Chronicling the vernacular and the middlebrow in post-digital culture.


Ghost Kitchen Methodology and mediatized research methods

April 8, 2021
Frederik Lesage
Imaginative methods

Ghost Kitchen Methodology: Interdisciplinarityand the mediatization of research cultures

(this is a paper presented for SFU's Individualized Interdisciplinary Studies (INS) Interdisciplinary Methodologies Workshop on November 2019)

As someone who rarely ever orders in, I was introduced to ghost kitchens by a friend of mine only a few months ago. He explained that these kitchens are part of a new business model for the burgeoning food delivery start-up industry where companies like Foodora or Skip the Dishes are competing for consumer dollars. The idea is that, as more people order food online, there is less of a need for a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Ghost kitchens hold the promise of reducing costs by allowing food preparation for multiple online ‘restaurants’ under one roof.

The idea of ghost kitchens instantly raised my suspicion. Not only did it smack of the kind of naked profit-seeking that drives so many of these start-up ventures but it also struck me as an idea that was doomed to fail because of its slapdash treatment of the culture of food. After all, my entire professional career has been founded on the notion that all practices, from eating to reading, cooking to writing and everything in between, are necessarily embedded within, and generative of, complex webs of significance – in other words practices make culture.

My friend took great pleasure needling me about my reservations with a provocation: “If a kitchen can produce something that tastes like great French cuisine, he asked, what does it matter if this same kitchen also prepares good Chinese dim sum and Mexican burritos? Who but the most uptight purist would think that each of these types of food have to be created under different roofs to remain authentic?”

My worry with ghost kitchens isn’t so much with the authenticity of the food or with the clear disconnect between how the food is represented online versus how the sausage is—quite literally—made. In fact, I can see how the disconnect afforded by ghost kitchens might be liberating for people trying to experiment with new techniques in food preparation. What concerns me is who will control this process of experimentation and define the goals it will be used to achieve, goals that can best be summed up in the following quote:

“Kitchens like [this] allow entrepreneurs to save on the staff and real estate they would need to operate a full-fledged restaurant, while giving them a chance to experiment with new food or dining concepts that can easily be abandoned with little cost if they aren’t a success.” [Deschamp, Globe and Mail, 19 July 2018]

While experimenting with combinations of food making practices under one roof is laudable, there is no doubt that the main objectives of ghost kitchens at the moment are cutting costs and maximizing profit; hardly the future of food culture anyone should be hoping for.

How does this anecdote relate to the topic at hand? Let me start my answer by stating that this should be an exciting time for interdisciplinary research. There seems to be an increasing level of awareness among various disciplines of what it is and of its value. I would argue, however, that a crucial challenge that remains unaddressed for this approach to research lies within how methodological practices are represented and shared. Nowhere does the impenetrability of disciplinary boundaries and the accompanying prejudices that stem from such impenetrability become more evident than when one asks a researcher what constitutes the best way to learn how to do research in their field.

I have found that the answer is often presented in one of two ways:


1) Good research practices develop tacitly through apprenticeships with experts who impart the knowledge from their research discipline through practice, or;

2) Good research practices involve acquiring and mastering a repository of explicitly describable research techniques that are recognized by a relevant research discipline.

You might think that my own disciplinary pedigree in media ethnography means my preference is for the former over the latter. In fact, I would argue that much of the social sciences and the humanities, particularly those working in what is still called ‘qualitative methods’, do show such a preference. The two answers set up a false dichotomy, however, between a conception of knowledge as either tacit or explicit — as though one were forced to choose among the two. My fellow researchers' preferences for the former, I suspect, point to a widespread type of methodological iconoclasm – a deep-seated suspicion of any kind of mediatization of methodology beyond dense and esoteric monographs about epistemology.

The reason I think this is a concern — particularly for interdisciplinary research — is because our aversion towards combining the two approaches has created an opening for what I will refer to today as ghost kitchen methodology.

Sage Methods is what I consider a good example of this kind of model for methodology. Research methods have always been a big source of revenue for academic publishers and recently these same companies, among others, have turned to developing much more ambitious online platforms that configure methodology (among other academic topics) as a dynamic and searchable archive. As stated on the Sage Methods home page, this platform represents an exhaustive repository of “resources to answer your research methods and statistics questions”.

