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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Applied Semiotics: Embracing Strategic Thinking and Fostering Innovation

by LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA, Visual Signo I am an anthropologist and a semiotician. “A semio-what?” I have a set of answers to that question, ranging from ‘I explore meanings in culture’ to ‘I discover the subconscious cultural patterns we all use to find meaning around us, to understand how something makes sense to someone’. Sometimes the conversation turns to the lovely weather we’re having. But most people are interested and want to know more, because semiotics is one of the most powerful research methodologies to engage with strategic thinking and innovation. Why is semiotics, once an esoteric methodology, becoming an essential approach to innovation challenges? The insights that semiotics delivers spark radical thinking, push boundaries and provide shifting perspectives. The method is known for embracing strategic dilemmas by making sense of complex cultural data and delivering practical insights around cultural transformations. Semiotics fosters innovation by getting involved in the detection of emergent changes...

Quantified, behind the Scenes

by DAWN NAFUS, Intel Corporation *Join Dawn Nafus on September 1 when she hosts Ethnography & Quantified Self at EPIC2016. A few years ago, a colleague had asked me about the adoptability of biosensors—a rapidly evolving category of sensors that detect an ever-expanding array of stuff about the body or the environment. Water quality, air quality, hormones, temperature, microbiomes are increasingly possible to measure with consumer-grade devices and services. He had seen how medical sensing technologies had become smaller and cheaper, increasingly reworked into consumer devices for use outside of clinical settings. How much appetite would there be for an expanded reperotoire of data in ordinary people’s hands? Is that appetite really a consumer one, or one that was more likely to come into play in institutional contexts like biomedical research or technology-delivered healthcare? These were complicated social and cultural questions, made even more complicated by the fact that, at the time, there were really only limited...

Design as a Cultural System

by KEITH M. MURPHY, University of California Irvine I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this, at least not publicly, but it’s true: talking about design drives me to drink. Not literally of course (I’m a teetotaler!), but metaphorically. Why? Because design itself isn’t really a single term, but a collection of homonyms, each of which bears some semantic resemblance to the others, but all of which cover rather different terrain. When we talk about design, we tend to assume we’re all really talking about The Same Thing, even if we’re not, and this contributes to a fair amount of cross-talk when we collectively think hard about design and its possibilities. I care about this because I wandered to design from other places, and when I landed there, the situation was confusing to me. Design was about things to some people, and practices to others. Or forms and aesthetics. Or systems engineering. Or capitalism. Or collaboration and creativity. Or “what it means to be human.” And so on. All of these perspectives make...

Ethnographies of Future Infrastructures

by LAURA FORLANO, IIT Institute of Design Article 4 in the series Data, Design and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives On April 1, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced a $317 million federally funded initiative in textile innovation and manufacturing—a national consortium of public and private organizations to be led by MIT. It’s only the most recent project of the Obama administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a major effort to re-invigorate the American economy. This ambitious initiative to build manufacturing infrastructure nationwide plans an initial network of 45 Manufacturing Innovation Institutes over 10 years. Led by non-profit organizations, the institutes partner universities, businesses and government agencies with the aim of bridging the gap between basic and applied research in key manufacturing areas such as additive manufacturing (eg, 3D printing), digital manufacturing, lightweight metals, semiconductors, advanced composites, flexible hybrid electronics and integrated photonics. The...

Ethnography of Civic Participation: The Difficulty of Showing Up Even when You Are There

by THOMAS LODATO, Center for Urban Innovation, Georgia Institute of Technology Article 3 in the series Data, Design and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives The days of gathering in the forum are long gone. Today, the sphere of American civics is teeming with new forms of participation—from emergent advocacy organizations like MoveOn.orgi and shifting information paradigmsii to “personalized politics”iii and debates centered on computational data.iv Civics has moved beyond a notion of informed citizenship—of being educated on issues and debates, as well as keen enough to synthesize and respond (hopefully in the form of votes) to shape government. Now, in order to hold elected officials accountable, or to expose the shadowy ongoings of bureaucrats, or to reimagine a government suited for the pace of the 21st century, citizens must lead the charge to actively craft political opinion, civic life, and government itself. Of course, civic engagement has never been as straightforward as our historical fantasy of the public forum—there...

Innovation Teams, Mundane Innovation, and the Public Good

Andrew Schrock
by ANDREW RICHARD SCHROCK Article 2 in the series Data, Design and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives The windows were dirty when I arrived on the fifteenth floor of City Hall. I had been hired as the Los Angeles’ Innovation Team’s in-house social communication researcher. My official title was “Design and Data Research Fellow,” although my badge read “intern,” which after 6 years in a PhD program was an unusual change. After a few weeks I got tired of looking through the grime, and trudged upstairs to the shared kitchen to locate a bottle of spray and a few paper towels. The only way to reach each side of the windows was to lean out, because they opened outward. I’m afraid of heights, so dangling halfway out the windows fifteen floors was enough to give me butterflies. Still, the cleaning plan was up to me. My work considers how people use technologies to improve civic life. I’m especially interested in how individuals become involved in institutional change through and around data. You hear this argument a...

Introduction to “Data, Design, and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives”

Derek Eder teaching at Migrahack #hackforchange. Christopher Whitaker via flickr CC BY 2.0
by CARL DISALVO, Georgia Institute of Technology This post introduces the series "Data, Design, and Civics: Ethnographic Perspectives" edited by Carl DiSalvo. With all of the civic hackathons, civic tech meetups, and civic innovation teams bustling around the world, you’d think we'd have the challenges of government and civil society figured out—or at least be well on our way toward a more open and participatory, resourceful public sphere. Certainly the rhetoric around data, design, and civics suggests as much. But, of course, that’s not the case. The significant ethnographic and design research efforts in contemporary civics are showing us that government and civil society remain fraught arenas and that information and communication technology, along with the ubiquitous “data,” have exacerbated the challenges government, citizenship, and political action. In the rush to find solutions, what we find instead are more problems. But perhaps it is through these problems, through these messy conditions and patchwork...

Leaving the Bed of Procrustean Experience: On the Need for Ethnography

by MICHAEL THOMAS, Ford Motor Company User Experience (UX) Research and Design is a dynamic and diverse domain where designers, social scientists, and hybrids of all sorts are putting theory to work. It has successfully advanced a more holistic framing for human-centered design intervention, ideally keeping our attention on the user as the key unit of analysis at every stage. But we’re also discovering that herein lie potential opportunities for further refinement. UX has familiar practical limitations, and we debate these continually—the best way to measure, how to communicate, appropriate sampling, sample size, methods, protocols, metrics, and so on. Its fundamental limitations, by contrast, are inherent theoretical assumptions and biases. It is critical to innovate at this level of UX’s underlying principles; to move beyond the generally unspoken assumptions that the user is necessarily an individual and that the user’s perceptions about discrete temporally and spatially bounded experiences are authoritative. As a case...

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....