Outside In: Breaking Some Anthropology Rules for Design [guest contributor]

Note: Apart from the author’s illustration by Shu Kuge, all photos are by Shibaura House.


Our July guest contributor is Jared Braiterman, a design anthropologist based in Tokyo, Japan. Jared starts off the summer with an exciting post, first telling us that we should break anthropology rules and second suggesting that design anthropology is distinct from ethnography.   The last time we had a post this provocativel was guest contributor Sam Ladner asked if “Corporate Ethnography sucked?” What are your thoughts on Jared’s ideas? What rules do you break? And how different do you think design anthropology is from ethnography? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Jared’s article in the comments section.

I came across Jared’s work via the AnthroDesign network, a great online group of social scientists and designers. (Thanks Anthrodesign!) Jared’s work caught my attention because he documents his research process very openly and I was inspired by his transparency. On  Tokyo Green Space, Jared writes about his research on making cities more livable. His blog focuses on Tokyo, but urban planners around the world turn to Jared for leadership on making cities healthy places for humans.  He also writes about his work in leading customer-focused design teams for established brands and startups. The American Anthropologist has reviewed his blog as a form of public anthropology. In addition to blogging, he has published internationally about human interfaces and urban landscapes. Here’s a wonderful interview with Jared in the Techno Times section of the Japan TimesJared is currently a Research Fellow in Landscape Architecture Science at the Tokyo University of Agriculture.  You can learn more about his work at TokyoGreenSpace or find him on twitter.

Read our past guest contributor’s posts and consider contributing to Ethnography Matters. Email us! – Tricia


Leading a workshop about fieldwork and Tokyo green mapping for Shibaura House, I ask Japanese participants to imagine themselves as outsiders. Outsider in Japanese is an imported word, and I want to challenge them to consider if such people exist in Japan.

Last year’s tsunami and nuclear disaster prompted a revolt against government and corporate leaders’ promotion of a harmonious “nuclear village.” And Japan now faces dire predictions of an unprecedented population decline of thirty percent in the next forty years. Now more than ever before, Japanese seem eager to explore new ways to engage each other and the world.

Because of my great respect for Ethnography Matters and the public discussion it is creating, I want to contribute some ideas about design anthropology as distinct from ethnography. I am excited about the emergence of public discussion that includes both academia and industry, theory and international practice. I welcome reader reactions to my questions about what we call ourselves, how we frame our research, and with whom we engage in dialogue.

What does it mean to foreground ethnography versus anthropology when we work outside academia? What theories and practices from anthropology— including cultural immersion, de-familiarization, foreign language learning, analyses of symbols and meanings, and historical and cultural views of technology and social change—  can be used in commercial consulting, adult education, and public research? How can we be relevant to audiences that are seeking new ways of perceiving the world and relating to others?

Moving to Japan four years ago reinforced my decision to identify as a design anthropologist working in industry, universities, and nonprofit ventures. Certainly my work shares many practices with corporate ethnographers working in product innovation, including many talented colleagues from Silicon Valley and beyond. Understanding usage in context, mapping out workflow, examining the gaps between tasks and emotions, and constructing mental models are all areas that can be framed as ethnography or anthropology.

I foreground anthropology and design because of my academic training and my belief that we as professionals are tasked not merely with observing and understanding, but also in some critical ways in reshaping or altering experience. While classic anthropology has a preservationist ethos—  documenting before cultural extinction—  today more of us are comfortable and skilled at applying insights into human behavior and collaborating with designers, entrepreneurs, marketers and others who seek to create successful new products and services.

When I was trained at Harvard and Stanford in the 1980s and 1990s, there was no such thing as public anthropology. Peer-review journals, university publishers, academic conferences, and internal debates limited rather than expanded our audiences and partners. Although most graduate students, even at the top universities, would not work full-time in academia, faculty rarely bothered themselves with career advice. My professors’ cohort included a substantial number who graduated and worked for US government development agencies, but by the 1980s this line of employment was shrinking as fast as funding for the humanities. Rather than embracing existing workforce needs for corporate anthropologists, there were many direct messages that  working for business would be inappropriate and a mis-use of our education.

Cultural anthropology in the 1990s, including reflexive anthropology, at once celebrated cultural difference outside the university and enforced a conformist hierarchy within its ranks. After I was blacklisted for taking a queer perspective, my experience of being “othered” by academic anthropologists enabled me to take risks and experiment with my career in ways that were not brought up during my studies.

Widening my horizons allowed me to break out of the institutional conservatism that results from shrinking resources and fear of change. With the dramatic cutbacks now in United States higher education, I imagine the professional pressures to ally oneself with senior colleagues is even more intense and constraining now for those intent on full-time teaching careers.

My advice to academic and applied anthropologists is to break some anthropology rules and to discover more opportunities outside the expected, narrow paths:

1. Look outward, not inward. While some anthropologists are more suited to a traditional academic career, many of us will find that an anthropology doctorate requires additional training, on-the-job and elsewhere, for us to earn a living. In the past decades, fields as diverse as computing and advertising have sought expertise in connecting emotionally with customers and making new services intuitive and pleasurable. Additional skills range from technical knowledge to visual story-telling.

2. Be public, not private. Especially for business consultants and those working in-house at corporations, it can be difficult or impossible to share our work beyond the corporate firewall. Creating parallel public research projects are critical for us to own and share our insights and practices. Blogs, conferences, and open media disseminate content and methods widely and immediately.

3. Engage with partners who have different skill sets. Academic anthropology rewards individual achievement. Most business innovation requires cross-disciplinary teams. Working with others is a skill that can be learned even after graduation, and it will increase our effectiveness.

