Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. 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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Where is Remote Research? Ethnographic Positioning in Shifting Spaces

by JENNIFER COLLIER JENNINGS & RITA DENNY, EPIC “There’s a lot of talk about us ‘being there’, and what that means for our practice and what that means for the type of work that we say we do. The ground has shifted. How do we respond to that? It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re temporarily working remotely, let’s just gather some new tools.’ We’re actually responding to a shift in the ground underneath us. And we still want to be able to ask questions in depth and gather data in a way that makes meaning for us.” —Nichole Carelock Ethnographers are recalibrating the spaces we inhabit with people. We can’t physically go into homes, workplaces, stores, cars, hospitals; we’re adjusting interview protocols to online environments, exploring software for remote diary studies, and creating virtual workshops. But as we onboard new tools for ‘being there’ with people, let’s think about what it means to be there in the first place. For decades ethnographers have pushed businesses and organizations to pay attention...

The Org Chart as Political Map-Making

by JASMINE CHIA & SAMUEL HAGEN A senior leadership team gathers in the executive boardroom. The doors are closed; the glass is opaque. Sparkling water is served. Projected on the conference screen is not a financial statement, or an operating report, but instead, an intricate diagram resembling a map or relational lineage. The subject of the meeting is the company’s reorganization – a “reorg.” Perhaps a desperate cost-cutting measure, or perhaps a tactfully planned efficiency boost, this reorg is led by a team of outside management consultants who drew the diagram slide and now lead the meeting. A confluence of rectangular boxes – “heads” – are organized according to hierarchy, with the CEO (and her board) on top; one notch down are the leaders of each business unit – Product, Sales, Finance, Human Resources. But the way these organizational charts will be re-drawn is not a purely functional exercise – like map-making, it is deeply symbolic and imbued with power. Figure 1 (left): First organizational chart...

What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?

a book review by ADERAYO SANUSI, Princeton University What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Edited by Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga 256 pp, MIT Press  "Imagine a positive Africa—creative, technological, and scientific in its own way." (1) Several countries in Africa are in a critical period of expanding tech entrepreneurship and foreign investment. Innovation hubs are proliferating, following decades of rapid local adoption of mobile phones and digital platforms. And in the past three years, top Silicon Valley executives like Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey have visited the continent to meet emergent developer communities and learn about new products and ventures. As these developments are documented on various media platforms and business school case books, an emerging group of scholars, practitioners, and activists have begun to critique what they characterize as incorrect, harmful discourses about the technological contributions of Africans. They are typically represented merely...

Do I Have to #MeToo? The Productivity of Silence in Instances of Sexual Harassment and Assault in Field Research

by TAHNI CANDELARIA - How did you two meet again? - Let’s head back to the yacht club for sunset. - What happened to that bottle of champagne? - Please don’t fall off the boat. - Live music doesn’t have the same raw character here. - Tahni, go deal with your friend. - What happened to that bottle of champagne? - Please stop touching me. - Haven’t you been paying attention to the news? - You really shouldn’t drink anymore. - We would make a beautiful couple. - She’s an influencer in Korea, I hate that shit. - His job is so cool! - What happened to that bottle of champagne? - I used to be polyamorous. - I’ll call you whatever I want to call you. - They act so adventurous, they didn’t even sit in the sand. - You need to get in a taxi, now. - WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE?! What did happen to that bottle of champagne, I wonder. In fact, I never knew of it in the first place. That bottle whose presence, or rather—whose absence—persists months later. That miserable hour, the one which was punctuated...

Agency & Tech Colonialism: Extending the Conversation

“What can those of us who work in, and maybe even love, computing cultures do about computing’s colonial expansions?” Sareeta Amrute’s keynote address “Tech Colonialism Today” opened EPIC2019 in a provocative, mobilizing spirit that inspired discussions on stage, in breakout sessions, and around breakfast tables. Sareeta journeyed across time and territory to explore what characteristics make something colonial to begin with, such as extractive and hierarchical systems. As you might guess, she argued that yes, the tech industry today has core colonial attributes. But goal wasn’t just critique; Sareeta showcased counterconduct—the agency that people, communities, and companies have to build alternatives. If colonial legacies and socioeconomic systems seem a bit “out of scope” as context for standard product or user research projects, check out Sareeta’s award-winning book Encoding Race, Encoding Class. You’ll learn about Meena’s daily tea ritual, hear Bipin describe why he sometimes chooses to write bad code,...

