PEI, LUCY: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: BURRELL, JENNA: INVISIBLE USERS

Text

SKETCHING ETHNOGRAPHY

QUESTIONING ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXTS

Lucy Pei, Fall 2019 

Department of Informatics, University of California Irvine

Anthro 215A/ "Ethnographic Methods"/ Professor Kim Fortun

Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana by Jenna Burrell / MIT Press, 2012

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?

How is the text structured and performed?

How can it circulate? 

What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

The text is about how the Internet “came to be distinctively materialized in urban Ghana” (6) as a cross-cultural and peripheral site, focusing on non-elite urban youths using the Internet in Internet cafes. Particular social processes focus on the interaction of Ghanain Internet users with Western others. This book seeks to disrupt Western imaginations of Africa as a blank slate in terms of digital technology, on the other side of a digital divide. 

 

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

The phenomenon is located in urban Ghanaian Internet cafes (focused in Accra); other urban Ghanain spaces such as churches, neighborhoods, technology stores, e-waste sites; an international development conference; and as well as in chat rooms and other virtual spaces occupied by Ghanain youth online. 

 

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

The phenomenon is situated within globalization and the spread of the Internet. Global media and Ghanains’ aspirations to migrate and have transnational ties with Westerners are highlighted. The emphasis is more on individuals and social groups. The ethnography takes place between 2004-2010.

 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

Burrell argues for looking at multiple scales in a “spiral” when “accounting for the materialization of technologies in global peripheries”(20): Starting with the human-machine interface (micro), then expanding to second-order sensemaking (meso), then finally considering the political economy (macro). At the human-machine interface, Burrell develops participant observations and interviews from time spent in cafes, discussing what participants were doing online and focusing on scamming activities carried out by the youth. Interviews and observations from other contexts inform the second-order sensemaking which focuses on rumors, morality, and religion around Internet use. When considering the political economy, Burrell develops material from her attendance at the World Summit for the Information Society held in Accra and her observations and interviews with secondhand computer importers. 

 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

The players of the text are Ghanain youth who use the Internet, their online interlocutors, their religious mentors, and their offline contacts who help shape the context in which Internet use occurs. Their relations are friction-filled - relations of deception, domination, aspiration, extraction, and exploitation. The text does trace how relations have both changed and stayed the same with the adoption of Internet technologies. 

 

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

While the book does not focus heavily on a particular significant “event,” 21st century globalization is the main temporal frame evoked.

  

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

Young Ghanain men, young Ghanain women, slum neighborhoods of Accra, Internet dating, Pentacostal and other religions, development cultures 


What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

Players are embedded in the structural contradiction of their immobility and the Internet’s inability to deliver a non-discriminatory disembodied experience, as Ghanain users continued to experience marginalization due to their Ghanain identity. Practices around deceiving others about one’s identity are highlighted in the chapters that focus on scamming activities. 

 

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

The book focuses on the Internet, a digital technology that was relatively novel at the time, especially in “peripheral” locations around the world. Burrell analyzes how the Ghanain peoples’ invisibility as a market for Western technology companies to design for and Ghanains’ gray-market means of obtaining computing hardware disrupt common designer-user understandings of digital technology’s meaning. 

 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Structural conditions of economic marginalization are particularly highlighted. With interrupted education and few opportunities for formal employment, and in a culture where control is maintained by elders, youth turned to Internet interactions to counteract their realities of unwilling immobility. The structural conditions of uneven outcomes of globalization and the aftermath of colonization are also highlighted, as Ghanain users continue to be marginalized online.  

 

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

Power is shown to operate in the infrastructures and established (Western) online cultures and norms for digital interaction, including language. Economic power underlies much of the book, as the subjects of the study juxtapose their condition in Ghana with individuals like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. Burrell analyzes how rumors have power to discipline and also entice around scam activities. Religion is another way in which power operates. 

 

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

The text is more situated within global structures and processes. There are some comparisons to, for example, the West’s imagination of Africa, and to the Western mode of engaging with Internet, but that is not the focus. 

 


What is the text about – conceptually? 

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

The goal is to challenge prior theoretical claims about how the Internet is experienced and what it means.

 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 

The main conceptual argument is around the materiality and materialization of the Internet - that a focus on the material does not lead to determinism in its meaning and uptake, that designers actually do not determine much about the materialization of the Internet in marginalized locations but rather this is shaped by local contextual social forces.

 

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

Ancillary concepts include the scales at which to understand technological sense-making (at the human-machine interface, second-order sensemaking, and political economy) - the disruption of digital divide concepts about African contexts - the aspirations around mobility - the imaginary - durable, material rumors


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

Observations, quotes from conversations, anecdotes from interlocutors about other people, digital artifacts, development materials are used to support the conceptual argument - for example Burrell cites specific rumors shared with her by her interlocutors to support her argument about the durability of rumors and their role in shaping moral attitudes about technology use.

