The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.
Mapping Practice, unpacking context: what ethnographic approaches can teach us about scholarly communication
In the article “Ethnographic approaches to the practices of scholarly communication: tackling the mess of academia,” Donna M. Lanclos posits that the context in which people interact with information is a crucial part of the research process. As an anthropologist, she argues that there are “human reasons for engaging or not with spaces and information”. It is not enough to know that students, researchers, teachers use certain platforms. We also must consider how and why they do.
This article is based on a breakout session at a UKSG conference (UKSG stands for United Kingdom Serials Group, but is no longer referred to as such, but simply as UKSG). In addition to highlighting different methodological approaches, I hope that this can be an example of the many ways that research can be disseminated: from a research paper on results to a conference breakout session on methods.
Background and Theoretical Context
Ethnographic methods are a subset of anthropological practices that study the customs and ways of life of a particular population, generally from the perspective of the study participants. This article explores how studying lived experiences of academics searching for information is important in order to understand our users, and to design our tools.
Donna M. Lanclos’ arguments rely on certain theoretical principles. First, it is imperative to study the ‘mess’ of academia in order to dismantle some of the elitist, normalized narratives of what it means to be an academic. ‘Mess’, according to Lanclos, is “the uncontained, multimodal and many-sited practices in which people engage as part of their everyday lived experiences as students, researchers, and teachers in academia.” (Lanclos, 2016, p. 239). Lanclos also emphasizes the important distinction between ‘experience’ and ‘lived experience’. ‘Lived experience’ encompasses all the small details of one’s experience, where they study, the weather, their feelings as they enter the library space: as Lanclos puts it, it is the “phenomenological experience of being a person” (Lanclos, 2016, p.240).
It is not enough to know that our students like to use the library to study. We must understand what brings them to the library, why they choose to stay, and what they do in the space. Students and researchers do not always engage in physical spaces and social circles defined by their institutions. As Lanclos puts it: “We need to pay attention to this lived experience, which provides a counter to closed models of institution practices” (Lanclos, 2016, p. 240.) Knowing about this can lead to better service, work towards demystifying academia, and help folks advocate for institutional change.
Lanclos’ article highlighted particularly interesting qualitative methods. During interviews with participants on various research projects, she asked them to draw processes or practices, in order to start and further conversations.
The first method outlined is cognitive mapping. In this 6 minute exercise, participants are asked to draw a map of their study spaces, changing the color of their pen every two minutes in a specified order (e.g. blue first, then red, then black). Changing pen every two minutes allows the researcher to know which elements came to the participant’s mind first.
“Cognitive mapping of the study spaces is thus a way to understand the context of learning and research beyond assumptions of institutional habits.”
In these exercises, the participant is given time and space to brainstorm around their practice, and to include what they find important, sometimes without being prompted. In the example below, the participant drew different buildings as study spaces, but they also included certain features or specific tasks (like “food”, or “reading”, respectively). Some spaces are part of the institutional context, but other spaces are not. Cognitive mapping of the study spaces is thus a way to understand the context of learning and research beyond assumptions of institutional habits.
Fig. 1. Cognitive map of learning spaces by University College London postgraduate student (Lanclos, 2016, p.241).
Mapping digital practices
In another example, Lanclos asked participants to map their digital practices along two axes. The first, from left to right records whether the participant is a “Visitor” or a “Resident” of the digital tool. The other, from top to bottom, records whether it is a “Personal” or “Institutional” tool. While the cognitive map of learning spaces looked at where people chose to sit down with their computers, this exercise aims to determine what they do online and why.
Below is a map in which the participant illustrated how certain platforms overlap between the personal and the institutional, while others are strictly one or the other. The participant was also able to link certain platforms: an arrow links Facebook to personal email with the caption “Can be personal; use it to catch up with family & friends”.
Fig. 2. Map of digital practices along two axes. (Lanclos, 2016, p. 244)
The maps are also opportunities for reflection. They allow time and space to ask whether participants’ current practices meet their needs. This sort of conversation reduces speculative claims on what we think our students wish they could do, or on what we believe they use. It makes clear what platforms they use, as well as for what purposes.
“This sort of conversation reduces speculative claims on what we think our students wish they could do, or on what we believe they use. It makes clear what platforms they use, as well as for what purposes.”
These drawings are followed by a conversation with the participant in order to understand the reasons behind the elements they chose to highlight. It is during these conversations that the author of the study can make sense of the drawings.
Understanding the lived experiences of students, researchers, and teachers in academia is important because it disrupts normalized, flattened narratives of what an academic looks like. Lanclos gives three ways in which it can affect change.
- First, it provides context for our patrons’ actions, as their human experience is deeply linked to their digital choice. Having this ethnographic understanding can help move the library’s innovations in the right direction, as well as prioritize our outreach.
- Second, designing tools with our users’ physical context in mind can enable greater accessibility of content.
- Finally, it can help us interrogate some of our institutional and academic habits, particularly surrounding scholarly communication. As we make our practices and the motivations behind them clearer, we are able to have more honest conversations about what we are doing and whether we should continue.
“…though institutions tend to prioritize access to closed content, users are not bound by those priorities.”
The complexity and diversity of practices surrounding learning suggests that though institutions tend to prioritize access to closed content, users are not bound by those priorities. They will easily disregard rules dictated by institutional affiliation in order to access what they need (finding articles on SciHub, for example). Why then, continue to create closed systems, when user practices are in fact uncontrollable? Lanclos hopes that by unpacking the mess of academia through ethnographic methods, we can move these conversations forward, or at least ask the important questions.
I loved this articles as it highlighted different research methods, it was based on a breakout session, and it linked ethnographic practices with scholarly communications. While the methods were interesting and the applications to library research were varied, I found it difficult at first to see the impact of these research methods on scholarly communication specifically. Here are the main points I took away:
- Participant mapping during interviews can be a great way to start conversations about patrons’ experiences. It allows reflective space for the participants, as well as the ability to broaden the conversation – like when a participant mentioned food as part of their learning space.
- Our users engage in a variety of practices related to their learning, in and outside of their institutional context. Understanding their nuances and motivations through ethnographic research can bring validity to those practices.
- Understanding motivations, rather than assuming, can help further conversations about topics surrounding scholarly communication. Interrogating the reasons behind our use of certain tools or platforms is important to ease anxiety around change, and find alternatives to our closed models of information dissemination.
Keep the conversation going
- Ethnographic methods that include mapping are a great way to elicit conversations. However, the visual aspect of this method can create barriers for participants or researchers with visual impairments. What alternatives could be used in such cases? What other methods can be used as a jumping off point for conversation, that does not demand that the participants draw, or see?
- Should lived experiences be a part of the Open Access conversation? In addition to information retrieval practices, what are other ways that lived experiences may impact conversations surrounding scholarly communication?
Lanclos, D. M. (2016). Ethnographic approaches to the practices of scholarly communication: tackling the mess of academia. Insights, 29(3), 239–248. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.316
About the author
Charlotte Brun is a Social Sciences Librarian at The Claremont Colleges Library, in Claremont, CA. She is passionate about information access, feminism in the library, and social justice. Hobbies include furry friends, plants, knitting and reading. Find her on twitter: @cha_cjb
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own