Remembering Brigitte Jordan

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GittiThis week we lost a pioneer of ethnography in business and a treasured member of our community. Brigitte "Gitti" Jordan's professional contributions were tremendous and she was a tireless advocate for ethnographic practice and anthropological insights in the workplace, in organizations, and beyond.

In honor of Gitti's exceptional life and legacy, we invite you to share your memories on this page in Comments below.


The following obituary was written by Melissa Cefkin, with input from Robert Irwin, Robbie Davis Floyd, Lucy Suchman, Susan Stucky and Jeanette Blomberg.

Brigitte (Gitti) Jordan was a trailblazing anthropologist whose work spanned from childbirth to autonomous vehicles and from village huts to corporate halls of power. Gitti died May 24, 2016 at her home in La Honda, California surrounded by loved ones. She was 78. She is survived by her beloved husband, Robert Irwin, and three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Gitti was born in a brewery in the postcard-lovely Bavarian city of Passau, and spent her early childhood, as her husband Bob recounts it, alternately chasing snakes in the family garden and avoiding Allied bombs in the bomb shelter. She came to the United States following her marriage to an American GI. Later divorcing, they had three children. Upon deciding to return to school for graduate studies, Gitti sat down with a university course catalogue and, starting with the A’s, she came across Anthropology. There she made her professional home.

birth in four culturesGitti’s seminal research as a medical anthropologist among the Maya in the Yucatan led to her pivotal role in launching the Anthropology of Birthing. Gitti’s Birth in Four Cultures: A Crosscultural Investigation of Childbirth in Yucatan, Holland, Sweden and the United States, first published in 1978 won the Margaret Mead Award in 1980. Last updated in 1993 (4th edition, with Robbie Davis-Floyd), the book remains a foundational text in reproductive and feminist anthropology to this day, clearly demonstrating that “birth is everywhere culturally marked and shaped” and that biomedicine is but one way of knowing about birth. Gitti’s theoretical concept of authoritative knowledge has been employed by countless scholars to account for the subsuming of some ways of knowing by others and also to show how knowledge can be laterally distributed, shared by all, from midwives to air traffic controllers.

Over a span of 13 years, Gitti interspersed regular field visits to the Yucatan with her life in Michigan where she was working as a professor at Michigan State University. This extended engagement convinced her of the significance of long-term fieldwork as a means to both heighten sensitivity to the specificity and systemic impact of cultural beliefs and practices and as a filter for observing social change.

Gitti always seemed to sniff out the leading edge in her explorations. And yet her approach always centered attention on the everyday. Already at the time of her Masters’ she was exploring how computer simulations might be better exploited by anthropologists. Her thesis Diffusion, Models and Computer Analysis: A Simulation of the Diffusion of Innovations, earned her an MA in 1971 from Sacramento State College, and she sustained an engaged yet highly critical relationship with computer modelers, cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers throughout her career. In the last years of her life, she consulted to the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, a lab led by artificial intelligence scientists and roboticists aiming to develop autonomous vehicles where Gitti, not surprisingly, insisted on the need to equally dedicate attention to the very human implications of this emerging technology.

Gitti at Nissan Research Lab - Silicon Valley

Gitti teaching ethnography at Nissan Research Center - Silicon Valley

Gitti did her PhD at the University of California, Irvine, where she engaged deeply with developments in ethnomethodology and conversational analysis, emerging thinking in cognition (now known as situated and distributed cognition), learning theory and more. She also furthered her interest in computer science, taking a course with the young professor, John Seely Brown. Their close collegial relationship spanned the next several decades and she ended up leaving her position in academia at MSU to join JSB (as she fondly knew him) at the famed research labs of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). advancing ethnoThere she worked with Lucy Suchman, Jeanette Blomberg, Julian Orr and other intrepid pioneers to advance the contributions of anthropological and ethnographic study of complex technology. At the same time she became a senior researcher at the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), where she played a central role in establishing IRL’s depth of focus and understanding of processes of social learning wherever it is found. She led numerous teams through rich and challenging projects in corporate workplace settings to examine and help support meaningful knowledge economies. Following on her key interest in methodology, Gitti led regular interaction analysis labs at both PARC and IRL. Whether she recognized it at the time or not, Gitti was also pivotal in establishing yet another whole field of work in anthropology, that of business or corporate anthropology.

