Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. Weekly articles show how integrating theory and practice to understand human societies and cultures creates transformative value for people, businesses and the planet. If you’re interested in contributing, get in touch.

 

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Ethnography, Economics and the Limits of Evidence

by ERIN B. TAYLOR, Canela Consulting & Holland FinTech Evidence produced within quantitative disciplines like economics and finance carries an aura of gospel. The numbers, models, and forecasts we see in economic reports and market analyses in the news and reports seem certain, authoritative, and unarguable. Built on large data sets that are analyzed with widely accepted theories and tools, economic and financial evidence have become hugely influential in governance and business—so much so that more qualitative approaches have been sidelined. Even political economy, the original economics, has been pushed away in favor of what’s now called ‘evidence-based decision-making’. The presumption is that numerical data is the only solid information, and that the analytical tools used in economic and market analysis are reliable. Of course, as we know now, this faith in economic evidence can be dangerous. As markets crashed around the world during the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, confidence in all kinds of quantitative...

Book Review: Ethnographic Thinking, from Method to Mindset

by DAVID RUBELI Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset Jay Hasbrouck 2018, 120 pp, Routledge I’ve been reading Jay Hasbrouck’s Ethnographic Thinking this spring, sneaking its pages into gaps in my daily routines. It’s part of my longer-term project of reading across the fields of service design, design anthropology, and applied research over the last few years. I’m doing this reading survey at a time when practices, fields, and disciplines are converging, when design thinking, service design, and innovation are democratizing or—depending on your perspective—reifying and commodifying professions and practices that were once the domains of specialist practitioners. Interdisciplinary groups and teams within and among organizations are being assembled to tackle complex corporate and societal challenges. And these assemblages bring together constellations of stakeholders from industry, government, and other sponsoring organizations. In workplaces, labs and think tanks, there’s a growing effort to...

Purity and Data

by YULIYA GRINBERG, Columbia University If you follow news about digital self-tracking, you may have heard about Chris Dancy. He appears regularly in the press and has become widely known as “The Most Connected Man on Earth.” Reporters generally characterize him as the epitome of a digital self-tracking devotee, a veritable cyborg in the flesh who has become all but isometric with his data. Chris’s collection, in fact, started out analog. Long before he found his way to Fitbit and Twitter scraping software, Chris lovingly assembled life-size scrapbooks filled with paraphernalia from years gone by. These collections often feature centrally in narratives of Chris, but they largely stand as silent backdrop, their clutter a foil for his digitally streamlined life. His digital data are associated with purity and order; his boards represent the mess he has cleared from his life. This contrasting representation of his digital and analog collections reflects a powerful cultural understanding of digital data as something that...

Building an Innovation Strategy from Cultural Insights

by JAY HASBROUCK, Founder, Filament Insight & Innovation “Innovate or die"—this dictum is driving companies to build their innovation capacity, and fast. Most are turning to now-familiar practices such as Design Thinking, Lean, or Agile. But as they grow, many organizations find that they don’t see expected increases in innovation after deploying these practices. Why? Although they’re originally meant to drive creative thinking and strategic risk taking, innovation methods can quickly become rote in large organizations, especially when teams are expected to deploy them without context, or simply to check off a box on their performance reviews. Worse yet, some companies struggle to manage a combination of different innovation practices between teams, leading to a breakdown in collaboration and disjointed project pacing. What these organizations lack is an overall innovation strategy that drives their efforts to build innovation capacity, engages their teams with a purposeful vision, and ensures their efforts can evolve...

Book Review: The Paradox of Sensemaking

by TOM HOY, Stripe Partners Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm Christian Madsbjerg 2017, 240 pp, Hachette Books Excerpt Christian Madsbjerg has done a huge amount to elevate the profile and impact of ethnography in corporate settings. As co-founder of ReD Associates, Madsbjerg makes a consistent and compelling case for ethnographers to set their sights beyond user experience and design to impact decisions at the pinnacle of global organisations. His new book Sensemaking advances his mission further, advocating humanities-based thinking to a much wider business audience. The central analysis feels more even resonant today than when the book was released last year: the power of big data has created a false idol, lulling us into the belief that the algorithm has the capacity to replace critical thinking. What unfolds is a story which is compelling and bold in critique, but strangely conservative and ambiguous in the solutions it prescribes. Silicon Valley and the Renaissance Man [sic] Sensemaking...

