The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization

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University of California Davis

This paper examines how ethnographic praxis as a means for driving social change via industry, went from a peripheral, experimental field, to a normalized part of innovation and product development – only to be coopted from within by a new language of power. Since the 1980s anthropologists have used their work to “make the world a better place,” by leveraging their tools of thick description and rich contextual knowledge to drive diversity and change within corporations and through their productions. As ethnography-as-method became separated from the field of Anthropology, it was opened to new collaborations with adjacent fields (from design, to HCI, to psychology, media studies, and so on). This “opening up” had a twofold effect, on the one hand it enabled greater “impact” (or influence) within institutions, but simultaneously subjected the field to cooptation. Recently, the practice of ethnography came to embrace the terminology of User Experience (UX) – though with it, ethnographers found what once made them distinct and differentiated (their representation of diversity of global cultures, the ability to think laterally with historically grounded theoretical approaches, etc.) was lost. UX, though a useful marketing tool, came to change the researchers and their productions, in subtle yet profound ways. This piece explores how what started out as a tool anthropologists hoped to use to shape the corporation, ultimately shaped them.

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