Clear Theory for Clear People: Three Ideas for Advancing Theory in the EPIC Community Written in a “Non-theoretical” Way

Share Share Share Share Share

by PEDRO OLIVEIRA, Independent Research Consultant

As a young social scientist I used to be incredibly attracted to dense theoretical texts in anthropology, psychology and the social sciences in general. I equated thickness of language to complexity of thought. I no longer do. When I truly disowned the belief that obscure language hides complex thinking, I had two choices—either let go of theory altogether or develop a different appetite for it. I developed an appetite for clear theory and clear language.

Theory in business research, even when informed by the social sciences, demands clarity. At this point in our development as a business research community informed by social sciences, new theory is essential. If we are to overcome the still-dominant view in academia that our work is merely a practical “derivate” of more erudite scholarship in universities, we should invest in our own theory.

Many of us are doing this work: it is showcased every year at EPIC and collected online in EPIC’s Intelligences [], amongst other media. The monumental volume Handbook of Anthropology in Business, edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland (Denny & Sunderland, 2014), is possibly our greatest materialization to date of the deep interconnections between practice and theory in design and business anthropology.

Here I offer three ideas as a public invitation for extending the development of theory in our community.

Idea I: Controlled Equivocation

The first theoretical idea that I would like to see extended into the field of design and business anthropology is ‘controlled equivocation’. Inspired by the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro (2004) on ‘controlled equivocation’ in social and cultural anthropology, I propose that we should analyze as an equivocation the process by which practitioners must engage in strategies of dissimulating complexity in order to communicate with corporate peers. Even when we translate anthropological jargon to the language of business we are not communicating on equal ground. We are communicating on the basis of a shared misunderstanding of what anthropology, and sociocultural analysis, stands for on both sides—anthropology and business peers.

For instance, if my client is a wine manufacturer and I present them with a slide of different wine brands lined against each other, as if these brands were structural categories, I don’t expect the client to see Lévy-Strauss in it. That does not mean that an idea of social structuralism via Lévy-Strauss is not there, ordering the data, while being negotiated by the two parties. It means simply that Lévy-Strauss must be covered up in leaves in order to make their way across the corporate jungle.

In this respect, academic writing and delivering a PowerPoint in the business world could not be more different. Delivering a paper in academia is an exercise in showing the effort that went into the paper while seeking validation both for the ideas and the effort itself. Delivering a PPT to a client is about working hard to making it sound and look like an effortless stream seeking validation for ideas only. For people who are used to one main form of presentation, enduring the other’s presentation rituals can be an act of deep frustration and mutual misunderstanding. In fact, the apparently ‘simple’ language in which this small column is written is itself an act of controlled equivocation. A book that I published in 2013 can also be counted as an example (Oliveira, 2013).

Idea II: Epistemic Transference

Anthropology is a permanent exercise of transition across modes of knowledge. This transition is made possible through a process by which the language of the native (emic) gives place to the meta-language of the analyst (etic). Matters are made more complex in the practice of business ethnography due to the extensive stakeholder networks found in corporations, formed by ‘natives’ of many kinds.

Epistemic transference refers to the process by which a given mode of knowledge is assimilated into a different mode of knowledge inside a particular network.

For instance, in UX research, what we often call the “mental models” of users must transition into the “mental models” of engineers in order to create software that truly serves as common referent to both groups (e.g., Oliveira, 2014). In marketing research, what we often call consumer values must transition into organizational and strategic values of the corporation, while allowing for partial assimilation of the former by the latter (e.g., Oliveira, 2012).

Let me illustrate epistemic transference by way of example. My client is a technology firm and I am working with a member of its design team—an ergonomist. We will conduct ethnographic research on telecommunication shops in Portugal, observing interactions between customers and clerks and between customers and different parts of the shop. Following the research, we will conduct co-creation workshops with groups of ‘consumers’, shop clerks, and engineers/software developers internal to the client company. We will give the three groups the same data and ask them to generate innovative solutions.

As usual, in the beginning of a process I am not sure how the data will be represented in the co-creation workshops. That will be a function of our research outcomes and, ultimately, a function of the way the relations between shop clerks, consumers and parts of the shop will be transferred into our own analytical models (emic into etic). From the outset, we do have an idea of how to represent the data gained in the field in ‘typical’ profiles of consumers (‘personas’) and an idea of how to represent that data in typologies of interaction between consumers and shops (‘scenarios’). What precise form personas and scenarios will assume is unknown at the outset.