Back to the Future with Video Sociality: Rethinking Tech Commercialization and Design

by PATRICIA G. LANGE, California College of the Arts Once upon a time, a video-sharing site called YouTube was born. It greatly helped non-professional creators to post videos to the web. The platform initially broadcast diverse voices and eventually became a major competitor in the online video streaming space. The story of YouTube often begins and ends with the assumption that it achieved its destiny—that the YouTube we have now is the only YouTube that was ever possible. It feels inevitable that an up-and-coming video sharing site would commercialize. This common story of technological development and commercialization masks multiple desires that YouTubers envisioned for expressing the self and accomplishing society. Ultimately, it reduces our ability to imagine new frameworks for facilitating interaction with video. But there are alternative narratives. Other stories—particularly those told from users’ perspectives—matter because they help us understand how complex technical systems may be shaped to better serve...

Making Productivity Social Again: Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive—Time Management in the Knowledge Economy

by RAYMOND JUNE, Workday Most of us struggle with managing our time while feeling perpetually swamped with work. White-collar professionals, myself included, have often turned like supplicants to time management tools ranging from self-help books to productivity software to maximize efficiency in less time. Confession: I once purchased a paper pocket guide to improving time management when feeling anxious about workplace performance pressures before the start of a new job. Despite its familiar and well-worn exhortations – set goals, track your time, create to-do lists, manage emails, develop routines, delegate – I clung to the belief that this manual among the surfeit of how-to texts and apps out there would be the one to help boost my productivity. My preemptive attempt at mastering time to reach peak personal performance raises a key question about today’s productivity-obsessed work culture: What, really, is the larger goal of work when the search for time-saving measures in the pursuit of productivity is its given ethos and...

Accelerating User Research: How We Structure Insights for Speed At Spotify

by SARA BELT, Spotify Instead of asking how we can further speed up research itself, the question becomes how we can better integrate research into the product development practice and speed up organizations’ ability to learn and iterate overall. For many years, insights was seen as peripheral to product development because of the perception that user research had low validity. I spent the first part of my career advocating for why teams should systematically listen to the people using their products, why anyone should trust qualitative insight to guide their decisions, and why research is a field of practice that requires specialized skills. Debates about validity have diminished as the research practice has gradually proven its ability to contribute value. Approaching product making from the perspective of data, evidence, and empathy is pretty much a given these days. In companies such as Spotify, the pendulum has swung the other way, where growth in demand for research has pushed us to scale the practice. New, more substantive...

Representation & Representative-ness

by DONNA LANCLOS, Anodyne Anthropology Donna is chairing the EPIC2019 panel "Representation & Representative-ness" on Monday, Nov 11, 11–12:00 in Providence, Rhode Island. EPIC2019 is around the corner and I’m excited to share the panel I have been invited to facilitate this year with a fantastic group of ethnographers: We will be tackling the ever-relevant theme of “representation”, a topic with a long legacy in ethnography and anthropology. Actually, I feel like the panel already started in the terrific discussions we had to develop our abstract, so I want to share some of that thinking here to inspire you to join the conversation in Providence! Our abstract begins: Ethnographers take pride in representing people’s voices with fidelity, empathy, and deep contextual understanding. But our work can end up reinforcing a distinction between people who “have experience” that we study for insights and people who “have expertise” to use, shape, and monetize that experience. In response...

New Forms of Literacy are Expanding Digital Expression

screenshot of YouTube cooking video "Housewife ka simple routine II Indian youtuber Ravina II"
by STUART HENSHALL, Convo Some time ago I watched an older Indian woman using Google Assistant to access recipes. She expressed how thrilled she was: her family would be eating new meals and they would appreciate her more. As I looked more closely, it was obvious the cooking instruction video (in Hindi) contained no text. (Makes sense, she doesn’t need it.) There are probably millions of recipes like this, many of them not professionally produced. In time, this woman herself may even become a creator of recipes and videos, despite not being able to write. She bypasses text for entertainment and learning, bringing her great joy and a new sense of independence. This is a significant change: previously, sharing recipes across time and space required writing, and less literate users avoided doing anything much more with their phones than calling. Now, voice and video technology is catalyzing new forms of engagement with a wider world. More recently, I was watching a group of TikTok creators talk about TikTok, a social media video...