4. Mix it up. It is possible to combine adjunct teaching, adult education, kids education, and consulting for public and private entities. After being outside academia for more than a decade, it was satisfying to be profiled in the American Anthropologist as a leader in public anthropology. Placing my current research on Tokyo green space in the public sphere has led to international media coverage including CNN and Newsweek Japan, essays and photographs in landscape design journals, and being featured in guides to Japan.

5. Be a student, not an expert. Graduating with an advanced degree can be a source of pride, but it does not necessarily lead to a full-time teaching career. To maximize your career possibilities, it is better to think of an academic degree as training in how to learn, rather than a fixed body of work which you will continually repeat for decades. Being primed to continue to learn is the best tool for adapting to an unpredictable world and enjoying your professional life.

There are many creative opportunities for design anthropologists that combine teaching, writing, and consulting. Public research opens discussions with peers, and brings our anthropological skills and approaches to a much wider audience. I am more optimistic than ever that breaking rules and embracing an outsider perspective can provide productive new roles for us as professionals.

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11 Responses to “Outside In: Breaking Some Anthropology Rules for Design [guest contributor]”

  1. July 5, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    I identify myself as a design ethnographer, having gotten my masters in that exact field at the University of Dundee, and I do find it very difficult to hold together that framework on a daily basis. I feel there are so many fuzzy edges to conducting this kind of work and such a deep need to immerse yourself in your subjects as well as your process that many times we get frustrated with a feeling of being diluted. Jared’s article has lead me to rethink and re-evaluate my negative judgement of dilution (of the purity of ethnographic methods) and associate more closely with adaptability.
    I work in corporatelandia. My deadlines and assignments are tough and full of vagueness and ridiculous specifics. I never get enough time with users. I rarely conduct proper decent ethnography, but the thinking, the process, the methods they are in everything I do. Additionally I bring the ethnographic perspective to everything from team meetings to client discussions. Now I can see I am not diluting my chosen field but instead translating it to different audiences and re purposing the thinking frameworks of ethnographic work in order to make them productive. I suppose that is what I take away from Jared’s words is that we have got to do what we do wherever we are, instead of searching for the ideal (grass is greener) place.

    • palmsundae
      July 5, 2012 at 2:45 am #

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Alicia. The tension you raise between purity and adaptability is central to professional and probably personal happiness. Professional forums, like Ethnography Matters, can help us define who we are, while at the same time engaging with others allows us to learn and change. It’s also exciting that places like the University of Dundee now give degrees in design ethnography, bridging the distance between research and design. Good luck in corporatelandia!

    • Amy
      July 5, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

      Alicia – not that I am glad you are facing the same issues as I am working in “corporatelandia” (I love that term, btw)… but I am glad to see others discussing this issue openly and coming up with alternative ways of thinking about it. Our workplaces sound very similar. The deadlines, inane policies and procedures, lack of time to do justice to the data, the never-ending meetings, the lack of efficiency, little face-to-face time with consumers… Not to mention a total refusal by my company to actually make use of my training and skills in ethnographic (let alone qualitative) research on a regular basis. Rather, I am just seen as an analyst who knows the fundamentals of research (how to scope a project, what type of tools or methods to employ, how to do existing research reviews, how to read a table), and therefore I am assigned to projects and tasks accordingly.
      By mere virtue of me working here, my company is allowed to say it employs an anthropologist (actually two!), but it’s a very superficial employment. The projects we do here that are labeled “ethnographic” are really just observational, which I guess is better than nothing, but it plays to your point of dilution in the corporate world. I saw a report done by an external vendor recently called “Online Anthropology” – nowhere in the report did I see any relation to anthropology, ethnography, or any sort of interaction with actual human beings. People throw around the terms not really know what they mean or what their implications are. People talk about potential projects without ever actually involving the two anthropologists who work here. All of this is so frustrating! Being an undervalued, underused anthropologist/ethnographer (or any sort of employee for that matter) is a pretty crappy existence that I am hoping to escape in the near future. I am virtually fettered to my cube (and a slew of conference rooms) like a dog on a chain. It’s no life for someone whose work should mostly take place away from her desk.
      The positive spin I try to put on things is that I am gaining a breadth of research, project management and business experience that I never could have imagined before I came here. That can only benefit me in getting a new job. Even though I don’t typically get the chance to go out into the context of where our consumers exist and interact with us, I get to do participant observation in corporatelandia on a daily basis (it is SO fascinating, isn’t it?!) I never thought of it the way you put it, Alicia – that even though I am not doing “proper, decent ethnography” to learn consumer insights, my ethnographic/anthropological perspective does show up in all that I do – from understanding and navigating political relationships to learning and talking “corporate speak” in meetings and simply understanding all of the craziness that is happening around me. I’m still not going to give up on finding an employer that will value the unique perspective I bring to the table and a position that will allow me to remain passionate about what I do, but in the meantime I am going to try and keep this alternative framework in mind.

  2. July 8, 2012 at 3:11 am #

    Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    I like this post by my brother Jared Braiterman about “Design Anthroplogy.” It touches upon broader issues relating to academic work and the broader public sphere. My brother has a hyper-developed and worldly understanding of place. He is among the demi-gods here at JPP.

  3. July 13, 2012 at 5:27 am #

    Two books that could be helpful for the discussion:
    Gunn, W. and Donovan, J. (in press). Design and Anthropology. Surrey: Ashgate. See
    Gunn, W., Otto,T., and Smith, R. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Berg.

    • July 31, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      Hey Wendy these two books look great! We would love to have you do a guest post on Ethnogrpahy Matters about these two books! Would you be open to that?


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