In this process, two forms of transference of knowledge will be operating:

  1. from the shop, shop clerks and clients to the researchers: the relations of the former are represented in the analysis of the latter;
  2. from researchers to co-creation materials, allowing for co-creation amongst the three groups.

Equivocation (‘covering complexity’ through personas and scenarios) and epistemic transference (helping other people identify with the different points of view found in the field) will walk hand in hand.

Other forms of transference will happen as fieldwork evolves. For instance, the more time we spend in the field, the more my colleague and I gradually start embodying different viewpoints of the interactions between shop clerks and clients. A sketch of this divided alliance comes to the fore in our lunch after the first morning’s work. While my colleague starts talking to me about stories and moments of frustration that she witnessed from the client side, I keep talking about the difficulties I feel that the shop clerks experience. A full version of the shop as an information system will only start emerging as we become more able to listen to each other’s embodiment of different parts of the system. What has been transferred to each of us must converge in analysis.

III. Implementable Validity

The “validity” that we deal with in daily corporate life is often different from ideas of validity found in academic literature. Validity, in academic and non-academic discourse, is a concern most often associated with the use of quantitative methods, which simultaneously shapes ideas and procedures in qualitative methods. Ethnography, as a research approach with a deep qualitative component, is yet to develop forms of validity resembling quantitative methodologies. But perhaps the point is that ethnography, with its ever-present focus on the emic-etic dimension, will never quite develop many of the forms of validity associated to quantitative methods. Another point is that ethnography in the private sector is not a practice with a view of seeking recognition by academic peers, but something that must influence a course of action.

For instance, quantitative researchers conducting some form of research in telecommunication shops would likely try to determine, by means of a survey or questionnaire, if the end results would be comprehended within some numerical limit from which one can deem them as ‘valid’. Statistical significance is the language of quantitative studies. In ethnography, however, what we want is to arrive at a representation of the shop that is recognized by those in it. We want the experience of that representation to affect the relation between agents bound by the space of the shop (shop clerks and consumers) and agents located outside that space (engineers). Throughout, we are looking for a change in point of view, where the consumer experience is put at the center more so than it was in the past. Last but not least, we want the outcome of this exercise to be open to implementation. Whether the exercise is able to affect a course of action inside the corporation—what the social psychologist Chrys Argyris used to call ‘implementable validity’ (Argyris, 2006)—is more important than the methodological purism at its root.

In order to seek the kind of validity we are looking for, we conduct multiple checks. We write a first draft of personas and scenarios and get it checked by some of the shop clerks prior to inviting them for a co-creation session. We do the same with consumers and engineers, refining the materials as we go along.

The final concept coming out of the co-creation workshops is turned into a video and sent over to all three groups, as well as several sectors inside the corporation. The video points to a new concept around the experience of the telecommunication shop. If it works, it will generate consensus across different hierarchical levels inside the organization. That ‘consensus’ is a manifestation that a form of (implementable) validity is on the way. It is substantially different from the kind of consensus determined by the scientific community around the validity of a given piece of research.

An invitation

I suggest that we can carry on expanding these three ideas and the relation between them as elements of a theory of design and business ethnography praxis. In doing so, I hope that we will carry on defining a field unafraid of the kind of theory that strives for a clear relation to practice and unafraid of a differentiation from what have been, so far, the academic theories shaping our thinking. The theoretical triad of controlled equivocation, epistemic transference and implementable validity is not an end solution to differentiate our field, but another small contribution to something growing as we speak. It is also a way of saying that practice, like it or not, sends a signal back to the theory. I hope that others will join me in making that signal loud and clear.


Argyris, C. (2006). Reasons and Rationalizations: the Limits to Organizational Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Denny, R. & Sunderland, P. (2014). Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Oliveira, P. (2012) Ethnography and Co-Creation in a Portuguese Innovation Consultancy: Wine Branding Research as an example. Journal of Business Anthropology.1 (2), 196- 217.

Oliveira, P. (2013). People Centered Innovation: Becoming a Practitioner in Innovation Research. Ohio: Biblio, The Educational Publisher.

