Research Relations: An Ethnography of Qualitative Data Sharing in Nairobi

Last week, one day after returning from a whirlwind trip to the 2018 Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Sydney, I submitted the outputs that have been the bane of my existence for the last one year. That might be a bit melodramatic but as per the UCI Anthro research timeline, the third year of the PhD is dedicated to the production of the three orals documents. I’ll post links with full access to the three blog posts once they have been reviewed and commented on by the committee. I’ll also work on distilling some of my learnings from the process in a separate post (and as preparation for a workshop on the same that I’m planning to facilitate for grad students within my department next month) but for the time being, phew! What a relief! Of course there’s always more to do but one of the benefits of a hard deadline is the sense of relief after you’ve met it!

I’ve now got more time to dedicate towards updating this blog, reconnecting with those in Nairobi that I am very excited to be working with more closely again from next year and spending time with family. As one step towards the first goal, here’s a brief blurb about the latest iteration of my project! As always, comments and feedback are so appreciated!

Research Relations: An Ethnography of Qualitative Data Sharing in Nairobi

Keywords: qualitative research data, education, relational ethics, collaboration

This project examines how qualitative research data is produced, shared, and contested by diverse research groups in Nairobi, Kenya. Despite decades of research aiming to solve Africa’s problems and billions of dollars in funding, many of those who are studied see little change in their everyday lives. Particular communities such as groups in Kibera, an infamous slum in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, demonstrate survey fatigue, falsified responses, and even feelings of being exploited by global processes of scientific knowledge production. “Open Data” – datasets made available for public use and reuse — has gained increasing support from governments and international policy makers, and proponents argue that Open Data could enable greater development outcomes from scientific research. Through a comparative study of three Nairobi-based research organizations working in and on technology and development, I examine negotiations over privacy, quality, ownership, and ethical responsibility enacted by the processes of opening up qualitative research data. This research will analyze changing ideas about data sharing amongst social scientists in Africa, responding both to increasing concern that scientific knowledge is not benefiting the communities studied and to growing, global interest in the possible benefits of “open data.”

I propose to work with three Nairobi sites: A, B, C [will keep these anonymous for now until I confirm their participation]. These leading centers facilitate collection, storage and management of significant qualitative research data on Kenyan technology entrepreneurship and development. The bulk of my fieldwork data will be collected by facilitating discussions within and between the researcher organizations. I propose to support the development of local organizational archives hosted on an open source, virtual research environment in order to spur discussions about data sharing. My own research data, collected through this project, will also be stored and shared on this platform. I have developed this approach to data in part to move away from narratives of deficit that are heavily part of existing discourses about Africa. I am keen to work together with research groups to shake out issues that emerge when the existence of “African” data and its generation and sharing are taken as a given. Through participant observation, interviews, focus group discussions, a survey and archival work, I would like to collaborate with research groups to understand the infrastructures, cultures, and practices through which qualitative technology development research data is produced and maintained in Nairobi.

This project advances understandings of data practices and infrastructures within the fields of anthropology and science and technology studies (STS) by considering how the experiences of those who are heavily studied could inform research design, fieldwork and data sharing practices. This project also contributes to a growing body of work on “Open Science” and “Open Data” from an African context, looking at how growing global shifts toward opening up data and scientific practices are saturated with multiple and sometimes competing notions about what constitutes ethical science (Biruk 2018; Bezuidenhout 2017). In particular, I am interested in understanding how opening up datasets for the purposes of enacting social good and justice operates, uneasily, with the potential risks of commercial exploitation, decontextualization, appropriation, and use in state surveillance.

