Advancing the Value of Ethnography

On Empathy, and Not Feeling It


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2014 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, ISSN 1559-8918. © American Anthropological Association and Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, some rights reserved.

Recently Tracy was asked whether a plan to have everyone in the office go about their day with an “impairment” would be a good way to “practice empathy” and learn more about assistive technology usage. Her response was that while wearing prosthetics demonstrates the shock of becoming impaired, it is questionable what it reveals about living a full life with an impairment. “Empathy” is getting around, especially in the worlds of design thinking, start-ups, and technology. But in these varied contexts, what does empathy really mean? Such questions led us to explore empathy as a method, attribute, and commodity, in turn raising more questions. When we generate and spread “empathy,” are we participating in creating a veneer of care that obscures tensions between consumers and businesses, and ultimately, value extraction? If so, can we improve how we inspire the corporate imagination, and the ends to which that imagination is applied?

Tiffany Romain is Advisory Research Anthropologist at Ricoh Innovations where she investigates assemblages of people and technologies in healthcare, retail, and workplaces. Before Ricoh she researched reproductive cryopreservation and cryonics as means for managing life’s beginnings and endings, and the timing of life in the middle.

Tracy Pilar Johnson is Director of Ethnographic Research at Nurun, Inc., where she leads a team of anthropologists and designers in articulating a human centered digital design vision. Before Nurun she directed ethnographic consulting projects for Context-based Research, working with such clients as Google, TWC, FedEx, and the Associated Press.

Mike Griffin is Director of User Experience at Ricoh Innovations. He works with a team of anthropologists, designers and engineers to ensure that Ricoh’s new products and services come to market informed by a reasonably holistic understanding of the human systems with which those offerings are entangled.