Oliveira, P. (2014). Corporate Ethnography and Clinical Research: Thinking a Case Study of Software Evaluation. International Journal of Business Anthropology, 5 (2), 5-37

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2004). Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipiti Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2 (1): 3-22.

Originally trained in clinical psychology (University of Coimbra, Portugal) Pedro earned a Masters and PhD in Social Anthropology ay Brunel University, London. Over the past five years Pedro has been working as a design and business researcher, both at an agency worker (Couture, Decode and Disrupt) and as an independent research consultant working for some of Portugal's major multinational tech firms (Novabase, Critical Software). He is soon to start a full time position at Simpson Carpenter, UK.

  5 comments for “Clear Theory for Clear People: Three Ideas for Advancing Theory in the EPIC Community Written in a “Non-theoretical” Way

  1. I like the ideas of implementable validity as a practical analogue of the ideas of contextual transferability theoretical generativity as a quality measure of qualitative research. I would like more detail on what more precisely you mean by equivocation and how you define an episteme. How does this differ from an ideology or from a worldview? Thanks for a great “clear” read!

  2. Eric,

    Pedro may disagree, but what “controlled equivocation” means to me is not belaboring what we may consider important as anthropologists that is only a distraction to our business colleagues.

    Pedro mentions the wine bottles presented as totemic system, as totems are conceived by Levi-Strauss. For the business people he’s presenting to, the obligatory genealogical reference required by an academic presentation means nothing at all. The smart presenter omits both “totemism” and “Levi-Strauss” and focuses on how the brands form a set of binary contrasts that defines a field in which each brand has its own position.

    I think of A. Irving Hallowell’s observation in Culture and Experience that people engaged in collective activity do not all have to share completely the same understanding of what is going on. It suffices to make progress if there is enough overlap to agree on the next step.

    Finally, I think, too, of three rules developed while I was working with Paul Guilefoile, one of the best account executives I have ever known, on projects for Coca-Cola.

    1. We have to speak their language — If we don’t they will never believe that we understand their business.
    2. We must add something unexpected — No surprise, no value added
    3. We must leave ourselves wiggle room — A very important point in the advertising world where everyone hopes to have creative input and the footage produced by the shoot may not be exactly what appeared in the storyboards.

  3. Eric and John, thank you very much for your questions.
    Eric, if you look into references, the article published on the JBA is almost all about bringing “controlled equivocation” into design and business anthropology, with a case study of ethnographic marketing research to illustrate it. You will find a more extensive explanation there of what an equivocation stands for than I should be giving you in a platform for quicker exchanges, such as this one.
    Eric, I’m personally more keen on the term ‘epistemic transference’ than ‘ contextual transferability’ because what we are doing in practice, even if not always consciously thinking about it, is is not just transferring knowledge from one context to the other (‘consumers’ to corporation, design to marketing, UX to engineering, etc) but also across disciplines. You can see a lot transference between disciplines happening on the Epic Proceedings between anthropology and design and part of our future work, I believe, is actually to start addressing that even further. Consumer Culture Theory is another good example of transference across disciplines, of which, of course, you are the expert.
    As to things like “episteme” and “ideology”, I could pull the cheap and overused intellectual/academic trick of telling you that they belong to different levels of analysis than an equivocation. I’m not going to. I will say that they belong to a different time in analysis. Consideration on power issues is there all along, from time of negotiating a sample with clients to the time of presenting for them (how could it be otherwise) but the daily struggles of applied work aren’t always amenable with a deep contemplation of the power issues involved through the side of ‘episteme’ and ‘ideology’, under the risk of paralysis by the corporate anthropologist. The urgency of our practices isn’t always immediately reconcilable with a deep reading of power via episteme and ideology and maybe that’s an important point of dialogue with academia.
    John totally hits the nail on the head with the carefully chosen references Lévy-Strauss and Hallowell. In John’s comment, this is particularly worthy of attention: “people engaged in collective activity do not all have to share completely the same understanding of what is going on. It suffices to make progress if there is enough overlap to agree on the next step”. That is exactly the situation of the kind of multidisciplinary practices that we live in communities like Anthrodesign and EPIC. Writing up our theory is a way of making us more aware of what is exactly overlaping across different practices and/or disciplines towards “the next step”, or not overlapping, as the case may be. Some of the greatest equivocations have given place to the most interesting design (not to mention the most radical anthropology). I also like the way John ends his comment on the communicational skills required for client work, bringing it back to daily practice and the language we have to use in it, intentionally limited in intellectual abstraction. Beyond that, I would advise people to have a look at Robert Morais chapter on the Handbook of Business anthropology where, similarly to John, Robert addresses the paradoxes of having an anthropological mind but being judicious in disclosing that mind in a corporate context: a great case example of applied equivocation! Thanks for the interest! I would love to hear more from the community and also from people of areas other than anthropology. Designers, where are thee?

