Others I was pleased to meet and chat with include: Philip Waters who works creatively with children and play possibilities at the Eden Project ; Tomas Rawlings who is a game designer who clearly thinks a lot about play and playfulness; Sarah-Jane Dowson and Tanny Stobart from Play Torbay; and Ian Cook and John Wylie from Exeter Geography.

Another overlap (forgive me, I can’t resist a nice overlap) was with the Philosophy of Computer Games conference going on at the same time, but in Madrid. I’m doubtful that materiality was mentioned much in Madrid, yet there must have been other areas where the two events could have been talking to each other!

I got such an incredible buzz from meeting up with geographers, and researchers from other disciplines, who are looking at play, and sharing ideas and enthusiasms.

Some interesting areas to me were the tensions, in discussions, between the desire to frame play in terms of learning, or behaviour, or rules, versus the angle on play that Tara’s work provides, which is to accentuate the tactility and proximity and micro-movements of skin, fingers, heads, toys, fur, plastic and other surfaces that constitute the material basis of the affective – and sometimes affectionate – experiences of play.

My questions after leaving the event are:
1. Can we do another one next year? I know, I know: just because this was great, there doesn’t have to be another one… but… I wonder.

2. What about the ‘connections’ bit of ‘material connections’? There was in my opinion a lot of talk about play and toys and players and their various ontological statuses …. but relatively little about the relations between them, the microethnographical details (smartly laid out by Tara in her opening provocation) of connection and contact and clash and cuddle. Perhaps that’s just not where we collectively ‘were’ today (maybe an emphasis for a follow-up?!)

3. Who’s up for submitting an abstract for Tara’s epic Ludic Geographies session at the RGS-IBG this summer? I’d love to talk about something collaborative if anyone from today wants to throw ideas around with me.