How to Scale a Culture of Human Understanding

by ELEANOR BARTOSH and CHRIS HAMMOND, IBM IBM is big. We have around 350,000 employees including 20,000 design and user experience professionals, and only a fraction of them are experienced design researchers. Many of you reading this also work in or with large enterprise organizations and, as you know, at that scale it can be easy to get lost. At times, you might feel your research is undervalued and that you, as a researcher, are marginalized. We've been there, too, so we've identified some strategies that help to both address these issues and grow understanding at scale. Crucially, we believe that the whole cross-functional team, not just the researcher, bares equal responsibility for advancing an understanding of the people the organization serves—more colloquially users, customers, constituents, and communities. At this point, you may be thinking, "But wait...I'm not sure I trust my peers to not ask leading questions. I'm not sure they'll pick the right methods, identify the right participants, or analyze the data without...

Imposter Ethnographer: The Value of Feeling Like an Outsider

by ERIN B. TAYLOR, Canela Consulting & European Women Payments Network At EthnoBorrel, an ethnography meet-up that I co-run in the Netherlands, we talk about the issues ethnographers face in their applied practice. One term in particular keeps cropping up: impostor syndrome. The people who attend our meetups are highly educated, capable practitioners who apply their ethnographic skills as service designers, UXers, product owners, HR managers, researchers, technologists, and more. They have cracked the job market and are using their ethnographic skills in their daily practice. Yet many continue to struggle with feelings of being an impostor. Imposter syndrome is a multidimensional experience that can be rooted in sexism, racism, class, and many kinds of professional hierarchies and power dynamics. I want to focus on a different type of imposter experience specific to ethnographers. Often we work in places where we are the only ethnographer, or one of very few. More often, ‘ethnographer’ isn’t in our job titles,...

Livable Relations with Metrics

by MINNA RUCKENSTEIN, University of Helsinki It is easy to become pessimistic, if not dystopic, about tracking technologies. The current digital services landscape promotes scoring, selecting and sorting of people for the purposes of maximizing profit. Machine logics rely on profiling characteristics and predicting actions, and management by algorithms appears to be disproportionately affecting those with temporary and low-income jobs. Tracking technologies become complicit in deepening and accelerating social divisions and inequalities. The most vulnerable in societies have no say in how their actions are monitored and lives are harmed by algorithmically produced metrics. In this context, Quantified Self (QS) – an international community of ‘self-trackers’ that shares insights gained through self-quantification and data analysis – seems rarified, an example of the privileged techno-elite positioned to use tracking data to pursue their own values and goals. With this limitation, QS hardly appears to be a useful prism...

3 Narratives that Stymie Social Change and What We Can Do about It

by NAT KENDALL-TAYLOR, FrameWorks Institute Social change requires culture change and social science can help. “Context matters.” “It’s a systemic issue.” “It’s…complicated.” As ethnographers and researchers these are our mantras—but how can we communicate about social issues in ways that really make a difference? Evidence shows that how we frame our messages can have dramatic effects on all kinds of outcomes that count. Real social change requires shifts in deeply ingrained cultural models: what people feel about society and social groups; how we understand problems and their solutions; and the degree to which we feel motivated and willing to engage in the social problems of our day. I have studied nearly 40 different social issues, the cultural models people use to understand them, and messaging that can shifts those understandings. Across these diverse social issues, I have found three cultural models that stymie social change—and three research-based messaging strategies that can help shift them. Three...

Anthro Spectacle @SXSW: How Anthropology Captured the Imagination of Marketing Tech

by E. GIGI TAYLOR, Luminosity Research I live in Austin, Texas. Along with breakfast tacos, Willie Nelson, and scorching hot summers, Austin is the home of the international conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW). It’s actually three conferences (Interactive, Music, and Film) rolled out over ten days in March. Much of the Interactive portion is about technology, media, and brands. SXSW brings in close to 300,000 people and is now recognized as the prime national stage to launch new products and brands. Those of us who have lived in Austin forever lovingly (or not so lovingly) call this colossus “South by So What.” Traffic gets even more snarled and all the restaurants are packed. But having spent a good part of my professional career in advertising, I find the Interactive conference an increasingly fascinating spectacle. But “the most valuable business weekend of the year” is hardly a hive of anthropological thinking. So I was truly honored—and more than a little surprised—to receive an invitation to speak...