Friday, October 17, 2014

Beyond 'Beyond Ethnography'

This once I said to one of my friends "Hey you know my supervisors have won the best paper award in CHI this year." Then my friend replied "So have you read that paper?" Oops! So while on the train to Gold Coast I decided to surf through that piece.

The paper was written about the importance of reciprocity and engagement in research that are main building blocks of participatory design approaches. They discussed lessons from a project that concerns Indigenous Peoples of Australia. Popular methods such as ethnography becomes irrelevant in a society where people are extensively researched often without thinking of appropriateness and benefits in-return.
"Indigenous people world-wide have often been researched with little thought given to culturally appropriate methods of engagement, what will happen to the resulting knowledge, who really benefits from the research and how the community will benefit from the engagement."
They identify reciprocity as a key element in an effective and ethical research activity. The paper highlights the importance of conducting culturally suitable and beneficial research especially in contexts such as Indigenous communities. I could not agree more. Researchers are not an alien entity from the society. It is often easy to loose the touch of the society when we work with numbers, documents and technologies. The result can be research projects that are disconnected from the real world.

Reciprocity means 'a situation or relationship in which two people or groups agree to do something similar for each other, to allow each other to have the same rights, etc. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). This paper provides a strong account for providing benefits for research participants. I began to wonder what is there for the researcher in a research project? (I know a stupid question!) Of course he/she can complete his research which is a rewarding experience. But, do we reward our participants so that we can get our research done?

I see three types of development for the researcher. Knowledge, Mental and Spiritual. The reports, presentations, etc. showcase knowledge development. Mental rewards that happens mainly through achieving targets are, though not much visible, are inherent. The authors of the paper discussed forms of mutual learning that took place in their project. It is the spiritual development, however, that is quite difficult to see and not often discussed (at least in more technical fields). While in my opinion all forms of research should result in spiritual development, I think Participatory Design (PD) provide better opportunities for growth. PD takes a stance both in pragmatic and political viewpoints to engage with people who will get affected by the research. I believe when researchers engage more with participants, there are better opportunities to grow.

While my research is far from PD (at least at the moment), I do sense the perks of working closely with people. I have been attending maker communities, disability services organizations (DSOs) in the local region, conducted interviews and observation sessions with the members. I sense these activities reveal new insights that can change me as a person. I should warn you that what you are going to read next is based purely on my experience as a PhD student. I will discuss how building a good rapport with people helped me to grow.

What I saw...

People were busy when I visit the makerspaces. But, they had no one to report. No deadlines to meet. Then why (the hell) they design stuff? Then I began to realize they are just being honest with their conscience.  I began to ask myself "Why don't I read when I can, why don't I write?" and all sorts of other questions which I am beginning to find answers for.

The people I met were friendly and helpful. They were not hesitant to have a chat, give a hand anytime, for me or any other person. The people at the DSOs are mostly volunteers who help empower people with disabilities. Why they waste time doing that? Why just don't do their stuff? But then I realized they were just being just human. That is what humans did for thousands of years and exactly what we are beginning to forget as humans.

One of the most important things I saw was the bravery of makers. The courage to go ahead and hack something you have never seen. I kept asking why can't I be like that? Why don't I do more experiments?

I worked and saw work of people with disabilities. Often people think they are 'disabled'. I do not agree with the word itself. I believe they are abled in different ways. They are abled to compose an email in couple of seconds, type in lighting fast speeds, they are abled to do computer programming, they are abled to make scooters. The disability really lies in our attitudes!

What I heard...

Whenever I interview or have a chat I receive advices that I could not read from any book.
"Make a mess and go ahead..."
"Get on with it..."
"My design has my blood and sweat on it, that is why I build them"
"People with disabilities want to play ANY game, not some games"

When I saw the work of makers, I realized there is much more than money to doing something.In fact money becomes a controversial topic. They do it because they love to do it - and that's pretty much it. They see other people use them and become happy. That is the biggest reward they are after.

People were so passionate about their inventions. People with disabilities did not sound like they have an impairment. If we have passion we can conquer. 

What I did...

Volunteering in activities, seeing new places, helping people do things taught me a research should have a single aim - betterment of planet earth. We are surrounded by many things that are affected by what we do. Researchers are not a privileged entity to do experiments on the world to complete some degree program. We should keep in mind that our responsibility is to help others.

So, I really don't mind taking long rides to meet people or spending hours with them instead of staring into a computer screen. When we know better about people, we learn new things that ultimately help for a better research agenda. Research should happen in the wild, not in the office cubicle.

What I felt...

Working with people in past dozen or so months changed my thinking patterns. In other words my brain got somewhat re-wired. Some of the things I felt:

- You are responsible for what you do. Ignore deadlines. Just be true to you.
- Talk to people, listen to what they have to see, watch what they do. You can learn loads.
- We (researchers) are servants of the Earth. We are not different from any other worker.
- Let's get on with it, never be afraid of making an error.
- Disabilities lie in our attitudes.

In a nutshell, working closely with people helped me grow. That is why I believe PD has more potential not only in rewarding 'end-users' but also researchers especially spiritually. Participatory Design (PD) > Personal Development (PD) = PD Squared. I am not saying that I am a good person now! I am just saying that I can feel a positive change. I had fun working with people. It was no way tedious. I think I felt enjoyable as I was receiving opportunities to grow through working with people. I believe that should be an integral part of a research - spiritual growth. I believe only then we can have a truly 'engaging' research.