Monthly Archives: October 2008

Epiphanies commoditized

The final session at the EPIC conference was a return to the original question that led to the creation of the EPIC conferences in the first place:

How do we make people (stakeholders, decision makers, change agents and others) understand the value of ethnography in praxis?

This was the main issue discussed when EPIC started in 2005, and it remains a central issue in the community: How can we as ethnographers build and exhibit the authority necessary to be able to sell and provide ethnographic insights?

Simon Pulman-Jones started the discussion by comparing the work of ethnographers in industry with the services provided by the Catholic church centuries ago: The church, he argued, maintained a monopoly on authority on the nature of God and all that is holy. This monopoly allowed the church to dispense its knowledge through epiphanic insights, commoditized in the form of sermons.

Similarly, Pulman-Jones argued, ethnographers in industry are seeking to establish themselves as an authority on The Real – what it is really like out there – in order to commoditize our insights, our epiphanies, to help the organisations that we work for and with.

The session, then, consisted of 6 talks trying to explore the ways in which ethnographers have sought to establish that authority and win influence in big organizations. Here’s a brief synthesis of the points made:

Ethnographers are indeed ‘brokers of the real‘ – they have themselves attained a sort of gatekeeper role between the designers and the engineers and the real world where real people actually use the products. They help the engineers meet and understand the users in order to change the way the engineers think and feel about them.

But it takes time and effort to build trust in ethnographic methods and validity within the organisation. The ethnographers need to be aware of the organisational culture present – especially the core business practices within the organisation – and adapt to their work to the given setting.

This sort of translation between the technologists and the real often requires some amount of performance: Making things strange, emphasizing the the unexpected, and giving the data emotional charge.

Typically, this process of building trust begins with the basic notion of ‘adding value’ to the product. One presenter talked of an “arc of success” for the integration of ethnographic work in her organisation:

1. Knowledge building – the ethnographer as a provider of insights directly associated with the product development (for instance project evaluation, usability, feature-specific work) – direct support for the engineers.

2. Influence buildling – the ethnographer as a co-designer, participating in the design process as a equal partner.

3. Guiding – the ethnographer as a manager (?) leading the design effort, where ethnographic work is at the centre of the process.

This third level of success raised an interesting point: If ethnographers are climbing the corporate ladder to the point where they themselves are becoming managers, even attaining titles like “Vice-president of Ethnography”, then the question is no longer whether people understand the value of ethnographic praxis but rather how to make ethnography have the best and greatest possible impact on the organisation.

As one participant noted during the final discussion, this EPIC has showed a shift away from that early concern of “ethnographers vs. the rest” towards a new set of issues that arises when thinking of the “ethnographers and the rest” – of actual cross-disciplinary collaboration rather than just the ethnographers seeking to get their insights across.

From some of the comments given, I fear that this could well lead to another anthropological crisis of self-confidence at actually being in a position to make positive change. As the ending keynote speaker Lucy Kimbell did well to point out, referring to the epitaph of Karl Marx: Ethnography is not just about describing and analyzing the world – but about reassembling and changing it.

Finding ways of collaboration with other disciplines to affect positive change remains the main challenge for ethnographers in industry and elsewhere. Hopefully, that will be a leading theme at next year’s EPIC.

You can find all of the papers, on which these talks were based, in the EPIC proceedings.

My outboard brain

Recently, I realized that this is blog, along with my collection of bookmarks, is becoming my outboard brain – a place to store all the interesting stuff I find and reflect upon so that I can dig it up later when I might need it.

I don’t really expect that this realization will have much influence on this blog. I guess I like it that way. It does mean that I’ll never be able to attract huge numbers of readers, since what catches my interest seems to be rather diverse. It’s more a confirmation of the direction of that I’ve been heading so far: This blog reflects whatever I’m thinking about – for my benefit, and hopefully for at least a few others as well.

Facebook sociality in real life

Found in Jyri Engeström‘s presentation on Social software:

The Internet is powerful at distributing information. It lowers the transaction cost involved in social relationships and both developers and users have taken advantage of this to favor communication with more people than we would ever communicate with face to face. Social software has thus focused on increasing the Dunbar??s number of circa 150 people who we are supposed to be able to have meaningful relationships with.

It’s interesting to see how people are developing rules for whom to ‘friend’ on social networks like Facebook. I now have 172 friends on Facebook, a great part of whom I haven’t seen for years. In that way, Facebook isn’t helping me sustain a Dunbar number greater than 150, but it does help me maintain a great number of latent relationships which I suppose I could rebuild if the right occasion arose. There is some sort of comfort in that, I guess.

All design is redesign

A recent Bruno Latour keynote[PDF] has been making the rounds on the Anthrodesign mailing list.

