What Theory Matters

Final Class Abstracts

Laura Devendorf

Bell, Genevieve Mark Blythe, and Phoebe Sengers. 2005.
"Making by making strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies." ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interact Action 12(2): 149-173.

This article argues that because the home is so familiar, it is necessary to make it strange, or defamiliarize it, in order to open its design space. Critical approaches to technology design are of both practical and social importance in the home. Home appliances are loaded with cultural associations such as the gendered division of domestic labor that are easy to overlook. Further, homes are not the same everywhere---even within a country. Peoples' aspirations and desires differ greatly across and between cultures. The target of western domestic technology design is often not the user, but the consumer. Web refrigerators that create shopping lists, garbage cans that let advertisers know what is thrown away, cabinets that monitor their contents and order more when supplies are low are central to current images of the wireless, digital home of the future. Drawing from our research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Asia, we provide three different narratives of defamiliarization. A historical reading of American kitchens provides a lens with which to scrutinize new technologies of domesticity, an ethnographic account of an extended social unit in England problematizes taken-for-granted domestic technologies, and a comparative ethnography of the role of information and communication technologies in the daily lives of urban Asia's middle classes reveals the ways in which new technologies can be captured and domesticated in unexpected ways. In the final section of the article, we build on these moments of defamiliarization to suggest a broad set of challenges and strategies for design in the home.

Kathryn Lanouette

Rigney, J., & Callanan, M. 2011.
"Patterns in Parent-Child Conversations about Animals at a Marine Science Center." Cognitive Development 26(2) 155-171.

Parent–child conversations are a potential source of children's developing understanding of the biological domain. We investigated patterns in parent–child conversations that may inform children about biological domain boundaries. At a marine science center exhibit, we compared parent–child talk about typical sea animals with faces (fish) with talk about atypical sea animals without faces (e.g., sea stars), in particular with respect to anthropomorphic talk and use of animate pronouns. Parents talked about psychological states and used animate pronouns more often for typical than atypical animals; children showed a similar pattern for pronouns but did not differ in their property talk between typical and atypical animals. It was clearly parents who initiated the use of psychological properties and animate pronouns for typical animals. These patterns suggest that parent–child conversations draw boundaries between typical and atypical animals and could support children's inclination to anthropomorphize.

Meena Natarajan

Hayles, Kathleen. 1999.
"Towards Embodied Virtuality." Chapter 1 in How We Became Post-human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Book Description
"In this age of DNA computers and artificial intelligence, information is becoming disembodied even as the "bodies" that once carried it vanish into virtuality. While some marvel at these changes, envisioning consciousness downloaded into a computer or humans "beamed" Star Trek-style, others view them with horror, seeing monsters brooding in the machines. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles separates hype from fact, investigating the fate of embodiment in an information age.

Hayles relates three interwoven stories: how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms that carry it; the cultural and technological construction of the cyborg; and the dismantling of the liberal humanist "subject" in cybernetic discourse, along with the emergence of the "posthuman."

Ranging widely across the history of technology, cultural studies, and literary criticism, Hayles shows what had to be erased, forgotten, and elided to conceive of information as a disembodied entity. Thus she moves from the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics to the 1952 novel Limbo by cybernetics aficionado Bernard Wolfe; from the concept of self-making to Philip K. Dick's literary explorations of hallucination and reality; and from artificial life to postmodern novels exploring the implications of seeing humans as cybernetic systems.

Although becoming posthuman can be nightmarish, Hayles shows how it can also be liberating. From the birth of cybernetics to artificial life, How We Became Posthuman provides an indispensable account of how we arrived in our virtual age, and of where we might go from here."

Matti Nelimarkka

Blank, Grant. 2013.
"Who Creates Content? Stratification and Content Creation on the Internet." Information, Communication & Society 16(4): 590–612.

Until the Internet arrived, content creation and distribution was always an expensive, difficult process. With the Internet it is dramatically easier, faster, and cheaper. Some argue that this will move creation out of the hands of elites and lead to wider participation in the public sphere and to enhanced democracy. This paper makes three contributions to this debate. First, it uses a national random sample of the British population. This is much broader than most prior work. Second, it creates the first evidence-based typology of Internet content creation, identifying three types named ‘skilled content’, ‘social and entertainment content’, and ‘political content’. The implicit assumption of many researchers that only one type of content exists is not accurate. Third, using multivariate logistic regression it shows the characteristics of different populations that produce each type of content. Elites have no impact on creation of skilled content. Social and entertainment content is more likely to be created by non-elites. Only creation of political content is significantly and positively associated with elite status. These results clarify inconsistencies in prior studies. Each type of content is produced by a different kind of creator. Thus, type is more than just content; it also describes differences in who creates the content. The varying relationships between elite status and content creation suggest that it is important for future research to pay close attention to the type of content under study when considering possible democratization of creation.

Ashwin Matthew

Appel, Hannah. 2012.
"Offshore Work: Oil, Modularity, and the How of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea." American Ethnologist 39(4): 692-709.

