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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What Things to Teach Designers in Post-Industrial Times?

by CAMERON TONKINWISE, Director of Design Studies & Doctoral Studies, CMU School of Design Academics frequently argue for things that people do not yet acknowledge as existing. Compared to most other professions, where arguments are often between two or more things ‘on the table,’ academics profess things that they believe need to be ‘brought to the table.’ We say to students, ‘this thing you know nothing about yet, it is going to be really important for you to know (how to do) when you have a job, trust me.’ Or we say to industry, ‘believe this research, it demonstrates that you are missing a much better way to do things.’ So it can be very exciting when people in academia and industry are saying the same sorts of things. My colleagues and I at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design shared Megan Neese’s article ‘What is a Product?’ with a sense of validation about our recent curriculum restructure toward interactions, systems of service and social innovation, and transitions to more sustainable...

BarnRaise: IIT Institute of Design Creates Systemic, Transdisciplinary Collaborative Models

by ROXANNE KNAPP, IIT Institute of Design The Institute of Design (ID) at the Illinois Institute of Technology is building thought leadership and practice around using design to innovate for humanity’s most pressing, confounding issues. The world faces daunting global challenges—complex, fast-changing, and unpredictable problems—that design strategy is uniquely poised to address. Our students explore how the practice of design is evolving in response to large-scale economic, social, and technical changes. Our faculty teach methods and frameworks that support an emerging kind of design, one in which designers coordinate relationships between systems and foster conditions in which ecologies can grow. For over a decade, ID graduate students curated the Design Research Conference, which brought together a growing community of design professionals advancing the role of design research in innovation. Then in 2014, a group of students saw an opportunity to re-envision the event, aligning it with the changing role of design and two...

Rethinking Financial Literacy with Design Anthropology

by MARIJKE RIJSBERMAN (FAIR Money; Coursera) Marietta is 61 years old. She takes care of her adult son (unemployed) and her daughter-in-law (disabled), both of whom live with her in a simple 3-bedroom house on the wrong side of the freeway. Her rent is sky-high, because in Silicon Valley rents are crazy on both sides of the freeway. Marietta also contributes to her mother’s care. She is trying to keep up payments and insurance on three cars, one of which is currently non-operational, and she has title loans on the other two. And she has a set of payday loans outstanding. Small-dollar subprime loans like the ones Marietta has are marketed only to those who have few choices. Payday loans are meant to tide you over until your next paycheck, so they run at most for a period of two weeks. In California, you can borrow up to $300, but a fee of $45 is immediately withheld, so you end up with $255 in hand. You owe the full $300 in two weeks or less. If you can’t pay it back in full, you “roll it over.” That is, you get a new...

Breaking It Down: Integrating Agile Methods and Ethnographic Praxis

taking ethnographic video, illustration by Carrie Yury
by CARRIE YURY, BeyondCurious Critical thinkers that we are, researchers are skeptical of buzzwords, one-size-fits all methodologies, and facile business trends. We scowl as ‘ethnography’ is invoked just because someone actually talked with a customer. We say things like, “If you want to be Agile, try yoga.” Even so, we remain deeply committed to the core value of these approaches when they’re done right. At BeyondCurious, we practice Agile Research. Why did we adapt our research practice to Agile? We did it because we had to. BeyondCurious is an innovation agency that specializes in mobile experiences for enterprise clients. Mobile moves incredibly fast. In order to be an effective, viable, and integral part of BeyondCurious’ mobile design and development process, research has to be done in sync with the rest of the team. And the rest of the team, from strategy and design to development, works in two week, agile sprints. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve adapted our research methods—from ethnography to UX research—to...

What Is a Product? How a New Definition is Leading Us toward a Place-Based Design Process

by MEGAN NEESE, Future Lab, Nissan Motor Ltd. The Product Company Identity Crisis I have always worked at or with OEMs (original equipment manufacturing companies) in the industrial design and product development industry. The work has ranged from very large products such as sleeper cabins for long haul trucks and farming equipment down to very small products in the consumer electronics industry, but consistently, the emphasis has always been on products. The very nature of being an equipment maker requires expertise in integrating parts, components, and systems into physical objects. Product development processes have always been structurally similar, focused on integration and related at some level to Stage Gate or Six Sigma. They reflect the constraints of manufacturing, in which decisions are cascading to ensure forward momentum and reduce last-minute changes that could have unforeseen ricochet effects on years of decisions that have already been made. And they work—so long as you don’t consider software, data, automation, or...

