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.

 

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

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...

“It’s just watching. But it’s billable”: The Challenges and Possibilities of Design Ethnography in Practice

by ANNEMARIE DORLAND, University of Calgary Design ethnography—the term rings with power and potential. Now widely promoted on design studio and agency websites as a core capability, it suggests the melding of design-thinking and interpretive analytical approaches to understanding how people create and make sense of their worlds. But behind the pitch, what are designers doing when they do ethnography? How do they understand the research work they do, their field, their data? When I ask designers about how they conduct ethnography, I hear things like, “It’s just watching them, but it’s billable.” Or, “Oh the Jane Goodall thing! We kind of do that.” And even, “Is that even a thing anymore? Isn’t that from, like, with islanders?” I’ve finally perfected a neutral, non-judgmental facial expression to present to designers who tell me in interviews that they really don’t have a clue what ethnography is—and these are creatives with ‘design ethnographer’ in their bio, designers who are tasked with conducting...

Making Change within Complex Systems: Alexandra Mack, a Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by ELIZABETH KAZIUNAS, University of Michigan What do historical landscapes or tacit knowledge have to do with reimagining the future of shipping or location intelligence services? In linking everyday practices with wider forces of complex organizational systems, Alex Mack argues that thinking anthropologically about infrastructure—as both a technical system and a relational process—can help reveal new directions for design interventions. A Senior Fellow at Pitney Bowes and a member of the EPIC Board, Alex’s work has had significant impact in her organization and far beyond. Alex recently sat down for an interview to share insights from her career. She reflected on how early ethnographic field work studying ancient urban landscapes as a PhD student helped shape her research sensibilities and worldview. In transitioning from academia to industry, this deeply social way of seeing the world continues to influence her work at Pitney Bowes, both for addressing immediate client needs and in developing strategic...

Performing Magical Capitalism

by BRIAN MOERAN (University of Hong Kong) and TIMOTHY DE WAAL MALEFYT (Fordham University) Systems of Magic at Work Today Central Bank capitalism, Islamic finance, World Economic Forum meetings, contracts, profit ⎼ these are not the themes that generally come to mind when we think about magic. In industrialized societies we tend to believe that we’ve “outgrown” it; in 1929 anthropologist E.B. Tyler called magic “one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind” (11). In fact, it is alive and well in contemporary societies. Magic is at work in all sorts of modern practices from central banking to architecture, by way of economic forums, profit making, legal contracts, and various forms of cultural production such as advertising, architecture, luxury goods, fashion, fashion magazines, and science fiction. These magical practices form a system, or systems, of magic and are performed in various societies and contexts around the globe. As several authors will demonstrate in our special issue of Anthropology Today...

Pathmaking, Bushwhacking—Wisdom from EPIC2016

In the weeks following EPIC2016 our community has been reflecting on the inspiring presentations we heard, building on the new connections we made, and incorporating the exciting ideas and techniques we learned about into our work. (Some of us are also working off the fried-everything-on-a-stick Minnesota State Fair extravaganza.) If you participated, but especially if you didn't, don't miss these round-ups: 1. Reve Consulting offers Seven Takeaways from EPIC2016, from moving quickly while providing value, to using our everyday work as a vehicle for social change. We agree with Reve that the EPIC2016 prize for "what you didn't know you needed to know" goes to Adina Daar: "Knowing about how meerkats learn to eat scorpions by starting with dead ones helped her learn how to facilitate focus groups." 2. Are you blue in the face trying to explain the value of "the kind of in-depth research that doesn’t easily lead to a full database of numbers or series of elegant charts"? In his Star Tribune article "In the Age of Data,...

Riding with Heidegger: A New Perspective on the Premium Vehicle

by BENJAMIN AHNERT, ReD Associates The car has been the subject of social scientific research for decades. Scholars have described the empowerment people feel through the physical sensations of speed and acceleration. The ability of the premium vehicle to express status has been a staple of literature on signaling and social stratification. These days, even in emerging markets, premium vehicles are no longer scarce. In 2013 the German and British premium brands already operated 1,085 dealerships in China; by 2020 an estimated 300 million Chinese will be able to afford premium vehicles. Meanwhile, congestion is increasingly severe. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of vehicles in China rose at a CAGR of 19%, yet the length of Chinese roads rose at just 3.4%. Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have less than 1 km of road per one 1000 inhabitants, around one-fifth the amount in congested London and New York. In the face of these changes, a client sought our help to reinvestigate the meaning of premium mobility beyond status and...

Scaling Empathy through IBM Design Research

by CHRIS HAMMOND and JESYKA PALMER, IBM Design Research As consultants we practiced the basics of design thinking and user centered design for years with a range of organizations. However, upon joining IBM and learning to apply the IBM Design Thinking mindset, we both realized this way of working differed from our past experiences. This difference is largely expressed by the addition of “the Keys” or IBM’s way to scale design within a large, geographically disparate organization. As researchers and strategists, the most resonate Key is Sponsor Users. A real challenge for enterprise and healthcare programs is access to users and their environment—rarely can you approach a hospital and ask if you can walk into an operating room with cameras and notepads in hand. In the healthcare space, we overcame the challenge by creating partnerships with clinicians and hospitals. These relationships brought clinicians onto our teams and closed the expertise gap. Clinicians shared with us a day in their lives and showed us their struggles...