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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Why the World Needs Anthropologists

by META GORUP (Ghent University) &DAN PODJED (University of Ljubljana) ‘The bad news is that anthropology is never going to solve the global crisis,’ professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen provoked, ‘but the good news is that without us, nobody is going to because our knowledge is a crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle.’ The EASA Applied Anthropology Network’s symposium ‘Why the world needs anthropologists’ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was a journey that traversed critical issues from climate change to the refugee crisis, fear of robots, the role of anthropological and ethnographical approaches in a globalized world, social entrepreneurship, and the meaning of nation states, security, and sustainable mobility. Coverage of this vast terrain by keynote speakers Genevieve Bell, Joanna Breidenbach, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, as well as Lučka Kajfež Bogataj and a moderated panel, had clear common denominators: interdisciplinarity is crucial; anthropologists should make their research more inclusive and their findings widely...

Why I Joined EPIC: A GPS for the Organizational Rapids

by MIKE AGAR, Ethknoworks LLC [22 May 2017: We are deeply saddened to learn that Mike has passed away. If you don't know his work, we invite you to dive into Mike's website and learn about his tremendous research, writing, and impact. —ed.] I finally seriously joined EPIC. By "seriously" I mean "sent them money." It was high time. I'm a creole with academic, applied, and practitioner ancestry. As a practitioner over the last several years, I've been wildly successful working on a specific local problem and a spectacular failure at approval for the results of that work from higher levels of the bureaucracy. Most of this work was in the area of social services. There is a correlation here between local success and distant failure that’s fairly typical of social services. It might be that a social services focus differentiates the work I do from the usual EPIC project. More on that in a moment. First some background on the “I” in EPIC. It stands for "industry." My work in the world of commerce is limited, to put it generously....

Sustainability Initiatives Succeed with Good Storytelling

by MELEA PRESS, Hanken School of Economics At the recent climate talks in Paris, 195 countries adopted a universal climate deal for the first time ever, key parts of which are legally binding. This is a stunning success and highlights how urgently the world’s nations, backed by their citizens and businesses, are seeking new ways to thrive while also addressing the challenges of climate change. As they strive to reach emissions targets over the next 15 years, organizations will also gradually realize that sustainability is no longer a trendy choice or moral imperative, but a reality in need of focused, persistent attention—and a good roadmap. Organizations must integrate sustainability into every strategic plan and action, yet few know how to turn the global goals of climate change mitigation into the kinds of activities they report to stakeholders. At first, developing a sustainability plan may seem an easy task. There are numerous books and articles about the business case for sustainability, as well as inspirational memoirs,...

Simon Roberts / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by CHARLOTTE HOLLANDS Simon Roberts, a founder of Stripe Partners, is an expert at using the power of ethnography to drive strategy and innovation by continuously unveiling the 'black magic' of people's worlds. He has crafted a pioneering career, compelled by intense curiosity and key moments of serendipity. His illustrated journey begins with his discovery of anthropology at Edinburgh University... (please click on illustrations to enlarge)        EPIC Papers & Posts by Simon Roberts Knowing That and Knowing How: Towards Embodied Strategy (free article, sign-in required) Making the Case for Cases, Part 1: EPIC Case Studies 101 & Part 2: Pathmaking Bring Back the Bodies Models of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Models Putting Mobility on the Map: Researching Journeys and the Research Journey (free article, sign-in required) Charlotte Hollands is a freelance ethnographer, sketch-noter, and illustrator. She is currently researching the production-of-creativity through...

Ethnography and IoT: Help Shape Relationships between Humans and Machines in 2016

by SUZANNE CURRIE (GE Digital) & CHRIS MASSOT (Claro Partners), EPIC2015 Salon Hosts IoT (the Internet of Things) took center stage at CES last January. Many watchers of the giant Consumer Electronics Show opined the array of new products entering this space (many aimed at mainstream consumers) was the main story from Las Vegas this year. Rewind a few months earlier to EPIC2015 in São Paulo, Brazil, and twenty-five ethnographers are sitting together in a room to consider how IoT fits with human behavior (and how our discipline can forge a better fit). This was EPIC’s Ethnography & IoT Salon, where attendees explored the question: With sensors being placed seemingly everywhere (including our bodies) allowing ‘things’ to ‘talk’ to each other, what sustained benefits do these measures provide? One Salon participant noted that so far, “Billions of dollars are being spent on IoT efforts that don’t make sense.” We think the issues uncovered in São Paulo are core to the growth of the IoT industry sub-field for this...

