reading: Squat Toilets and Cultural Commensurability

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Arvind Venkataramani

Oct 4, 2006, 8:20:51 PM10/4/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
Here's an interesting short paper I found on ethnographic method:

Squat Toilets and Cultural Commensurability: Two Texts Plus Three
Photographs I Forgot to Take
William Cummings

Abstract: This essay invites reconsideration of what makes a particular
site, experience, or activity ethnographically significant. It calls for a
closer accounting of the lowly bathroom as a window into cross-cultural
interaction, ethnographic experience, and the problem of cultural
commensurability. It argues that the everyday world of regular bodily
functions has as much to tell us about cultural difference as the elaborate
rituals that typically consume the attention of ethnographers,
particularly Indonesianists. Indeed, it concludes that while one favorite
site of anthropological analysis – rituals, ritual meals in particular –
highlight cross-cultural similarities, more mundane sites – such as the
bathroom – underscore cross-cultural differences. Both are important
functions of anthropology at the turn of the century.


While this is not exactly about technology, it might be of use to us
in helping us be aware of what we should be looking for. I also think
that the subject matter will evoke interesting analogies :)

I propose that we take the next two weeks to read this, i.e. by the
18th of October. At that time, I'd like to discuss what our own
interpretations of this article are, how each one of us relates to
what is being said, and questions engendered by this reading.

I noticed that from the past two discussions, various people have
posed questions but as a group we haven't followed up on them. That is
fine if that's what people want, but for me the questions I had at the
end of a reading provide the most important directions for follow-up,
as well as of making the reading applicable immediately. If other
people agree, I'd love to work a separate schedule for follow-up into
our discussion schedules.

Additionally, I have a list of books and papers I read both as part of
a qualitative methods class and an apprentice ethnographer. While some
of them are quite heavily oriented towards theoretical anthropology,
they might be useful in developing theoretical sensitivity and
perspectives. If people would so like it, I'd be glad to start
selecting from that list for our discussions.

arvind venkataramani
- design researcher
- workspace futures | explorations
- steelcase inc

Arvind Venkataramani

Oct 16, 2006, 8:17:04 PM10/16/06
to User Research Theory Study Group Planning
I set up a chatroom on, if people want to try chatting
instead of email. if you're a campfire member, you can visit the
chatroom at

guest access is available through:

is anyone interested? what would be a good time to meet online?

campfire also has a variety of transcript-saving policies - chats held
online could easily be distributed to the rest of the list by email,
perhaps after summarization.

-- arvind

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