Oil scholarship often focuses on oil as money, as if the industry were a mere revenue-producing machine—a black box with predictable effects. Drawing on fieldwork in Equatorial Guinea, I take the industry as my object of analysis: infrastructures, labor regimes, forms of expertise and fantasy. Starting from a visit to an offshore rig, I explore the idea of “modularity”—mobile personnel, technologies, and legal structures that enable offshore work in Equatorial Guinea to function “just like” offshore work elsewhere. Anthropologists often characterize as naive the simplifications of modular processes, the evacuation of specificity they entail. Yet for the industry in Equatorial Guinea, this evacuation of specificity was neither mistake nor flaw. Tracing the making of modularity shows how corporations can appear removed from local entanglements and also helps to clarify the “how” of capitalism—the work required to frame heterogeneity and contingency into the profit and power found in many global capitalist projects.

Sarah Van Wart

Nasir, Na'ilah., & Niral Shah. 2011.
"On Defense: African American Males Making Sense of Racialized Narratives in Mathematics Education." Journal of African American Males in Education 2(1).

In this article, we explore the role of racialized narratives (e.g., “Asians are good at math”) in the mathematics learning experiences of African American male students. Drawing on concepts from sociocultural theory and cultural psychology, we conceptualize racialized narratives as dynamic cultural artifacts, which students appropriate and deploy in processes of identification and positioning. Interview data suggest that students had deep knowledge of these narratives, and made sense of them in a way that linked perceptions of Asian Americans as a mathematically gifted “model minority” to perceptions of African American males as intellectually inferior. Despite this positioning, many students spoke of re-purposing racialized narratives in order to assume positions of mathematical competence.

Sebastian Benthall

Crane, Riley, and Didier Sornette. 2008.
"Robust Dynamic Classes Revealed by Measuring the Response Function of a Social System." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 105(41): 15649-15653.

We study the relaxation response of a social system after endogenous and exogenous bursts of activity using the time series of daily views for nearly 5 million videos on YouTube. We find that most activity can be described accurately as a Poisson process. However, we also find hundreds of thousands of examples in which a burst of activity is followed by an ubiquitous power-law relaxation governing the timing of views. We find that these relaxation exponents cluster into three distinct classes and allow for the classification of collective human dynamics. This is consistent with an epidemic model on a social network containing two ingredients: a power-law distribution of waiting times between cause and action and an epidemic cascade of actions becoming the cause of future actions. This model is a conceptual extension of the fluctuation-dissipation theorem to social systems [Ruelle, D (2004) Phys Today 57:48–53] and [Roehner BM, et al., (2004) Int J Mod Phys C 15:809–834], and provides a unique framework for the investigation of timing in complex systems.

Samira Nagem Lima

Orr, Julian E. 1998.
"Images of Work." Science, Technology, & Human Values 23(4): 439-455.

The ways in which work gets done are observably different from the ways in which those in positions of responsibility talk about that work or from the ways in which the organizational and business literature portrays work. The ethnographic study of work focuses on work practice, on what is actually done, and on how those doing the work make sense of their practice, but this is rarely part of either corporate or organizational discourse about work This article tries to show what is missing from this discourse and suggests that the corporate model is based on a common misapprehension of the nature of technique and confounds the ways humans work with the ways machines work.

Elisa Oreglia

Jensen, Robert.
"The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3): 879-924.

When information is limited or costly, agents are unable to engage in optimal arbitrage. Excess price dispersion across markets can arise, and goods may not be allocated efficiently. In this setting, information technologies may improve market performance and increase welfare. Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.

Ishita Ghosh

Maurer, Bill. 2006. "The Anthropology of Money." Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 15-36.

This review surveys anthropological and other social research on money and finance. It emphasizes money’s social roles and meanings as well as its pragmatics in different modalities of exchange and circulation. It reviews scholarly emphasis on modern money’s distinctive qualities of commensuration, abstraction, quantification, and reification. It also addresses recent work that seeks to understand the social, semiotic, and performative dimensions of finance. Although anthropology has contributed finely grained, historicized accounts of the impact of modern money, it too often repeats the same story of the “great transformation” from socially embedded to disembedded and abstracted economic forms. This review speculates about why money’s fictions continue to surprise.

Rajesh Veeraraghavan

Gordon, Grant, Macartan Humphreys, & Jeremy Weinstein. 2013. "Transparency Meets Politics: How Political Communication Reinforces (or Undermines) Political Accountability."

Political transparency is often advocated as a tool for improving the performance of public officials. Transparency gives citizens the information they need to assess the activities of politicians and to police their behavior. This simple story is complicated, however, by the fact that new information is not always credible and is often contested by sitting officials with powerful incentives to dispute it. When does political communication affect how voters respond to factual information about the performance of their representatives? Under what conditions do voters take seriously new information about their politicians, and when are they swayed by others to reject it? We address these questions using an experiment in Uganda in which political endorsements were coupled with a broader accountability intervention that tracked and reported to citizens on the performance of their Members of Parliament. By providing citizens with information on their representative’s performance, as well as endorsements and rejections of this new information by independent third parties, co-partisans, and non-copartisans, we analyze the way in which endorsements shape citizens’ views. In assessing the effect of information from this angle, we reassess previous findings on transparency interventions in light of the scope for political reinterpretation by actors that seek to endorse, reject, and ultimately mediate the impact of these interventions.