This study will contribute:

  • a socio-technical infrastructure for the sharing of qualitative data produced by research organizations working in and on Nairobi. Not only will this enable the research work to be more accessible to online publics, this infrastructure can also enable greater collaborative analysis of diverse qualitative datasets;
  • empirical evidence to help inform scholars working on the sharing of qualitative data sharing within their universities and scholarly presses;
  • best practices for qualitative research data sharing which are important for policy making regarding the role of Open Science in global South contexts;
  • suggestions to research institutions and funders on how to better ensure those studied play an important role in shaping African research agendas;
  • publicly disseminated findings via research interlocutors’ blogs to spur public debate about the benefits and risks of open research data; and lastly,
  • to my training, which will result in a dissertation and open access publication of several journal articles.

ResearchGate and The Alternatives to Paywalls that Really Aren’t Alternatives

By: Angela Okune

I am writing this blog post to address an issue that I believe most of my colleagues are unaware of. Many academic colleagues–well-intentioned and desiring to do the right thing—(myself included!) have had an and/or ResearchGate accounts in an attempt to make scholarly work more accessible to those outside of the academy (who do not have subscriptions to paywall journals). Often if you cannot find free access to a particular book or journal article, a quick Google search will reveal that the person has uploaded a version to their or ResearchGate page where you can then download it. Problem solved, right? Take that you, big bad publisher! Or not.

I think few of my colleagues realize that both ResearchGate and are NOT public goods or knowledge commons. Scroll down the About page of and you will quickly find that they have raised over 17 million USD from investors. This is a for-profit tech start-up venture, folks! They are making money off of your decision to upload your paper to be a “public good” for people to access. It might be free for someone to now access the paper or book, but nothing is free. The commercial entity is not selling your output, they are selling YOU (as data)!  (Several colleagues are working on analysis of the growing platform capitalism of academic infrastructures, check out Posada and Chen; Chan for more on this).

ResearchGate is not a more innocent option. They have raised $52.6 million from several investors including Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, and Four Rivers Group. Other participants in the round included Ashton Kutcher (?!?), Groupe Arnault, Xavier Niel, Bill Gates, Tenaya Capital, Benchmark, and Founders Fund. So, before you are so quick to upload your paper to either of these platforms, think about uploading them to your library repository or another public institution instead. For example, did you know the UC Libraries has a free and open access e-repository system?

I recently closed my accounts for both services on principle. But now, I no longer have access to any of the “open access” papers that colleagues have uploaded there. (See screenshots below – one from Routledge and one from ResearchGate). Are we trying to get around one system but just building up another one based on the same values (profit extraction and maximization)?

Now is the time to get involved in discussions about how we might design and build sustainable, more equitable scholarly infrastructures instead of outsourcing them to tech start-ups and for-profit ventures.



Genre: Grant writing

I’ve been deep in grant writing for the past two weeks (a big anthropological fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation was due today) so while I have been furiously reading, it’s of a different sort of reading than it would/will be for development of my orals documents. Nonetheless, while part of me detests the genre of grant writing for its wholeness and attempt to lay out exactly what the researcher will do (hmmm, interesting to think about the genre as a particular mode of “futurism” where you are basically writing yourself into the future field…; how does that affect what you actually think of/see in the “field”?), I have found it a useful exercise in helping me to simply grasp a better sense of the boundaries/borders of literatures within which I am playing (for the time being). I am copy-pasting below the latest version of my grant application in response to the questions: “How does your research build on existing scholarship in anthropology and closely related disciplines? Give specific examples of this scholarship and its findings.” You can see that I ended up drawing largely on anthropology of development, critical humanitarianism, and STS (social study of knowledge). I had an entire section on feminist scholarship around embodied knowledge (also copy-pasted below for anyone interested – please cite if you use any of this for something…), but given space constraints, upon advice of my advisor, she suggested that my discussion of “embodied knowledge” was more my underlying premise than an argument I was advancing. I’m not entirely convinced that I am solely using the concept as a core premise… in fact, I think I am actually questioning the potentially problematic uptake of the concept by those who take the body as a natural category.  As I’ve noted earlier, something that I am observing is how the feminist concept of “embodied knowledge” is being taken up in conjunction with postcolonial concepts of decolonizing knowledge to call for claims to knowing based on different aspects of solidarity (shared historical oppression based on social category of race, etc.) but since these are based on, as we know, very unstable social categories, how do concepts of the body intersect with claims for knowledge. As I am writing this, I am thinking I need to read more on mutuality and intersectionality and find out if there is more out there on explicitly thinking through these concepts in light of epistemological/ontological frameworks.  I am still muddling through this all and obviously can’t fully articulate it yet, but this is why I could not include it in my grant proposal (because the grant proposal genre is not where you figure things out that you don’t know how to do yet!). I am appreciating how this class is allowing me to muddle through it though… any suggestions for more readings on this would be appreciated!


