anthropology posts

ChittahChattah Quickies January 13th, 2011
  • [from julienorvaisas] Problem With Studies: Why They Get It Wrong [ABC News] – [Food for thought as we analyze, synthesize, prioritize and report our own study results.] People, including journal editors, naturally prefer papers announcing or at least suggesting a dramatic breakthrough to those saying, in effect, "Ehh, nothing much here." The availability error, the tendency to be unduly influenced by results that, for one reason or another, are more psychologically available to us, is another factor. Results that are especially striking or counterintuitive or consistent with experimenters' pet theories also more likely will result in publication. Even such a prosaic occurrence as clock-watching provides illustration of this. I don't think I look at the clock more than others do, but I always seem to notice and remember when the time is 12:34, but not when it's 10:56 or 7:41.
  • [from steve_portigal] Making culture, provoking culture (by making pie) [Grant McCracken] – [Grant sees in design-provocations the possibility to go beyond wishful-social-change-thinking and uncover rich new insights about people and culture. Plus, pie. Mmm, pie.] Our interest is sincere. We do want to know about them. We want to seize this opportunity to find out who they are, to listen to anything they're prepared to tell us. We are doing ethnography in tiny bite size bits. (Here too we want to consult the work on methodology.) Some people who wish to make a social difference don't really care to hear from the Pie recipient. They have a vision of the new world, and they mean to keep banging away at this vision until the pie recipient embraces it. But if we have learned anything about engaging the world it is that it can't be about us. Our best efforts must begin with a study of them.
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Backstage Pass July 15th, 2010

Our work brings us into intimate contact with people in their own environments, and we often get to see “back stage.” (Sociologist Erving Goffman used a model based on theater to talk about how people manage behavior in their everyday lives, referring to front stage and back stage realms and the differences in impression management that occur in each.)

There’s a moment that regularly occurs during fieldwork visits where the person we’re meeting with takes us into a hitherto shut room, opens a closet door to reveal something private, or simply goes to a new level of honesty and revelation in their discussion with us.

Places too have front stage and back stage elements, though these are often less closely guarded than those of individuals.

Here, front and back stage at a San Mateo ramen shop…

And below, explicit instructions to employees on how to transition between the front and back stage realms at an Alameda supermarket.

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Eye candy May 31st, 2010

We’re always seeking the best way to tell a particular story. Sometimes, words do the trick. Sometimes, a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Often, a bit of both are needed. Tonight, two pieces of data visualization to chew on…

Model of Daydreams: The Cinema in Our Head (from the flickr Great Diagrams in Anthropological Theory pool)

And this lovely meme visualization of the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James split (more like this at Current: A News Project.)

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The unholy child of anthropology and marketing? Or a great idea…or both? October 30th, 2009

Michael Cannell posted yesterday at Fast Company on design firm Blu-Dot’s fascinating new campaign, in which they are going to give away chairs by leaving them on the streets of New York, and then use GPS embedded in the chairs to track them down. According to Michael Hart of Mono, the ad firm that developed the idea with Blu-Dot:

If all goes according to plan, the video crew will use the GPS to find the chairs a few months from now. They’ll knock on doors and interview the owners–homeless people, Apartment Therapy readers, whoever they turn out to be–about why they took the chairs and how they use them. “Where does great design end up in New York? What sort of a person invites these chairs into their homes?”

Wow – there are so many layers to this. The brilliant experimental marketing layer, the Big Brother-ish invasion of privacy layer, the genius “guaranteed-to-get-talked-and-written-about” PR layer, the “no-marketing-message-included” layer reminiscent of “no-brand” brand Muji, the Chris Anderson “free” layer, and finally, the anthropological, archeological, design research find-out-where-the-chairs-go layer, which in and of itself would be a great conceptual art project or social experiment.

This project–what do you even call it? Is it a project, a campaign, an experiment?–really takes the openness and creative potential of contemporary marketing and runs with it.

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Listening vs. Hearing October 27th, 2008

In Fast Company’s Green Guru Gone Wrong there’s a sobering examination of sustainability architect William McDonough and the work that he’s doing. I am sure this type of investigation is highly contentious, especially when icons like McDonough are revealed to be less-than-perfect.

But it’s interesting to note that some the project failures are tied to a dramatic lack of understanding of the current behaviors and future needs of target customers.

Shannon May smelled the rot firsthand. An anthropology PhD student from UC Berkeley who lived in Huangbaiyu for nearly two years, May first met McDonough in 2005, the year the project broke ground. But within several months, it became apparent to May that everything from the village’s overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living. But most absurd to her eye was the plan to use agricultural waste to fuel the biogas plant to power the village: leftover corncobs and stalks were the winter food supply for the cashmere goats, the area’s leading source of cash. Using them meant the goats would starve.