Light Dancing with Ideas: A Joyful Manifesto for Creating EPIC PechaKuchas

by ARVIND VENKATARAMANI, EPIC2016 PechaKucha Panel Lead Even in a heterodox community such as EPIC, ‘Papers’ can feel like a forbidding mechanism for generating knowledge and exchanging ideas. To those not accustomed to, or comfortable with, thinking verbally (and verbosely) EPIC Papers are an odd ‘Other’, and almost never experienced directly. Sometimes you just need to say things simply, quickly. This is why I love PechaKucha at EPIC. We’re all interesting people, but we don’t all speak the same way. Some of us do smarts without the words. PechaKuchas aren’t Papers-lite; they’re light dancing with ideas. Less a dressy formal waltz, more a bhangra – improvised, welcoming, perhaps even a little unrefined. But, hey, bhangra is fun, right? I want to show you how PechaKuchas work here in EPIC. And how they are actually much easier to put together than you might think. I hope that encourages you to dig a bit into your own experiences, and find things to share. If you haven’t cottoned on already, this is a PechaKucha...

Ethnography and Small Businesses

Singapore Shop Houses VasenkaPhotography CC BY 2.0 copy2
by LAITH ULABY, Shyp Conducting research with small businesses can pose many challenges, but these same dynamics also make ethnography one of the most rewarding and potentially impactful ways to study them. I have worked with small businesses in academic contexts as well as with a UX research consultancy, a big tech company, and now a startup, and I hope these perspectives and tips will be useful if you find yourself conducting ethnography with small businesses. Why Small Businesses? By some estimates there are over 28 million small businesses in the USA today, which compose over half the nation’s economic output and are the leading creators of jobs. They are also an important vehicle for economic empowerment and mobility for women, immigrants, and communities of color. The importance of small businesses is not unique to the USA: Facebook, Google, and other companies are working overtime to capture the small business market in so-called “emerging markets”. In India alone, small businesses employ close to 40% of the workforce....

Organizational Culture and Change

bertknot-escher via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
by KATE SIECK (RAND Corporation) & LAURA A. MCNAMARA (Sandia National Laboratories); EPIC2016 Paper Committee - Ethnography/Organizations & Change Curators Praxis is the bringing-to-life of a theory or philosophical position. It is the practical application of lessons learned through study and reflection. It is not simply what you do, it’s why you do it. Thus as the organization that specializes in ethnographic praxis in industry, we are the translators of ethnographic theory into action when applied to organizations and their cultures. As the discipline which specializes in the nuanced and contextual understanding of culture, ethnography offers a much-needed voice in these discussions. However, organizational science has tended to be dominated by industrial/organizational psychology, business management research, sociology and economics. In the resulting literature, ethnographic methods are often lumped into the category of “qualitative organizational research,” subsuming organizational anthropology to the more established...

Renewing the Corporate Social Responsibility Agenda: What Is in the Corporate Toolkit for Social Change?

by ED LIEBOW, American Anthropological Association & EMILIE HITCH, Rabbit; EPIC2016 Papers Committee, Ethnography/CSR Curators Business interests often claim that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is ‘the right thing to do’ and that acting responsibly is ‘good for business.’ Multinational firms have come together to create international conventions and business associations that establish and abide by audit standards for fair wages, safe working conditions, and they support the development and maintenance of public facilities and services necessitated by the additional local demands created by local operations. Out of an enlightened sense of self-interest, small and medium-size enterprises may also look out for their employees and suppliers, invest in their communities, protect the environment, and pave the way for a sustainable future. Yet many skeptics place firms’ CSR activities in a broader historical and cultural context, and argue that these firms have prospered greatly in lax compliance regimes, where they...

Urban Mobility and “Emerging Consumers”

by LAURA SCHEIBER, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais and EPIC2016 Papers Committee, Ethnography/Emerging Consumers Curator For several decades ‘Emerging’ has been a staple prefix applied to such entities as markets, nations, democracies, cultures, and business opportunities. The term has been used to label virtually anything about “less-developed” Others deemed “new” to the world of market-led consumption, especially by corporate actors looking for new markets and consumers worldwide. Work in this area ranges from bottom-up players in the repair ecology of ICT businesses in a place like Dharavi, Mumbai, to top-down initiatives like Facebook’s internet.org, aiming to provide basic internet (framed as a human right) to disadvantaged citizens around the world. It explores topics as disparate as the dynamic worlds of micro-entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises; the desires of aspirational middle income groups in emerging contexts; or the strategies of actors near ‘the poverty line’,...