Gitti DrivingGitti was characterized by her boundless curiosity and personal warmth and encouraging style. Her standards regarding ideas and empirical realities and their interactions were high and exacting. Again and again people point to her as the reason they are doing what they are doing, and more importantly, for finding and rekindling their sense of excitement and importance in the work that they do. She was respected, admired, and loved by her colleagues, family, and friends, and her multiple legacies will live on as others continue to carry forward her work in the major fields she helped to found.

  16 comments for “Remembering Brigitte Jordan

  1. Profile photo of Cat Macaulay
    May 26, 2016 at 5:21 am

    Gitti Jordan was one of the first people I met in this community. She made time for a stranger from Scotland who had pitched up in Palo Alto with an idea about starting a Masters in Design Ethnography. Over the coming years she was unfailingly supportive, welcoming, and challenging (Gitti never confused good manners with ignoring one’s intellectual weaknesses!). Over the coming years I would also meet many others who had similar stories of the kindness of Gitti, and gradually came to realise that as well as being an expert in studying cultures and communities she was an expert in making them. Intellectual contributions to a community are important but what lingers at a time like this is the humanity someone has demonstrated; that hidden service that people do to build connections, to create community, to welcome the stranger into the fold. Her thinking was hugely influential on me, but her kindness is what I will always remember first whenever someone mentions Gitti Jordan.

  2. Profile photo of Edward Liebow
    May 26, 2016 at 8:36 am

    I was saddened to learn of her passing earlier today. Gitti was a towering figure in the world of practicing and applied anthropology, recognized by the AAA with the Margaret Mead Award (for her 1980 book, Birth in Four Cultures: A Crosscultural Investigation of Childbirth in Yucatan, Holland, Sweden and the United States), one of the early social scientists at the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a founder of the AAA’s Society for the Anthropology of Work, and in the most recent stage of her career, the head of an innovative Nissan Research team exploring the social context and operational environment of self-driving cars. Gitti mentored a whole generation of workplace anthropologists. She held us all to such high expectations, yet was always sunny, and I cannot recall ever seeing her without receiving the warmest of greetings. Ed

  3. Profile photo of Maria Bezaitis
    May 26, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Gitti was a tireless advocate for ethnographic practice and its role in and relevance to industry. She was a routine presence at the EPIC conference. For our NY event two years ago she took it upon herself to organize a fabulous Author’s Table for so many colleagues. She found ways to contribute always. We will all miss her.

  4. Profile photo of Melissa Cefkin
    May 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Things I think of when I think of Gitti: a true four-fields anthropologist; chunking (as an approach to writing), a profound and lived understanding of dynamics of social learning, an acute insight into forms of authoritative knowledge, stunning flowers and gardening (and never of the conventional kind), a seamless blend of personal and professional, a love of work and the ability to move people to get things done, her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. I first met Gitti as I was finishing my PhD and she was looking for a researcher on a project in Louisville, Texas for the Institute for Research on Learning. Maybe it’s just because I showed up at all that she hired me – god knows I knew nothing! (This was 1993 – we could probably count on two hands the number of people doing ethno in high-tech in and for organizations.) But she was never afraid to work with the unknown, with raw talent, and she took me in and did more to shape the course of my professional life than just about anyone or anything. Like book-ends, I was lucky to work directly with her again, nearly two decades later, at Nissan. We didn’t always agree with each other and our intellectual styles and interests were only overlapping but not identical. Thank god, because her best came out when there was a new insight to be convinced of, a new idea in the interstices to be developed. She was a friend, a mentor and a colleague and will be sorely missed.

  5. Profile photo of sam ladner
    May 26, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    I was shocked and very saddened to hear that Gitti has left us. She was always leading us. I personally benefitted from her kindness and generosity, not to mention the trail she blazed for all of us. She had a high bar of quality, and strong opinions, but was so welcoming and encouraging.

    Were it not for her, I doubt we would all be doing this work. None of our business colleagues would know what it was, and probably would have never heard of business anthropology of applied ethnography. We owe Gitti a debt as a mentor, and as a person.

