Category Archives: Anthropology

Anthropology and technology

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.

Anthropological diagrams

One of the continuing challenges in my work is adapting my ethnographic findings and my anthropological analyses to the consulent format of choice: The Powerpoint slide.

Slides are infinitely better suited to gaudy visuals and photos, so often, the best to get an analytical point across is to compose a model or a diagram to illustrate it. I did a few of these for my thesis, but it’s not really something that I’ve been taught how to do at university. All I had to work with is how the anthropologists of old have done it. Luckily, Dori Tunstall recently blogged about a great collection of anthropological diagrams on Flickr.

Some of them are simple, others are complex. The best ones, I think, are the ones, which conveys complex ideas in a simple manner, such as these:

Kroebers trees

Evans-Pritchard's concentric circles of Nuer association

When a link to these diagrams were posted on the Anthrodesign-mailing list, it was soon followed up by references to Edward Tufte and his work in information aesthetics.

Where the anthropological diagrams focus on presenting complex ideas, Tufte focuses on presenting complex statistical information visually. There’s a good blog gathering examples of good uses of infosthetics.

Doing (ethnographic) interviews

I found this video on ethnographic interviewing techniques and “getting people to talk” on the American Anthrodesign mailing list:


Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

The film is made by a couple of design students at the Illinois Institute of Technology in order to give a set of interview pointers to designers wanting to conduct interviews as part of their user research. Among the interviewees are Dori Tunstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at University of Illinois at Chicago. She argues that the key to good interviewing comes from building rapport and building moments of openness between the interviewer and interviewee.

Getting people to feel comfortable talking to you, requires you as an interviewer “to be charming.” According to Tunstall, that requires a basic empathic involvement in what is being said and expressed: Being interested and building a natural flow of the conversation. In short, perhaps: Turning the interview into a conversation rather than an artificial interview situation. As the film does well to point out, the artificiality of the interview situation often shows whenever the interviewer isn’t really interested in what is being discussed, or is preoccupied with finding out specific information, or in the transitions between topics being discussed, as these often break the flow of the conversation.

As a film, I found it a bit too long, and not really very ethnographic: The interview by itself does not make it ‘ethnographic’. ‘Ethnographic’ is, as Tunstall does well to point out, rather the overall philosophical stance and empathic interest that guides your position as you consciously interpret and re-represent the interviewee’s point of view as best as you can.

Anthropology of business

Last Wednesday, I went to a discussion seminar on Business Anthropology arranged by the Danish Association of Anthropologists. With Business Anthropology, the organizers actually meant the anthropology of business – as in the ethnographic study of corporate culture and leadership, which became clear as the two presenting researchers gave their talks to initiate the debate.

The two were Jakob Krause-Jensen, assistant professor at the Danish Pedagogical University, and Karen Lisa Salamon, until recently an associate professor at the Danish Design School – a position she quit at the beginning of 2008 as a protest of the terms on which she was expected to do research. More about that later.

Both researchers are anthropologists and did their Ph.D fieldwork in corporate environments. Krause-Jensen among workers at Bang & Olufsen studying how culture concepts are used in management practices; Salamon among leading designers and design managers studying new age tendencies in management. And these studies proved to be their point of departure to discuss “How is anthropology in business different from the typical Human Resources work that is now an integral part of any corporate organization?

In his talk, Krause-Jensen sought to answer that question by first comparing the differences between the two disciplines, before presenting “an idiosyncratic canon of the anthropological profession.” Firstly, he pointed out that what he and Salamon had done was anthropology in organisations rather than organizational anthropology. As he sees it, all anthropology is in some way the study of how people organize themselves, so the phrase organizational anthropology is merely a tautology.

The main difference, Krause-Jensen argued, between the Human Resources approach and the Anthropological approach, is the differing end goals of each discipline, and the questions they ask to get there. Salamon likened the differnece to that between a pharmacist and a biochemist. One is an instrumentalist, the other a scientist.
Human Resources ask: “How can we make the system more efficient?” A good example of this approach is Edgar Schein‘s idea of organizational culture, which was a big hit in 1980s management theories. Schein defines culture thusly:

The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

As Krause-Jensen argued, this definition of culture draws upon the old structural functionalist theories of anthropology where culture is seen as a normative consensus through which the organizational functions of a group appear. This is the instrumentalist approach, or, as Krause-Jensen puts it, “the colonial administrator approach” where only the functions of culture are relevant for study. “That’s what we’re up against”, Krause-Jensen remarked.

