Anthropological fieldwork in the Ubuntu development community

Andreas Lloyd lloydinho at
Thu Apr 20 16:27:27 BST 2006

Hello all Ubunteros,

My name is Andreas Lloyd and I am a graduate student at the department
of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Having used
and enjoyed Ubuntu since november 2004, I have become very interested in
the social workings of Free Software projects, and I wanted to combine
my interest in F/OSS projects with my graduate studies. Therefore I
propose to start an anthropological fieldwork study of the Ubuntu
development community.

As I'm not much of a computer expert myself, I've been considering
various other ways to contribute to the Ubuntu community. I've spent
some time contributing to the Ubuntu documentation and the Danish
translations, but I believe that it would be better for me to help
improve the project by examining it from an anthropological perspective.
You may have heard of American anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's work
in the Debian community[1], and it is this sort of studies of how F/OSS
projects are governed and maintained that I take as my inspiration.

With Ubuntu's “Linux for human beings” catchline, and its much-mentioned
Bug #1 [2], the project seems to have a clear goal of developing a F/OSS
operating system for a wider user base – especially in the Third World.
With this goal in mind, I find it central to examine the way that Ubuntu
developers percieve, use and talk of computers, as it is my hypothesis
that the shared cultural and social values and ideas of the developers
are shaping the way the average user perceives and uses the computer.
Take, for instance, the fact that Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux
whose basic shape and form is inspired by Unix – an operating system
whose cultural heritage originates from an age when there were few
computers and no end users - and continues to shape the way both users
and developers perceive and use the computer.[3]

I am especially interested in how and to what degree social conceptions
and jargon concerning computing technology govern the way we use it, and
I hope that this fieldwork will help uncover new perspectives on how
software developers encode the computer and the software they write with
their own social and cultural values and ideas.

One of my key interests here is the interplay between developers and
users in the community - especially with regards to the development and
discussion on usability issues such as User Interface Design,
Internationalization, Localization and Accessibility which seem to
rarely receive much attention in F/OSS projects. By studying the way the
developers work together and discuss these issues, I hope to pinpoint
some of the problems that can arise between users and developers of Free
Software. And furthermore, I hope that my fieldwork will help create
more focus on a field of study which has received very little social
scientific research attention so far.

A fieldwork study such a this one is a mandatory part of my graduate
studies and will be the basis on which I will write my Master's Thesis.
Initially, it was my plan to fit my fieldwork along a complete Ubuntu
development cycle as the Ubuntu 6 month release cycle matches the
average length of such a fieldwork quite well. I had planned to follow
the now-codenamed Edgy Eft release cycle running from April to October
2006. But with the postponed release of Dapper Drake and the related
shortening of the Edgy Eft release cycle, I am now ready to begin my
fieldwork ahead of the new schedule. But in order to have the full 6
months in the field, I would like to begin the fieldwork soon after the
date of Dapper's originally planned release – which is today!

This may seem like short notice, but in an online context it is rarely
any good announcing a project until you're ready to follow through.
Traditionally, anthropological fieldwork involves travelling to some
remote part of the world, and spending a long period of time immersed in
the local culture, learning their ways by taking part in their everyday
life. But since the Ubuntu project is not centralized in any single
location and has volunteers and developers spread all over the globe
(though primarily Europe and North America), I will seek to do both

1. an online fieldwork and participation in the many digital fora and
means of information exchange that used by the Ubuntu community:
discussing on IRC channels and the mailing-lists, helping with bug
triage in Launchpad, reading blogs and writing documentation and
suggestions in the Wiki.

2. an in-person fieldwork focusing on visits to individual developers
where I will spend some time interviewing, observing and participating
their daily life and work routines around the computer in order to
examine how the development work takes place first-hand. Along with
this, I will go to the developer's summits – such as the one announced
to take place in June – and the few “sprints” in order to meet the
developers and study how they meet each other to create and develop the
personal and social ties which are the basis of the online collaboration.

This form of “multi-sited” fieldwork coordinated through the Internet
has been developed by anthropologists in the last ten years, as it
reflects the fragmented and globalized world which the discipline has as
its object of study. I have received some grant funds to help finance
these in-person field trips, so there it will not become any economical
burden for the Ubuntu project.

Furthermore, as is usual practice with anthropological fieldwork data,
all the material that I gather during the course of the fieldwork will
be anonymized – unless the interviewed informants wish otherwise [4].
Also, I will make sure to present all of my findings to you, but please
be fore-warned that an anthropological fieldwork takes time – and there
are rarely any easy answers.

You are all most welcome to contact me (contact info below) – both those
of you who may have questions regarding the fieldwork, or those who
already now know that they do not want to take part.

If you are interested to know more about the theoretical basis for the
fieldwork, I can send you the 10-page fieldwork proposal upon which the
department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen has approved
my fieldwork. It is rather full of anthropological jargon, but does
explain the my project in greater detail.

If you are interested in knowing more about me and my academic
background, feel free to read my weblog at or my Ubuntu wiki page at I will also be participating in
the Bug Day tomorrow, and will be online in the Ubuntu IRC channels
under the name “lloydinho” - feel free to ask me questions there as well.

Best regards,

Andreas Lloyd

email: lloydinho at
IRC: lloydinho on network


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