Donna Flynn / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by LUIS MACHADO, University of North Texas Walking a Different Path The path of American anthropology is becoming ever more diverse. Under the academic umbrella of Anthropology the world has been explored, analyzed, reflected on, and then determined to be wanting of more exploration. The Indiana Jones stereotype of the archaeologist or anthropologist is still a familiar reference in popular culture, perhaps surpassed for recent generations by Dr. “Bones” and her TV show bearing the same name. Anthropology in common parlance brings to mind the bold researcher off in the exotic far away, taking and studying the strange, bringing it back to the university and, after knocking dust off the hiking boots, demystifying it for the social science community and curious students. Yet, explorers of new kinds of anthropology are changing the conversation about who an anthropologist is and what they can do. Donna Flynn is one such anthropologist, creating and expanding these new frontiers. Donna Flynn is Vice President...

Luis Arnal / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by FERNANDO GALINDO, Tellus Institute "Innovation Lives at the Borders" Luis could talk forever about his passion for INSITUM. He doesn’t like to showcase himself as the company’s front man, but in fact, he leads one of the most important innovation consultancies in the world, with over 120 consultants, 7 offices and more than 1400 projects. INSITUM was recently featured by Fast Company magazine as the 4th most innovative company in Latin America for “being global brands’ Latin American translator.” Self-described as introverted, obsessive, and fearless, Luis spends most of his time thinking about other people, not himself. This, he acknowledges, “is what happens when you practice ethnography for so many years—there is a point when you can’t turn it off. I think I feed from trying to understand others, becoming a sponge for feelings, knowledge and stories.” We all have that first spark that set us on a career path. For Luis, the son of an academic researcher, it was the stimulating architecture...

The Para-Ethnographic Trajectories Of Professional Ethnography

by MICHAEL G. POWELL, Shook Kelley Professional anthropologists frequently occupy unique roles, simultaneously inside and outside the organizations we work for or work with. Most of us are already adept at negotiating these roles, but don’t necessarily highlight this skill as something of great value, either to professional ethnography or to the broader intellectual life of anthropology. We should. Our role in the broader field of anthropology often remains marginal and our position—at once inside and outside, betwixt and between—is somewhat precarious and vulnerable (eg, Reddy 2012 touches on this, as do some of her guest bloggers). But it also affords opportunities. Professional anthropologists cross and complicate existing boundaries: collaborating with, debating, struggling with, writing about, negotiating, navigating and translating between different dynamic audiences. Embracing our hybridity is a powerful recognition that our difference is relevant and valuable. I offer here a story of my experience as a professional...

Ethnography and the Distributed-Centered Subject

by HéLèNE MIALET, University of California Davis On the 8th of January 2013, the day of Hawking’s birthday, I published an article in Wired Magazine about Stephen Hawking. The article was immediately picked up and praised by the Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s famous blog, among whose fans ranks President Obama. The praise, however, didn’t last long. The Daily Mail, a national British Tabloid, jumped on the article, and transformed me into a monster attacking a national hero with a severe disability. What a wonderful target I was, a woman, French (we know how the French and the British get along), and living in America. The article in The Daily Mail went viral. I was stunned by the extreme reaction, by the (intentional?) misinterpretation by the journalists, and by what the anonymity of the web allows: the violence and the cruelty of the emails I received were astonishing. I had touched a nerve, or multiple nerves. I had touched the myth of our modernity, so beautifully incarnated by Stephen Hawking, the idea that a man alone, unable...

Ethnographic Study Lifts the Hood on what REALLY Goes On inside that Car

by BRIGITTE JORDAN (Nissan Research Center - Silicon Valley), CHRISTINA WASSON (University of North Texas), and HEATHER S. ROTH-LOBO (University of North Texas) Driverless cars—the term, the fantasy, promises a pinnacle of automotive engineering that takes the human entirely out of the picture. But the closer the technology comes to reality, the more obvious it becomes that “driverless” doesn’t mean “people-less.” The automotive industry needs answers to questions that are fundamentally human and understanding of issues that are fundamentally social. We need to understand the social life of the car. No stranger to Silicon Valley hi-tech labs, Gitti’s charge at Nissan was to establish ethnography and design anthropology as foundational components of research that would underlie all aspects of the human-centered design that was the Lab’s purpose and ambition. The goal was to provide a path for thinking outside (and inside) of the technology box to generate actionable and inspirational techno-social insights. As she...