The anthropological approach, on the other hand, seeks to answer the ever-widening question “why do people do what they do?” And it is the manner in which anthropologists go about answering that question which fundamentally differs from the HR approach. And that was the real core of the discussion: What is anthropological quality? And in which can we as anthropologists use it to set ourselves apart from other practitioners?

To get the discussion rolling, Krause-Jensen presented their own home-rolled canon consisting of 9 tenets of anthropological quality:

1. Descriptive involvement
What Clifford Geertz calls “Being there” – not just observing the field but taking the time and effort to sense the field through smell, touch and taste. To “offer an impression of the people you’ve studied.” To convey the field with thick description.

2. Analytical distance and perspective
Use the anthropological “theories and notions which offer distance and perspective to the field.” When having left the field, it is necessary to use a theoretical perspective to gain distance to the field. Krause-Jensen made the analogy to the stereogram, where it is possible to see new depths and images in an image. Similarly, the anthropologist should seek to see the new in the familiar through the general theories of the discipline.

3. Wonder
It is essential that the anthropologist takes wonder as a point of departure when in the field. This is often expressed in the way anthropologists ask ‘questions of curiosity’ (goal: Understanding) rather than ‘questions of evaluation’ (goal: find solutions to already defined problems) often asked by HR researchers.

4. Contextualization
It is central to analyze the difference between between what people say, and what they do, as the relations and connections between the two. A central challenge in this is to contextualize this both thematically and regionally as needed. Salamon gave one example of this from her fieldwork among design managers and designers where she sought to compare the values which the two groups consider important for designers. Design managers considered responsibility and efficiency to be vital, whereas designers thought that freedom and the ability to do the unexpected was the essence of design. Her analysis of the context of this say/do gap was central to her dissertation.

5. Empirical particularity
Anthropologists focus on offering perspectives rather than generalizations. Krause-Jensen gave an example of one of his students studying Danish ergo-therapists. She was planning to travel across Denmark, spending two days in each of three different cities to study lots of different therapists in order to be able to say something general about all Danish ergo-therapists. Krause-Jensen suggested that rather than spending her time in many different cities, getting to know lots of therapists, that she would stay where she was and study the local therapists, delving into their lives for a longer period of time. Thus offering her a deeper perspective to better understand what it means to be an ergo-therapist. And though it is not generally applicable, the deeper perspective may reveal notions and practices which may also prove useful to other therapists in other cities.

6. Reflexivity = ‘objectivity’
As anthropologists are their own tools for collecting data, all the data is subjective to some degree. Being conscious of your position as anthropologist and your relationship to your informants and communicating that subjectivity in your analysis is as close to any form of objectivity possible within the discipline. It is vital to embrace that fact.

7. Focus on power and difference
Anthropology has a long tradition for paying attention to those whose voices are heard rather than others’ – and how. Analyzing hierarchies and power relations is a fundamental part of the discipline.

8. Focus on language
The anthropologist needs to be well aware of the power of language, and reflect upon how he uses his terms in the field. The distinction between emic and etic terms are another vital consideration.

9. Good language: Well written analysis
The ethnographic text isn’t art, but it should be close. Presenting the personal experiences in the field and shaping them into a coherent analysis based on anthropological theory and insight is a textual challenge that should not be taken lightly.

As Krause-Jensen summed up his presentation, the slide on the screen behind displayed a quote by Marcel Proust:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.

That, he argued, is the essence of anthropology: The Aha! moment. The epiphanic moment where you have exotized yourself from the familiar and see it anew. Where you are able to wonder about the things that we usually take for granted: the understanding, the notions of our everyday lives. This allows us to perceive what happens as part of a certain cosmology. Thus, Krause-Jensen concluded, anthropology is not a hammer to be wielded. Rather, it is a pair of glasses: A new perspective, which allows us to describe and analyze the world anew – with wonder.

Following this impassioned plea for anthropological quality, Karen Lisa Salamon discussed how anthropology is actually used in businesses today. The managers hiring anthropologists expect “user studies”, which typically consists of two parts:

One is the the hammer approach to anthropology, where the qualitative methods of the discipline is seen as function to be applied to achieve certain results. It is pure method and often very little reflection.

The other is what she called “helicopter ethnography” – a sort of ethnographic administration where the anthropologist designs and plans qualitative projects for others to undertake, only to do random quality checking and analysis of the material of others. This is typcially the case in big organizations with short deadlines where much of the core ethnographic work is done by students rather than the actual ethnographers, who in this way miss the actual experience in the field and the sense of “being there”.