Called “A Cautious Prometheus?”, it is a very concise and thoughtful dissection of the changes the word and concept ‘design’ has been undergoing for the past 30-40 years, which also signals the change from “the hubris of modernity” with its bold hope of revolution, of tearing everything down to rebuild anew, towards a more nuanced view of design as the re-designing of the present:

As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word ??construction? or ??building?. Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the ??real? practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew. In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something. Introducing Prometheus to some other hero of the past as a ??designer? would doubtlessly have angered him.

Latour suggests that we need to combine the cautiousness of the designer, carefully seeking re-configure the world around him, with the boldness of Prometheus, willing to attempt the impossible to ignite our dreams. An empathic visionary who can manage the complexities that his actions inevitably produce.

Fields of care and online collaboration

There’s a good discussion over at the Savage Minds anthropology group blog in relation to the recent publication of an article discussing the pros and cons of Open Access Anthropology.

The article has been written by no less than seven anthropologists using email and Google Docs to create an online collaborative space. Following the publication of the article, the authors have also posted it in a CommentPress format, where everybody can add their comments to text.

Interestingly, the follow-up discussion to the article on the Savage Minds blog focuses on why it is so difficult to engage other academics in a follow-up discussion using such an open format like CommentPress. Christopher Kelty, one of the article’s authors, writes:

I for one, am not surprised at what Rex called the ??lackluster success? of certain projects??-like the ??modulations? of (…) the Anthropology of/in Circulation article (…) ? in large part because I have become more and more familiar with the tenacious grasp that sedimented habits and practices can have on people…

Alex “Rex” Golub introduced to the discussion the term “field of care” to describe how we structure our time and priorities, as well as the values we see in our work. As Christopher Kelty sums it up,

… it is something learned, but not quickly, and something social??-it is not possible to simply opt out of it. Whether or not people take up a project in academia is heavily structured by this field of care, which to outsiders starts to look like tradition, conservatism, expertise, or maybe madness, depending.

I’m fascinated by this idea of a “field of care” – it seems to contain our individual goals and the means through which we expect to fulfill them. It is the reach of what we care about. In this understanding, the lack of people engaging with the above article seems to be that it is not part of their field of care. Kelty writes:

For academic contributions to feel meaningful within a field of care, they must also feel special, in the sense of participating in cutting edge research, in work that needs to get done, and to something that plays to one??s strengths? in some ways this was indeed the experience of writing that interview, and not the experience of reading it or discussing it. So absolutely, there may not be much more to discuss in the frame of that interview simply because the moment of participation is over.

What??s more it was conducted in an old-schoolish way, via email and on a private google docs document, and maybe it should have been on the comment press site all along, with invitation for people to comment as the core content unfolded? but that would have been too much of a free for all, and relates to my point that the tools don??t necessarily support the kinds of collaborations we know well and care about.

In a way, the ‘moment of participation’ in which the article came about could only be open to a small group of people collaborating. If it had been open, it would have been a free-for-all, which, quite likely, wouldn’t have allowed seven individuals shape it as personally and thoughtfully as they have (though that, again, is a tradeoff against letting many people get involved with their collective insight and ideas).

This got me to thinking about how social web entrepreneur Ross Mayfield‘s 3 levels of network ties on weblogs might fit with the idea of “fields of care” in the context of online collaboration.

Mayfield posits that there are three different types of networks developing among weblogs: creative, social, and political networks. A concise presentation of these are given in Joi Ito’s collaboratively written paper Emergent Democracy:

A creative network is a flat network of a production-oriented group of close associates with deep trust and dense inter-linking. It is said that 12 people is the optimum number for holding a dinner conversation or a tight team.

A social network is the traditional weblog form. The Law of 150 is a theory that people can maintain an average of 150 personal relationships. The Law of 150 is a bell-shaped distribution where some weblogs receive more attention than others, but the distribution fairly represents the quality of the weblogs.

A political network follows [Clay] Shirky’s power law and is similar to a representative democracy where weblogs receive links from thousands of other weblogs. Each link may be thought of as a vote. The weblogs at the top of this power curve have a great deal of influence.


It is the ability to operate in all three of Mayfield’s clusters, and to transcend boundaries between them that make weblogs so potentially powerful. A single weblog and even a single entry in a weblog can have an operational purpose, a social purpose, and an impact on the political network. (…) For instance, when I blog something about Emergent Democracy, I may be speaking creatively to the small group of researchers working on this paper; socially to a larger group of friends who are thinking along with me and trying to get a handle on the concept; and on a political level to readers I don??t know, but who I??m hoping to influence with my talk about a new kind of politics.

Following this, it wouldn’t be possible for more than 12 people to collaborate closely on an article such as “Anthropology in/of Circulation”. These collaborators would have the article at the centre of their field of care, at least for the duration of the collaboration. Another 150 people could have the article at the periphery of their field of care, and offer a comment or some sort of modulation (such as this blog post). And thousands of others might read the article and reflect upon it in order to relate it to their own field of care, even link to it, but – for one reason or another – remain passive.

The issue, then, seems to be how to make the most of the potential for collaboration and peer-review from each type of network.