An anthropologist with a long career at the intersection of social research and business and technology, Melissa Cefkin began working on autonomous vehicles in 2015, fulfilling a life-long love of transportation matters. (Her preferred activity in a new place? Public bus rides.) She works at Nissan Research, where she is a Principal Scientist and Senior Manager. Her work has focused on people’s lives and experiences with automated technology of all kinds, especially those related to mobility, collaboration, work, and lives in organizations.
A long-time observer and participant in the growth of anthropological research in and with business, Melissa is the author of numerous publications including the edited volume Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter. She has served as president and conference co-chair for EPIC and recently on the US National Academies of Science committee on Information Technology, Automation and the Workforce. A frequent public and academic speaker, the work she...
by SALLY A. APPLIN, PhD
Anthropology and its methodologies cannot easily be automated. However, both design and engineering based organizations are attempting it. I argue that this is based in part on historic legacy systems, a misunderstanding of the ethnographic toolkit, and an over-reliance on the principles of Bauhaus, Six Sigma, and Science Fiction.
Quantifiying and Automating the Qualitative
After interviewing at several other engineering focused companies in their User Experience groups, I recently interviewed for a job at a renowned design firm. The design firm advertised for a "Director of Insights and Strategy," a job I’m well suited for. However, after I travelled to their offices, gave a presentation and spoke with them, it became apparent that what they really wanted was probably just a Research Manager (e.g. someone to provide a checklist of conventional methods that can be replicated, and someone who would guide others to use them as well). Prior to my arrival, the company had said that they wanted...
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...
Upwork Download PDF
PechaKucha—This talk is an illustration of my journey from being a dejected, sole researcher in a chaotic 300 person startup to a place where I learned not only how to be a better interviewer, but also a more effective and influential employee.
Shipra Kayan has over a decade of experience as a User Experience professional. She has spent the last six years at Upwork helping the product and engineering teams understand user needs, and make empathy based design decisions. She lives in San Francisco, and writes on medium.
2016 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, p. 551, ISSN 1559-8918,
Context-Based Research Group Download PDF
PechaKucha Presentation—The Full Epiphany suggests that epiphanies are the real metric for ethnographic success. An epiphany is an out of this world understanding for how humanity works. When you have an epiphany you might simultaneously feel the following: 1) believe you see something so seemingly obvious that you can’t believe you never saw it before, 2) find yourself saying “my head just blew off” or “my mind just exploded” or make that motion where you put your fists up to your head then slowly move them into the air opening them palm first and make that silly explosion sound, and/or 3) leaves you breathless and at peace and thankful for getting just a peek into the ethereal elegance for how life on earth works. The Full Epiphany suggests that the first ethnographies (think Malinowski and Mead) had built in success factors for reaching epiphanies, and that the current level of epiphanies is lower. Our ability to reach an epiphany, however, has not disappeared....
by MIKE AGAR, Ethknoworks LLC
[22 May 2017: We are deeply saddened to learn that Mike has passed away. If you don't know his work, we invite you to dive into Mike's website and learn about his tremendous research, writing, and impact. —ed.]
I finally seriously joined EPIC. By "seriously" I mean "sent them money." It was high time. I'm a creole with academic, applied, and practitioner ancestry. As a practitioner over the last several years, I've been wildly successful working on a specific local problem and a spectacular failure at approval for the results of that work from higher levels of the bureaucracy. Most of this work was in the area of social services. There is a correlation here between local success and distant failure that’s fairly typical of social services. It might be that a social services focus differentiates the work I do from the usual EPIC project. More on that in a moment.
First some background on the “I” in EPIC. It stands for "industry." My work in the world of commerce is limited, to put it generously....
As a working mother it’s important to me that my 5 year old knows what I do. This isn’t just so that she understands where mommy goes all day. It’s also because I feel that it is critical that I provide her as many examples as possible of women who are taking leadership roles and making an impact in the world. And I know that, as her primary role model, it’s important to both of us that I include myself among those impactful women. So without any hesitation when the form came home from my daughter’s elementary school asking for volunteers for career day, I filled it out. In the field for occupation I wrote “Ethnographer.” A few weeks later I received a formal invitation telling me that I would be giving a half hour presentation to two classes about what I do for a living.
