Trace Ethnography Workshop

iConference 2015 Trace Ethnography Workshop


Date: March 24th 2015, 8:30-a.m.-5:00 p.m.

Location: iConference venue, Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, Newport Beach, CA




This workshop introduces participants to trace ethnography, building a network of scholars interested in the collection and interpretation of trace data and distributed documentary practices. The intended audience is broad, and participants need not have any existing experience working with trace data from either qualitative or quantitative approaches. The workshop provides an interactive introduction to the background, theories, methods, and applications–present and future–of trace ethnography. Participants with more experience in this area will demonstrate how they apply these techniques in their own research, discussing various issues as they arise. The workshop is intended to help researchers identify documentary traces, plan for their collection and analysis, and further formulate trace ethnography as it is currently conceived. In all, this workshop will support the advancement of boundaries, theories, concepts, and applications in trace ethnography, identifying the diversity of approaches that can be assembled around the idea of ‘trace ethnography’ within the iSchool community.


Given the amount of trace data generated by information systems, academic researchers and industry practitioners increasingly analyze trace data with highly-quantitative approaches. Yet what if qualitative researchers analyze trace data as a primary mode of participation, a core way in which people engage with their social worlds? What if this analysis is not only seen as a detached mode of surveillance or a “secondary method” to supplement fieldwork, but something the ethnographer must actively engage as a mode of participant-observation?

This approach to framing the primary role of trace data in ethnographic practice has gained traction in recent years under the banner of “trace ethnography” (Geiger and Ribes 2011). Trace ethnography has been used to study how wikipedians identify and ban vandals (Geiger and Ribes 2010), how protesters in Tunisia assemble using social media (Wulf et al 2013), the memory practices in scientific laboratories (Shankar 2006; Thomer and Twidale 2014), how patients engage in healthcare practices (Willis and Østerlund 2013), collaboration in open source software projects (Howison and Crowston 2012), and how people delete text messages (Acker, 2014).

Participation Goals

This workshop introduces participants to trace ethnography, building a network of scholars interested in these related approaches to trace data. Participants need not have any existing experience working with trace data from either qualitative or quantitative approaches, but those with more experience will demonstrate how they apply these techniques in their research. This workshop will help researchers identify documentary traces, plan for their collection and analysis, and further formulate trace ethnography as it is currently conceived.

To apply, participants should include a brief statement (100-250 words) about their research interests, specifically on how they are using (or plan to use) trace data in their work. Those who wish to give 5-7 minute presentations demonstrating how they use a particular set of trace data can opt to submit a longer (250-500 word) vignette, but this is not required.

Workshop Overview

In the first half of the day, workshop organizers and selected participants will discuss the history and foundations of trace ethnography, including where it fits into the interdisciplinary configuration of the iSchools. The introductory activity will interactively involve participants asking how they approach digital traces, use them in their research, and examine documentary practices in their own work. Participants will divide into several small groups throughout the morning to enable a broader range of issues relating to trace data, such as: data collection, analytical strategies, research ethics, and disciplinary divides.

In the second half of the workshop, we will demonstrate various “behind the scenes” aspects of trace identification, collection, and interpretation. We propose two breakout sessions based on complementary outcomes for participants. One breakout session will be a technical workshop focused on the practical possibilities and challenges in working with trace data. There will be a broad overview about finding, collecting, and managing digital traces from the web and APIs (like blogs or Twitter). Additionally, this breakout session will discuss where and how scholars can obtain the technical skills to work with trace data. Advanced technological knowledge is not necessarily required. Given the short time this session will focus on providing participants with an understanding of the technical possibilities and pointers to further resources (Wilson 2006, Russell 2013).

A second breakout session will be organized around the themes of analysis and interpretation—that is, how do information scientists examine trace documents in highly mediated socio-technical environments. Instead of definitively determining a single set of canonical approaches, this breakout session seeks to map the multiplicity of strategies and tactics that can be considered part of what it means to do trace ethnography.

In the last hour of the day, participants will come back together to reflect upon the breakout sessions, working towards identifying common and divergent themes. Interested participants will later work on writing a whitepaper to provide a guiding framework for those other scholars in the iSchools (and beyond) who are interested in understanding trade data using trace ethnography.


Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Geiger, R. S., & Ribes, D. (2011). Trace Ethnography: Following coordination through documentary practices. In The 44nd Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Science (HICSS-44) (pp. 1–10). Hawaii, HI: IEEE Computer Society Press. doi:10.1109/HICSS.2011.455

Howison, J., & Crowston, K. (2014). "Collaboration through superposition: How the IT artifact as an object of collaboration affords technical interdependence without organizational interdependence". MIS Quarterly 38(1).

Russell, M. A. (2013). Mining the Social Web: Data Mining Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, GitHub, and More. " O'Reilly Media, Inc.".

Sawyer, S., Kaziunas, E., & Østerlund, C. (2012). Social scientists and cyberinfrastructure: insights from a document perspective. CSCW: Conference on Computer-Supported Coorporative Work, 931– 934. Retrieved from

Shankar, K. (2006). Recordkeeping in the Production of Scientific Knowledge: An Ethnographic Study. Archival Science, 4(3-4), 367–382. doi:10.1007/s10502-005-2600-1

Willis, M. and Øesterlund, C (2013). Towards a method of documentary practices for personal health information management. In Proc iConference 2013.

Wilson, G. (2006). Software carpentry: getting scientists to write better code by making them more productive. Computing in Science & Engineering, 8(6), 66-69.

Wulf, V.; Misaki, K.; Atam, M.; Randall, D.; Rohde, M. 2013. ‘On the Ground’ in Sidi Bouzid: Investigating Social Media Use during the Tunisian Revolution, in Proc. of CSCW 2013.


AmeliaAckerUniversity of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences
Erin LaurelBoehmerUniversity of California, Berkeley, United States of America
GeoffreyBowkerUniversity of California, Irvine
Jed R.BrubakerUniversity of California, Irvine
Sarah A.BuchananThe University of Texas at Austin
MattBurtonUniversity of Pittsburgh
ClaraMarques CaldeiraUC Irvine
Melissa K.ChalmersUniversity of Michigan
Peter ThomasDarchUCLA
MeganFinnUniversity of Washington
HelenaFranckeUniversity of Borås
SusanGassonDrexel University
R.StuartGeigerUC-Berkeley School of Information
AyseGursoyUniversity of Texas at Austin
DonalHeidenbladUniversity of Maryland
JamesHowisonUniversity of Texas at Austin
Mohammad HosseinJarrahiUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States of America
Kerk F.KeeChapman University
LaurenKilgourUniversity of Pittsburgh
ShuLiuUniversity of California, Irvine
ClaraMarques CaldeiraUniversity of California, Irvine
RobertMasonUniversity of Washington
MatthewMcKinleyUCI Libraries
EunyoungMoonUniversity of Texas at Austin
Myrna ElsaMoralesUniversity of Illinois Urbana Champaign
Anthony JamesPelliconeUniversity of Maryland iSchool
Nicholas JohnProferesUniversity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
AislingQuigleyUniversity of Pittsburgh
DavidRibesGeorgetown University
DanShollerUniversity of Texas at Austin
WuShuhengGraduate School of Library & Information Studies, Queens College, City University of New York
SteveSlotaUniversity of California, Irvine
LauraSmartUC Irvine
Laura I.SpearsFlorida State University
ItsuroTajimaOpen University Japan
ShawnWalkerUniversity of Washington
HirokoWilenskyUC Irvine/Boeing Company
ShuhengWuQueens College
ElizabethYakelUniversity of Michigan
YuxiangZhaoNanjing University