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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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...

Owning Our Devices: Learning from People Who Adapt Tech for Well-Being

An interview with MARGARET MORRIS by ANNA ZAVYALOVA & GIULIA NICOLINI, Stripe Partners Public debate has rightly focused on the perils and toxicity of new technologies, and questioned the motivations of the companies building them. Meanwhile though, people are creatively adapting technology to their own social and psychological needs. Margie Morris explores this crucial space of personal innovation for social connection and well-being in her new book Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim our Relationships, Health, and Focus. Margie is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and inventor of technologies which support well-being. She led research on emotional technology at Intel, conducted user experience at Amazon and now teaches in the department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. Based on years of primary and secondary research as well as Margie’s own involvement in creating apps and other technologies, the book offers a fresh take on human-technology interaction,...

Needed: Anthropologists in Insurance

by SHELLY HABECKER Swiss Re I work in life insurance. No, I’m not an actuary or underwriter—I’m an anthropologist, and it’s a great fit. I began my career working with refugees in the public and nonprofit sectors, then spent seven years teaching anthropology courses to undergraduates, and I’ll admit that insurance wasn’t on my mind. But now that I’m here the value of my background is clear: Anthropology has taught me to be a listener, a storyteller, and a holistic thinker. I use these skills every day in my job in customer experience on an insurance innovation team. Another thing is clear: the insurance industry needs anthropologists, even though they might not know it yet. So, if you’re an anthropologist or ethnographer of another stripe, please consider applying for jobs in the insurance industry. To do that you’ll need to get creative about where you look for employment and how you present your skills. Let me explain. Insurance Companies Need Anthropologists as Listeners Insurance companies are brimming...

10 Things You Should Know about Moving from Academia to Industry

by NADINE LEVIN, Facebook In the fall of 2016, I made the jump from academia to UX research. As opportunities for permanent employment in the social sciences are becoming more and more scarce, this move is becoming increasingly common. And yet, I made this transition with few resources or mentorship, feeling unprepared and unsupported by my discipline. During my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I was self-confident and passionate about my work. But after a couple of post-docs, a handful of scholarships/prizes, several “you were our second choice” responses to tenure track job searches, and a full book manuscript that got rejected by a press (which shall remain nameless), I found myself unhappy and full of self-doubt. Worst of all, I became increasingly pessimistic—not just about academia, but about life. So, I decided to try out industry. I left my NSF postdoc (and bewildered mentor) three months early, and started exploring jobs in the tech sector. During this liminal time, a friend of mine mentioned...

The EPIC Gallery: A Space for Action and Intervention

by MAKALÉ FABER CULLEN “We don’t fail because we are not intelligent or erudite enough; we fail because we don’t present our stakeholders with engaging material that will improve their ideas. We choose the medium which makes us comfortable, not the one our stakeholders would prefer.” — Sam Ladner, Practical Ethnography (159) Our work as ethnographers, as social scientists, is rich, experiential, relational, multi-dimensional and full-sensory. As often as we can, we immerse ourselves in communities and in landscapes and then—we heighten all our senses, turn down our ego and try to understand the context. Nothing is as important as context. We document and analyze these contexts and the individuals and objects within them, refining them for a new context of service design or product development that is itself a whole new ecosystem of relationships, ethics, finances, goals, timescapes. Businesses and organizations have distinct customs, rituals, and standards for creating "evidence-that-counts." EPIC2019...

Culture Needs a Fool-Proof Definition

by OLIVER SWEET and ELLIE TAIT, Ipsos People love the idea of culture. Finding out what makes France French, Spain Spanish or Denmark Danish is why we travel. We see culture as a manifestation of the greatest human achievements – we flock to art galleries and read the latest Booker Prize–winning novel. But if we’re so naturally gripped by the idea of culture, why is it so hard to get traction for the value of culture in business? Cultural intelligence doesn’t come naturally in corporate settings, even for researchers. When we go to work we often switch off our cultural curiosity. We begin client debriefs with penetration statistics, household expenditure and demographics, but we rarely attempt to immerse our clients in the culture their product is inextricably nestled within. Variations in survey results are described as ‘market differences’, a damp squib of a term for what is actually a complex web of cultural influences. Why do we fail to integrate cultural insight in a meaningful...

Automation Otherwise: A Review of “Automating Inequality”

by DANYA GLABAU, Implosion Labs What if we thought differently about how to integrate human and machine agencies?  Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the PoorVirginia Eubanks2018, 272 pp, St. Martin's Press As I sat down in to write this review of Virginia Eubanks’ latest book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, I couldn’t help but consider it in light of the growing restiveness among tech workers in response to their companies’ perceived ethical lapses. Rank and file employees have begun to speak out against the use of big data-driven software systems and infrastructure for ethically questionable ends like warfare, policing, and family separation at the United States-Mexico border. To date, these protests have mired several public-private contracts between government agencies and some of the world’s biggest tech companies in controversy, including Google’s Project Maven, a collaboration with...

