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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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...

“Culture Matters More than We Think”: Eric Weiner / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by TAMARA HALE, Effective UI EPIC2016 Keynote Speaker Eric Weiner is a veteran foreign correspondent and New York Times best selling author. Join Eric at EPIC2016! In an interconnected, technology-driven world, does culture still matter? Can there really be “best practices” to be drawn from the vast range of human experiences? These are some of the questions driving Eric Weiner’s influential writing and thinking. I spoke with Eric about his career trajectory and the inspiration he has drawn from the discipline of anthropology. His award-winning journalism and critically acclaimed books, The Geography of Bliss, Man Seeks God and The Geography of Genius all use cross-cultural and historical comparison as a strategy to make key concepts intriguing for the general public. After writing his first two books, explains Eric, “I realized that I’ve really been engaging in amateur cultural anthropology.... I believe that culture matters more than we think.” Eric’s interest in culture, his deep appreciation...

Why EPIC Needs Ethical Guidelines and Why You Should Care

by KATHY BAXTER, SalesForce "The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces." —Phil Zimbardo No one reading this article conducts research with the intent to cause harm to others. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would—research is more regulated now, and those egregious stories of unethical work are a thing of the past, right? In fact, unethical research happens today despite protections that have been put in place to protect participants, and even despite researchers’ good intentions. The classic example is Phil Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo had the noble goal of understanding why good people do evil things, but his study had to be stopped after six days because it was causing good people to do evil things. How do well intentioned researchers end up conducting studies that seem so obviously unethical? What Is Ethical? If researchers can be unethical despite their best intentions, how can we understand what being ethical...

Working for Social Change

by CHUCK DARRAH, San Jose State University Chuck Darrah and Jeanette Blomberg are Host and Discussan of the EPIC2016 Salon Working for Social Change. Join them at EPIC2016! No matter the source of your employment, whether in the commercial sector or academia, we all want our work lives to add up to something positive. Yet it is easy to wonder how this or that project actually affected the world for better or worse. What can we do to make the next project better? How can we take what we learned so we can repeat the success in other projects or settings? Jeanette Blomberg and I have been engaged in an extended conversation with each other for over a decade about the relationship between our day jobs and our interest in promoting social change. The EPIC2016 Salon Working for Social Change is a chance for our community to reflect on the complexities of making the world a better place through our labor as EPIC practitioners and academics, both individually and collectively. Jeanette has spent a career working primarily in the...

The Future of User Research: To Thine Users Be True (even when they don’t need you)

by APALA LAHIRI CHAVAN, Human Factors International Sibongile sighed and put her pen and journal down. Today was May 20, 2050. Was she just a nostalgic second cycler—facing another lifetime in the age of 150-year-olds? It was her 70th birthday and her brood of children, grandchildren, partner and ex-partners were all going to be hologramed in from across the world. Her partner worked on Google’s Project Infinity, a project so very confidential that she hadn’t heard from him in a year. Would he make contact today? She had made sure when upgrading her hologram delivery service that it took into account the possibility that Dingane could be orbiting in space while holograming! She looked wistfully at her pen and paper journal. Completely obsolete now. She had, thanks to her foresight way back in 2016, hoarded a bunch of special pens and paper. But she had to be very, very careful about not showing them to anyone, not even her family. If anyone saw her using these, she would be termed an ‘archaic’ by the USO (USER segmentation...

Auto Ethnography

by FIONA MOORE, Royal Holloway, University of London “Where is Hassan?” I asked the assembled team of programmers. “And please don’t tell me he’s on the track, running with the automobiles?” Rose tossed her blonde hair and rolled her eyes like the sorority girl she otherwise completely failed to resemble. “OK, but that’s only because he’s down in the garage in his sleeping bag, recharging with the automobiles.” “You really should do something about that, Professor Leibowitz.” That’s Ruth, incisive and sharp, perched on the edge of her wire-frame office chair, chin resting on her hand, fixing me with her birdlike eyes. “Why should he?” Ay shifted his slightly-too-tall frame. “We’re in completely uncharted territory here with these cars. I say, if unorthodox methods work, then use them.” “Mind elaborating, Atticus?” I said, just to see the tension manifest in a tiny quirk at the corner of his mouth. No, he couldn’t help what his parents named him, but I could never quite resist...

