The Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography (PECE) is an open source (Drupal-based) digital platform that supports multi-sited, cross-scale ethnographic and historical research. The platform links researchers in new ways, enables new kinds of analyses and data visualization, and activates researchers’ engagement with public problems and diverse audiences. PECE is at the center of a research project that explores how digital infrastructure can be designed to support collaborative hermeneutics.
PECE has been built and is governed by an interdisciplinary design group centered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York, USA). PECE will be available for download and use by other research groups by December 2015.
While designed to support the particular needs of experimental ethnography projects, PECE provides a general model for the digital humanities, and particularly the empirical digital humanities (including work in history, anthropology, and other fields that collect and analyze primary data, using hermeneutic techniques). PECE’s “design logics” translate critical theoretical commitments (to perspectival multiplicity, for example) into digital terms.
PECE provides a place to archive and share primary data generated by empirical humanities scholars, facilitates analytic collaboration, and encourages experimentation with diverse modes of publication. The platform encourages humanities scholars to experiment with digitally-mediated, interdisciplinary collaboration, provides opportunities to involve students in humanities research as it progresses, and quickens the public availability of humanities research in an open access form. PECE also enables experimentation with new forms of peer review for humanities research, and functions as a portal to a suite of open source tools useful for humanities research, including tools developed in data science for other scientific communities.
PECE’s design is both theoretically inflected and ethnographically grounded: platform design has been oriented by “design logics” drawn from cultural, social, and language theories, oriented by the constantly evolving needs of The Asthma Files (TAF), a collaborative ethnographic project focused on diverse ways people in settings around the world have experienced and responded to the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis. PECE’s design group has now developed and tested multiple digital functions that enable ethnographic collaboration. In the next phase of the project, we will refine existing functions and develop others, through side-by-side development of diverse ethnographic projects on separate platforms.
Numerous instances of PECE (some only at the concept-stage) demonstrate its potential: The Asthma Files illustrates how PECE can support a collaborative research project (with shared questions linking project participants). The Disaster-STS Research Network illustrates how PECE can support an international research network, in this instance connecting researchers around the world studying how disasters of different types, in different regions of the world, are anticipated and managed. We have also conceptualized instances of PECE for individual researchers (at different stages of their careers), and for different kinds of practitioners (people needing to manage chronic illness and associated documentation, encounters with diverse medical specialists, etc.).
Development of PECE helps address the global challenge of creating research infrastructure to support deeply interdisciplinary and international research that addresses complex problems such as global environmental health, and disaster prevention, response and recovery. Such problems have dimensions that require the integration of data and analysis from the humanities, social and natural sciences, and engineering, and thus will require robust digital infrastructure for humanities researchers, designed to be interoperable with research infrastructure developed for other fields. To ensure such interoperability, we have worked closely with data scientists at Rensselaer, and within the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international initiative to enhance capacity to archive, preserve, analyze, and share data within and across research communities.
The PECE project extends from work in cultural anthropology over the last few decades that foregrounds how cultural critique, innovation and change emerge, and the significance of the genre forms through which culture is expressed (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986). This thread of work in cultural anthropology has drawn on literary and language theory to address the significance of genre forms both in everyday enactment of culture in different settings, and in scholarly representations of culture. PECE extends this thread of work into the digital domain through a platform design that reflects critical insight from theories of language, literature, and ethnography, built out organically with original ethnographic material. Thus, while designed to reflect critical theory, PECE is also ethnographically grounded, collaborative in nature, and expressly experimental: the platform is designed to permit change as called for by evolving ethnographic engagements. This entwined development process has been challenging but has proven robust, allowing us to identify needs and explore computational possibilities from within humanities work, learning about and building the kinds of tools that are critical when ethnographers work collaboratively, especially on complex topics involving multiple sites, scales and actors, and many different kinds of “data.”
We work on PECE aware of long-standing effort, often experimental in tenor, to integrate new technologies and media into the work and expression of cultural analysis. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s stunning work with photography – as both a research tool and means of conveying their analysis – comes immediately to mind (Bateson and Mead 1942; Jacknis 1988). The history of filmmaking in the conduct and expression of cultural analysis has also laid important ground, generating impressive methodological debates and innovation, and a body of work that literally provides different angles on matters of interest and concern to cultural analysts. Digital tools and modes of presentation add still other possibilities for getting at and sharing understanding of how “culture” works – in historical, geographic, political, economic and media context, always in need of deeper or alternative ways of understanding. The goal of PECE could be described as kaleidoscopic, enriching cultural analysis through use of an ever-evolving array of techniques and technologies – which, together, multiply perspective, give texture to insight, and animate reflexivity.
The development of PECE has been motivated by an array of concerns that we have come to call “substantive logics.” Continual cultivation of growing list of substantive logics for the PECE Project itself, as well as for other instances of PECE, is a way to keep tuned to the historical and political conditions in which we work, integrating empirical and theoretical understanding.
PECE is at the center of a research effort to understand how digital infrastructure can be designed to support and sustain further development of the empirical humanities. Recognition of diversity within the humanities and even the empirical humanities is foundational to the project. The specific focus of the PECE project is on the challenges associated with poststructural, postcolonial and feminist theories of language, knowledge and politics. The PECE project works to delineate the work flows and practices that reflect scholarship in this vein, and the ways digital infrastructure can support them. The PECE project also aspires to develop collaborative capacity among scholars, mobilizing poststructural understanding of the dynamics through which communication and knowledge are engendered.
The research questions that orient the PECE project include the following:
§ What work flows, data types and analytic modes characterize experimental ethnography?
§ What theories and assumptions about language, meaning, knowledge and sociality undergird experimental ethnography?
§ What are the digital implications of the work flows, analytic modes and assumptions of experimental ethnography?
§ How has experimental ethnography in different historical periods leveraged media technologies (photography, film, etc.), and what new possibilities are created by digital technologies?
§ How do the digital implications of experimental ethnography align with conventional approaches to cyberinfrastructure development for research communities?
§ How can experimental ethnography be extended (and possibly transformed) through new, digitally enabled modes of collaboration, analysis, and expression?
§ How can experimental ethnography be configured so that its data and findings can be integrated with data and findings from other research fields (including the natural sciences, engineering and health)?
§ What (conceptual, technical, etc.) advantages – and disadvantages – result from conceptualization of experimental ethnography data as “big data”?
§ What digital structure and functions can support – and continually extend -- experimental ethnography’s signature mode of knowledge production?