Data Science and Ethnography: What’s Our Common Ground, and Why Does It Matter?

by TYE RATTENBURY (Salesforce) & DAWN NAFUS (Intel) As EPIC2018 program co-chairs, we developed the conference theme Evidence to explore how evidence is created, used, and abused. We’ll consider the core types of evidence ethnographers make and use through participant observation, cultural analysis, filmmaking, interviewing, digital and mobile techniques, and other essential methods, as well as new approaches in interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams.1 We’ve also made a special invitation to data scientists to join us in Honolulu to advance the intersection of computational and ethnographic approaches. Why? One of us is a data scientist (Tye) and the other an ethnographer (Dawn), both working in industry. We regularly see data science and ethnography conceptualized as polar ends of a research spectrum—one as a crunching of colossal data sets, the other as a slow simmer of experiential immersion. Unfortunately, we also see occasional professional stereotyping. A naïve view of “crunching” can make it seem...

Advice for an Anthropologist Breaking into Business

by SHELLY HABECKER, Swiss Re "How do I make ethnography relevant to my company?" This was the question that I took to Tracey Lovejoy (co-founder of EPIC, former Senior Manager at Microsoft, and founder of Lovejoy Consulting); Christian Madsbjerg (founder of ReD Associates and best-selling author of two books on applying social sciences to business); and Alexandra Mack (Alchymyx; formerly Senior Fellow at Pitney Bowes & EPIC Board Secretary). All three are leading lights in the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community who have invested their careers in a belief that observing and listening to human beings matters for better business. A little over a year ago, after two decades of working on African migration issues in governmental and academic environments, I started a job at a large insurance company. I was attracted by the potential to use my training as an anthropologist to create better financial safety nets for people through the insurance industry. My managers were not looking for an anthropologist per se, but they let...

Evidence before Art: An Ethnomethodological Approach to Video Ethnography in Commercial Research Contexts

by NICK AGAFONOFF, Real Ethnography/The Practice Insights I think of myself as a video ethnomethodologist1 – a social scientist who utilises disruptive techniques (social experiments) in conjunction with technical videography to explore, document and represent how people subjectively make sense of and navigate their everyday worlds in relation to brands, products and services. My films and their usefulness depend entirely on the scientific process that I employ to facilitate objectification of the lived experience data collected, otherwise referred to as the evidence. My films become art the moment they become about my own subjective experience; the moment I depart from being an objective social scientist. At EPIC2017 in Montreal, I had the pleasure of presenting my 10-minute documentary Andrew’s Story, an emotional portrait of a man who had recently experienced a permanent disability but was refusing to claim on his disability insurance. My client wanted to understand why people like Andrew are not making claims when...

In Defense of Personal Bias in Ethnographic Research

by ANNA ZAVYALOVA, Stripe Partners Past midnight, I’m shivering outside a pub in Shoreditch, the rain beginning to drizzle ever so viciously. It has been fifteen minutes since I left my friends and ordered an UberPool home. As I watch yet another cab drive by, I think about the millions of factors that make one choose how to get around a city. I think about comfort, cost and convenience, space, speed and safety. Earlier this year I was involved in a study of pooled mobility in the UK, India and Brazil, where we tried to make sense of car sharing ‘grammar’ across these dramatically different cultural landscapes. The project, which came to an end in March, and the subsequent paper I wrote for EPIC a few months later, should feel like a closed chapter. Yet as I traverse cities, home and abroad, during the day and late at night, I never stop noting, observing, collecting data – often without realising I’m doing it. Even after a night out, I am still an ethnographer, fascinated by how people and vehicles, cultural values...

Developing Empathy through Research: Martha Cotton, A Profile

By ALANNAH BERSON How do you make 1000 designers better at research while ensuring quality and rigor at the same time? This is the kind of challenge Martha Cotton gets tackle at work everyday as Group Design Director for Research at Fjord—and as the newest member of the EPIC Board. “If we are going to deeply understand the people we are designing for, I’m passionate about helping my design colleagues get that understanding in the best and most efficient way. It is definitely a very fun part of my job, thinking about elevating how we do design research, and creating the tools and resources to support roughly 1000 designers around the world in their efforts to be better researchers.” One of the reasons Martha is so passionate about mentoring and teaching future researchers is that for her, becoming an ethnographer was a bit of an accident. “I was incredibly lucky early on to have the support of mentors who patiently nurtured what has turned out to be my life’s work.” This “accidental career” that Martha found...

