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.

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