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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Ethnography for Smart Service Systems in Product Design

by WILLIAM O. BEEMAN, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota In today’s rapidly changing, highly competitive world, product design requires swift translation of human needs and desires into technical specifications for the development of devices and services that meet those needs (Salvador et al. 2013). This calls for a complex integration of qualitative and quantitative data. But despite some notable successes, product design failures are today both extensive and expensive (Anonymous 2015), consuming enormous amounts of time and human labor. Any improvement to the process of product design would be of great public benefit. Many “smart systems” approaches to the product design process address the problems inherent in this process with limited success. In fact, existing “smart systems” are not very smart. There is an extensive literature available to product designers and engineers addressing lapses in strategies for the successful integration of qualitative and quantitative factors in the design process. It...

Digital Living and Sensory Perception: Implications for Ethnography and Design

by SARAH PINK, RMIT University As an ethnographer working at the interface of theory and praxis, I frame my research by the need to understand the sensory and digital environments in which we live. Approaching the world through the prism of the digital and sensory offers us a novel and effective way of engaging with contemporary social and environmental challenges – like those relating to energy, safety or privacy – which are also challenges for industry. But why these particular turns to the digital and the sensory? And why now? Every few years ethnography gets caught up in a new theoretical ‘turn’, a novel way of thinking that casts existing paradigms into critical relief. Sometimes it feels like theory turns so often that, if we took each trend seriously, we would get caught up in whirlpool of abstraction. We have been through the reflexive, gendered and embodied turns of ethnography of the 1980s and 1990s. More recently we’ve seen Christine Hine’s Virtual Ethnography and Ethnography for the Internet, Tom Boellstorff...

Sensemaking Methodology: A Liberation Theory of Communicative Agency

by PETER HAYWARD JONES, OCAD University, Toronto [this is one of two posts on sensemaking; see also the companion piece Sensemaking in Organizations by Laura McNamara] I’ve seen a lot of methodology fashion come and go. Before completing a doctorate that really anchored my work in ethnography, I was trained as a cognitive psychologist, designing and evaluating user experience for software and information technology. Since the 1980s, I’ve watched methodologies emerge, some becoming fads and others disappearing from the canon. I’ve learned and applied methods consistent with the theoretical commitments and practices of a methodology. My experience with sensemaking methodology has a long timeline, which relates to how we establish “methodological commitments.” This post explores those commitments and major developments and types of sensemaking methodology. As an early usability methodologist – I was trained in IBM and built a few labs before Microsoft had labs – I explored the full range of applications of lab and...

Standards of Practice for Ethnography in Industry

by ALLEN W. BATTEAU, Wayne State University, & ROBERT J. MORAIS, Weinman Schnee Morais, Inc. Ethnography is at a crossroads. A methodology that was once the exclusive preserve of anthropologists, with its precursors found among a few colonial administrators, intrepid explorers, Indian agents, and their academic advisors, and, at least in the eyes of anthropologists, “owned” by anthropology, has in the past fifty years been embraced by numerous academic disciplines including sociology, education research, design research, and management studies. The founding and ten-year growth of the EPIC conference is recognition within numerous quarters that ethnography matters. Central to EPIC is “the view that theory and practice inform one another and that the integration of rigorous methods and theory from multiple disciplines creates transformative value for businesses.” Overlapping with ethnography’s evolution, during the last several decades, the application of anthropology in business has gained increasing recognition; although,...

Sensemaking in Organizations: Reflections on Karl Weick and Social Theory

by LAURA A. MCNAMARA, Sandia National Laboratories [this is one of two posts on sensemaking; see also the companion piece Sensemaking Methodology by Peter Jones] Sensemaking is a term that gets thrown around a lot without much consideration about where the concept came from or what it really means. If sensemaking theory is democratizing, that’s good thing. Most anthropologists recognize that ethnography is a joint co-creation with our interlocutors. Our accounts, as well as the theory, framework and methods underlying those accounts, should be accessible to the people who help us create them. Sociologists recognize this principle, too: in his gorgeous essay Social Things (which you should read if you haven’t already), Charles Lemert reminds us that social science articulates our native social intelligence through instruments of theory, concepts, methods, language, discourse, texts. Really good sociology and anthropology sharpen that intelligence. They’re powerful because they enhance our understanding of what it means to...