“Hey, the water cooler sent you a joke!”: ‘Smart’, Pervasive and Persuasive Ethnography

by NIMMI RANGASWAMY, SAURABH SRIVASTAVA, TEJASVIN SRINIVASAN & PRIYANKA SHARMA (Xerox Research Centre, Bengaluru, India) Article 6 in the series Data, Design and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives How must we conjure up smart spaces? ‘Smart city’ has become an over-indulged urban metaphor, whipping up an apparition of dispersed, highly networked and interconnected socio-economic, infrastructural and communication nodes. The smart city narrative seems to dwell on the idea of cites as ‘receptacles for technology’—and qualitative transformations are brought about by the application of technologies. Even after decades of research to the contrary, we still tell ourselves stories about the inevitable march of technology and its deterministic effect on culture and behavior. But aren’t cities also places that give birth to technologies? As researchers we are drawn to the miraculous nature of technology to sense, track and quantify not only human use of infrastructure but also the human ‘self’. We are working to...

Knowing a Country: A Post-Brexit Polemic

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." —Lenin My country has changed so dramatically in the last few days that I don’t know where to start. I don’t know if I even know my own country anymore. I am reeling. Shocked. Dismayed. Worried. I am not alone in feeling that the UK now faces not one but many existential crises. The Referendum has delivered a Leave mandate that no political organisation, or individual, is able or willing to enact. The country is in crisis. No one appears to have a plan. And if they did have a plan it would make horrible reading. I’m not a political pundit and there are plenty of good and intelligent analyses of this slow motion car crash elsewhere. I suggest this piece on the sociology of Brexit, and this and this. Instead, I want to use EPIC’s invitation to reflect on a related crisis—the interpretive crisis faced by politicians, political parties and those in power who need to radically rethink how they understand...

Human-Centered Research in Policymaking

by CHELSEA MAULDIN, Public Policy Lab & NATALIA RADYWYL, Fjord Article 5 in the series Data, Design and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives "[Aims] such as unslumming slums, catalyzing diversity, nurturing lively streets, are unrecognized today as objectives of city planning. Therefore, planners and the agencies of action that carry out plans possess neither strategies nor tactics for carrying out such aims. …although city planning lacks tactics for building cities that can work like cities, it does possess plenty of tactics. They are aimed at carrying out strategic lunacies. Unfortunately, they are effective." (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, 321) Growing density, climate change, economic instability, migration, the increasing penetration of information and communication technologies: these urban trends are pushing traditional city management approaches to their limit. It’s no surprise that the ‘smart city’ and related technology-oriented approaches are a leading innovation model among...

“Ethnography is Fundamental”: John F Sherry, Jr / A Profile

john f sherry jr
EPIC Profiles Series by PAUL OTTO EPIC2016 Keynote Speaker John F. Sherry is the Raymond W. & Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Marketing in the Mendoza College of Business and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Join John at EPIC2016! I caught up with Dr. John F. Sherry, joint professor in Marketing and Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, in late spring, right after exams. John has had a prolific career in ethnography as a practitioner and theorist, with 10 books, over 100 articles, and numerous consulting engagements to his name. He is a collaborative scholar, and quick to point out others’ influence on his work—Sidney Levy, Joel Cohen, William Wilkie, H. Russell Bernard, Marvin Harris, and more. In addition to his work on brand strategy and consumer behavior (among his many distinctions, John is past president of the Consumer Culture Theory Consortium), John has had “a long term investment in placeways—retail, atmospherics, that kind of thing,” which he says resonates with...