Neither of these approaches allow for much the anthropological quality stated above. And in Salamon’s view, this ‘hammer approach’ is now entering academia as well. This is what has infuriated Salamon so as to quit her job:

We need only to do ethnographic work if we are allowed to say: This field is in motion: This is a social reality which never stops moving. Nothing stays fixed and certain. (…) The world isn’t made of functionality and economic rationality. We are facing a new, stronger, even more reductionistic positivism. We need to oppose it.

Salamon argued quite determinedly that this new positivism is inspired by the corporate environment and its focus on function and efficiency. “We need to be allowed to study that which isn’t functional,” she proclaimed, offering the example of a tea cup: A central function of the tea cup is the handle – that is the obvious, planned way through which people are supposed to interact with the cup. But some people bold the cup rather than the handle. If we only study the function of the cup as it was intended to be, through questions of evaluation rather than questions of curiosity, we won’t see that. “We need to remain true to the fact that anthropology is a complex science.”

Salamon underlined that this was not to say that all anthropological analyses have to live up to all 9 tenets of the canon. And she fully recognized the challenge of reducing anthropological complexity to useful information in a business context. But she argued that it is vital to stay true to the anthropological discipline: “We don’t have to show all the difficult intermediate steps, but it is still important to make them. Besides, it is also the part that we enjoy as anthropologists.”

She concluded that it is vital that the proper anthropology graduates take these tenets to heart. Especially since there is no anthropological Hippocratic oath to ensure this anthropological quality, which means that any fool can call himself anthropologist – and many people in the industry do without having any knowledge of anthropological theory or quality.

A brief but intense discussion followed, with my recent co-worker Jens Pedersen noting that in the whole discussion, capitalism had been sitting like the proverbial elephant in the corner, and that basically ethnographers working in business have to come to terms with the fact that creating ethnographic knowledge for clients is a different, slightly more reductionist proposition. He then raised the obvious criticism that the whole presentation was basically integrating anthropology inwards while policing its boundaries outwards, and that though the reductionist tendency shouldn’t be taken lightly, he couldn’t see how presenting such lofty ideals would help much.

With that, the time ran out and the seminar ended with confused clouds of discussion dissipating slowly within the auditorium. But a a number of interesting questions remained:

  • Where are the boundaries between doing anthropology of business, doing anthropology for business and doing anthropology with business? This was discussed at a recent design anthropological network meeting, but that’s another discussion…
  • How do corporate managers managing ethnographers and the ethnographers themselves perceive the central qualities of their work? What differences are there in their perception of ethnographic work?
  • How can anthropologists rethink their discipline as a practice which they no longer define on their own? How can anthropologists retain the core qualities of the discipline without simply retreating into an ivory tower of arrogant complacency?
  • I think a great part of these problems stem from the fact that anthropologists aren’t used to collaborating actively with other professions. Indeed, if anthropologists see any sort of compromise with other professions as a loss of quality, then there it doesn’t seem like there is much room for positive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Exactly that has been the main challenge of emerging discipline of design anthropology: Learning how to make necessary compromises with our ideals in order to have an impact, while making the positive pedagogical effort to change the quantitative positivist tendency of modern management.

    Maybe it is time consider alternatives to the current ideal of the anthropologist as the lone stranger writing his clever analyses for the meager audience of other anthropologists. And to rethink anthropology as a profession, which not only describes and analyzes the problems of the world, but which also can collaborate with others to effect real change. But that, too, is another discussion…

    Making an impact

    Last Friday, I finished a 2 month freelance project for Copenhagen Living Lab, a small Danish innovation consulting firm. The project was an ethnographic exploration and mapping of the business development and production practices of Danish computer game companies in order to identify central challenges shared by such companies and suggest ways in which such issues could be solved.

    This has been my first proper experience with business ethnography, and I have learned a lot. Just presenting the findings to the customer (a business development consulting and services firm) was a very different experience. Preparing the presentation felt very much like preparing for another exam. But the process had been very different since the sole result of the project was the presentation and the slides. All the data I had gathered and processed, and all the analysis that I had developed (both on my own and with the good people at Copenhagen Living Lab), all of it was to be transformed into an hour’s worth of presentation and power point slides.

    Indeed, the analysis had better fit the format, or else it wouldn’t really get across. It was very much a question of learning the language spoken among consultants. The language of bullet points, of findings, of matrices and “Next Steps”, of challenges and possibilities. It was a matter of learning that presenting ethnography in a business context really revolves around understanding how your findings might be interesting to your customer, and not (just) to your informants, since these are rarely the same.