My initial grant material on embodied knowledge:

“My work traces the mutual imbrication between the body and knowledge. While the performance of “disembodied researcher” in some disciplines still continues to function as a set of naturalized norms that privilege a masculine mode of being, feminist theory has long established that bodies are both discursively and materially shaped, configured, and constructed according to social, historical, and geographically specific times and spaces (Beauvoir 1949; Butler 1990; Haraway 1988). In more contemporary feminist work, such socio-material approaches have been applied to study laboratory studies (Fujimura 2006, 1996; Rapp 1999). Such studies have found that scientists’ socio-historically located normative assumptions influence experimental designs and analytic frames, often setting the stage for reproducing their own taken-for-granted categories (Fujimura 2006). Yet, even under such conditions, the material world can produce novel data leading to new insights. Applying such a socio-material approach towards the practice of social sciences in “the field” will broaden my understanding of not only discursive and performative aspects of the sociality of development research, but also of the materiality of society writ large (Latour 2005). Particularly important for my research is Barad’s (2007) work which offers “agential realism” as both an epistemological and ontological theory that emphasizes that practices of knowing are in themselves specific material engagements that reconfigure the world. My work puts this feminist literature into sustained conversation with critical approaches to digital development research that have looked at the rise of digital technology in development through the lens of moral claims of cooperation (Rottenburg 2009) and “for good” (Pal 2017), idioms for national politics (Poggiali 2017), and postcolonial computing (Irani et al. 2010). My project will contribute to this growing body of critical scholarship with an empirically grounded study of not only ideological discourse of digital development, but also the genuine performative efficacy of ideology (Mazzarella 2010). Such work will broaden the possibilities for forms of claim-making about expertise, technological and otherwise, and enable the capture of a range of other desires, including economic mobility and political recognition (Poggiali 2016) to understand how researchers and those they work with use and also subvert hegemonic discourse (Cooper and Stoler 1997).”


Eventual Q2 for my Wenner-Gren application (2017)[Please cite if you use this material in any way, thank you!]

“My research draws upon development anthropology, science and technology studies and critical humanitarianism in postcolonial Africa to contribute to scholarship on ethnographic research ethics, relevance and relationships “in the field”.

Since its inception, the discipline of Anthropology has had a complicated relationship with the question of for whom and for what purposes anthropological knowledge is in service. As both a beneficiary and critic of the project of colonialism (Stocking 1991; Malinowski 1961), anthropology continues to be enmeshed in this paradox—at once inextricably wedded to Western historical and epistemological dominance and to a radical principle of critique of the same. This paradox has been long discussed, first as part of debates about “decolonizing anthropology” (Harrison 1991) and more recently under “engaged anthropology” (Sillitoe 2015). It is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the field of development where the debate over a theory of practice versus a practice of theory rages on (Escobar 1997; Mosse 2013); some critical scholars even suggest researchers may be perpetuating the colonial project through exploitation of indigenous knowledge (Janes and Corbett 2009; Farmer 1999), fueled by the growth of academic capitalism and demand for new data, insights, and expanding knowledge frontiers (Cantwell and Kauppinen 2014). The unease set up by this tension—working for the alleviation of poverty and inequality, to the benefit of one’s career—is particularly acute around three anthropological themes:

