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.

Join our email list to get updates about new articles and other EPIC resources.

Why does Nuance Matter when Translating and Transcribing Multilingual Content?

white letters
by JILL KUSHNER BISHOP, Multilingual Connections Languages are alive—vibrant and eloquent expressions of who we are. During my doctoral fieldwork I looked at how people used language to enact and express their identity, how connections and community were created through speech and how forms of talk, particular phrases or words, could transport people across time and space. Words matter. So when contemplating translation, how can you ensure a focus on each word while not losing sight of the broader cultural considerations? When research brings you to multilingual communities—whether globally or in your own backyard—it’s essential to consider the linguistic and cultural practices of your target audience. Assuming you’re doing work in their language of choice, you’ll likely have content that needs to be translated or audio that needs to be transcribed to analyze the data you’ve collected. In either case, nuance matters. Choices of words, phrases or metaphors—yours or theirs—signify by conveying meaning about ideas,...

Personal Reflections on Scale from the Business World

photo of building with sky and jet stream in the background
by ADAM SINGER, Gemic Hi everyone, my name is Adam Singer. I’m a Strategist at Gemic and I’m new to the world of ethnography. Gemic is a strategy consulting firm founded by anthropologists that embeds anthropological and social science theory and methods into the core of its work. It uses these tools among others to identify growth opportunities and assess the future of culture, technology, and business for its clients. In contrast, I have little formal training or background experience in anthropology or ethnography. I come from a background in nonprofits and business (real estate development, commodity trading, traditional management consulting). Entering such an exciting field that is so different from my past experience has been quite the learning journey. In discussing the meaning of scale as the theme of this EPIC conference, I think it can be thought-provoking to compare and contrast how scale is considered and manifests between the world of business and the world of ethnography. Hopefully my perspective as someone...

Ethnography Taught Me to Fight Climate Change. But to Have Impact at Scale, Ethnography too Must Change   

photo of a piece of public art made of green computer components
by MELISSA GREGG, Intel In the spring of 2019 I met Klara, a fashion blogger based in Malmö with a growing reputation in sustainable design. Klara was a classic millennial of the type I had been studying for years: ambitious, anxious, confident and concerned about her future job security. In the course of a long interview about her laptop routines, she worried about depending so much on devices. She was one of several participants in different parts of the world who were cynical about tech companies’ constant push to sell new products. She had high standards for quality, but didn’t think there were enough products available that focused on sustainability. Rather than feel guilty about buying something that compromised her brand, Klara was considering making her next computer purchase second-hand. Several months later, the research complete and the presentations over, I am listening to another young woman from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. “This is all wrong,” she was saying on stage at the United Nations Climate Summit: “I shouldn’t...

“Stability”: Dissecting Banking’s Next Big Bet

by MARTIN GRONEMANN, CENGIZ CEMALOGLU & LARA CASCIOLA, ReD Associates Samantha – One of Us, and All of Us On a rainy spring afternoon, Samantha was absentmindedly reading the news as a procrastination tool between her two zoom calls, and finding the headlines even bleaker than usual. Unemployment numbers around the world had just hit historic highs, the mortality rate of COVID was unclear, her LinkedIn was flooded with people who had just been laid off, and economists were sounding the alarm bell. Some heralded COVID as the moment to rethink everything, others evangelized the myriad benefits of remote work. Per usual, in the background, the climate continued its collapse. Samantha had no dinner parties, no weekend getaways, no weddings. Feeling destabilized and confused, she found herself questioning everything – her job, her relationships, her furniture, and even her purpose in life. Samantha’s story was and still is familiar to many, and accessing embodied experiences like hers lay at the core of our decision at ReD...

Ethnographic Research in Remote Spaces: Overcoming Practical Obstacles and Embracing Change

photo of yellow blinds
by CHLOE EVANS, Spotify As an ethnographer and user researcher in industry a lot of my work depends on speaking to people face to face, understanding how they live their lives on their own terms and in their own spaces. Since the onset of Covid-19 both academic and industry researchers alike have been recalibrating how they conduct research in non-physical spaces by relying on remote tools and technology. Conducting research in a non-physical space has unexpected benefits as well as some challenges. The Importance of "Being There" The time corporate ethnographers have in the field is incredibly valuable; compared to academic ethnographers, we are able to spend far less time with people. Being in the same space is vital for us to understand how people use products and services for the companies we work for. For example, in a past role, I would have not understood the intricacies of how people experience pet store spaces in the US if I had not physically traveled there, spoken with dog owners, and followed them around the stores. Likewise,...

Recalibrating UX Labs in the Covid-19 Era

by STUART HENSHALL, Convo Early in 2020 as a result of Covid-19, Convo—along with companies around the world—moved all research in India to remote solutions. This was quite a change and presented new challenges to the research team. While our preference is almost always to go in-home, particularly for foundational and ethnographic research, for UX research a temporary though centralized “lab” is typically more time and cost efficient. This post focuses on the impact of remote methods on UX Labs where, paradoxically, remote methods can render the lab situation more ethnographic. India, pre-Covid-19 We are in a tier two city, sitting in a viewing room, looking in on the UX lab setup as a session was about to start. It was typical for India in many regards, with multiple cameras, various wires, and recording equipment set up in a temporary location (typically a hotel). Usually you can’t help noticing the wallpaper (it’s so not me) and the lights may be dim and fluorescent. In a few moments, our research participant will arrive....

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...