How Is Evidence Created, Used & Abused? EPIC2018 Opening Remarks

by DAWN NAFUS (Intel), EPIC2018 Co-chair We chose Evidence as the EPIC2018 theme in part to explore this question of why some things constitute evidence and not others. There are lots of factors we could point to, but since I’m standing next to a data scientist the first one I’ll talk about is digitization. Digitization changes how people live, and it creates forms of evidence about people’s lives that we need to reckon with methodologically. Many of us are in the thick of organizations that handle some complicated datasets, traces of people and their environments, and so on. We’ve got to figure out how to engage with them, and I think that means we need new approaches if we are going to meaningfully intervene. The toolbox of user experience is only going to get us so far. So we’re going to need some friends, particularly those data scientists who are, like us, committed to the idea that datasets ought to be moored in some kind of social reality, and that they can’t just be built based on what’s expedient at the time. While...

Human and Artificial Intelligence: The Same, Different or Differentiated?

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners Today I turned left out of London Bridge station. I usually turn right and take the Tube but instead I went in the other direction and took the bus. I can’t explain why I did that. Perhaps I was responding to a barely discernible change in crowd density or the fact that it was a bit warm today and I didn’t want to ride the Tube. Either way, I was trusting instincts that I am not able to translate into words. Often when I travel around London I reach for the CityMapper app. I rely on it to tell me how best to get from A to Z but I don’t really know how it makes the recommendations it does. Likely it has access to information about the performance of the Tube today or real time knowledge of snarl-ups on London’s medieval roads. It’s clever and I love it. It knows more than I do about these things and what to do about them. The workings of CityMapper are a mystery to me—but so are the workings of my brain. Even if I had a sophisticated understanding of neuroscience, physiology...

Avoiding the “Chinese Hat Syndrome”: Why Your Methods May not Travel Well

by YUEBAI LIU & JUNNI OGBORNE There’s a kind of building found across China that combines a Western-style “body” with a rather incongruous Chinese-style glazed tile roof plonked on top. This style of architecture had its heyday in the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward, when Chairman Mao ordered architects and engineers to design and construct ten gigantic buildings in Beijing in the space of just ten months. In indigenous Chinese architectural designs, tiled rooves are structurally integrated into the rest of the building through posts and beams. In these 1950s designs, the “Chinese hat” (dawuding, lit. “big roof”) is reduced to a decorative afterthought to give some vague Chinese character to the imported design. Architect Liang Sicheng criticized the mismatched structures as “wearing a Western suit with a Chinese hat.” Multinationals’ efforts to conquer the Chinese market often remind us of this “Chinese hat” analogy. Many times over the years living and working in China, we have seen marketers,...

Cross-disciplinary Insights Teams: Integrating Data Scientists and User Researchers at Spotify

by SARA BELT and PETER GILKS, Spotify Sara Belt and Peter Gilks respectively lead the Creator and Free Revenue Product Insights teams at Spotify. In this article, Sara will explore the practice of User Research at Spotify, and Peter will lay out how Data Science and User Research work together to drive product decisions. Part 1. User research at Spotify Sara Belt, Head of Creator Product Insights When I say I work in user research at Spotify, folks' minds tend to travel in two directions: they figure I research either the kinds of music people listen to or the music itself: melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and how they impact people. Because, you know, what else is there to research with the world’s biggest music player? Over the past few years, Spotify has grown to be much more than that, and the research scope has grown with it. My team, for example, is focused on artists and the music industry ecosystem—how Spotify can help artists grow an audience, express their creativity, and thrive. We research fandom and how it...

Researching Mobility: A Culture of Fieldwork

by ADAM WILLIAMS and MOLLY STEVENS, Uber Driver-partners in the queue for ride requests at SeaTac are interviewed by members of Uber’s brand experience and design teams as part of an ethnographic field survey, November 2017. Photo by Adam Williams. Uber is a technology company rooted in the physical and social geographies of mobility systems. Of course, millions of people around the world have discovered that Uber’s product is much more than a mobile app—it is also a world experience. For example: getting picked up at the airport moments after emerging from a terminal in a foreign country driving around a city, picking up people you’re meeting for the first time trying food from a new restaurant that you discovered through Uber Eats Space, place, and landscape are central to the physical experience of sharing a ride from pickup location to destination. For example, consider how a shared ride across town also constitutes a social space. For many people, this is a space for conversations that broaden our connections...

The Power of the Fringe: Why Ecology Research Should Include Auxiliary Actors for Truly Powerful Results

by CAMILLO DE VIVANCO and GAYATRI SHETTY, ReD Associates Through years of research and work for the healthcare industry, we’ve come to experience the power of the auxiliary actors. The industry often overemphasizes the classic dyad of patient and primary health care provider, missing actors on the periphery who have frequent touch points with patients and frequently play a larger role in delivering care to patients than the actual healthcare professionals. Take, for example, Benjamin, a health technician we observed for a full day in Paris. Benjamin spends his days driving from home to home, delivering in-home medical equipment to patients, as well as checking in on those who have notified his company of problems with the equipment they have been given. On average, Benjamin visits anywhere between 5 and 15 patients in a day, depending on the tasks he is assigned. Benjamin, like many technicians we observed in our ethnographic fieldwork, consistently moves beyond his remit – spending significant amounts of time training...