  4. Pedro. Thanks for the thanks. I am glad you liked what I wrote. The Hallowell observation is, I believe, immensely important to anyone who wants to understand how business actually works. You can find more evidence for its importance in “Creating Advertising in Japan: A Sketch in Search of a Principle,” which I contributed to Brian Moeran, ed., Asian Media Productions (2001). The relevant bits are as follows,

    “Speaking as a practitioner-observer, I also cannot help being aware of the blinders that being a practitioner imposes. As Jib Fowles observes, advertising is, in fact, what its Frankfort School critics called it—one of the culture industries. Except for the smallest boutiques, advertising agencies are complex, multitiered organizations. ‘Those toiling within these organizations are specialists, contributing only fractional pieces to the eventual product, which can be said to originate in no single person’ (1996:17). The result is that no single person who works in advertising ever knows all that went into producing a particular campaign.

    “Even the account executives responsible for overseeing the whole process cannot be everywhere at once. If they are off talking to the client, they don’t know what actually went on in creative or marketing staff meetings. Every meeting, including those in which the whole team participates, involves negotiation. The reports of other meetings heard when people get together are inevitably edited summaries, often from individuals with conflicting points of view. Critical exchanges take place in hallways or between key figures who speak to each other privately precisely because they don’t want everyone involved privy to all that is going on. From a business point of view, it suffices at any particular stage for the process to move ahead. What matters at the end of the day is that an ad or commercial is produced, the client is happy, the agency is paid. There is no motivation for anyone to keep track of every detail of how these results are achieved.

    “There is, moreover, motivation for mystifying the process. Agencies are paid large sums of money for doing work described as original and creative. As I have pointed out elsewhere, in brainstorming sessions in Japan there is no more damning comment than mô furui (‘already old’, in other words passé). There is no simpler way to kill a proposal than to point out that its words or images have already been used, either for the product in question or for one of its competitors. Once used in print or on TV, both words and images must wait for several years (or be transferred to another, sufficiently different product category) to be seen as fresh again (McCreery, 1995: 322-323). I would add here that nothing is more damning in evaluations of creative staff than to say of someone that he or she is ‘one-pattern,’ in other words, too used to doing things in one particular way, which as it becomes hackneyed, loses the freshness that earns the label ‘creative’.”

    But also a question, if I may. How would you feel about saying “heuristic transference” instead of “epistemic transference”? “Epistemic” has a stodgy, academic feel to it, and, I believe, “heuristic” is closer to to the reality of what anthropologists bring to business projects. It is our tricks of the trade, habitual looking for things that others fail to notice and being aware of comparisons of which our colleagues from other disciplines are utterly unaware that adds business value to our work. Also, a modest claim to add value by seeing things a bit differently may be easier to sell than heavy-handed assertions that we know what others don’t.

  5. “Also, a modest claim to add value by seeing things a bit differently may be easier to sell than heavy-handed assertions that we know what others don’t”.

    Perhaps so, John. But business people don’t tend to do modest claims as part of their practice. I don’t see why we have too. I don’t feel modest about the things anthropologists know. I don’t feel the opposite either.
    ‘Heuristics’ reminds me of “social heuristics”, a circumscribed field within social psychology rather than a concept that can actually be more neutral in thinking knowledge across disciplines (social psychology one of these disciplines).
    On the selling aspect of it, I think these are assertions that may interest a few more kindred souls within the community interested in thinking of things in an analytical plan (not everyone is and not everyone should be interested in this kind of analytical exercise). It is also, potentially, a way of promoting greater dialogue between our communities and academic anthropology. This is not the kind of selling argument that you would extend to clients. So it is important not to mix up two very different invitations and forms of persuasion (this one is NOT directed to clients but to the community as an ‘epistemic’ community). A text directed to clients, even based on these ideas, would certainly present itself far more in the direction you set of a claim to add value by seeing things a bit differently.

Leave a Reply