    And generally, your customer wants to receive their data filtered, chewed, handled and prepared so that the only tricky complexities present are those which they need to make decisions on. It is a matter of preparing your analysis in such a way to allow them to decide what they want to do next. It’s difficult to get the hang of, but I received good help from the other consultants.

    And then, upon having presented my findings for the customers, something I hadn’t really expected happened: Not only did the customers find the presentation relevant in relation to their work, but they couldn’t wait to start discussing how these findings might impact the way they did their work. Unlike the other presentations and exams that I’ve done before, which always marked the end point of a given project, perhaps with a good grade and a pat on the back, presenting this project seemed more like the starting point than the end point: “Now we know all these relevant details, what is the next step? Where do we want to go from here?”

    Nobody had ever asked me that at an exam. The gathering of information had always been an exercise for its own sake. But here I had delivered the information and the analysis that these people needed, and which allowed them to go further in their own work. I felt like I had actually made an impact. That I’ve helped clarify the challenges and opportunities present for Danish computer game developers. For a lot of creative people who are passionate about their craft, and hopefully, my work will help our customer to be able to support these creative people to allow them to succeed.

    And it brought me to the realization that this prolonged feeling of achievement, of building something useful, something which allows others to build on top of it, is a feeling that is very rare in academia. And I expect that that is why so many students feel unsatisfied with their work, because they write something which very few people will bother to read or use or build upon.

    Up until last Friday, I had toyed with the idea of applying for a Ph.D. To delve deep into some topic for its own sake. But now, I have lost some of that drive. For now, I want to work with problems that the people involved with them perceive to be important themselves, and which will help them make decisions relevant to their work and lives. And hopefully, that way I can help make an impact..

    Ethnography and the design of new media

    More and more anthropologists are doing research on new media technologies like mobile phones and social networking sites. Some of them are even being hired by companies to do ethnographic studies to gather the sort of “actionable insight” that can help a better understanding of how these technologies are used, and help inform how new products should be designed.

    Some of these anthropologists presented their work at the recent LIFT conference in Geneva.

    Another one is danah boyd who does research on Social Networking Sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Recently, she posted an interesting interview where she talks about her research findings.

    danah also did an interview with Mimi Ito, yet another cosmopolitan anthropologist researching new media. In that interview, the following exchange takes place:

    DANAH: Can you tell me more about what how you see anthropology being relevant to design?

    MIMI: I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitive designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out.

    DANAH: So what advice would you have to young aspiring anthropologists who want to study socio-technical practice and get involved in designing new technologies?

    MIMI: Advice? This one is tough. Be prepared for some blank looks from people in your discipline – but a lively audience of practitioners and technology designers who are eager to hear stories from the field. The challenge is to be multilingual and interdisciplinary while also maintaining commitment to ethnographic perspectives and methods.

    As an anthropologist just starting out in this field professionally, that really isn’t much help. Luckily, I’ve accepted that I’ll be finding my own way as I go along.

    Digital (ethnographic) montage

    Among some of the old unfinished projects that I’ve had time to finish recently, is the HTML version of my essay on the use of montage as a means of ethnographic presentation. It’s definitely experimental, since I have little experience with how clicks flow through websites like this, and it is not very pretty by today’s standards either. But at least it’s small, and it won’t ruin the Internet for anyone.

    Feel free to try it out and write your comments here. You can also read the more conventional .PDF version to see if you missed something.

    My montage is inspired by similar experiments by anthropologist Michael Wesch and archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf.

    Wesch has since expanded into proper montage with a series of short films exploring the possibilities of digital montage both in communication and as a new means of teaching. They are fascinating and well worth the watch.

    Making design research useful

    I found Dan Saffer’s presentation on “How to lie with design research” on Nicolas Nova’s blog today. A User Experience researcher, Nova posts a lot of blog posts of varying insights on interaction design and user experience and such buzzwords.

    The talk is a tongue-in cheek discussion of ethnographic design research, which appears to annoy a fair part of the designers. As Saffer puts it, “don’t bother going out into the field, it’s too hard.” In particular, it is about avoiding being “uncomfortable or embarrassed or feel stupid” – experiences that are integral to an anthropologist’s fieldwork, but which designers feel little need to expose themselves to.

