As Ubuntu matures and stabilizes its routines and governance procedures in the spirit of the still-young and experimental F/OSS movement, it will be well worthwhile to examine and discuss these practices over an extended period of time. I propose an anthropological fieldwork study of the Ubuntu development community for the duration of the Edgy Eft release cycle from early specs to final release.


You may have heard of American anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's work in the Debian communityhttp://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=805287, and it is this sort of studies of how F/OSS projects are governed and maintained that I take as my inspiration. I will seek to use the current social scientific knowledge of this field in my fieldwork. This fieldwork study is a mandatory part of my graduate studies and will be the basis on which I will write my Master's Thesis - which as a final product will be available to the Ubuntu community. But please be fore-warned that an anthropological fieldwork takes time – and there are rarely any easy answers.


With Ubuntu's “Linux for human beings” catchline, and its much-mentioned Bug #1 https://launchpad.net/distros/ubuntu/+bug/1, 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.[cf. such articles as this one: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/Biculturalism.html]

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. 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.

Practical "Implementation"

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:

Online fieldwork

an online fieldwork and participation in the many digital fora and means of information exchange that are 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.

In-person fieldwork

an in-person fieldwork focusing on visits to individual developers where I will spend some time interviewing, observing and participating in 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 plan to go to the developers' 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.

Statistical survey

This survey is already underway, and has its own spec here: UbuntuCensusSurvey.

Further Details


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.


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 http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/coe/aanta-1998.html.

Academic details

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 my project in greater detail.

UbuntuFieldwork (last edited 2008-08-06 16:32:03 by localhost)