  6. Profile photo of Todd Harple
    May 26, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    I knew Gitte from afar for several years through her writing and participation in EPIC until she and I spent some time getting to know one another during the Epic Conference of 2011 (including sharing a ride back to the airport). We kicked off a discussion that would continue sporadically over the following years about the “Business of Anthropology” and “Anthropologists in Business”. She was one of those people with whom I professionally “clicked”–she made me realize how exciting the work I was doing really was–that I shouldn’t be jaded about it or lose site of the small victories. She was wise, vibrant, kind and a pioneer in ethnography and in life. I will miss her presence, but continue to be heartened and inspired by her spirit.

  7. Profile photo of Rachel Singh
    May 27, 2016 at 6:24 am

    As many people have said, Gitti was an incredible force in our community, industries, and disciplines. I met her by accident at EPIC London, not knowing she was the woman who had been giving me guidance over email on how to be a proceedings chair, as well as a co-organizer of EPIC due to last minute circumstances and in way above my head. The woman I met outside of email was laying on a couch in the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s lobby gazing at me with sharp, brilliant, blue eyes. I walked over to her and she patted the couch beside her. I sat on her feet in exhaustion and she sat up and grasped my hand. This was Gitti to me – where science lives, warmth and great beauty and understanding. I am able to do what I do today, in large part due to her pioneering and knowing. I am able to do all that with heart, because I learned that from her too. She had a monumental impact on our community and the world, and a monumental impact on me.

  8. Profile photo of Heather S. Roth
    May 27, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Like many others, the news of Gitti’s passing has been deeply saddening and difficult to believe. In Fall 2014, our design anthropology class led by Christina Wasson worked with Gitti and the lab at the Nissan Research Center. She visited us three times throughout the course and called in every week to mentor us and share her expertise. I remember her brightly colored outfits and the way she laughed when she showed us a video of her riding around in a tiny, brand new high-tech car powered by Nissan. She was truly a generous individual with her knowledge and passion for anthropology, and she inspired myself and others in the class to build upon the work of giants, such as herself. We send our thoughts to her family at this time.

  9. Profile photo of
    Jeanette Blomberg
    May 27, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Gitti was a friend, a colleague, and an inspiration. What compassion, energy, and commitment she had to ideas, people, and community building! I first met Gitti over 30 years ago when she breezed into the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for her periodic visit to see what we were up to there and lend her insights to our work. For me she was this sophisticated fireball, so stylishly dressed and with so much confidence. I wished I was more like her, but I settled for just learning from her and over time becoming her friend.
    When Gitti finally decided she was ready to make the switch from academia to corporate research, she and I shared a position at PARC and we worked together on developing and delivering a series of workshops on the ethnographic approach for a broad spectrum of folks at Xerox and beyond. What fun it was to tag team with Gitti as we introduced new ways of seeing the world people, some folks later telling us it was a transformative experience for them.
    Gitti also introduced and led the interaction analysis lab at Xerox PARC and IRL (Institute for Research on Learning) where she could be seen demonstrating many of her talents – a passion for what could be learned if we slowed down and truly looked at what people were doing together; a confident insistence that we follow the informal rules of the Lab, particularly that any “speculation” should be based on what could be seen on the video recordings; and a welcoming demeanor to all who ventured into the lab either with their videos in hand or just to participate in looking carefully together.
    After I left Xerox PARC Gitti and I continued to interact over an occasional lunch or dinner. We talk about life and family, but mostly about ideas. She was always “pushing” me to be more vocal; particularly about things she and I both cared deeply about, most recently the importance of an anthropological perspective on data analytics. When I need a push going forward, I’ll think of Gitti saying to me emphatically, “Jeanette you have to write about this.”
    I will deeply miss Gitti, and will always remember her for an untiring commitment to the power of ideas to change the world.

  10. Profile photo of Christina Wasson
    May 27, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    I join with our community in mourning the loss of an important founding figure of ethnographic praxis in industry. Our field is so young that she is the first major figure to leave us. It feels like a rite of passage for the whole community, moving us toward a sobering increase in maturity.

    While I had known Gitti for many years, I had the luck to become much closer to her through our collaboration on a class project for my 2014 Design Anthropology course, and the subsequent dissemination of our findings, which extended to EPIC 2015. I greatly admired her fierce spirit and her empowered stance toward all people and situations. She managed the challenges of aging with grace and understatement. Conversations were always a joy due to her boundless curiosity and piercing insights. My students learned so much from her. And her gardens were fabulous too. She will remain a strong presence in our field and a role model for all of us.