Ethnography for Equity: Using the Ethnographic Lens to Improve Outcomes for Everyone

by FATIMAH RICHMOND (Google) & SAM LADNER Why did Donald Trump get elected? Because of the rage of the “working class”? Why did Brexit happen? Because “working class” Britons were angry at getting left behind? We find these explanations troubling because they whitewash events. We convened the Salon Ethnography and Equality at EPIC2017 to discuss how our community can avoid doing exactly this kind of whitewashing as we work with our clients and stakeholders. We used an ethnographic lens to understand the systems that structure inequalities in our societies and organizations. To continue the conversation about this critical topic beyond the event in Montréal, this blog post describes the Salon’s main talking points and some practical solutions (one involving an actual toilet; more on that in a moment). We explicitly told the 35 people gathered for our Salon that the discussion was to be safe. By that, we meant that there would be specific order for when a participant may speak, and that before sharing anything about...

Found in Translation: Pro Tips for Translating and Transcribing Multilingual Content

by JILL KUSHNER BISHOP, Multilingual Connections You may recall the old joke: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American. The study of world languages among Americans lags far behind that of many other countries, with less than seven percent of American college students enrolled in language courses. Among adults who studied a second language in school, less than one percent claim to be proficient. Despite the sad state of world language education in the US, that old joke applies less and less all the time.  The American Community Survey of 2013 study found that one in five US residents—almost 62 million people—speaks a language other than English at home, with 41% speaking English “less than very well”. When research brings you to multilingual communities—whether in the US or globally—it’s essential to consider the linguistic and cultural preferences of your target audience.  Assuming you’re doing work in their language of choice,...

Have We Lost Our Anthropological Imagination?

by SAKARI TAMMINEN, Gemic Ever since the 1970s, the promise of increased productivity through technology has been under intense scrutiny. It’s a promise that has pushed questions about nature and the role of technology in society into the hands of scholars, including anthropologists. For those working in industry – really, one of the few places where anthropologists can engage with technology the real, rather than technology the theory – the question always boils down to value. Whether it’s big data, AI, biotech, nanotechnology, robots, smart dust or driverless cars, the one question we’re always looking to answer is: What’s the value of a new technology? Economically, the promise and gains of technological efficiency – particularly information technology – is known as the productivity paradox. Whether a paradox or a series of assumptions about the impact of technology on productivity, the question of the value of technology sparked heated debate among economists over the first wave of computerization. In 1987,...

A Researcher’s Perspective on People Who Build with AI

by ELLEN KOLSTO, IBM Two years ago, I arrived at IBM Design’s Studio in Austin to work on Watson. I didn’t know how to code, thought mastering the set up of my iPhone was a technical achievement and had never researched the world of the developer. Yet here I was, venturing into the very technical realm of artificial intelligence (AI). AI is generally defined by IBM as systems (machines) that can deeply understand a domain, reason towards specific goals, learn continuously from experience and interact naturally with humans. The focus of this definition is on the machine itself. What I have discovered about AI is that while it is certainly about machines, the building of AI is very much about humans. And for my research, it’s about the humans building the machine…the makers. These makers are learning and inventing what it means to actually create a machine that deeply understands a domain or can interact naturally with humans. The definition of these activities is being discovered and reworked everyday. As a researcher...

The Ethnographic Lens: Perspectives and Opportunities for New Data Dialects

by ELIZABETH CHURCHILL, Director of User Experience, Google Concern with “big data” and ”data at scale” has pervaded many conversations in the past few years. Conversations orient around what “big data” really means, around the relationship of “small data” to “big data”, and around the relationship between “local” data and “global”, aggregate data. In the EPIC context, conversations veer towards anxiety regarding the relationship of ethnographic practice to quantitative data and whether the future of ethnography as an area of interest is in jeopardy. Will all questions regarding people, “users”, and markets be answered by brute force, number crunching? The answer is absolutely NO. It’s important to note that the ethnography community has a long-standing relationship with analysis of, and interpretation through, quantitative data at all scales and granularities. “Big” data and “data at scale” are not new. Stealing a snippet of Samuelle Carlson and Ben Anderson’s paper title from 2007,...