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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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...

Clear Theory for Clear People: Three Ideas for Advancing Theory in the EPIC Community Written in a “Non-theoretical” Way

by PEDRO OLIVEIRA, Independent Research Consultant As a young social scientist I used to be incredibly attracted to dense theoretical texts in anthropology, psychology and the social sciences in general. I equated thickness of language to complexity of thought. I no longer do. When I truly disowned the belief that obscure language hides complex thinking, I had two choices—either let go of theory altogether or develop a different appetite for it. I developed an appetite for clear theory and clear language. Theory in business research, even when informed by the social sciences, demands clarity. At this point in our development as a business research community informed by social sciences, new theory is essential. If we are to overcome the still-dominant view in academia that our work is merely a practical “derivate” of more erudite scholarship in universities, we should invest in our own theory. Many of us are doing this work: it is showcased every year at EPIC and collected online in EPIC’s Intelligences [www.epicpeople.org],...

The Sociality of #shoetweet: On Latour-ing Sandals and Webinar Boots

by DONNA LANCLOS (Univ. of North Carolina Charlotte) Come on, people—show us the shoes: #shoetweet @epicpeople_org You can think I'm irrationally obsessed with shoes if you want, but if you’ve never thought about the profound sociality of the #shoetweet, you’re missing out. I'm not the only #shoetweeter out there. Ask yourself: Why do so many people share photos of their shoes? It’s not just some strange footwear obsessive disorder. The open web is a location, a source of tools, a network, and a place where we meet, converse with, and maintain relationships with people. The web is a Place, a cultural construction. The disembodied practices of the web are a challenge to people who use a variety of practices to inject their embodied experiences into digital places. An excellent example of this is the #shoetweet on Twitter. A #shoetweet is, well, a picture of shoes shared on Twitter. Basic. And yet, there are complexities. The basic #shoetweet is a performance of presence: I am here, I am wearing shoes:                                     In...

The Ritual of Lean

Three forms of cultural capital from Bordieu 1986
by JULIA KATHERINE HAINES There are many ways to view Lean. Lean is a business science. It is a product development method. And in many ways, it is a communication medium. In my research with startups, I’ve also heard Lean referred to as a religion. If Lean is a “religion” in the new startup era, I’d like to propose another way to view Lean in practice. In this piece, I will show how Lean as a practice within startups fits the mold of a ritual—and how impactful such rituals can be. But I also want to suggest how Lean as a ritualized, or routine, practice can be problematic. But first, a little background on Lean. On Lean I have been studying startups that are participating in accelerator programs globally. Through my experience and close examination of startups and innovation, I found an underlying thread that connects them—it is, invariably, Lean. Lean Startup helped spur a startup mania around the globe. It was the first model to really describe startup creation as a science. The concept of Lean traces its roots...

Evolving Conversations on Open Access: Oysters and Adventures at AAA

by DONNA LANCLOS The 2014 American Anthropological Association meetings for me consisted of a long and occasionally ranty (on my part) conversation about Open Access publishing. My conversations at the 2013 meetings in Chicago around OA hinted at high levels of anxiety and also misinformation among academics in anthropology about what OA is, what is at stake, what it might look like, and the impact it might have on their professional success. I had hoped that in the course of a year those negative feelings would shift a bit, especially with the relatively high-visibility experiments in OA at Cultural Anthropology, and HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (the latter is both a journal and entering into an experiment in monograph publishing with University of Chicago Press). The conversations I witnessed in DC this year did little to assure me that anxiety levels have lowered. From the lament of faculty who do not see how OA publishing can be peer-reviewed or prestigious, to publishers who wish that academics would stop pretending...

