Perspectives

Perspectives publishes leading global expertise about ethnography in business & organizations. Weekly 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 First! Promoting Sustainable Lifestyles through Locally Meaningful Solutions

by DAN PODJED, University of Ljubljana Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor When we think of technology and innovation responses to global warming, we tend to imagine grand solutions that address the problem on a massive scale. For many ethnographers, designers in industry and other solution seekers, this makes the challenge of sustainability daunting, something we can't imagine pursuing in our day-to-day practice. However, we can make a significant impact with relatively simple solutions, especially if they are tailored to local lifestyles and take into account habits, routines, practices, requirements and expectations of the people. This was the approach of the DriveGreen project, which was launched in 2014. The initial plan for DriveGreen was to prepare a simple and affordable smartphone app for drivers of passenger cars. It was supposed to operate much like Toyota’s iPhone app A Glass of Water, which determines and visually communicates how economical, safe, and environmentally...

How to Talk about Money: Ethnographic Approaches to Financial Life

by ERIN B. TAYLOR , Canela Consulting On 1 June, 2012, I arrived at the British Museum to attend the opening of its newly renovated Citi Money Gallery. This was an exciting moment for me: inside was a display of money-related objects and images from Haiti that I collected with Heather Horst and Espelencia Baptiste for a research project. I couldn’t wait to see how our coins, phones, cards, and underwear with secret pockets for hiding cash would look inside this venerated institution. It was a huge success. People were spending far more time in the new gallery, lingering over the displays. Why, all of a sudden, was money so much more gripping? The answer, said curator Katie Eagleton, was the social aspect. Whereas traditional money galleries usually focus on coins, promissory notes, and other traditional forms of money, the new gallery includes a range of displays that focus on the social history and current practices of money. Not just for coin-collecting enthusiasts, the money gallery had something of interest for everybody. By...

Reconsidering the Value of Wearables

by SAKARI TAMMINEN, Gemic These days a wide range of new digital products are being lumped together in the much-hyped category ‘Wearables’—heart-monitoring shirts, shoes that monitor muscle fatigue, smart watches of all sorts. What’s new about these products is their digital characteristics, but what's really interesting about them is that the category itself is actually very old. The essence of wearables lies not in their new digital functionalities, but in the social relationships they mediate and the behaviours they celebrate. They touch on ideas of what it is to be properly ‘human’ and where the boundaries of humanity lie. Even very basic wearable technologies—clothing, jewelry, a wooden tooth or prosthetic leg—have always been bound up with the art of technique: ideas, behaviours, and materials come together on our bodies so as to mediate our human condition. Each has its own evolving cultural norms: just think of variation across time and culture of tattoos and body piercings, the favorite paper topic for...

The Art of Sharing

by JAN CHIPCHASE, Studio D Radiodurans To understand the impact research can have requires an appreciation of how content ebbs and flows in an organisation, how ideas are passed from person to person and adopted, and how institutions internalise information, politics, and an acute sense of—wait for it—timing. A well-thought-out sharing process recognises the work of the team and is framed by the sharer. Poorly thought-out sharing marginalises team members and partners, building resentment that lives long after the project is completed. This article, drawn from The Field Study Handbook, delves into the art of sharing for impact. Why We Share Research is shared to evangelise a point of view. It positions the individual, team, and organisation as thought leaders, and primes the audience for what is to come. The primary advantage of thought leadership is not, as many observers believe, the elevated status of the sharer, but rather that it attracts conversations from a nascent community. Which, in turn, makes the work...

Let’s Get Off the Pop-Neuroscience Bandwagon

by GERALD LOMBARDI Interest in the unconscious and the instinctual has been on the ascent for several years now in many research realms that EPIC members inhabit. In consumer research particularly, where I’ve been a practicing anthropologist for years, the findings of neuroscience, cognitive science and the brand of social psychology called behavioral economics have driven an upsurge of interest in what lies below the surface of overt action. They all promise new ways to explain why people do what they do, and have provoked a sizable shift in research methods and goals. The consequences of this for our understanding of people have not been all good. The consequences for society are downright scary. I’ll explain; but first, some background. How We Got Here The underlying science behind this change in perspective is a set of still-emerging findings about how the brain works, how behavior in social contexts is genetically and physiologically influenced, and the role of evolutionary pathways in determining our mental structures....

