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 Were You During Covid-19? An Ethnographic Lens on Local Life in a Global Pandemic

hand washing station
by PATRICIA L. SUNDERLAND, CRAstudio.com Where were you during Covid-19? The question seems destined to become a standard conversation piece at future get-togethers. For professional anthropologists and ethnographers, we can also add in questions about what was looked at, listened to, thought about, done and imagined for the future. Gillian Tett, anthropologist and US editorial board chair at the Financial Times, for instance, wrote about the Covid-19 culture shock she experienced in London. The relative lack of mask wearing there was in stark contrast to the strict masking she had become accustomed to as an “embedded—and embodied—part of life” in her New York City neighborhood. In Paris, Dominique Desjeux, professional anthropologist, professor, and coordinator of the French applied anthropology network Antropik, created an auto-ethnographic video of what he and family members were doing and attending to in their apartment during the early confinement phase in March 2020. In my case, I spent most of 2020 in Addis Ababa,...

Your Client Relationship Is an Ethnographic Field

artwork by andres musta, faces drawn on name tags
by JOHN CURRAN, JC Associates John is teaching a new EPIC Course, Creating Impact with Projects & Clients: Leveraging Organizational Culture. Hope you enjoy this article and check out his course! —ed. Some years ago a renowned UK-based charity invited me to help them understand why their legacy donations had flat lined for two years. The conventional wisdom had been that charitable donations had decreased as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. But when a statistical analysis showed that donations to other, similar sized charities were in fact increasing, they realized the problem was not just macroeconomics. The charity wanted new insights to explain their stagnation. Organizations generally hire ethnographers to help them understand the world “out there,” and that was the brief my contract client produced. But delivering insights is not the same as creating value. I quickly discovered that for insights to matter, the scope of my project—from kick-off to signoff—would have to include the client’s organizational...

Retooling Our Skill Set for Resilience: Ethnography in Project Risk Analysis and Quality Assurance

by PATRICIA ENSWORTH, Harborlight Management Services LLC & New York University In the months since the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting everyone’s lives, people and organizations worldwide have adapted quickly for the sake of survival. This is a matter of long-term intellectual interest for ethnographers – but also, sometimes urgently, of short-term solvency. Some jobs, we now notice, really are essential for the ongoing functioning of a civilized society. Others…well, recently Bloomberg News published an Opinion article entitled “Coronavirus: Anybody Need a Management Consultant? Thought Not.” The industries we serve are in the midst of a whiplash pivot: A sports stadium becomes a field hospital. A restaurant becomes a general store. Physical workplaces are entirely redesigned. And so we might ask ourselves, Are there ways in which ethnographers can contribute to these efforts, repurposing our practices and expertise, especially as organizations plan for fundamental, lasting changes in their operations? During...

Using Employee Opinion Surveys Ethnographically

by MERITXELL RAMÍREZ-I-OLLÉ When my boss asked me to carry out an employee opinion survey in our company, I had to overcome my ingrained prejudices against surveys in general. Once I did, I learned how valuable an ethnographic approach to surveys can be. In my previous academic work, I had embedded myself into a scientific community for more than three years and I disregarded surveys as a comparatively superficial research technique. In my consultancy work, I have also encountered sharp criticism of the way surveys are used in practice: Erica Hall calls surveys “the most dangerous research tool,” and Sam Ladner’s fabulous guide to doing ethnography in the private sector (2012:17), emphasizes the value of ethnography that captures the perspectives of research participants, as opposed to tools like surveys that reflect the “etic” position of researchers. Yet, if there’s something I am learning about my ongoing transition to the private sector, it is that I must be flexible about methods and become more creative about...

Protesting for Change, #BLM

downtown chicago from perspective of driver approaching from south side
by RITA DENNY, EPIC We support the protesters. Black lives matter. Working at my desk in the past few days, a fairly constant thump of helicopters and aggressive wail of sirens has forced me to parse space in new ways. Here, in the US, the rights of protestors to claim space is contested by presidential rhetoric and ruthlessly cynical uses of force for political ends. We are feeling the reverberations wherever we are sitting—in cities or not, in the US or not—as we bear witness. As we act and speak as citizens, families, neighbors and cities, it is worth a moment to be thoughtful about how we, as ethnographers in industries and organizations, choose to participate. As ethnographers we observe life as lived on the ground, as it unfolds, embodied or ephemeral, with affect and purpose, in relation to material systems and systems of meaning. The ground is where change happens—is practiced, performed, and contested in acts small and large, messy and often with contradiction. Our practice is also framed within larger organizational...

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...