Calling for an End to Sexual Harassment in Fieldwork

by KATHY BAXTER, User Experience Researcher, Google At the AAA conference I attended the roundtable discussion "Getting Anthropology Closer to Zero: Collaborating to Reduce Sexual Harassment in Anthropology." Not being an anthropologist myself, I didn't know that many anthropology programs require students to spend time in the field. Depending on the school/department, students may conduct fieldwork in another country, sometimes in a remote outpost, alone or with a small team (20 or less), supervised by one leader or advisor. I learned that sexual harassment of women and gay men is a shockingly pervasive, long-standing problem in these scenarios. Last year a team of four researchers, including two anthropologists, conducted a survey and series of qualitative interviews to understand the breadth of the problem, what is happening, and why it is so pervasive. The survey data were analyzed and published first (Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault) and a paper discussing the qualitative interviews...

Johannes Suikkanen / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by PHIL BICKERDIKE, Swinburne University I caught up with Johannes Suikkanen after he returned to Helsinki from EPIC2014 in New York City to discuss his career, ethnographic praxis and the future of the EPIC community. Johannes co-founded Gemic, a human-centric strategy and innovation consultancy, about six years ago – and it has been a fascinating journey. Johannes first encountered the intersection between the worlds of business and anthropology as a student. Coming from a family that was deeply interested in humanities, his rebellion against his parents was to go to business school. Originally focusing on economics and traditional management science, he faced a dilemma: “I always felt that in the way economics and management sciences look at human beings, there was something fundamentally wrong in my opinion. The view was of a rational agent that maximizes his or her own benefit and it was always about an individual. At that time, economics that I became familiar with (or management science)...

Elizabeth F. Churchill / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by KATHARINA ROCHJADI, Swinburne University of Technology At 7 am sharp on a Monday morning, Skype broke the silence with an incoming call. On the line was an affable, well-spoken woman with a British accent. It was Elizabeth Churchill, a familiar name in the EPIC community and a founding member of its steering committee. It was a great pleasure to speak with such a prominent figure in ethnographic praxis. Elizabeth is Executive Vice President of ACM SIGCHI and Director of User Experience at Google. Until very recently (in fact, at the time of this interview) she was Director of Human-Computer Interaction at eBay Research, and prior to that founder of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo! Research. Elizabeth routinely starts her morning by checking her emails. “I check to see what’s happening in the world, and also to connect with collaborators and colleagues in the research world as well as at my workplace. I like to check in and see if there is anything I need to catch up on as soon as I get up...

Maria Bezaitis / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by AMINA BENHIMA, Swinburne University A PhD in French Literature and Cultural Studies from Duke University (1988-1994), Maria Bezaitis may appear to have a surprising career as a scientist inside Intel’s Interaction and Experience Lab. But as she says, her vast literary studies exploring modernist literary movements in the context of new technological developments, ultimately led her into such a field of work. Bezaitis felt she had learned about “the changing nature of everyday life” and it was this focus that forged her interesting career. Of immigrant parents to the USA, Bezaitis mentions that her background possibly contributed to a core tension that created a sense of “always being on the outside or at the margins”. This fluent speaker in French and Greek as well as English drew her academic attention to language and “writing, writing and writing”. Bezaitis came to see language as crucially important to all endeavours. Language for her was the preferred methodology “to work out problems,...

Models of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Models

by SIMON ROBERTS, Partner, Stripe Partners This is a piece about certain types of objects. Those objects are models. I want to suggest that models are objects that are central to the various practices in which EPIC People are engaged for three reasons. Firstly, they help manage situations of uncertainty. Second, they are tools for communications. Third, they represent technologies of enchantment. Let’s take uncertainty first. Like it or not, life is full of uncertainty. “Given the inherent ambiguity of all reality and the nagging suspicion that we always exist on the edge of existential chaos, objects work to hold meanings more or less still, solid, and accessible to others as well as to one’s self” (Molotch 2003: 11).  The lives of individuals and businesses are plagued by knowledge about what may be and what might become. Both individuals and businesses are always on the look out for anchors in a world of vertigo inducing uncertainty and ambiguity. Models are just such anchors. Providing anchors in an uncertain world...