  11. Profile photo of Jofish Kaye
    May 31, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Gitte was generous with her time, her wisdom, and her ability to create and build communities. I particularly remember fondly a long discussion in the PARC cafeteria with her and Danny Bobrow telling us about the origins of ethnomethodology at PARC and EuroPARC. She was insightful and enthusiastic and vibrant. I count myself lucky to have known her.

  12. Profile photo of
    Mike Agar
    June 1, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    I’ve known Gitti as a colleague for decades. We were never close friends, but there was that substrate of mutual liking and respect that left a string of gourmet brain food conversations in their wake. Last time, a couple of years ago, she was working on the driverless car concept. She wanted to know how a boy who grew up in California car culture in the 50s and 60s felt about a vehicle he didn’t control. Confused the hell out of me, not unusual when someone trained in anthropology tries to talk about their own cultural background. It turned into a conversation about the connection between personal power and powerful tools and the extent to which one defines the other in their interaction. I hope she left in peace and I’m sorry that she’s gone.

  13. Profile photo of Patricia Sunderland
    June 3, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    I still remember the first time I saw Gitti, it was at the AAA meetings in 2000. She was presenting/discussing “Corporate Conversations: Communication Across Virtual Space. (The Effect of Technology-Generated Delays on Interaction over Audio/Video Links).” I never forgot that perspicacious presentation and the insights that were so ethnographically and theoretically fascinating. In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to interact with Gitti both professionally and personally. Most significantly, was the 2011 SfAA panel, created on the quest for “playful cothinking” which she initiated, organized, and led and then culminated in her 2013 edited volume, Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments. It is an honor to have been asked and included in this volume. And a gift to have therefore shared many emails, phone calls, and the chance to sit next to Gitti at some later AAA dinners and cocktails. Hearing her personal stories, and to be party to her spirit was a blessing and gift. May she live on in peace, our hearts and minds, and in our thoughts to her family and friends.

  14. Profile photo of Maarten Sierhuis
    June 6, 2016 at 12:04 am

    My tribute to Gitti here relates to her last impact on the field of business anthropology and therefore the EPIC community. I have known and worked with Gitti off and on since 1991, when we first met at NYNEX Science & Technology in White Plains, NY. For more than 5 years we worked together on “the representations of work.” At the time, Gitti was working at IRL and together with Bill Clancey they were hired by Jim Euchner, Ed Thomas and Pat Sachs (from NYNEX S&T) to join our research effort. Out of this long and fruitful collaboration two tools were created; RepTools, which was mostly Gitti’s brainchild, and Brahms, which became Bill Clancey and my brainchild. RepTools, as the name suggests was a kind of drawing tool for creating representations of office work, both for the use of space and artifacts. Brahms was an agent-based modeling and simulation environment for work practice, or as we said “how people really work.” Brahms was based on Activity Theory, a topic we discussed in much detail, and became my Ph.D. thesis under mentorship from mostly Bill, but also from Gitti and many others. We had many discussions about how to represent ethnographical data and Gitti was instrumental in teaching us computer scientists how to use ethnographical methods. Given the deep intellectual work we did over such a long period–where either Gitti and Bill came to New York, or I and others from NYNEX would come to IRL for one or two weeks at a time–a deep personal friendship was created.

    In 2010, I had a rather short stint at PARC where I joined to combine two research groups and form a group called KLI (Knowledge, Language and Interaction). Gitti was still working par-time at PARC and we again started collaborating closely. Three years later I was fortunate enough to hire Gitti, this time as my advisor for something completely different; How to create an autonomous vehicle as a “social team member?” I still remember telling Gitti that I was going to be the head of Nissan’s new research center in Silicon Valley and that the main research was going to be the development of autonomous vehicles. I was visiting Gitti and Bob to discuss house sitting. The moment I explained how it was important to bring in the social sciences and our joint perspective in the development of self-driving cars, Gitti’s eyes started to glitter and she became ever more intrigued by this idea. Bob told me not too long after that I had unleashed a newfound topic of research for Gitti, and that she could not stop talking about it.