    In this way, Saffer touches upon this annoyance in a very dead-pan fashion by massaging the imagination of the audience: What would be the alternative? How you can avoid doing research and simply present other people’s photos and anecdotes as your own, and still have the credibility of having done proper research? Nova cleverly connects this dilemma with the ??armchair anthropologists? of yore building their analyses on the data of others.

    Others, such as Jan Chipchase does do his own research, but worries about how useful and worthwhile it will turn out, when he is constantly on the road doing tour bus ethnography to gather data, never staying in one place for long, and never seeming to have time to digest and fully reflect on what he experiences.

    Reflecting on this problem of speed, another design researcher, Anne Galloway, notes:

    So when Jan gets concerned that he may be doing “nothing more than tour bus ethnography” and admits that “without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise” he’s pointing to very real concerns in the practice of anthropology outside academia.

    If armchair anthropology was a product of colonialism, then design ethnography is a product of capitalism. Both suffer similar political and ethical issues, but it seems to me that “tour bus ethnography” additionally suffers a crisis of time that was lacking in the era of armchair anthro.

    In a cultural era often characterised in terms of speed, Jan asks:

    Given the constraints – what is an optimal and what is a sufficient amount of time to spend in the field? And if your project involves cultural comparisons – how much time is enough to rest, reflect and analyse between field trips?

    […] Where is the questioning of the constraints that bring about these crises in time? Where is the challenge to the cultures of speed?

    With cultures of speed, she refers to the work of French philosopher Paul Virilio, who argues that the 20th century has seen a constant acceleration of Western culture, through cheap flight, digital communication and neo-liberal capitalism. And increase in speed which only becomes apparent with the spectacular crashes – whether financial, political or environmental.

    Without delving into whether or not this acceleration is a good thing or not (I’ve already presented various points of view regarding that in my essay on the Western Perception of Time), I find it worth discussing according to what criteria design ethnography can be evaluated. As Anne Galloway has noted, design ethnography cannot productively be evaluated according to the criteria of academic anthropology. But which criteria then, and who decides?

    Design anthropologist Anne Kirah tackled some of these issues in her talk at the Index Design conference recently [talk audio, slides]. She focused on how designers and concept consulents when appropriating ethnographic methods often fail to realise the importance of the anthropological mindset behind these methods.

    Her central point is that anthropology is more than just a toolkit. It is a mindset – a stance that takes as its point of departure a clear awareness of personal pre-assumptions and thus an open-minded notion that “I’m not the expert.” This includes:

    • A willingness to go out of your comfort zone
    • A willingness to learn with these people
    • A willingness to build with these people
    • Being humble and practicing the art of humility
    • A willingness to be flexible and adapt to any given context
    • A willingness to ??live?? in the question

    Naturally, many designers don’t really want to do this, since it is hard work which requires a lot of empathy and humility. Kirah’s point would be that that’s why there ought to be a great need for design anthropologists who can do such research and keep a focus on the needs, interests and motivations of people, rather than simply faking your data or using the anecdotal material of others, as Saffer jokingly suggests.

    But under what criteria can such ethnographic design research be made so as to both get beyond the initial preconceived assumptions of the researcher and at the same time be developed within the short time span required by the design studios and consulting companies involved in such research?

    The Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup remarks that being in the field is about “accepting the empirical unreality.” That is, to recognize and admit the infinity of cultural translation, and instead focus on the ethnographic transubstantiation of lived experience into text, images, film – life communicated: “The empirical data is felt through experience, but it is created and rendered probable through stories.”

    Thus, ethnography is produced in the negotiation of experience after the fact. Hastrup notes, much like Kirah, that it essential to set aside your own preconceived assumptions, to continually exoticize the field and in order to get the most out of this experience, and gain new perspectives on your observations.

    In relation to design, the most important part of ethnography is gaining a concrete sense of the situation for which you’re attempting to design. To sum up the situation with all its levels of un-comprehended and fuzzy reality. The design anthropologist’s job is thus to present as much of these fuzzy experiences as possible for the designers to relate to and build their design upon.

    When I talked to Anne Kirah after her talk, she noted the importance of the design anthropologists bringing the designers and engineers into the field with them. To give them that real experience of the situation and to support the anthropologist’s ethnographic findings.

    Recently, I also discussed this problem with Joachim Halse, another design anthropologist, and he recommended bringing the informants to the engineers and recreate the key design situations within their comfort zones, where they couldn’t transgress the cultural norms of the informants.