Making the Case for Cases, Part 1: EPIC Case Studies 101

by SIMON ROBERTS (Stripe Partners), GARY GEBHARDT (HEC Montréal) & MARK BERGEN (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies There’s a new format for EPIC2016: Case Studies. This post (and its companion Part 2) explains what we mean by cases, and what we are launching this format to achieve. Case studies in some form are not new to EPIC. Each year many presentations – be they full Papers or PechaKuchas – have taken the shape of loose case studies. But giving Case Studies a space of their own, with their own submission criteria, will lead to stronger case studies we believe. It will also encourage people to think more deeply about the relationship between ethnography and business impact, how EPIC can best fulfill its role in describing & documenting this impact, and how we can share it with audiences beyond the EPIC community. What We Mean by Case Studies Our vision for case studies is a method for teaching others about how ethnographic methods can be used to...

Making the Case for Cases, Part 2: Pathmaking

by SIMON ROBERTS (Stripe Partners), GARY GEBHARDT (HEC Montréal) & MARK BERGEN (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies (This post follows Making the Case for Cases, Part 1) Unlike the research stories shared in the past, making a dedicated space for Case Studies at EPIC signals it’s time for us to evolve cases as a genre. Summarizing last year’s conference, the EPIC Board writes: ...reflecting on the first 10 Years of EPIC, Jeannette Blomberg asked for fewer “just-so stories and more accounts of what is broken and what we can learn from it”—a reminder that while it is nice to celebrate our successes and tell interesting narrative case studies, we only push our practice and knowledge forward by dissecting that which fails and that which we do not understand. (The EPIC2015 Conversation) Indeed, even the best EPIC cases have sometimes come across as straightforward histories of inestimable success. We understand few people come to conferences motivated to...

The EPIC2015 Conversation

by Your EPIC Board: MARIA BEZAITIS (Intel), ALEXANDRA MACK (Pitney Bowes) & KEN ANDERSON (Intel) Every year the EPIC Board opens the published conference proceedings with a Conversation—a reflection on key ideas and passions afire at the meeting and a gateway to continuing those conversations together. 11 years of EPIC Proceedings are free in Intelligences: we invite you to search, read, comment and download. EPIC Members can also access EPIC2015 & EPIC2014 conference video. EPIC2015 was notable for so many excellent reasons. First, the conference took place in an extraordinary city with a vibrant and growing population of EPIC people. Holding the conference in São Paulo enabled an influx of new participants and presenters from Latin America, expanding the community and conversation with new colleagues and stakeholders as well as new ways of thinking about people that develop out of different cultural perspectives. Second, we celebrated our first double-digit birthday—10 years! Our birthday gave us the opportunity...

Strategy without Ethnography

by ZACH HYMAN, Continuum Thomas Hobbes famously warned that the worst instincts of “mankind” need strict management, control, and regulation. But what about the harm that results when we try to manage spontaneous systems too closely? I have been thinking with Robert Chia and Robin Holt lately; their book Strategy without Design is on my desk, and I’m nearly finished with their detailed accounts of how inflexible and myopic our planning and strategy can be. We’ve developed rigid and inflexible fields and disciplines, which have lead to similarly inelastic outputs. History is rife with examples of failed attempts to plan, manage, and control. The news these days is rife with them too—the misplaced ambitions of those who hope to design on a massive scale for a complex group of users. Take, for example, high priests of modernity such as Le Corbusier, whose Plan Voisin imagined the transformation Paris into “a chequerboard latticework of well-spaced towers and open, orthogonal roads” (Chia & Holt 36). His success...

Required Reading: Texts that Mattered

by RITA DENNY, Practica Group ded up by Rita Denny, Practica Group What texts had a profound impact on you in becoming the anthropologist or social scientist you are? I sent this query to colleagues on the anthrodesign listserv and contributors to the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Initial responses escalated into an unexpected flood of (sometimes annotated) recommendations that, together, speak to the paths we’ve taken and the texts and mentors who mattered. Thanks to everyone who weighed in—it’s become quite a list! In parsing it, my goal was to illuminate, not definitively classify. First a few observations. If inspiration has been fueled by contemplation of geographic others (see Classics and Tales that Stuck), perspective has been honed by a gaze closer to home (see Work that Was Not So Far Afield) and by voices outside of anthropology (see Muses From Other Fields) whether in history, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, even economics. And it wasn’t just tales and texts. Contributors to this list were...