Interview with PhD fellow Anne Kathrine

Anne Kathrine is studying a PhD in the Technologies in Practice research group. She has a bachelor- and a master degree in Anthropology from the University of Aarhus, where she wrote her master thesis in collaboration with Microsoft. During this time she also attended courses at the IT University. She started her PhD in August 2012 and she has about nine months left until she has to turn it in. Anne Kathrine has shared her insights on studying elections, doing fieldwork for a year and what it means to write a classical PhD monograph.

What is your PhD project about?

I am part of the DemTech (Democratic Technologies) project at the ITU.  DemTech is a strategic research project, which among other things entails collaboration with Danish municipalities and private partners. My PhD project is an ethnographic study of the Danish bureaucracy and how elections are conducted in Denmark. By doing this I try to take a closer look at how democracy actually works in practice. I have conducted fieldwork at an election office in a Danish municipality for a year and am now entering the final phase of analyzing and writing.

Can you tell more about your fieldwork?

I was at the election office from January 2013, when they started planning the upcoming election and until the election in November 2013. I was at the office every day in the spring, and I therefore didn’t spend very much time at the ITU in this period. In the fall I was at the office four days a week, as I had to teach one day a week at the ITU. At the municipality I had a desk and just as any other election employee I was at the office from 9-17. I spent my time following their daily routines, reading documents and asking a lot of questions to their work. In the beginning they found my presence and not least my interest in their down-to-earth practices quite strange, but as time passed they started to get used to it. I guess they realized along the way that I merely wanted to be a part of and learn as much a possible about their work. And as the election was getting closer, they also gradually became busier, which gave me more opportunities for helping them out with their election tasks.

Afterwards what are your thoughts about working together with a municipality?

The election office has played a huge role in my project. With a background in anthropology I knew I wanted to base my PhD project on a longer fieldwork and it was therefore very natural for me to look for a municipal partner for my project. However, due to the close relationship I developed with the election office I have also been very dependent on their participation. Luckily, however, they opened up their office and their work to me to a degree I could not have expected. They have been very patient with my numerous and often tedious questions and allowed me to be part of the entire electoral planning process both within and outside the office.

After finished my fieldwork last year I have been in a process of analysis my data. While doing this I always wonder what the election office would think about certain aspects of my research and I know that some really interesting discussions would emerge from involving them more in the final analysis and write up. But how to involve them more in this process, I still find very challenging.

Has the direction of the project shifted due to your findings/observations?

My project has been very dynamic and emerging. When I started in 2012 I thought my project would be about electronic voting and my first project plan was focused on the development and implementation of e-voting technologies in a Danish Municipality. At that time a law proposal on e-voting was in the making in Denmark and if it was passed first trails would already be conducted at the November 2013 election. The law proposal was, however, rejected in the spring of 2013 – when I had just begun my fieldwork – and I therefore had to rethink some parts of my project. The overall framework or interest in how elections are made in Denmark has, however, remained the same throughout my project Within this very broad frame I have built continuously my project on a combination of insights from my fieldwork and analytical/theoretical interest mainly within the field of science and technology studies.

Can you tell more about your stay in USA?

In spring 2014 I visited the department of anthropology at UC Irvine. I wanted to go to a classic anthropological department to focus on writing ethnography, but also a department that was not unfamiliar with the world of STS. As not many study elections in the way I do, I quickly gave up on finding an university or department that would fit this interest. Instead my focus was on getting anthropological inputs to my writing and framework. Pernille Bjørn, Christopher Gad and Rasmus Eskild Jensen from TiP have all recently visited UC Irvine and had only good things to say about the university, so the decision to spend a semester in California was quite easy.

What was this stay like?

At Irvine I participated in a writing group with other PhD students and discussed my work with some of the professors in the department. At these meetings my chapter drafts were completely torn apart (in a good way) and I got a change to both discuss the nitty-gritty details of my writing and broader arguments of the chapters.  Questions I never even thought of were raised and it forced me to look at my work with new eyes. The discussions I had with professors and students have therefore been completely fundamental to how I frame my project today. So although I often became frustrated with the slow writing progress the stay in Irvine has really been worthwhile.

What should you consider before applying to become a PhD?

First of all, you need to have an interest in your project or the field of research. I think most PhDs at some point get frustrated, stressed or just plain tired of their project and if you do not have a fundamental interest in or enthusiasm for your project it is difficult to get past these tougher phases of your PhD. Secondly on a more practical level you also need to think about your time management skills and in this what kind dissertation you choose to produce – monograph or paper based PhD. Since I am writing a monograph, I do not necessarily have any major deadlines before the final hand in next year. This has given me the freedom to plan my own my project and in particular to include a longer fieldwork. It does, however, also require some serious project management skills to plan and execute such a big project. While thinking about framework, collecting data, reading and writing, it is my experience that time quickly slips between your fingers. I therefore think it is important to consider writing strategies early. I preferred to finish my fieldwork before deciding too much on the structure of my PhD and consequently a monograph seemed like the right choice for me. It is to me a luxury that I can experiment with different writing styles in my chapters, create a coherent story about my field and not have to worry about review process yet. But with the outlook to hand in over 200 pages in under a year I wonder if a paper based dissertation could have helped me structure my time more effectively.

What is it like being a PhD in TiP?

It is great! This is partly due to the size of the group. It is small enough to maintain a sense of closeness and thereby interest in each other’s projects. On the other hand it is so big that there is always someone close at hand, who you can turn to in need of advice and you can be sure that you will always get a very qualified one, which is quite comforting to know.

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