Ethnographers, Bearers of Bad News

sam_ladner
by SAM LADNER, Microsoft Ask any applied ethnographer what is the hardest thing about their work. Go ahead, just ask one. More than likely, she will exhale slowly, slump back in her chair, fix you with a steely stare and say, “I spend so little time on actual research.” Her gaze may drift away at this moment. She might look at her hands and say, “I’m not even sure if I actually do research at all.” She’s not even talking to you anymore, but to some earlier version of herself. “I’m not sure when it happened,” she might say, looking out the window now. “There’s just so much more to do besides research.” Applied ethnography is not for the faint of heart. It is a tireless job, Sisyphean in character. It challenges a researcher’s essential view of herself, and her role not just in her company, but in the world. Applied ethnographers are purveyors of what anthropologist Elizabeth Colson called “uncomfortable knowledge,” or the discovery of knowledge that contradicts, threatens, or otherwise challenges established...

Beyond the Toolbox: What Ethnographic Thinking Can Offer in a Shifting Marketplace

by JAY HASBROUCK, Hasbrouck Research Group Lufthansa flight 490, Seattle to Frankfurt Dinner just served, everyone was settling in, each in various stages of preparing their coping mechanisms for the painfully long flight. Laptops, eye masks, charge cords, earphones, earplugs, slippers, hand cream…they were very busy. The woman next to me popped a sleeping pill and was situating her blankets. I began my own ritual of scanning the entertainment channels to plan my movie lineup. As I was flipping through documentaries, I unexpectedly ran across an educational featurette titled “Design Thinking in 30 Minutes.” Yes, 30 minutes! The more I thought about this featurette as an offering aimed at a mass audience, the more it seemed like an indicator of sorts to me. At face value, it’s a sign that interest in design thinking has become so widespread that a 30-minute short on the subject warranted inclusion in a carefully curated inflight entertainment lineup. But did it also suggest that the practice to which many have dedicated...

Yes, Virginia, We “Do Ethnography” in Business Schools

Gary Gephardt
by GARY GEBHARDT, HEC Montréal; co-chair of EPIC2017 One of the most common questions I get at EPIC is, “You do ethnography in business schools?" So ken anderson invited me to write a response to this recurring question. I’ll break the response into three topic areas: (1) the use of ethnography and its status vis-à-vis research on management; (2) where, why, and how we teach ethnography in the classroom; and (3) some of the challenges and opportunities of ethnography in management research and business school education. Ethnography and Research on Management First let’s consider some history. Oxford University was founded in 1096. Harvard University—the first university in North America—was founded in 1636. Yet Harvard Business School was the first to offer an MBA and it was founded in 1908. Business schools as training grounds for general and strategic management are a relatively recent phenomenon. Then, beginning in the late 1950s, there was a major movement to make business schools more academic and rigorous...

Building a Useful Research Tool: An Origin Story of AEIOU

by RICK E. ROBINSON, SapientNitro It is awfully nice not to have to invent a basic tool over and over again. For ethnographers, coding and categorization is work that has to happen whether you are studying housework or neurosurgery, with novices or experts, in an exotic location or in suburban Ohio (no offense to my friends and family in Ohio). A coding structure is one of the most basic and useful tools you ought to have. Devising one that works with your data can be a great deal of work—finding and maintaining the right level of abstraction, setting parameters that make meaningful, consistent distinctions, all while balancing specificity for the frame of the immediate data and the purpose of the inquiry (is it deep cleaning or spot? open surgery or laparoscopic?) against the ability to generalize categories across investigations, to test or refute interpretations in independent engagements. All the sort of work that supports the value of any repeatable methodology. Not something one minds doing in the course of an investigation...

Could Communication Overload Result in Police Mistakes?

by SALLY A. APPLIN, University of Kent, Canterbury - Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing The United States is in the midst of a new chapter in policing. In several very public cases, police have made fatal errors with regard to identifying criminal suspects and have shot and killed unarmed citizens by mistake. Societal outrage, protests and debates have ensued as these types of episodes continue to occur, reigniting important conversations about racism, socioeconomic divides, and policing budgets. Unfortunately, there is a major aspect of contemporary law enforcement that rarely makes an appearance in the ongoing conversations about policing; the communications landscape within which police systems are embedded, and the complex interrelationship between the police, their communications systems, and the people that they serve and protect. Police vehicles contain massive amounts of communications equipment, and it is worth examining whether or not communications equipment in police vehicles is standard between vehicles; which...