“I started calling Bill and telling him these things, and he would be very responsive and concerned on the phone,” says May, the blonde seen standing behind McDonough in Friedman’s documentary. “What troubled me was that it was as if he knew nothing about the way these people lived. And he seemed concerned, but then nothing would happen after these phone calls.” May says McDonough visited the village only twice while she lived there “for one or two hours at a time, and only when there was a video camera following him.” The supposedly $3,500 homes were costing nearly $12,000 to build, more than 10 times the villagers’ median income. By 2006, only two families had moved in, and they did so because their previous homes had burned down. Even then, they had to use antiquated heating rigs because the renewable energy systems didn’t work.

And even more interesting is that the failure isn’t about a lack of information about these customers, it’s a failure of process to integrate that information into the project decisions.

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User-Centered Government March 19th, 2008


Student Protest, Bonny Doon, CA 1987

Today is the 5th anniversary of the current US military involvement in Iraq. I heard Army Major General Mark Hertling speaking on NPR this week about helping members of Iraq’s central government figure out what people in the different provinces really want and need.

“We call it reverse helicopter governance – bringing the ministers to the provinces.”

This starts to sound a lot like the kinds of contextual research we use to inform product design. Going out and talking with users in their own environments. Seeing what people’s needs really are, rather than making assumptions.

There’s been a thorny debate in the Anthropology community about doing anthropological work in military contexts, but this is a different type of situation. Hertling is talking about facilitating Iraqi ministers to do contextual research on the people they are charged with serving as government officials.

What would it look like to take a further step, and take a design approach to creating a “user-centered government?”

One important aspect of design is a spirit of playfulness-in the sense of “serious play.” A spirit of willingness to reassess the meaning of a problem and the range of possible solutions. To prototype rapidly and try multiple approaches.

Michael Schrage, the author of Serious Play states that

“…the real value of a model or simulation may stem less from its ability to test a hypothesis than from its power to generate useful surprise.”

Ideation and design processes have been used to solve some pretty complex problems. Steve wrote last year about introducing empathy and user-centered design into government. Participatory processes and contextual inquiry have become much more prevalent in development work.

What could be done to bring more of the spirit of serious play to bear on the ways that problems like civil and international conflicts are framed and addressed?

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It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken August 27th, 2007

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The other day we went to JumpSpace for a JumpTalk by Chuck Darrah about the work featured in his (along with James M. Freeman and Jan English-Lueck) new book Busier Than Ever!: Why American Families Can’t Slow Down

Busier Than Ever! follows the daily activities of fourteen American families. It explores why they are busy and what the consequences are for their lives. Busyness is not just a matter of personal time management, but of the activities we participate in and how each of us creates “the good life.” While numerous books deal with efficiency and the difficulties of balancing work and family, Busier Than Ever! offers a fresh approach. Busyness is not a “problem” to be solved-it is who we are as Americans and it’s redefining American families.

Chuck gave a compellingly accessible talk peppered with stories from their in-depth fieldwork (like something about of Albert Brooks’ Real Life, they spent a huge amount of time with these families, becoming unavoidably involved with their lives. So different than doing “an interview” as is typical in consulting work).

He handed me a copy of the book, so I’ve got some reading to do, but some cool themes/behaviors he told us about (and this is my scribbly documentation and doesn’t necessarily fully represent their work)

  • Everything is work…but what is work? Some companies take 2 hours off to play Dungeons and Dragons, other folks go get a tan. There are stories as to why that is part of work for the people concerned. People define boundaries, proclaim that they don’t take home work with them, but when asked about the briefcase they are hauling out of the office, they explain what category of activity (i.e., reading HR memos) they will do at home that is not work.
  • People are taking on more stuff, by choice, but present busyness as an external force
  • Coping strategies have emerged (but I wonder if these are in fact the creators of the increased busyness?)
  • Planning and routinizing – time spent planning the day or working out processes for dealing with daily activities
  • Communicating – seemingly trite phone calls to check in about the plans already made
  • Anticipating – energy put into coming up with contingency plans – “what if this happens?” or “what if that happens?”
  • Adjusting – being flexible (with layers of power embedded in those negotiations), making last minute changes to the plans already developed and communicated
  • Protection – i.e., create a phantom meeting to keep blocks of time free for whatever purpose
  • Intelligence gathering – you don’t know what info will end up being relevant, so knowing what is going on with coworkers or family members becomes crucial
  • Simplifying – One father looked at every item in the house once per month and if he didn’t know what it was, it went to the dump or Goodwill immediately
  • Chunking – using interstitial times to accomplish tasks, i.e., moving items out of a meeting agenda into hallway conversations (although this isn’t always successful depending on the person and the task)

Ultimately, Chuck told us, it’s not about time, it’s about activities.

