professional issues

Sales-Driven Soothsayers: Corporate Anthropologists as Trending Trope in Today’s Public Imagination

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...

Satin Island: An Appreciation

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...

Standards of Practice for Ethnography in Industry

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,...

Ethnographers, Bearers of Bad News

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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...

Creating Ethnography

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...

Elizabeth F. Churchill / A Profile

EPIC Profiles Series by KATHARINA ROCHJADI, Swinburne University of Technology At 7 am sharp on a Monday morning, Skype broke the silence with an incoming call. On the line was an affable, well-spoken woman with a British accent. It was Elizabeth Churchill, a familiar name in the EPIC community and a founding member of its steering committee. It was a great pleasure to speak with such a prominent figure in ethnographic praxis. Elizabeth is Executive Vice President of ACM SIGCHI and Director of User Experience at Google. Until very recently (in fact, at the time of this interview) she was Director of Human-Computer Interaction at eBay Research, and prior to that founder of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo! Research. Elizabeth routinely starts her morning by checking her emails. “I check to see what’s happening in the world, and also to connect with collaborators and colleagues in the research world as well as at my workplace. I like to check in and see if there is anything I need to catch up on as soon as I get up...

How Being rather than Doing Can Add Value

MARLISA KOPENSKI CONDONDesign Concepts, Inc. When the currency of business is “doing,” how do we embrace “being?” When tight deadlines and budget cuts drive us, how can we pursue something you can’t see or measure? How can we cultivate a culture of patience when we don’t get smoke breaks anymore? How Being Rather Than Doing Can Create Value in the Business World offers the bold proposal that business forget about filling all available time and space with action and allowing, even encouraging, time for employees to BE. Like artists who embrace white space in their work, people who take time to ruminate, to pause, will make fewer brush strokes. And those they do make they do make are that much more articulate and powerful. Learn how to be brave and find those small moments of white space in your business life....

History Matters

By Maria Bezaitis, Alex Mack, and ken anderson The EPIC Proceedings are a history of people, ideas, arguments, and conversations. While the proceedings are not an exhaustive representation of who we are, what we work on, how we think, they provide an important view into precisely these facets of the EPIC community. At the NYC conference…

From Field to Office: The Politics of Corporate Ethnography

SUZANNE L. THOMAS and XUEMING LANG Critical corporate ethnography does not stop at the field or our reports but extends into our day-to-day work in the office. Using the example of internal research conducted for next generation internet Café (iCafe) product development in the PRC, we will argue that corporate ethnographers must go beyond self-reflexive fieldwork to tackle the organizational and cultural politics of our domain expertise. In this latter context, we become conflated with “the field” and, indeed, our corporate value is equated with the veracity of our field representations. The situation becomes eminently more complex in MNCs where in-depth ethnographic research is analyzed and acted on in multi-national teams and where internal cultural differences and professional disagreements parade as divergent corporate interests....

Ethnography as Executive Exposure – Spectacle or Higher Education?

HEINRICH SCHWARZ This paper reports and reflects on a perhaps new development: A rise of projects where the ethnographic experience of clients moves to the center. With these projects, often for higher level executives, the exposure by clients to real people becomes the main selling point. The paper discusses two recent projects–a workshop for a media company and a study trip for management of a pharmaceutical company–to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this species of corporate ethnography where experience production outweighs knowledge production. Is the result a spectacle or higher education? A return to capitalizing on the exotic, or a much needed learning experience for high-level decision makers? The paper suggests that the emphasis on ethnographic experience offers an opportunity to engage our clients more deeply but also entails the danger of losing control over the results of ethnographic research without adequate analysis....

Big Data or ‘Big Ethnographic Data’? Positioning Big Data within the Ethnographic Space

JOHN CURRAN This paper offers a cultural analysis of the different narratives that currently frame the concept of Big Data. With specific attention to how the ethnographic community has approached Big Data, I will make the point that the ethnographic community needs to rethink what its offer is within the business world. Instead of trying to position ethnography as a discipline that provides deep insights to human behaviour (which we often call ‘the why’), while Big Data offers broad accounts based on large data collection, I make the case that both approaches should be seen as being positioned within an ethnographic space. This is because both ethnography and Big Data are interested in human behaviour and the cultural field and both are interested in generating insights. We should therefore situate Big Data and ethnography as a relationship that exists in a new epistemological field, a field that is both interpretative and data driven. This field I call 'Big Ethnographic Data'....

The Conceit of Oracles

TRICIA WANG Good morning, I am really excited to be here for my first EPIC conference. There are just so many amazing people in the audience as I look at you guys, and so many of you guys I've been following on blogs and Twitter and especially Natalie Hanson’s anthrodesign listserv. I can’t wait to talk to you guys all afterwards. Just as a reminder, I don’t know if Simon already said it, but if you’re tweeting or instragramming—use the conference hashtag EPIC 2013. If throughout the talk you have any questions, or if anything resonates with you, this is my Twitter and Instagram handle.For over twelve centuries in Ancient Greece in consulting oracles, a person who could predict the future was a part of everyday Hellenistic life. People—poor, wealthy, slave and free—asked oracles for them to answer important life questions such as should I get married, or will I come back from war alive, or questions related to business matters. Should I invest in this voyage? There were questions related to political affairs like should...

The Ethnographer Unbounded: Considering Open Source in Corporate Environments

NICOLE CONAND and ALICIA DORNADIC Technological advances that enable seemingly endless information sharing, as well as various counter efforts that attempt to limit and control access to information, have prompted us to reexamine how industry-based practitioners of ethnography promulgate their research. A comparison of two distinct professional experiences reveals how varying degrees of information “openness” impact ethnographic work. One occurs within a large corporation in which research is proprietary and confidential. The second is an open source project supported by a Knight Foundation grant. In doing so, we aim to discern which elements of open source ethnography have beneficial applications in corporate environments. We present a “layering model,” as well as a set of questions to consider, as a way of determining which aspects of ethnographic research should be shared and with whom....

Badges, Branding and Business Growth: The ROI of an Ethnographic Praxis Professional Certification

PATRICIA ENSWORTH Renewal is not just about natural cycles of waxing and waning: sometimes it means a leap forward. The progress of ethnographic praxis in industry has been a gradual but steady evolution. Yet recent economic events and academic trends suggest that the moment has arrived for ethnographers to expand our influence by codifying our practices. This paper proposes the establishment of an Ethnographic Praxis Professional (EPP) certification based upon an Ethnographic Body of Knowledge (EBOK). A professional credential and an authoritative repository of shared concepts and methods would benefit clients, employers, professors, students – and most of all ourselves as practitioners....

Hyper-Skilling: The Collaborative Ethnographer

WILLIAM REESE, WIBKE FLEISCHER and HIDESHI HAMAGUCHI Time, budget, and resource pressures will impact ethnographic work into the foreseeable future. As “de-skilling” threatens ethnography—disrupting an integrated, holistic approach and output—we must seek new work practices. We have advocated and implemented an explicitly integrative model of collaborative practice, which interconnects the knowledge domains within a cross-disciplinary team to generate effective, powerful insights. This model, which we will call hyper-skilling, focuses on assembling knowledge and communication with other key perspectives such as branding and marketing strategy, historical analysis, trends forecasting, and in many cases design and engineering. Each plays a key role in determining a company's course of action. We also argue that the multi-disciplinary team model is well-suited to corporate settings and the conditions in which ethnographers are increasingly asked to practice. Intended or not, academic environments tend to promote the isolation of...