At the Sociological Imagination, we recently blogged about an interesting article written by a mathematics professor and I wanted to share it here, too. Robert Harington writes about a study he recently had to do, as Head of the publishing division of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in order to find out how mathematicians use online resources and use that knowledge to inform AMA’s future publishing strategy.
Harington explains pretty well what ethnographic research is:
“…What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).
Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder. […]
With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. “
As an ethnographic researcher, I would say that his definition is a bit narrow: ethnography is capable of so much more than just helping you assess user experience. Also I think that he is talking about a simpler and quicker variety of qualitative research (e.g. an open ended questionnaire) rather than full-on ethnography (the second comment under the article, by David Wojick, is spot on: Wojick calls the study described in the article “issue analysis” and points out that an in-depth ethnography is a far bigger “beast”). Nevertheless, it’s great to see ethnography used by mathematicians to study their own online behaviour in order to plan the strategy of an academic journal. Action research done by a community for its own benefit! And this article is an awesome explanation of ethnography by a scientist, for a scientific audience. Having read this will certainly help me next time I have to explain to a mathematician what my research is about and what my method is
[and that I’m not simply having fun hanging out in their common room on workdays]!