Radical Design and Radical Sustainability

by THOMAS WENDT, Surrounding Signifiers Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor “Revolution is not about destroying capitalism, but about refusing to create it.” —John Holloway1 Serious designers must be radicals. If we are truly enraged by the political, ecological, and economic challenges we face, and if design is characterized by the envisioning and actualization of preferable futures, then the only choice in perspective is that of radicalism. Otherwise, we are simply maintaining the status quo. To do this, we need to do more than tinker with a different “approach.” Recently at the IXDA’s annual Interactions conference I presented a critique of human-centered design in commercial design contexts. When practiced in the mostly uncritical realm of corporate power, I argued, HCD is unequipped to come to terms with its own paradoxes—it claims to address political and ethical concerns that capitalism purposefully attempts to circumvent. I concluded that HCD within capitalist...

Reimagining Possibilities for Ethnographic Practice: Rita Denny, A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by JOSEF WIELAND, University of California – Irvine As the Program Chair for EPIC2017, Rita Denny is not shy about what we can learn when we come together as a diverse professional community of social researchers and designers and marketers: "First, that there is a world of possibility. People are doing really interesting things of which you had no idea.” There is tremendous value in breaking down silos and connecting an interdisciplinary network of researchers, designers, and scholars. “Second, that someone could reimagine the possibilities of their own work as a result of the EPIC conference. The hope is that the conference really enables people to think differently.” Rita’s work over the years has been defined by encouraging people to contemplate perspectives and potentials that they hadn’t previously considered—an instinct she has foregrounded for EPIC2017. A founding partner of the boutique consultancy Practica Group and co-editor and co-author of award winning books considered foundational...

Place Making and Sustainability

by MICHAEL DONOVAN, Practica Group LLC Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor Place making offers us a largely untraveled pathway to thinking about sustainability. These two relatively high order concepts—'place making' and 'sustainability'—are conventionally located in separate domains of knowledge and ways of knowing. Place making is essentially the fluid filling in of geographic spaces with experience, social value, and meaning. It’s the kind of thing that cultural geographers, anthropologists, and historians are likely to ponder. Sustainability is harder to corral. Leaving questions of perspective and authority aside for a moment, what are “we” trying to sustain? Species? The ecosystems in which such species thrive? Or the natural places—those culturally mediated spaces (forests, rivers, bays, coral reefs)—in which such “systems” are embedded? How about places at further remove from “nature” and the protective eye of naturalists and environmentalists—neighborhoods,...

Navigating Relativism and Globalism in Sustainability

by CAROLINE TURNBULL, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School & Maryland Institute College of Art Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor Sustainability initiatives—social, economic or environmental—can have universal value for stakeholders. But how sustainability is defined, and what successful solutions might look like, can vary dramatically among different communities, or even conflict. One particular interaction a few years ago forced me to re-evaluate my own definition of sustainability, and this experience has affected my approach to the solution-finding process ever since. ⊚ In 2014 I was working for a nonprofit organization that partnered with companies to certify their carpet supply chains as being free of child labor. I was just four years out of college, dizzy with optimism and eager to be working in a field that married my interests in products, ethics and sustainability. The 20-year-old organization I represented was doing incredible work – freeing children from licensed...

5 Things Great EPIC PechaKuchas Have in Common

by CARRIE YURY, BeyondCurious If you have never been to an EPIC conference and you are considering submitting PechaKucha proposal this year, welcome! This article is for you. EPIC people love PechaKucha. What the heck is it and why should you take on the challenge for EPIC2017? Powered by PechaKucha is a wonderful format for a conference presentation. Weighing in at only 6 minutes and 40 seconds, it is, in my opinion, the most compact, impactful, and fun presentation format available to EPIC-goers. Pecha Kucha is a very specific form—a visual presentation that is given at a staccato pace of one slide every 20 seconds. Merciless to the unprepared, it can be transformational in the right hands. Consider these 5 things that great EPIC PechaKuchas have in common. Great Visuals It may seem obvious, but in case it’s not, let me underscore here how critical visuals are for a PechaKucha. They aren’t simply illustrations. They’re a point of view. You must be absolutely intentional in your choice of visuals. When you perform...