RELATIONSHIPS: Ethnographic relationships between individual researchers and interlocutors have highlighted potentials for collaboration (Marcus and Mascarenhas 2005), solidarity (Mohanty 2003), betrayal (Visweswaran 1994), deception (Bleek 1987), and intimacy (Blackwood 1995). Ethnographies of the social life of development workers have focused on tracing aspects of development knowledge to their sociality, especially looking at motivations and moral meaning making (Malkki 2015; Lewis et al. 2008), hyper-mobility (Redfield 2012), and racialized relations with locals (Benton 2016). Especially relevant for my project is recent work looking at post-colonial power dynamics of overseas clinical trials and the politics of international collaboration between African research scientists and Western partners (Farmer 2002; Fairhead et al. 2006) which may include lack of access to data (Crane 2013), little opportunity for recognition through co-authorship on research publications, and institutional inequalities (Peterson and Folayan 2017).

RELEVANCE: While digital development social scientists derive much of their authority from the power of understanding the “end-user” through ethnographic approaches, critiques of explicitly bottom-up participatory approaches have highlighted how these approaches continue to be structured by, rather than changing, relations of power (Cooke and Kothari 2001; Hickey and Mohan 2004). Feminist ethnographers have also raised concerns about “whether the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation” (Stacey 1988, 22), suggesting that new relational forms are still needed. Given the unique relationship of anthropological theory to “the field”—with concepts and theories built from those of its subjects and found partners in fieldwork—contemporary anthropology has the unique opportunity and challenge to explore the possibilities for such forms in our construction of “the field of fieldwork” (Marcus 2015). Building on experimental approaches to reformulate the research encounter advanced over the last few decades by anthropologists (Marcus 1997, 2006; Holmes and Marcus 2008), feminist ethnographers (Lather 2001; Visweswaran 1994), and indigenous studies (Cervone 2015; Sillitoe 2015; Smith 1999), this project will engage head-on with these long-standing debates and interventions around the ethnographic approach and its relationship to fieldwork and subjects.

RESEARCH ETHICS: In spite of particular commitments to moral responsibility and well-aware of critiques of the aid industry (De Waal 1997; Ferguson 1990), anthropologists working in critical humanitarianism are nonetheless also often implicated in similar social and material conditions as overseas aid workers (Mosse 2011, 2013). This has raised questions about the moral responsibility for developmental outcomes of ethnographic engagement as well as tensions over what is expected of the anthropologist both materially and socially. While institutional practices such as the institutional review board (IRB) have been designed to delineate clear and universal ethical boundaries for research, work by medical anthropologists across Africa has revealed the complexity of putting such processes into practice when working with context-specific vulnerable populations (Abadie 2010; Geissler 2011; Brada 2016). Additional frameworks are needed for rethinking research ethics beyond simply project-based parameters that take into consideration local histories and political economies in which projects (and ethics) are situated (Biruk 2017).

Finally, my work is deeply informed by the analytics and insights of STS. The social study of knowledge has particularly influenced me with its emphasis on the inter-subjectivity of observation, interpretation, and consensus (Bloor 1991; Barnes and Bloor 1996), and documented cultural specificities of supposedly universal sciences captured through attention to “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina 1999). In my research, these insights will contribute to understanding the everyday negotiations enacted in translation, performance, and material exchanges between digital development researchers and those they study. I am committed to bringing an analytical lens informed by STS literature into a postcolonial African setting and asking what these contexts reveal about the received literature.

Building on these studies, my work insists that holding development researchers and their research participants in the same analytical frame can broaden the scope of knowledge work to also understand informants’ self-conscious engagement in research. Such a symmetrical approach of studying the meaning making and material realities of “doing research” for both groups in tandem can do more than critique dominant analytic dichotomies; it can broaden and denaturalize our inherited ways of knowing and talking about others and ourselves (Nader 1972) through attention to the rhythms, pragmatics, and horizons of the array of knowledge production actors in Africa.”

