What is PECE?

The Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography (PECE) is a Free and Open Source (Drupal-based) digital platform that supports multi-sited, cross-scale ethnographic and historical research. The platform links researchers in new ways, enables new kinds of analyses and data visualization, and activates researchers’ engagement with public problems and diverse audiences. PECE is at the center of a research project that explores how digital infrastructure can be designed to support collaborative hermeneutics. PECE has been built and is governed by an interdisciplinary design group centered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York, USA).

While designed to support the particular needs of experimental ethnography projects, PECE provides a general model for the digital humanities, and particularly the empirical digital humanities (including work in history, anthropology, and other fields that collect and analyze primary data, using hermeneutic techniques). PECE’s “design logics” translate critical theoretical commitments (to perspectival multiplicity, for example) into digital terms.

PECE provides a place to archive and share primary data generated by empirical humanities scholars, facilitates analytic collaboration, and encourages experimentation with diverse modes of publication. The platform encourages humanities scholars to experiment with digitally-mediated, interdisciplinary collaboration, provides opportunities to involve students in humanities research as it progresses, and quickens the public availability of humanities research in an open access form. PECE also enables experimentation with new forms of peer review for humanities research, and functions as a portal to a suite of open source tools useful for humanities research, including tools developed in data science for other scientific communities.

PECE’s design is both theoretically inflected and ethnographically grounded: platform design has been oriented by “design logics” drawn from cultural, social, and language theories, oriented by the constantly evolving needs of The Asthma Files (TAF), a collaborative ethnographic project focused on diverse ways people in settings around the world have experienced and responded to the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis. PECE’s design group has now developed and tested multiple digital functions that enable ethnographic collaboration. In the next phase of the project, we will refine existing functions and develop others, through side-by-side development of diverse ethnographic projects on separate platforms. Numerous instances of PECE (some only at the concept-stage) demonstrate its potential: The Asthma Files illustrates how PECE can support a collaborative research project (with shared questions linking project participants). The Disaster-STS Research Network illustrates how PECE can support an international research network, in this instance connecting researchers around the world studying how disasters of different types, in different regions of the world, are anticipated and managed. We have also conceptualized instances of PECE for individual researchers (at different stages of their careers), and for different kinds of practitioners (people needing to manage chronic illness and associated documentation, encounters with diverse medical specialists, etc.).

Development of PECE helps address the global challenge of creating research infrastructure to support deeply interdisciplinary and international research that addresses complex problems such as global environmental health, and disaster prevention, response and recovery. Such problems have dimensions that require the integration of data and analysis from the humanities, social and natural sciences, and engineering, and thus will require robust digital infrastructure for humanities researchers, designed to be interoperable with research infrastructure developed for other fields. To ensure such interoperability, we have worked closely with data scientists at Rensselaer, and within the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international initiative to enhance capacity to archive, preserve, analyze, and share data within and across research communities.


The PECE project extends from work in cultural anthropology over the last few decades that foregrounds how cultural critique, innovation and change emerge, and the significance of the genre forms through which culture is expressed (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986). This thread of work in cultural anthropology has drawn on literary and language theory to address the significance of genre forms both in everyday enactment of culture in different settings, and in scholarly representations of culture. PECE extends this thread of work into the digital domain through a platform design that reflects critical insight from theories of language, literature, and ethnography, built out organically with original ethnographic material. Thus, while designed to reflect critical theory, PECE is also ethnographically grounded, collaborative in nature, and expressly experimental: the platform is designed to permit change as called for by evolving ethnographic engagements. This entwined development process has been challenging but has proven robust, allowing us to identify needs and explore computational possibilities from within humanities work, learning about and building the kinds of tools that are critical when ethnographers work collaboratively, especially on complex topics involving multiple sites, scales and actors, and many different kinds of “data.”

We work on PECE aware of long-standing effort, often experimental in tenor, to integrate new technologies and media into the work and expression of cultural analysis. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s stunning work with photography – as both a research tool and means of conveying their analysis – comes immediately to mind (Bateson and Mead 1942; Jacknis 1988). The history of filmmaking in the conduct and expression of cultural analysis has also laid important ground, generating impressive methodological debates and innovation, and a body of work that literally provides different angles on matters of interest and concern to cultural analysts. Digital tools and modes of presentation add still other possibilities for getting at and sharing understanding of how “culture” works – in historical, geographic, political, economic and media context, always in need of deeper or alternative ways of understanding. The goal of PECE could be described as kaleidoscopic, enriching cultural analysis through use of an ever-evolving array of techniques and technologies – which, together, multiply perspective, give texture to insight, and animate reflexivity.


