Interdisciplinarity and the Interview: AIS conference and more…

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So much has happened since I last posted that I have developed a bit of the writer’s constipation. Instead of a comprehensive update then I’ll just dive right in.

I recently presented the Synaptic Crowd project in one of the HASTAC panels at the recent AIS conference. The video I presented is from a shorter edit of my documentation (originally created for the Visible Evidence Conference here at USC).

I had a great time at AIS and learned a ton! Thanks in particular should go to Julie Klein who was an incredibly thoughtful and engaged panel leader. Since the conference I’ve been thinking a lot about possibilities of interdisciplinarity within new media research, and Julie’s writing has helped me think through some of my own hurdles in trying to integrate scholarship from the humanities and social sciences. (Here is a link to her most recent writing.)

One of the central question I keep butting up against is how (and whether) to frame my work in relation to the social sciences. In particular, it’s the challenge of trying to frame the work I’m doing as relevant to the social sciences that has been more challenging. By contrast, drawing from the social sciences “into” the humanities has been less of a hurdle — maybe because the humanities always considers its purview to be everything (the Katamari Damacy of disciplines!).

Since coming to USC’s iMAP program (a subject which will get a forthcoming post all its own) I’ve had some really amazing conversations with faculty here about these sorts of disciplinary boundaries. I’m trying to think through how new media design can offer alternative methodological tools for social science researchers. But I’m not sure I have an easy answer so far.

A recent conversation with Mimi Ito helped crystallize things for me. She pointed out how the Synaptic Crowd style interviews may be incompatible with the interview methodologies of social scientists (where trust has to be built over a long period of time and interviewees need to feel safe about the scope of their audience). She used the term “genre-clash” and that was a really helpful notion for me to think through. Public art practice has a fairly long tradition of seeking out “clash” as a kind of pleasure, and so I may have overlooked how those sorts of pleasures fail to translate from one discipline to another.

In one particular niche of the social sciences (ethnomethodology), however, clash (or contextual instability) is a desirable object of research. In Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), Garfinkel writes:

Procedurally it is my preference to start with familiar scenes and ask what can be done to make trouble. The operations that one would have to perform in order to multiply the senseless features of perceived environments; to produce and sustain bewilderment, consternation and confusion; to produce the socially structured affects of anxiety, shame, guilt and indignation; and to produce disorganized interaction should tell us something about how the structures of everyday activities are ordinarily and routinely produced and maintained.

In my recent MFA thesis for UC Santa Cruz, I dove whole heartedly into the rabbit hole of ethnomethodology and now feel myself coming up for a bit of air. While this idea of transgressing “the everyday” helps explain why I see correlations between art practice and social science research, it’s important to acknowledge that ethnomethodology is but one niche within the social sciences. For good reason, not every researcher finds it helpful to make their informants uncomfortable (a la Garfinkel).

But there is definitely room for thinking about the resonance that ethnomethodology has with the fields of design (especially mobile media, augmented reality, locational media, alternative reality games, HCI, etc.).

One of the larger questions I’ve been wrestling with is this: if social scientists were also designers what new tools would they design and how might their research methodology change?

This question feels at home in a Science and Technology Studies disciplinary paradigm but feels less familiar when applied to more traditional ethnographic research (for example).

A design-oriented approach to social science would seem to complicate the researcher’s role as mediator and open up questions about the relationship between tools, practices, and regimes of knowledge production… (including, potentially, collaborative knowledge production).