Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination through Documentary Practices

R. S. Geiger and D. Ribes, "Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination through Documentary Practices," 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Kauai, HI, 2011, pp. 1-10, doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2011.455.

The authors discuss the method of "trace ethnography," a combination of participant observation and data logs (e.g., transaction logs, version histories, institutional records, conversation transcripts, source code) for examining user practices and patterns.

Ethnographies of Large-Scale Distributed Systems

Trace ethnography builds off of the methodology and methods of traditional ethnography. They highlight the costliness in terms of resources, time, and research focus when using traditional ethnography for studying distributed phenomena. Further, it can miss information that occurs between locales. They list approaches to distributed ethnography that have contributed to their method of trace ethnography: A document-driven approach to ethnography would be following documents as they travel across the site(s) and transform, "asking how, where, and by whom they are produced, edited, revised or filed." Many locally and globally-distributed organizations use documentation and employ documentary practices. Documents provide individuals in organizations means of knowing the what and who of the organization, but also provide means of action. Beaulieu suggest ethnographers move from co-location to co-presence, which may be established physically but also through other means.

Participant-driven ethnography is now also asking their participants to document their own data, given distances, through diaries, journals, cultural probes, etc. However, ensuring participant compliance is difficult and it lacks the holistic understanding of observation.

Historical and archival ethnography, like document ethnography, focuses on documentation and archiving, both in terms of the documents/archives themselves and the practices of classification.

Multi-sited ethnography more traditionally focuses on traveling from site to site to assemble a cohesive picture.

Strategically-situated ethnography is the opposite, in that instead of trying to be everywhere, the researcher deliberately focuses on one site or time "where a system is being designed, constructed, contested, broken, or repaired."

Trace Ethnography

Focuses on records and logs automatically generated in digital environments, where subtle information is examined in digital traces and changes. They label the activity of understanding traces "inversion." The contrast analysis of these traces with traditional documentary ethnography of rich thick description: online traces are instead "thin." Traces are not documentary in nature but instead "re produced and circulated within a highly-standardized sociotechnical infrastructure of documentary practices."