That is when panic struck. Everyone in this room knows how difficult ethnographic praxis can be to explain. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my entire professional career as a researcher trying to explain–mostly...
by MARTHA COTTON, GARY GEBHARDT, TRACEY LOVEJOY, ABBAS JAFFER — and you!
How have professional skills & requirements for ethnographers and other human-centered researchers changed over the last 10 years—and where are they headed? How can you evaluate the confusing terrain of position titles and descriptions, as well as assess the organizations offering them? Post your questions, insights & ideas!
This week, 1–4 December, join the EPx Forum for a free, online discussion with Martha, Tracey, Gary & Abbas.
How to join: sign in or create a free account, then visit EPx Forum and click subscribe here
Martha Cotton, Partner, gravitytank
Back in the mid-90s when I was at eLab, researchers went through a brief period where our business cards said “Understander.” As a word, it fit to describe what I did for a living. But as a job title to communicate my role to others outside of my small ethnographer community, it was very hard to, well, understand. I have a memory of handing my business card to...
by SARAH LEBARON VON BAEYER, ReD Associates
My colleagues and I at ReD Associates, New York, nearly elbowed each other out of the way trying to snag our office’s copy of Tom McCarthy’s sleek new novel, Satin Island. Beyond making sense of the colorful oil or island-like blobs on the cover, we wanted to know: Is U., a “corporate anthropologist” tasked with writing an ethnographic report on our current era, anything like us?
Most people take at least a passing interest in how others perceive them, and corporate anthropologists are no exception. While forensic and medical anthropologists are arguably the most conspicuous kind of anthropologist in America’s public imagination today, corporate anthropologists are increasingly visible in everything from fiction—à la Satin Island—to popular media outlets, such as The New York Times’ recent coverage of Genevieve Bell or Danah Boyd.
Does it matter how corporate anthropologists or, for that matter, any other kind of anthropologist, are popularly perceived? In a recent issue...
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...
by ALLEN W. BATTEAU, Wayne State University, & ROBERT J. MORAIS, Weinman Schnee Morais, Inc.
Ethnography is at a crossroads. A methodology that was once the exclusive preserve of anthropologists, with its precursors found among a few colonial administrators, intrepid explorers, Indian agents, and their academic advisors, and, at least in the eyes of anthropologists, “owned” by anthropology, has in the past fifty years been embraced by numerous academic disciplines including sociology, education research, design research, and management studies. The founding and ten-year growth of the EPIC conference is recognition within numerous quarters that ethnography matters. Central to EPIC is “the view that theory and practice inform one another and that the integration of rigorous methods and theory from multiple disciplines creates transformative value for businesses.”
Overlapping with ethnography’s evolution, during the last several decades, the application of anthropology in business has gained increasing recognition; although,...
by SAM LADNER, Microsoft
Ask any applied ethnographer what is the hardest thing about their work. Go ahead, just ask one. More than likely, she will exhale slowly, slump back in her chair, fix you with a steely stare and say, “I spend so little time on actual research.” Her gaze may drift away at this moment. She might look at her hands and say, “I’m not even sure if I actually do research at all.” She’s not even talking to you anymore, but to some earlier version of herself. “I’m not sure when it happened,” she might say, looking out the window now. “There’s just so much more to do besides research.”
Applied ethnography is not for the faint of heart. It is a tireless job, Sisyphean in character. It challenges a researcher’s essential view of herself, and her role not just in her company, but in the world. Applied ethnographers are purveyors of what anthropologist Elizabeth Colson called “uncomfortable knowledge,” or the discovery of knowledge that contradicts, threatens, or otherwise challenges established...
by NEAL H. PATEL, Google
What is an anthropologist? What does an ethnographer actually do? I used to believe that my own answers to these questions were sufficient. In reality, however, the existential dilemma at the foundation of any institution—academic, professional, or otherwise—is a socially constructed affair. In other words, whether I want to admit it or not, my answers are partially your answers—for that matter, all of our collective answers.
Indeed, the very existence of a mutually shared set of practical assumptions about ethnography is what makes these questions so important. Meanings are contested, negotiated, and (if you believe Berger and Luckmann1) thereby constitutive of the agreed-upon fiction we call “reality.” Most of us might agree that we are, more or less, the biographers of that fiction. We are interested in how it comes into being, what sustains it, what motivates it, and how it responds to challenges. We pluck assumptions from reality and sell them to clients. Together, this activity constitutes...