 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

The conceptual argument seems to be robustly supported by the empirical materials, it could be challenged on the grounds that it under-considers local politics and global capitalism that shape the very cosmopolitan desires of the youth and that such are “baked in” to the designed material aspects of the digital technology. 

 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?

A more narrow analysis of the constraints of designed aspects of the computers, software, and computer infrastructures could read technology designers back into the meaning-making that is possible around the digital artifacts.   

 


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

Actor-Network Theory provides the backdrop to this text, and theories about materiality 

 

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

The author assumes that the urban youth in Accra form a cohesive unit to study, and that a digital field site can be studied in the sites of the user. The author assumes that what is interesting is the everyday responses around the deviant. 

 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

Ethnographic data is used in the text. They were obtained through participant observations and ethnographic interviews over several field trips to Accra.  

 

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

The author primarily learned why participants were engaging in scamming activities online, how they saw these activities for themselves and for others, as well as their religious intersections with digital technology and daily life.

 

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

It seems the data was analyzed via reviewing field notes in conjunction with literature from fields of STS and media studies.  

 

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

Through the perspectives of interlocutors (e.g. categories of scammers, people marrying for money, Western rich racist people online) and through the perspective of the International Development project of which she is critical. 

 

What additional data would strengthen the text? 

Additional transcripts of chats would strengthen the text, as well as images and screen-captures of the ways digital spaces were set up and moved through. 

 

 

 

Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

The introduction reviews related theories, and claims to be taking non-deterministic accounts of sensemaking around technology to global peripheries. 

 

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

The theoretical backdrop is elaborated in the introduction of the book. 


What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

User/nonuser binaries are explicitly avoided. West/non-west binaries (Global North/South) are recurring, as well as moral/immoral, youth/elder.

 

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

There is little historical trajectory and not really an explicit chronological development. 

 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

The text does not follow a chronological progression of time in its telling, rather it includes anecdotes that have temporal markings to each of them. 

 

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

Male youth groups in slums in Ghana are named, religious groups are named, youth-elder relations are named, male-female and patron-mentee structures are identified.

 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

Stories are told about informants, we know informants by pseudonym, and follow their story across chapters. Quotes and extended quotes are embedded throughout. 

 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

The text is explicitly focused on a particular technological artifact and digital space and digitally-mediated communication. The details of, for example, melting electronics for precious metals, fixing computers, importing computers, and going online are described in relatively high-level terms. 

 

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

Stories are told such that in-depth detail is enjoyable and interesting - by staying with certain informants when giving examples, we are interested and engaged with what the person thinks, why they are doing what they’re doing, and what the outcomes will be.

 

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

The layout is a standard academic text layout. The chapters follow the spiral in moving from physical context and digital context (first level, human-machine interface) to rumors and religion (second level sensemaking) to Development conferences and computer importing (political economy), thus spiraling outward from the first obvious site of study.


What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

Visuals: a table containing data about computers imported to Ghana, images of informal documents, a diagram of a spiral to illustrate the levels of analysis, and several field site photos: photos of the youth, computer store, the conference setup, several of digital scrapworkers, and a cover illustration.

I think the spiral was particularly effective as a memorable summary of a useful future approach.

 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

The endnotes include further sources, citations, more detailed etymology and translation of terms, and additional anecdotes from the observations and field notes. 

 

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

The “opposition” is monolithic Western imaginaries of Africa and the digital divide concept, as well as Development institutions that fail to truly engage with and give “on the ground” marginalized people a chance to talk, even when the Development people are attending a conference in Accra.

 

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

The author does mention in several ways her presence and the positioning of her (perceived as white, female) self among the interlocutors: for example, she was asked to leave cafes, she was accused of being a spy, she attended a wedding dressed “absurdly” because she was wearing traditional clothing but was young. 

  

 

Circulation?

Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

The text is written for an academic audience. The arguments are in close dialogue with very academic conversations about issues like materiality, imagninaries, and so forth. The writing style would probably not be accessible to groups such as the participants and does not seem to be addressed to them.  


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

Anyone with interest in how the Internet is differently materialized may be interested in the text, especially anyone interested in the emic perspectives of online scammers. 

 

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

The internet’s meaning changes completely when marginalized users engage with it, their marginalization continues, but they develop unique ways to make sense of and engage with the challenges they face online. For certain audiences this idea is certainly not obvious. The specific perspectives of internet scammers was also new knowledge and not obvious to me.

 

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

The three levels of analysis are very use-able tools for further research into how the Internet and digital technologies are taken up in other places where the designers of the technology were not in dialogue and did not consider a market. This approach to studying Internet use appears to be generalizable. 

 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

Explode the idea of a digital divide and investigate “peripheral” locations to understand the local forces that drive how technology is adopted and appropriated. 


Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

An interactive digital conversation piece would be interesting. The general public online could interact with a chat, either a bot designed to represent the experiences described in the book, or with artists/ the author/ interested participants actually engaging. 

 

License

Creative Commons Licence

Contributors

Created date

October 13, 2019

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.