Where My Head’s At: Research Update

Part of my rationale for starting this blog was–in addition to being a space for reflection–also as an additional accountability tool. As I mentioned in passing in my first blog post, I have decided to set up a “community advisory committee” in addition to the required academic advisory committee.

I see this as an important way to hopefully ground my project more meaningfully as part of ongoing conversations based in and relevant to communities in Nairobi (rather than in/for academic conversations at the University of California – Irvine). I feel strongly about this because I am not doing my PhD project solely for the service of advancing theoretical knowledge about Africa. Rather, I’m keen to have it be grounded in topics/areas of research of interest to people living/working in “Africa” (using scare quotes here because I always feel squeamish about referencing the continent as if it is/were a singular whole — more on this in future posts!).

I came to my project because of what I experienced first-hand myself being the subject of repetitive research questions time and time again in my job as research manager at the iHub in Nairobi. Why weren’t those who came to interview me more prepared? Despite having done a “literature review,” why had none of them ever read any of our papers and work? (Answer: because a lot of it was “grey literature” that was not in the top-most prestigious peer-reviewed journals and also particular ideas about who is doing “expert knowledge”?). Why–despite my explicit request–did not a single one of them ever send me follow-up material from our talk or even at the very least a transcript of the conversation (which I wanted to use to forward to future research requests!)? I must emphasize (and I’m sure I will continue to say this): my project doesn’t seek to fling blame or critique, but rather to understand more broadly how these behaviors may be better understood through the structures of contemporary (global) knowledge production. More interesting to me is how to move beyond critique and towards potentially expansive and imaginative work.

In line with such experimentation, I am attempting to set up a local advisory structure analogous to the academic advisory committee (which for me is based at my academic institution of University of California – Irvine). I’m calling this a “community advisory committee” for now, but haven’t figured out the details of the engagement yet. I’m drawing insight from Montoya and Kent (2011) and trying to figure it out as I go. (Any suggestions/experiences/ideas always much welcome!)

I’m envisioning an annual or twice/year face-to-face meeting with the 2 – 4 members of the committee to whom I will send short updates (to be also cross-posted on this blog!). I also hope to engage with the different members on one-on-one basis as needed / when relevant. Thus far I’ve asked and received acceptances from two members of the CAC. As with the announcement of the chair for my orals last week, I’m going to refrain from giving out identifying details yet until I’ve spoken with them about posting the information publically.

I will have a section in this blog for these regular updates for now and invite my CAC members (and also the wider public) to review and offer any suggestions/feedback/thoughts you may have!


Milestone – Chair of Orals Committee Accepted!

A key part of the PhD journey is figuring out who you want to walk along with you to guide and support your growth as a thinker, especially when times get tough, (but also people who will question you when you think everything is going fine!). In other words, choosing your advisors is a key decision because they should be your biggest critics and also hopefully your best cheerleaders.

My PhD program is a bit different as compared to other Anthropology programs and doctoral programs more generally in that we do not choose who we will work with when we come in. We might have a general inclination about who we would want to work with, but just as the department assumes that our projects will change over the first two years of the program, they also assume that those we will work with may change as well.

But once you hit your 3rd year (cue next week, when I officially start the third year of my PhD program… eeek! where has the time gone?!), suddenly everyone is like… so… who’s on your committee?

Luckily, today I finally decided to make the plunge (after so many months of anxiety about making sure I chose the right advisor – my enneagram 7 type coming in for sure…) and today I asked a faculty member to be the chair of my orals committee… and she said yes! Should I have brought a ring and/or handcuffs?? hehe… Not sure yet… but having that sorted out definitely feels like a load off my shoulders. I’m so happy to have a key role filled by someone I highly respect and look up to and I will keep you posted on how the relationship moves forward.

One thing that I decided last year (Fall 2016) was that I would set up a Community Advisory Board to whom I will also be holding myself accountable to much like I do with my Academic Advisory Board. I plan to write more about this soon because I hope that this will ground my project with key project stakeholders outside of the academy.