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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“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...

Going with the Gut: The Case for Combining Instinct and Data

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners "The lesson I took away from that was, while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I've ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut," Otellini said. "My gut told me to say yes." So said the ex-CEO of Intel, ruing his decision to pass on the opportunity to put Intel processors in the first iPhone. It was a decision that would cost Intel the opportunity to power the wildly successful iOS range. His gut, it turns out, was right—but the data didn’t support his instinct. The story most businesses tell to themselves is that they make decisions based on the best available information. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that the entire infrastructure of business strategy is configured around the idea, and needs, of the “rational decision maker.” In the technocratic world the quantitative emphasis on what can be counted (empirical data) obscures what does not count (and cannot be counted), namely subjective emotions, intuition and experience. The...

Do You See What I See?: Mobile Labs Enrich Ethnographic Nuancing

by APARNA RAY, DINA MEHTA & STUART HENSHALL, Convo We find our clients constantly look for deeper meaning and nuanced user insights to help them innovate, stay ahead and rise to the challenges of business. At the same time, cross-functional teams within the organization want research to throw light on their focal paths. Add to this the ever-increasing role of technology and digitization in the lives of users, real-time play and social media engagement, and you have a heady mix that calls for new approaches and tools for ethnographic research. “The relations between social life and its analysis are changing in the context of digitization… the means by which social life is performed and the devices through which it is recorded, observed and interpreted are increasingly the same or similar. Among many other things, this makes possible different ways of deploying social technologies in social and cultural research.” (Noortje Marres, What is Digital Sociology? CISP Online, 21 January 2013) Over the last few years, we...

Unleashing the Power of an Analytics Organization: Why a Large Financial Institution Used Ethnography to Transform Analytics

by CHRISTINE BIRTEL (Senior Vice President), JASON PAJTAS (Vice President) and MICHELLE GREEN (Vice President), Customer Experience Insights, Wells Fargo Large organizations have been on a quest to harness the power of big data to inform and drive all kinds of decisions—from finance and fraud prevention to product development and marketing. Organizations from the U.S. government, to retailers, to major financial institutions are appointing Chief Data Officers (CDOs) to evangelize the power of big data. The path of creating a data-savvy organization, however, has complicated turns and roadblocks. Starting with the technological foundation for analytics, there exists a dizzying array of platform and software solutions all claiming to be best-in-class. When success drives an organization beyond this foundation, evolving an existing culture and data infrastructure around things like cloud, big data, machine intelligence and block chain can be an overwhelming challenge that seems insurmountable. Beyond infrastructure challenges,...

Of Cool Light and Balance Sheets: The Social Scientist as the CFO’s Best Friend

by ALEX JINICH, Gemic A person’s wellbeing is in great measure a product of a pleasant environment, and as a society we are placing progressively more value in creating such environments in the form of comfortable offices, welcoming homes, and inspiring shops. It is remarkable, for example, the degree to which the luxurious Dubai airport, where I am now, has been carefully designed to make you feel at ease as you leisurely cruise through it as though through a warmly illuminated exhibit hall. To a large degree, however, the precise features that make such an environment valuable are nuanced intangibles. In other words, environments are always experienced as unified wholes, and the value they create for us is greater than the sum of its parts. In the airport, the warm and gentle lighting is as much a part of the overall experience as are the carefully curated glossy brands and the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen that sell them. The harmony and general atmosphere creates value above and beyond the sum of the values of the individual...

Something More Persuasive than Fear

by ED LIEBOW, American Anthropological Association What’s the first thing to do if, at the end of your work day, you come home to your apartment and see a river of water flowing out from under the washroom door, threatening to harm your home and your downstairs neighbor’s? Do you start to clean up the mess while the water keeps flowing? No, you shut off the water first. Only then do you attend to the damage. Ninety-two people are killed by firearms each day In America, a flood of deaths in the US each year that rivals the number of deaths from traffic accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Japan, and in the UK as well as elsewhere in Western Europe, you are considerably more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a gun. There are plenty of people everywhere who have issues with anger management, macho crises, impulse control, or more severe mental health problems. But if the most lethal weapon they have at hand is a rolling pin, or even a kitchen knife, and not a firearm,...

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding

by JOHN PAYNE, Moment In the early 1970s, Nick Lowe wrote a song from the perspective of an old hippie character. This character laments change as he witnesses the cultural pendulum swing from the peace and love 60s into the hard-edged 70s. It’s not clear whether Lowe—or Elvis Costello, who later recorded the song—intended a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the character or a straight-forward critique of the times. But in the years since, “What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” has become a sort of call to action—an anthem to lost empathy. As I walk through This wicked world Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity I ask myself Is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred, and misery? When I read the increasingly frequent criticisms of empathy, that same cultural pendulum comes to mind. Yale Professor Paul Bloom, the architect of much of the recent anti-empathy opinion, has written critically of empathy for several years. His thesis: Empathy is a “parochial, narrow-minded” emotion that misleads...

Ethnography to the Rescue of Change Management

melanie redman
by MELANIE REDMAN and TANUSHREE BHAT, Steelcase It’s not unusual for challenges to arise when organizations and teams undergo transformation. Whether due to natural growth, global expansion, or shift in focus, confusion and misalignment may lead to poor morale and mistrust. In such cases, Human Resources is typically brought in to manage employee, leader and organizational expectations, applying tried and true approaches under the heading “Change Management.” We believe, however, that ethnography offers a better approach. We were fortunate to work with a Global Procurement Team at a company that was experiencing all of these challenges following a series of organizational changes. The company had tried other, more traditional fixes, including leadership changes and providing a new work space for the team, but the problems lingered. The new leader decided to try something different. He brought in a team of ethnographic researchers who spent a month collecting survey data and conducting face-to-face interviews with as many...

Translating Infrastructure to Technology

by ALEXANDRA MACK (Pitney Bowes) I spend a lot of time thinking about mail. Actually, I don’t just think about it—I interview and observe people sending things, and it is actually more interesting than watching people lick stamps. As an ethnographer, I look at the overall context of the work and business processes connected to what is sent, as well as the perspectives and values of the various actors involved. These include decision makers who buy postage meters, inserters, or software solutions but may not ever use them, product users, and the people who actually care about what is sent and received. To do something as seemingly mundane as sending documents to a client, for example, a lawyer gives instructions to her assistant, who prints the documents, organizes them and addresses the envelope, then passes to a mail room with instructions on how to send to the end recipient. And this is just a relatively common scenario; more complex interactions and processes of documentation are often involved. On the day-to-day level...

“Understanding the World through Engagement”: Jeanette Blomberg, A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by CHRISTINE T. WOLF, IBM Research How can risk-taking propel an ethnographic career? Just ask Jeanette Blomberg, who is no stranger to professional risk-taking. Her career journey, including major contributions at foundational tech giants in Silicon Valley, has centered on making participation in various forms core to ethnographic work. Jeanette is Principal Researcher at IBM Research – Almaden Research Center (ARC), where she has been for 13 years. Previously, she was Director of Experience Modeling at Sapient, Professor at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden, and founding member of the Work Practice and Technology group at Xerox – PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). I’ve gotten to know Jeanette over the past year, working as an intern and student researcher in the area of work practice analytics under her guidance at IBM. We set aside time to discuss her professional experiences on the occasion of her recent induction into IBM’s Academy of Technology, a high honor within the corporation...