Christian Madsbjerg / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by SHAE QUABBA How to Succeed in Business (Using Ethnography) Christian Madsbjerg gives the sense he is on a quest. He talks about the world with interest, respects intellectual firepower to resolve problems and doesn’t believe in the ‘dumbing down’ of anthropology or ethnographic practice. He is determined to understand how corporations operate and to mature the practice of corporate ethnography to better comprehend how people engage in the world. An outsider in many respects, Madsbjerg finds himself at the heart of US corporate strategy on a daily basis. A former philosophy student, Madsbjerg is a senior partner at ReD Associates, a consultancy that guides companies toward smarter strategy using the principles of anthropology and phenomenology. With offices in Copenhagen and New York, ReD Associates provide services to Fortune 300 companies, assisting them to navigate through complex problems. The impetus for working in the field of applied business anthropology was simple: “I learned that the...

Mannequins on My Mind: Addis Ababa and the Globalized Economy

by PATRICIA SUNDERLAND, Practica Group, LLC You’ve probably been there—in a security line at Laguardia airport, still fuzzy with jet lag. I stood in one recently—just a few days after returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—and certain quotidian details of life in the US were still jumping out in shocking relief. In front of me were two women and a baby around 18 months old; perhaps mother, daughter, grandmother. In a sudden gesture the older woman got out of line, hastily bid her goodbyes, and ran off. Why run away like that, leave her daughter and granddaughter just standing there in line rather than spend the mere minute or two more it would take see them go through? Did she have an appointment to keep? Was she eager to avoid an extra charge at airport parking? I was surprised because this casual scene in the US is an unlikely one in Ethiopia. There, relations with people matter more than almost anything else, and time is not a precious commodity; time extends, “time is your friend” I heard there. As I mused...

Digital Favelas: What Cities of Tomorrow Can Learn from the Slums of Today

by DAVID NEMER, Indiana University Favelas are the urban slums of Brazil. Slums—the image is already filling your mind—are marginalized areas of society without state investments, without basic needs: infrastructure, sanitation, road systems, health, education. They also lack access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). Why, then, are they important places for studying “advanced” topics like technology, knowledge economy, and sociotechnical practices? What could they have to teach us? Outsiders often see favela residents as “untamed” and digitally illiterate. But during eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in the slums of Brazil, I saw people challenging the notion of “resource poverty,” appropriating ICTs and skill building in innovative ways. Favela residents critically engage with artifacts designed for advanced industrialized contexts and have to develop their skills of bricolage to survive in a broken environment where repair was a constant socio-technical practice. Favelas are considered...

Data, Data, Everywhere, but Who Gets to Interpret It?

by DAWN NAFUS, Intel There has been a good deal of discussion of the relationship between the EPIC community and new practices of big data. Will the data scientists have the final word on what people value? Are we ethnographers effectively getting disrupted by cheaper and worse data? In a wider sense, what kind of a culture would we live in when stories of lived experience get increasingly sidestepped in favor of a newly re-empowered aggregate? Story would surely still matter, but the population of people in any position to tell stories with data would narrow drastically. This is not an inevitability, of course, and members of the EPIC community have written about reclaiming quantification in various ways (above, also contributions from Neal Patel and yours truly here). It turns out we are not the only ones asking these larger questions. The Quantified Self community is too, albeit for different reasons. I began my research in quantified self, admittedly, because the name alone suggested some of my worst fears about what technology...

Satin Island: An Appreciation

by ALEXANDRA MACK, Pitney Bowes I will admit that as soon as I heard there was a newly published novel about a corporate anthropologist, I took the bait and grabbed a copy (metaphorically, of course, given that I in fact downloaded an e-book). How would my world and my work be represented in fiction? What truths or myths might be relayed to the reading public? And fundamentally, would I find it an enjoyable read? As I started this beautifully written book by Tom McCarthy, I realized I had to shift my expectations, and in so doing found many truths, not so much about the work we do but about the world and our existence as 21st century humans, truths that are appropriately more literary than anthropological. While the book on its surface appears to be an extended representation of corporate anthropology, presenting a unique public view on our field, at its core the book is really not about corporate anthropology or even really a corporate anthropologist. McCarthy does however have enough of an understanding of anthropology to use the...