Exploring Evidence

This Anthro Life is opening the conversation with EPIC (the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community) on the theme of Evidence. Taking center stage at this year’s Annual EPIC  Conference (in Honolulu, Hawaii from October 9th through the 12th) “Evidence” is a subject of increasing social importance in today’s political climate. What constitutes evidence and when it is found to be credible all have far-reaching consequences. Because of this, practicing anthropologists are exploring concerns of and around evidence through experimentation, new methodologies, and research innovations that speak to contemporary ethnographic practice.

EPIC Goes to Hawaii

As EPIC puts it, their goal in Hawaii is to explore “What kinds of evidence scratch a research itch? Create value for stakeholders? Make a connection with others? We will discuss ways of mobilizing evidence in humanistic exploration, in decision-making, and in everyday life. We’ll also share our strategies for creating value through evidence in an increasingly tricky social environment.” In other words, evidence is central to how we find meaning and make major decisions. When evidence based foundations are questioned, we need to make space to discuss why and for what reasons.

Learn more about EPIC and Evidence

Joining TAL to open the conversation on evidence is Dawn Nafus and Tye Rattenbury, two of the EPIC 2018 Conference organizers. Our discussion with Dawn and Tye focused on the relationship of evidence in their work as ethnographic and data research scientists. Dawn and Tye work at the intersection of computational and ethnographic approaches. Their goals are in part to find more sophisticated ways of asking what data is and what gets to count. In turn, this methodological questioning is directed towards evidence: how is it gathered? Is it diagnostic? And how is ethnographic evidence helpful for interpreting big data?

Finding where “the traces of human life are.” (9:40)

It’s no surprise that Big Data’s vastness makes it difficult to access. But, with time, as Dawn recognizes, one can find the trace elements of the human experience. These traces of human experience which find their way into big data can reveal a lot about social life. For Dawn, finding these traces in big data is no different than an archaeologist searching for the residues of ancient life in a current rain forest. In both cases the traces are there. And following them can lead to big revelations. For Dawn, the revelations come in the form of “alternative stories.’ For Tye, the revelations are most intriguing when the social narrative conflicts with that of the data.

Learn more about the Common Ground between Data Science and Ethnography

According to Tye, “We regularly see data science and ethnography conceptualized as polar ends of a research spectrum. One as a crunching of colossal data sets, the other as a slow simmer of experiential immersion” While both data science and ethnographic practice have a core set of expectations, they have to extend beyond their principal expectations to address data about social life. Data science and ethnography work together to help the researchers understand data, where outliers arise, how to establish provenance, and recognize limitations and biases. This is incredibly important because big data is used to interpret and forecast sociological trends.

About our Guests

Dawn Nafus is a Senior Research Scientist at Intel who specializes in user research and is currently prototyping data analysis tools for non-technical users to understand and analyze their data. You can learn more about Dawn Nafus and her work: here.

Tye Rattenbury has a background in computer science and is a Senior Director of Data Science and Machine Learning at Salesforce. You can learn more about Tye and his initiatives on the Facebook page for Trifacta. 

Be sure to check out these links mentioned during the episode:

Make Sense of Data

AdAge – Learn to Think like a Data Scientist.

For information on the increasing demand for data ethnography.

For information on garbology and related projects.

David Graeber – Bullshit JobsProfessor Helen Verran – Who conducts research on the Anthropology of Numbers and how they are embodied.

Professor Helen Verran – Who conducts research on the Anthropology of Numbers and how they are embodied.

Contact Us

Contact Adam and Ryan at thisanthrolife -at – gmail.com or individually at adam -at- thisanthrolife.com or ryan -at- thisanthrolife.com

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This Anthro Life is an official collaborator with the American Anthropological Association, The Society for Applied Anthropology, SAPIENS, and EPIC. Be sure to check them out for more thought-provoking anthropology content.

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