The development of PECE has been motivated by an array of concerns that we have come to call “substantive logics.” Continual cultivation of growing list of substantive logics for the PECE Project itself, as well as for other instances of PECE, is a way to keep tuned to the historical and political conditions in which we work, integrating empirical and theoretical understanding.[1]

The contemporary – globalized, high-tech, anthropogenic – world generates complex risks and problems at an unprecedented pace – calling for new levels of operational coordination within and across disciplines, and between researchers and practical decision-makers working at many scales (local to transnational). Researchers thus need to develop modes of work – and supporting infrastructure – that enable deep and complex collaborations of different kinds. PECE aspires to provide such infrastructure.

Given the complexity – scientific, technical, cultural, and so on – of contemporary problems there is a special need to cultivate and sustain different ways of thinking about problems. As feminist theorists have long argued (Keller, Turkle), epistemological pluralism offers the best chance of understanding and figuring out ways to respond to complex problems. Care thus must be taken to keep collaborative practices from being over-determined; collaboration needs to produce and steward what the PECE project has termed “kaleidoscopic logic.”

Preserving and extending the special perspectives of humanities researchers on contemporary problems poses particular challenges, partly because of technocratic habits of thinking in many practical decision-making domains. It is thus important to work to extend the practical relevance of humanities knowledge experimentally, drawing on deep (theoretical) insight into the ways meaning, knowledge, and culture “work.” Experimentation (and testing) is called for in the production, expression, and circulation of humanities knowledge, all of which are supported by PECE.

Given the complexity of problems many empirical humanities researchers are concerned with as well as escalating constraints on research funding, humanities researchers need to develop infrastructure and governance for sharing research data. They also need to better “expose” (in the language of computer sciences) the many stages of humanities knowledge production — so that there are possibilities for collaboration at all stages, and associated work can be attributed (thus crediting individual contributions in collaborative projects). Work at faultlines between different scales, cultures, and disciplinary communities reliably produces rupture and new lines of work (Traweek), partly because such interaction inevitably troubles established categories and modes of sense making, often producing double-binds (Bateson). The collaborative work supported by PECE thus promises to be vitalizing for the humanities writ large, and particularly the empirical humanities.

Post-structural studies and theories of language have demonstrated how stabilized meaning is always partial, forced, and marginalizing (and thus often violent) (Derrida, Spivak, de Lauretis) – pointing to a need and possibility for productively unstable knowledge infrastructure and practice (Derrida, Spivak, de Lauretis). This is particularly the case in contexts of dramatic change, with enduring and emergent forms of injustice; in such contexts, established paradigms are insufficient for dealing with matters at hand. Poststructural insight thus has particularly relevance today, suggesting the way humanities insight can undergird contemporary efforts to support interdisciplinarity and innovation. PECE is designed to demonstrate this.

Given the density of information flows today, laced with conflicts of interpretation and interests, practitioners in many domains need highly developed hermeneutic sensibilities, and a high capacity for collaboration – not only in carrying out concrete tasks, but also for thinking through what tasks should be carried out, how they should be prioritized, and how problem identification both directs practical work, and quickly makes alternative pathways invisible. PECE provides a space to experiment with and examine different forms of collaboration and thus can result in research findings with clear relevance to capacity building efforts in practitioner communities. As described below, we’ve also conceptualized an instance of PECE designed to serve practitioners themselves – patients dealing with chronic illnesses, for example, or community groups dealing with concerns about toxic chemical contamination.

Aims and Questions

PECE is at the center of a research effort to understand how digital infrastructure can be designed to support and sustain further development of the empirical humanities. Recognition of diversity within the humanities and even the empirical humanities is foundational to the project. The specific focus of the PECE project is on the challenges associated with poststructural, postcolonial and feminist theories of language, knowledge and politics. The PECE project works to delineate the work flows and practices that reflect scholarship in this vein, and the ways digital infrastructure can support them. The PECE project also aspires to develop collaborative capacity among scholars, mobilizing poststructural understanding of the dynamics through which communication and knowledge are engendered.

The research questions that orient the PECE project include the following:

  • What work flows, data types and analytic modes characterize experimental ethnography?
  • What theories and assumptions about language, meaning, knowledge and sociality undergird experimental ethnography?
  • What are the digital implications of the work flows, analytic modes and assumptions of experimental ethnography?
  • How has experimental ethnography in different historical periods leveraged media technologies (photography, film, etc.), and what new possibilities are created by digital technologies?
  • How do the digital implications of experimental ethnography align with conventional approaches to cyberinfrastructure development for research communities?
  • How can experimental ethnography be extended (and possibly transformed) through new, digitally enabled modes of collaboration, analysis, and expression?
  • How can experimental ethnography be configured so that its data and findings can be integrated with data and findings from other research fields (including the natural sciences, engineering and health)?
  • What (conceptual, technical, etc.) advantages – and disadvantages – result from conceptualization of experimental ethnography data as “big data”?
  • What digital structure and functions can support – and continually extend – experimental ethnography’s signature mode of knowledge production?