Organizational Culture as Lazy Sensemaking: What Ethnographers Can Do about Fundamental Attribution Error

by LAURA A. MCNAMARA, Sandia National Laboratories This essay represents the opinion of the author and not any of her employers, past or present. The Fundamental Attribution Error Lately I’ve been ruminating on the fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias. Think of it as a lazy kind of sensemaking, a just-so story that lets us place more agency in individuals than is probably warranted. It’s a common category error (at least among the Western psych undergrads who volunteer for experimental lab credits) that describes our tendency to attribute undesirable outcomes to individual traits, without attending to the role of situational factors in shaping behavior and decision-making. Victim-blaming is an obvious example of attribution error: Really, what kind of idiot shops at that particular convenience store in that particular neighborhood at 2AM? (Answer: A young single mother who works two jobs, one of which lets her off after midnight, and she knows she’s about to run out of diapers. That’s who.) Fundamental...

The Automation of Qualitative Methods

Bauhaus by cdschock via flickr
by SALLY A. APPLIN, PhD Introduction Anthropology and its methodologies cannot easily be automated. However, both design and engineering based organizations are attempting it. I argue that this is based in part on historic legacy systems, a misunderstanding of the ethnographic toolkit, and an over-reliance on the principles of Bauhaus, Six Sigma, and Science Fiction. Quantifiying and Automating the Qualitative After interviewing at several other engineering focused companies in their User Experience groups, I recently interviewed for a job at a renowned design firm. The design firm advertised for a "Director of Insights and Strategy," a job I’m well suited for. However, after I travelled to their offices, gave a presentation and spoke with them, it became apparent that what they really wanted was probably just a Research Manager (e.g. someone to provide a checklist of conventional methods that can be replicated, and someone who would guide others to use them as well). Prior to my arrival, the company had said that they wanted...

Empathy as Faux Ethics

adbusters image with text "me, myself, I"
by THOMAS WENDT, Surrounding Signifiers “The term ‘empathy’ has provided a guiding thread for a whole range of fundamentally mistaken theories concerning man’s [sic] relationship to other human beings and to other beings in general.” —Martin Heidegger Popular design discourse is full of articles, books, and conference presentations on the role of empathy in design. In both commercial and non-commercial settings, most designers argue the same thing: designers should attempt to build empathy for “users” so they can better design for them. But empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce “otherness”, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations. Everyday Empathy I recently moved from Manhattan to Queens. My old neighborhood, NoLita (north of Little Italy…thanks, real estate agents), had fully gentrified, with storefronts quickly transforming into cold pressed juice bars ($10/cup) and men’s shaving supply stores ($25 “beard oil”). My...

Why Venture Capital Needs Ethnographers: Making Meaningful Innovation in the Startup Sphere

The DEMO Conference
by JULIA KATHERINE HAINES, Google Innovation in the startup world is broken. Startups say their aim is “disruption”—a riff on Christensen’s definition, but much less precise. “Disruption” has been appropriated by startups to mean doing something that has widespread, radical impact. They are about “changing the world.” They’re obsessed with the concept…but are failing on their own terms. Unless you believe “changing the world” means doing “the things your mom no longer goes for you” (Arieff 2016). There are services that deliver beer to your door. Services that deliver X to your mailbox every Y months (razors, underwear, dinner kits). Apps to locate a rentable...anything. Not exactly revolutionary stuff. Are we running out of good ideas for innovation? No, not really. There are plenty of startups with good ideas, but they face a huge number of barriers, and we seldom hear about them. The ones we do end up hearing about—well, those are the ones that got funding from venture capital firms (VCs)....

Sustainability and Ethnography in Business: Identifying Opportunity in Troubled Times

by MIKE YOUNGBLOOD, The Youngblood Group Introduction to the Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor Sustainability—we’re hearing this word a lot these days, even in business (if not, depressingly, in Trump Tower). It’s probably something readers of this post all generally support, and it’s definitely something we’re all connected to in one way or another. Whether we work in tech, consumer goods, education, government, or any other field, it’s pretty easy to see how the products, services, and organizations we serve affect larger social and environmental issues. For most of us in the EPIC community, however, sustainability isn’t in our job descriptions. So how should we understand and act on this issue? What are our perspectives, capabilities, opportunities, and responsibilities with respect to sustainability? Are we actively addressing sustainability in our work, or is it properly “someone else’s job?” This post introduces an EPIC discussion on sustainability. Over...