Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Working for Social Change


No matter the source of your employment, whether in the commercial sector or academia, we all want our work lives to add up to something positive. Yet it is easy to wonder how this or that project actually affected the world for better or worse. What can we do to make the next project better? How can we take what we learned so we can repeat the success in other projects or settings?

Jeanette Blomberg and I have been engaged in an extended conversation with each other for over a decade about the relationship between our day jobs and our interest in promoting social change. The EPIC2016 Salon Working for Social Change is a chance for our community to reflect on the complexities of making the world a better place through our labor as EPIC practitioners and academics, both individually and collectively.

At EPIC2015 Jeanette reflected on EPIC and the trajectories of business anthropology, service design, and social change.

At EPIC2015 Jeanette reflected on the evolution of business anthropology, service design and social change.

Jeanette has spent a career working primarily in the private sector, where she has been able to work on fascinating projects that have the potential to be taken seriously and acted on. Although her projects must demonstrate short or long term impacts on corporate “bottom lines,” she also has access to fields of action that are typically out of reach to academic scholars. Her moral, political, and intellectual judgments always inform her work, but so too does the need to affect corporate metrics of success and to create internal constituencies that value what ethnography and anthropology can contribute to the goals of stakeholders with very diverse agendas. I often listen enviously to her stories of navigating organizational hierarchies where the pitfalls often seem more than offset by the possibility of being heard and affecting corporate practices and policies.

I’ve had a career in academia, although I’ve taken on a variety of applied projects that have allowed me to eschew what I see as the irrelevance of too much academic anthropology while simultaneously enjoying tenure, promotion, and even a dozen years as a department chair. Yet I also have a reputation as an academic of a pragmatic sort; I’ve taken on consulting roles in which companies sometimes pay for my skills and knowledge. While I haven’t had to worry too much about “bottom line” issues, these experiences have allowed me to incorporate lessons about the application of anthropology into the classroom and help prepare students with the skills and perspectives needed to apply anthropology to a variety of careers and settings.

My conversations with Jeanette are grounded in these brute facts of our respective employment and the opportunities and constraints each provides. Yet, and perhaps due to the duration of our friendship, our positions in these conversations are muddled: sometimes Jeanette is the voice of the academic’s responsibility to society and intellectual traditions, and sometimes mine is that of the practitioner arguing that the “customer’s” perspective must be understood and acknowledged. It is through these “muddlings” that we have learned and become committed to the proposition that, regardless of our long-ago starting points, a viable academic anthropology and applied social science should be applicable and accountable to the encounters we have throughout our working lives. After all, regardless of intention, the world is shaped through our engagements with it.

As we have continued to talk, Jeanette’s research shifted to focus more and more on designing services with implications for the practices of those involved in their promotion and adoption. My research on everyday life and temporalities began to draw the attention of high-tech companies and industrial designers seeking to inform their “inventions” with lessons from my ethnographic research; ultimately I became drawn to the intersection of products and services. Our conversations shifted from the abstract and speculative ones that are reminiscent of graduate school musings to ones that coalesced around the adequacy of service science and design, and to the possibilities for an anthropology of services.

On the one hand, the service sector, however defined, was clearly expanding and thwarting clear distinctions between goods and services, as well as presumed societal transitions from agriculture to manufacturing to services. It was less comfortable to speak of services in the world than service worlds that were creating their own constituencies and modes of understanding and acting. Social change was indeed afoot! But equally interesting to us, as ethnographers and anthropologists, was understanding ourselves as service providers seeking to create worlds in which new kinds of knowledge and skills were recognized and perhaps valued.

Our fascination with and attention to service worlds in-the-making provided a way of reframing services, not so much as a distinctive break in the human experience, but rather as having always characterized human societies. Unlike goods that are produced, distributed, and consumed, services did not so much move as they were defined by transformations that were valued (or not) by different people whose collective judgment was required to determine if a service had even occurred. For example, many efforts are underway to make the lives of seniors safer and easier by providing services that monitor their activities. But what are the implications of these new services for the privacy or independence of seniors and whose lives are being transformed and in what ways?

Services created a space in which myriad issues came together and at the same time had to be understood in relation to one another. Services may be abstract, as we were reading, but they are material as well. Transactions and interactions are their hallmarks, and while transformations of state can seem chimerical and require connoisseurs to recognize and appreciate them, they cannot not be ignored. Although services are often described as encounters that start and stop, or as well-bounded systems that can be represented through blueprints, they can also be viewed as intrusions into ongoing flows of social life. What is definitive and real about them might be presented as an abstraction that exists “behind” social interactions or transactions. Services thus are made real by reflecting someone’s intentions as if translating those into transformations is an unproblematic act that is appreciated by their “consumers”, if that term is even appropriate.

Exploring services both as entities that seemingly populate the world and which engage our attention as practitioners interested in their production thus brought together for us our professional work and interest in social change. Regardless of how we bound our own service projects, they elicit conversations about our roles as social scientists who purport to tinker with ongoing social systems, perhaps without comprehending the implications. Are we, for example, helping to define new services as commodities that may undermine reciprocity? Does the logic of services as they are offered to consumers conceal or rationalize social values and replace them with narrow economic ones? Do service science and design offer ways to more effectively use scarce resources for public good? Regardless of the answers to these and other questions, an anthropology of services, far from being an eccentric specialty of the discipline, raises questions about how we are employed as anthropologists who provide services as such, and how the work we do as practitioners contributes to social change, regardless of our intentions.

As we look back over our research projects we realized some of them could be reimaged as attempts at social change even as they, at the same time, responded to the expectations and demands of sponsors, funders, or managers. For example, in what ways was Jeanette’s research that reconceptualized “best practices” as always dynamically (re)configured in response to “local” circumstances bringing about social change within the workplace? Or how did her design of processes and policies to “harvest” local innovation give voice to more distant and sometimes marginalized groups with the enterprise? We don’t want to be naïve about the possibilities here, but we do want to ask if we might be more courageous in recognizing and promoting the possibilities of working for social change even as we acknowledge that defining positive change is always complicated and ultimately contestable. These are some of the issues we are looking forward to exploring with others at EPIC2016!


A Seat at the Table of Social Change through Service Design, Jeanette Blomberg & Chuck Darrah

The Coming of Age of Hybrids: Notes on Ethnographic Praxis, Jeanette Blomberg

The Para-Ethnographic Trajectories Of Professional Ethnography, Michael G. Powell

Designing the End, Tony Salvador & Dean Whitney



Chuck Darrah, San Jose State University

Chuck Darrah is Professor at San José State University. He studies manufacturing, family and work temporalities, and the role of ethnography in services and their development. He is the author of Learning and Work (1997), Busier Than Ever! (2007, with James Freeman & J. A. English-Lueck), and An Anthropology of Services (2015, with Jeanette Blomberg). Chuck received his PhD in education from Stanford University.

Jeanette Blomberg, IBM

Jeanette Blomberg is Principal Researcher and Academy of Technology member at IBM Research and an Adjunct Professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. She is known for her research on ethnography in design processes, discussed in two publications (with Helena Karats): Positioning Ethnography within Participatory Design (2012) and Reflections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW (2013). Her recent publication (2015, with Chuck Darrah), An Anthropology of Services, explores how services are being conceptualized today and the possible benefits resulting from taking an anthropological view on services and their design. Jeanette received her PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Davis.