    Either way, the central goal of design ethnography is finding, understanding, and conveying such central situations in such a way that designers and engineers can build upon them without feeling forced out of their own comfort zone, allowing them to focus on the work they do best. As Donald Schön notes, design is a conversation between designer and situation. The design anthropologist’s job is to introduce the designer to such a situation. Not to leading him and telling him what to do, but to guide him and make him aware of the intricacies of the situation.

    So how much time would a design anthropologist need to find, experience and understand such situations well enough to convey and present them for the designers and engineers to build upon?

    Well… that still depends on the situation. And the anthropologist. Much like it has always been for anthropology. But at least with these criteria in mind, it does not have to take months or years to come up with interesting or useful research.

    How to write a thesis

    Writing a thesis is a difficult undertaking. Before I started writing mine, I hadn’t written any assignment longer than 30 pages (my Bachelor’s essay), and it was quite a step up from that to having to structure a huge complex of data that I’d gathered on my own, analyze it and bring it together in a coherent academic argument.

    Luckily, I was well helped along the way by my supervisor, Morten, who really reeled me in from time to time when I was going off in weird and unsustainable directions, which happened fairly regularly. He gave me a lot of pointers, which I have summed up here for anybody about to write a major piece of academic argumentation. It may seem simple enough, but trust me: Once you get involved in it, you lose yourself to the writing, and it is difficult to avoid being overly esoteric with regards to your special niche of interest.

    • Be overly pedagogical! Keep a continuous meta-discourse going to explain to the reader why this bit of information is relevant in the grand scheme of things. It may seem obvious to you, since you know what is coming. But the unaccustomed reader won’t.
    • Use lots of part conclusions! Sum up again and again how each bit of analysis is relevant and necessary to make sense of your overall argument.
    • Focus on readability! Don’t use more than a handful abbreviations that you can reasonably expect the reader to know in advance. Use clear examples to explain difficult terms and processes!
    • Be very careful with descriptive passages. It can easily become either dry or boring or light-weight and irrelevant. Keep your focus on the relevant scientific observations. Those are the ones that you are meant to pursue!
    • Make it perfectly clear to yourself which academic or scientific tradition you aiming to be part of. Are you going for the anthropological insights, or the psychological qualities, or perhaps the computer science bits? There’s no way you can appeal to all, and your thesis will suffer from lack of focus, otherwise.
    • Be analytical: Use quotes or specific data to underline your analyses and conclusions. Hack the data! Fashion surprising and worthwhile points from your empirical descriptions.
    • Write descriptively in order to support your analysis – but don’t write naïvely. The description can be an analysis in its own right if used to expose analytically interesting situations and issues.
    • Use and express clear levels within the text: Who is saying what? When are you being analytical and when are you being descriptive? Use meta-commentary to separate the two, but don’t be judgmental. Try colouring the text so that you can see where you are analyzing and when you are describing. Keep these in separate sections! Otherwise it will confuse the reader!
    • Make clear distinctions between what your informants are saying, and what you are saying: Are you using their metaphors and terms? When are you speaking and when are they speaking? You cannot be reflective and critical when using their terms. Use italics and quotes to signify that you are aware of the difference!
    • Be reflective all the time: Ask: Which implicit assumptions do your informants have that shape their demeanor and convictions? For example: What assumptions are inherent in the idea of the transparency of a computer program? How does this assumption shape relations between people?
    • Focus on the relations between your informants! What does it mean to be part of this group? Is it a group? Where do their shared bonds lie?
    • Pick a theoretical perspective and give it more depth! Illuminate it from different angles through various analytical means. Dig deeper!
    • Use diagrams to illustrate and explain tricky analytical points that you find central. Often, a good diagram will express a thousand words of analysis.
    • Each chapter of the thesis should be a paper in its own right – containing its own analytical focus and conclusion. But at the same time, it should lead on to the next chapter. Ask yourself: How does this chapter lead on to what I discuss in the next chapter? Is there a feeling of natural flow between the analyses?
    • Layout the text as it has to be in the final version. It will make it a lot easier for you to see if you are within the formal word and page limit. Writing too much will require rewriting and cutting, which is arduous and difficult! Better to write it right the first time.
    • Have a draft chapter ready for review for every meeting with your supervisor. Write a letter along with the draft: Describe how the draft fits with the greater whole of the thesis – what function it fulfills. Make it easy for the supervisor to comment it in a way that can help you!

    Well, I’m sure this seems like pretty self-evident advice, but it is still hard to remember when you’re getting carried away writing about your very favourite obscure detail about the history of the Unix operating system. And you know it has to go, the moment you finished it…