    Thus, when Bob and Gitti came back from Costa Rica in the spring of 2013, I hired Gitti as an advisor to start teaching ethnographical methods to the autonomous vehicle researchers at NRC-SV. She of course did this with a vengeance, as everyone who knows Gitti can imagine. She created a class with workgroups and exercises. She re-instituted the “ethno-breakfast” at NRC-SV to bring together other social scientist in the Bay Area. It was as if she had started her new career. And this is the amazing part about Gitti. Her drive and enthusiasm for teaching ethnographic methods to people who are developing technology, and who have no idea about the importance of looking at practice and the way things are, was beyond any measure. Gitti would drive from La Honda to Sunnyvale many times a week for the next three years. I was told by Bob that he felt she was working way too hard and I should tell her to slow down. Gitti and I had many discussions about this in my office, but she just loved to be part of creating this new thing and giving her knowledge and inspiration to the young Japanese and US autonomous vehicle researchers. And, it worked!!!

    Gitti realized in 2015 that she should slow down a little and find someone who she could trust in taking this new endeavor to the next level. She found a new leader for our social science group at NRC-SV; Melissa Cefkin, who I knew from IRL as Gitti’s young protégé. I had not seen Melissa since 1995 or so, but we soon continued our collaboration. Over the next nine months, Melissa, Gitti and I worked on getting the new group, Human Understanding and Design, off the ground. Not to dwell too much on the success of the HUD group, suffice it to say that I have never seen anthropologists making such a big impact on engineers and their technology design as I have witnessed over the last three years. Of course, much of this success I attribute to Melissa as well, but it is very clear to everyone at NRC-SV that it was first and foremost Gitti’s experience, kindness and most of all, her enormous commitment to make a difference and to not get “no” for an answer. We have lost one of the greats and I have lost one of my dear dear friends, but you should smile when you ever see an autonomous Nissan or Infiniti vehicle driving on the road in the future, because you will know that Gitti Jordan had something to do with the way that Nissan car interacts with other road users.

    I tip my hat to my anthropology hero and dear friend … I hope that I can only have half the impact in this beautiful world as she has had. The EPIC community has similarly lost one of its foundational people. I, and I am sure all in this community, will miss her deeply. Mahalo my dear friend!!!!

  15. Profile photo of Michele Visciola
    June 7, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I read all comments and found something I could recognize in each of them; Gitti was an extraordinary, inspiring, profoundly kind person; someone to count for long-term and non occasional relationships. As a non-anthropologist by education, I remember that the first time I talked with her, I asked her thoughts about the disciplinary boundaries in humanities and explained shortly my concerns for the absence in our practices of unifying visions like that provided, at least for me, by the evolutionary theory, for instance. From that very moment on, in the following conversations we had, typically at EPIC, she referred to her knowledge in other disciplines, like cognitive sciences, neuroscience, biology, economics, and was showing her familiarity with other languages that could provide good inspirations for the understanding of people and culture. Our community needs people like Gitti; I will miss the conversations with her.

  16. Profile photo of Jan English-Lueck
    June 9, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Gitti Jordan is now one of the ancestors, and her legacy is significant to the field and to those lucky enough to have been touched by her wisdom. My time with Gitti goes back to the PARC days, when I was just getting a sense of what an applied anthropologist might do in the midst of Silicon Valley. She did not apologize for being an anthropologist, and used all four fields in contemplating a problem. Instead, she modeled how one could use insights that came from examining minuscule details and framing them on a grander cultural stage. Her humor, discipline, honesty and gentle persistence fostered conversation and kept it on track! Gitti was a community builder. She crafted social networks and linked people together. She was a constant presence in the Bay Area Ethnobreakfast group, linking anthropologists and behavioral scientists who work in industry and academia, fostering conversations that were both fun and productive. We missed her when she took her annual sojourn to her Costa Rican home, and rejoiced when she could ask that one question that got people nodding and thinking. I particularly valued watching her mentor the next generation, including my own daughter, who is a practicing anthropologist at the Institute for the Future. When she became a visiting scholar at my own San Jose State University, I watched her interact with my students and saw the sparkle in their eyes when they were asked “that one question” that made them think. Gitte, I will miss your questions and your laughter, and I mourn for the upcoming generations of practicing anthropologists who will never get to meet you.

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