This model can be of tremendous use to interdisciplinary researchers who need to be able to explore and experiment across various disciplines. Such online platforms offer new researchers the opportunity to learn about various research disciplines in exciting new ways by giving them access to a seemingly exhaustive database of resources from a wide range of disciplines, all under one “digital” roof. From the perspective of established researchers, the platform unburdens them from the tedious work of finding and describing a constantly changing repertoire of methodological techniques – especially the ones that aren’t relevant to their own practice— by outsourcing the work to a third party.

This can be useful but also incredibly dangerous.

As with any ghost kitchen, my concern with this type of platform isn’t so much with the content that comes out of it. In fact, the content can be quite good. Sage Methods, for example, not only gives its clients access to nearly limitless lists of readings but also to original case studies, datasets, and video lectures from some of the top researchers in their disciplines.

My concern also isn’t, as I have already made clear, with the act of representing methodology itself. Where my concern starts is with who is doing the representation and for what purposes. Here we have a private, for-profit company that designs and maintains control over a kind of methodological walled garden.

For interdisciplinary researchers, this platform and others like it, offer up a “toolkit menu” with which they can order-up various resources, configured by Sage’s own proprietary frameworks, to create their very own entrée of methods according to their individual needs. This kind of learning, for me, fosters an impoverished interdisciplinary research culture because the practice of experimenting with methodology is configured as an individualized activity whose scope and depth are, for the most part, defined by a for-profit platform that collects and stores information about research methods.

A lively and sustainable interdisciplinary research culture can and should be able to provide the means to address these concerns. I don’t have time to give examples today but rather than reinforce played-out dichotomies between tacit and explicit knowledge or online and offline practices, interdisciplinarity should entail designing and supporting alternative modes of mediatization through which researchers can conduct and experiment with generative, collaborative, and imaginative ways of doing research. If we as scholars do not take-up the challenge of describing and sharing our research techniques, we will find ourselves not only increasingly isolated from process of developing the infrastructures of research practice but we may also find that the interdisciplinary research culture we have worked so hard to develop has become a mere a ghost of its former self.

Searching for Tasks - Final Report Now available

October 30, 2020
Frederik Lesage

The Searching for Tasks report is finally complete!

It took many long hours to get through coding all of the videos and to sift through the draft visualizations but it is great to be able to look at the complete report. Here is the report in full. The two main takeaways from this projects were:

1) The benefits of working with a visualization specialist.

Nicole and I both agreed that we learned a lot from working with Song on this project. While it may seem like a "research luxury" (if there is such a thing) to work with a graphic designer and visualization specialist on a project, it is amazing how much there is to be gained from this type of collaboration.

2) The benefits of taking a processual approach to investigating skills.

A lot of the policy research and other empirical investigations into skills we encountered take what could be called a "procedural" approach to skills. In other words, skills are reified as things that can be explicitly described and disseminated. The danger with this type of approach is that it disconnects skills from the people and places where skills take place. By taking a processual approach, it is our hope that we can "re-embed" skills in the contexts in which they are performed.

Searching for Tasks Report

The Cropping Tool Saved My Life - On irony and middlebroware

November 13, 2020
Frederik Lesage
Photoshop Critique

Friends recently sent me a link to an Instagram video posted by David Choe:
Crop crop crop it out !
The cropping tool saved my life
This tool used properly can save any image - @photoshop is a tool I use everyday to communicate and get closer to gawd @adobe

To me, this promotional video perfectly encapsulates how Adobe embraces Photoshop's middlebrow status as a popular commercial tool for creative production. In a paper for Fibreculture, I dubbed these kinds of tools "middlebroware" — a portemanteau that combines "middlebrow" and "middleware".

"[...] just as middleware serves as a kind of ‘software glue’ (Wikipedia, 2014), software for cultural production can serve as a similar type of ‘glue’ for cultural work – enabling and constraining the production, circulation, and appreciation of cultural content."

What I find particularly fascinating about this video is how Choe leans into the middlebroware argument by weaving together elements of irony and a straight, unapologetic populism.