ken anderson / A Profile

ken anderson
EPIC Profiles Series by MIKE KIPPENHAN [based on an interview with ken at the Intel Jones Farm Campus, Hillsboro, Oregon, August 25, 2014] “Nobody liked them. No sense of humor.” These days ken anderson may not talk much about the French ethnographers he interacted with in Portugal’s Azores—or about his dissertation research at all—but when he does, his observations are acute. ken, now an ethnographer in Intel’s Cultural Transformations Lab and an EPIC board member, had an unusual approach to the work on that trip. “We were just laughing at everything because we didn’t understand what they were saying,” he said. “We thought laughing was a good thing to do.” Turns out, he was right. Now ken is situated in a different host culture—Intel. He believes it took him over a year to fully appreciate how the company operated. He had worked for high tech companies previously, and naturally viewed his new employer through a similar lens. When it finally sank in that Intel was a manufacturing company in the high...

How Theory Matters: Benjamin, Foucault, and Quantified Self—Oh My!

by JAMIE SHERMAN, Intel Corporation For many anthropologists and ethnographers—and particularly those of us based in the US, where the self and its adherent freedoms and choices have long been a core cultural construct—the self is frequently at the center of our studies. Indeed we are often in a privileged position from which to critique and dismantle notions of self that are too easy, too pat, too unified. But increasing penetration of data into the domain of the “personal” and to the management and care of the self suggest that something is afoot in how the self is understood, experienced, and practiced more broadly. As an anthropologist working for a technology company, understanding this shift becomes important as we design for a world in which data plays new roles and gains different valences than it once had. While the future remains an open question, social science theory helps ground present uncertainties in historical trajectories and suggests key directions for research and design that intersect these changes. Just...

What Does the US-Cuba Détente Mean for the Culture Industries and Ethnographic Praxis?

by MELISA RIVIèRE, Institute for Global Studies, University of Minnesota For over five decades in the U.S., “Cuba” has been wielded foremost as a political term, serving only secondarily as a geographic or cultural designation. The archipelago—just ninety miles from U.S. shores and rich in arts, sports, religion, medicine, agriculture, and history—has been largely off limits to U.S. citizens. Then, in a sudden announcement, the Obama Administration proposed to normalize diplomatic relations after more than fifty years of hostility between the two nations. Of particular interest to ethnographers is the fact that these recent changes to U.S. policy have focused attention on cultural and education industries as avenues of political reconciliation. The new U.S. travel regulations that allow U.S. citizens to legally visit Cuba have expanded particularly in the educational and cultural spheres. This opening will give ethnographers an opportunity to study not only Cuban culture, but also an unfolding trend in travel and tourism. In...

Everything is Made up and the Points Don’t Matter

by JON KOLKO, Vice President of Design, Blackboard As children, we view the world as fixed. In the US, kids learn that red means stop, Columbus had three ships, and the police are there to protect us. We learn culture as immobile and that we have a place in that culture, and this place is reiterated continually by our socioeconomic situation and the people we see around us. As we get older, some of us experience this perspective shifting. We realize our own volition to change our circumstances and circumstances of those around us, and we begin to understand that through the long, arduous slog of work and research, we can positively impact some of the fundamental truths of our world. But many never experience that shift. They grow older and still see rules as boundaries, history as a simple single-threaded narrative, and the hopelessness of many of the world's social ills as unavoidable and immobile. There's an unpleasant inevitability in this perspective, and over time, it breeds a sense of despair. I consistently see signals...

Creating Ethnography

by NEAL H. PATEL, Google What is an anthropologist? What does an ethnographer actually do? I used to believe that my own answers to these questions were sufficient. In reality, however, the existential dilemma at the foundation of any institution—academic, professional, or otherwise—is a socially constructed affair. In other words, whether I want to admit it or not, my answers are partially your answers—for that matter, all of our collective answers. Indeed, the very existence of a mutually shared set of practical assumptions about ethnography is what makes these questions so important. Meanings are contested, negotiated, and (if you believe Berger and Luckmann1) thereby constitutive of the agreed-upon fiction we call “reality.” Most of us might agree that we are, more or less, the biographers of that fiction. We are interested in how it comes into being, what sustains it, what motivates it, and how it responds to challenges. We pluck assumptions from reality and sell them to clients. Together, this activity constitutes...