Meanwhile, a story that struck me a few weeks ago referred to a study (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, as was the Darrah et. al work above) about convenience food.

the researchers saw that convenience foods weren’t used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.

When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare — like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods.

The study showed that meals with little or no convenience foods took 26 to 93 minutes to prepare. Meals that used a lot of convenience foods took 25 to 73 minutes to prepare. While convenience foods were time-savers on very elaborate meals, overall, there was no statistically significant difference in total preparation time.

One difference that emerged was “hands on” time — the amount of time people spent slicing, dicing and stirring foods. Using convenience foods shaved about 10 minutes of hands-on time, but it didn’t make any difference in how quickly the food got to the table.

The study authors noted that the biggest time savings of convenience foods may be at the grocery store, where it’s faster to grab a frozen entree than to collect six separate ingredients to make the same dish from scratch. Grocery-shopping time wasn’t measured in the study. The average American spends about 22 minutes in the grocery store and shops about twice a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Convenience foods also helped cooks offer a greater variety of dishes; cooks who made dinner from scratch offered three or fewer dishes. One family made a simple meal of sandwiches and edamame, using bread, cheese, greens and salmon and tomatoes. That meal took about a half-hour to prepare. Another family had a six-dish convenience-food meal of microwave barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls and a cookies and ice cream dessert. That meal also took a half-hour.

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BW on ethno June 4th, 2006

BusinessWeek has a new article about ethnography. The author posted a blurb about it on a mailing list I’m on, asking for feedback (I guess some on the list provided input into the piece) and expressing interest continuing the conversation. So far my comments have gone unanswered, so I’m summarizing them here.

It’s nice to see some fresh examples of success in the application of ethnography. The GE example is very cool and goes beyond the usual fix a product case study and into the evolve a business’s culture that really rang true from my own experience.

However, I was disappointed to see the article buy into the ethnography = anthropology myth and the corollary that all ethnographers are anthropologists. Indeed, the article incorrectly attributes the anthropology credential to some people such as Tony Salvador who I believe was trained as a psychologist, or the people at Steelcase, some of whom I know as graduates of the Institute of Design, and are definitely not anthropologists. IDEO may have anthropologists, but a great deal of their people involved in “human factors” (as they term it) are coming with other educational backgrounds.

It’s tempting to see a conspiracy of highly-placed anthropologists who work behind the scenes to ensure that any conversation about user research in product development and consulting succumbs helplessly to this myth, but I think really sloppy reporting is more likely the culprit here.

John Thackera Thackara writes about the article in his typical sanctimonious style (seriously – I will have to give up on In The Bubble because it’s filled with mean-spirited judgment of one profession or endeavor on one page, and then a capricious about-face on the next page to drool over another effort that meets his opaque standards).

Do ethnographers need exotic names to do well in business? A story in Business Week features two guys called ‘J. Wilton L. Agatstein Jr’ (who runs Intel’s new emerging-markets unit) and ‘Timothy deWaal Malefyt’ (an anthropologist who runs ‘cultural discovery’ at ad firm BBDO Worldwide).

Whoah. Racist much, John? Portigal is a pretty funny name. So is Thackera Thackara. What of it?

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Virtual Anthropology December 2nd, 2005

Virtual Anthropology is the mini-meme of the moment, I guess – a post from Trendwatching that highlights all the ways you can, from the comfort of your desk, learn about what people around the world are doing, photographing, wearing, buying, etc.

As usual, when you read about a shortcut to actual research written by someone who really has no clue about doing real research, they omit the valuable part – asking questions. Asking why! What is the meaning of the clothing you wear? Tell me a story about why you’ve got those items in your fridge?

It takes skill to unearth the insights – you can’t start and finish with self-reported data. Otherwise, you’re just a step above a mood board or something artifact-based. Insights come from people – from interacting with people, dynamically. Not simply observing their shit.

I feel like a broken record on this one, but whatever.

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BBC Radio show on ethnography in business October 3rd, 2005

Shop Talk is a BBC radio show featuring a discussion of ethnographic research in business. Thanks to Michael Andrews and Louise Ferguson for this.

It was a bit challenging for me to listen to; Genevieve Bell was the only person who (in a very radio-unfriendly fashion) tried to move the sound-bites into a discussion, usually to be squelched by the host. There was just too much to cover in 28 minutes – too many people giving their spiel about what this is, why it’s necessary, who is qualified (or not) to engage in it, and in a couple of cases some examples of what was learned and what the implications were. Definitions of terms such as “ethnography” and “anthropology” were not common amongst the panelists and created what I would imagine was some confusion among non-industry (ie, the user research industry) listeners. Me, I was just annoyed by that discussion.

Anyway, there are some nice bits in there, and it’s pretty good to hear some different voices on the topic, and for me, to hear my profession discussed from a UK business perspective, that was quite refreshing.

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