Before attending an ethnographic conference, there is a critical question that must be answered: Why go to an ethnography conference? This is not a trick question. It is something that I have asked myself a number of times. In fact, I had honestly been unsure of the value of such conferences. That is, until I attended EPIC 2013. Let me elaborate…
Consider the hypothetical in which you are a superhero. You would likely want to hang out with a team with different super powers(a la X-Men or Justice League), not a team comprised of clones of yourself. So for most of my career, I didn’t prioritize going to ethnographic industry events.
Editor’s note: In the last post in the EPIC edition, Ken Anderson (@kxande2) from Intel shares his thoughts on the latest shift in ethnography in the business environment. He argues that there is a new market for ethnography, and it’s one that we can’t ignore.
Ken believes that we are now in a complex market environment. In this new context, he says that ethnographers should be answering new questions for businesses: instead of asking how research can reduce uncertainty, we should be asking how research can introduce temporary order. He provides an example of how businesses like Claro Partners and a few others have adapted to this new market. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Ken? Tell us in the comments!
A great follow up piece to read is Ken’s essay on ethnography in the Harvard Business Review.
Ken also talks about how his early research with the Inuits’ where he observed ice building techniques links up to his current work at Intel. Yeah. We think that’s awesome.
It isn’t complicated; it’s complex
As is evident by columns in Ethnography Matters ethnographers have concerns about other methods, whether those be “big data” or attaching electrodes to people’s brains to get “real” data. I’m not too concerned about these, for me, they are merely tools for use in ethnographic studies. What does concern me is a shift that has been occurring in the business environment over a number of years, and how that might affect us.
When I was in graduate school I wanted to study the Inuit. I was an archeologist at the time and was amazed at how the Inuit adapted material culture to an environment of relatively (to me) scarce resources. For example, I never would have considered ice as a building resource for home building; peoples optimize resources for environmental circumstances.
Looking through some recent books on ethnographic praxis (e.g,, Gitta Jordan’s Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Andy Crabtree’s Doing Design Ethnography, Danny Miller and Heather Horst’s Digital Anthropology, Melissa Cefkin’s Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations), ethnographic practitioners find ourselves in about in the same position as the Inuit; we’ve done a great job of optimizing our practice for the environments we work in.
Unfortunately, when environments shift, then the tools and technics created may not fit in as well. In our case, the market environment has shifted upon us. Things that were once common practice to optimize our resources, like 3 week field studies of entertainment in homes in Shanghai, LA and London, followed up a month later with a 2 day work session with clients and a life of sticky notes may no longer be the optimal paths for ethnography to retain value. Let me explain what is happening.
Editor’s note: This month, Jake Garber‘s account delves into his ethnographic research into the challenges of designing services for families facing difficulties such as suicide, incest, and long-term unemployment. Beyond the challenges inherent in working with such vulnerable populations, the service for which they conducted design research ultimately needed to coordinate the activity of over 20 different government agencies – each with their own priorities, budget conflicts, and factional interests.
This case study used ethnographic research and service design to put vulnerable families at the heart of a new system of support. In this post he outlines one family’s turbulent pursuit of stability, while reminding us of the critical importance of two valuable commodities: time and empathy.
The Trouble Families research is a project of Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses the power of innovation to solve social challenges. Jake spoke about this research at the most recent EPIC 2013 Pecha Kucha in London.
Let’s imagine we’re designing a new service for families. To be confident our service is going to work for these families, it’s going to be pretty important to understand what they value, what their priorities are, how they see the world and how they respond to it. Ethnographic research can make important and decisive contributions to this task.
Now imagine we’re designing a new service for very vulnerable, complicated and often misunderstood families. Not only that, but we want to deliver our service through a complex and overlapping system of more than 20 separate agencies. This time ethnographic research is not only vital for understanding what can make a difference; it is also indispensible if we’re going to maintain focus on families and avoid getting completely lost in organisational bureaucracy.
In my work at Innovation Unit we support public services to radically improve what they do. In the service design team here, we rely heavily on an ethnographic style of research to ground and inspire the work we do. I want to share a story of one of our recent projects to illustrate how we use ethnographic style work to create human centered system transformation.Read More… Transforming complex systems: a case study in service design
Editors note: A collaboration of social, economic, and technological factors have contributed to the flourishing of MOOC’s – massive online open courses. With public universities’ tuition more than tripling since the mid-80’s, fewer people have been able to access a traditional four-year undergraduate education. While this seemingly places MOOCs in a position of strength, this fast-moving frontier of education is still young, and suffers from design issues.
One such issue lies in the fact that while students are beginning MOOCs in record numbers, far fewer actually finish. This and other challenges plays to Christina Wasson’s strengths, and particularly her penchant for researching “communication, collaboration, and community-building.” Here, she gets beneath statistics and surface level assumptions, employing ethnographic research techniques to study the students in her course. Her ethnographic study of online learning revealed serious limitations to the potential of MOOCs.
As one of the founders of EPIC and lead developer of the online Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Texas, her considerable experience in academia and online education come through in her post this month.
ECONOMIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL UPHEAVALS
People are inventing creative ways to respond to today’s economic and technological upheavals. In the American educational sector, we see the extraordinarily rapid rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as a potential way to manage escalating college costs. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” and Time Magazine heralded MOOCs as “revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges.”
But what do MOOCs look like from the students’ point of view – the users? Considering that typically 85% of students drop out, it would be useful to find out how they experience MOOCs. As of fall 2013, no substantive studies had been published about MOOCs targeted at college students. However, I did lead an ethnographic study of a small-enrollment online course, and its findings have clear applications for MOOCs.
THE PROMISE OF MOOCS
MOOCs have captured the imagination of the business press, venture capitalists, and university leaders because they seem to solve knotty problems created by shifts in educations costs, while generating business opportunities.
In the US, states have increasingly reduced their subsidization of public universities, shifting the financial burden onto individual students. As states provided less funding, tuition went up. This graph from the College Board shows that even adjusted for inflation, tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1984.
Editor’s Note: In 2011, TESCO had stumbled. With dipping market share and profits, they were desperate to reverse the trend and called upon the research skills of Mary Yoko Brannen, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey, drawing upon their deep experience and the company’s myriad potential sources of knowledge to turn itself around.
Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) presented this work at the most recent EPIC conference, and I’m delighted they’ve decided to further share their work here. One reason I love this project is because it illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic methods to one of the world’s largest retailers, showing that there are few limits to the range of organizations that it can serve. I also believe this research was key for negating a common misconception in many global companies: the flow of insight is not “one way.” Creative ideas to improve the service offerings of more established branches in Europe and America can just as easily come from their more recently-established branches in emerging markets (although I disagree with and avoid using the term “reverse innovation”).
Companies with the opinion that more developed markets have a monopoly upon good ideas are missing a broad spectrum of different perspectives that could lead to new and refreshing initiatives from other contexts. The researchers’ refining of a method to systematize the building of a “bicultural bridge” is, as they say, potentially groundbreaking for the fields of anthropology and management alike. Read the Globe’s recent coverage of Mary and her team’s work.
In 2011, the retail giant Tesco UK was in crisis mode. Tesco’s profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 percent—a rude awakening after having been the market leader in the U.K. and the third most profitable food retailer globally. At the same time that Tesco’s profits were falling in the UK, however, worldwide profit had actually risen 30 per cent, thanks to its Asian subsidiaries. That year, the company tasked me and my colleagues, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey with identifying and assessing “the Essence of Tesco”, i.e., parts of the firm’s culture which were distinctive to Tesco and which could be transferred abroad to other parts of the firm’s global reach. The project had the dual objectives of helping Tesco (1) understand and evaluate the core practices that comprised the essence of Tesco’s home country advantage, and (2) identify sources of learning from Tesco’s foreign subsidiaries to aid in reinvigorating its core in order to make it more competitive at home.Read More… Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco
Ethnography in Communities of Big Data: Contested expectations for data in the 23andme and FDA Controversy
Editor’s note: One of the disciplines big data is most strongly influencing is medicine, and here Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) applies her expertise to examine the interplay between health and technology to understand the implications of today’s unprecedented levels of patient data collection and analysis (although, notably, seldom including access to the data by those very patients who produced it).
Brittany hits upon a key issue with her post: seeing “big data” as a means of eliminating uncertainty through statistical analysis. While the elimination of uncertainty through statistical analysis is nothing new, the difference today is the scale at which collection and analysis of such data is unfolding and the diversity of the fields in which it is occurring.
Read on to discover the nature of conflict between the main personal genetics testing company 23andme, the importance of and difference between big data, small data, thick data, and DaM data, and the role that “Blue Suede Shoes” play in all of this.
Across the field of health and wellness there is a lot of talk about data, from consumer self-tracking and Quantified Self data, to data-driven, personalized health care, to data-intensive, crowd sourced, scientific discovery. But what are these different stakeholders talking about when they talk about data and are they talking about the same thing?
At EPIC, in the “Big Data/Ethnography or Big Data Ethnography” session, I presented on this topic drawing from our ethnography of the impact of consumer big and small data on institutions of healthcare. In this post I use the recent controversy between the FDA and personal genetics testing company, 23andme, to exemplify many of the concepts my co-author, Dr. Gina Neff, and I develop in our EPIC paper “What we talk about when we talk data: Valences and the social performance of multiple metrics in digital health”, rather than simply re-present them. I also demonstrate how ethnography can be leveraged in the context of so-called “big data” or data intensive transformations in science and practice.Read More… Ethnography in Communities of Big Data: Contested expectations for data in the 23andme and FDA Controversy
Editor’s Note: Along with many other ethnographic researchers, I’m always interested in hearing about field sites that are “out of the ordinary.” In the case of Lionel Ochs’s (@lionelochs) latest project at Méthos, his field site happened to be in motion, in the form of months of long-haul bus riding across Europe.
Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF (French Rail) has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). Lionel and his fellow researchers in collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl set out to define what a better bus riding experience would consist of. As more and more riders are drawn to long distance buses globally, the shortcomings of present service offerings have never been more visible than today, and Méthos’ project has come at a time when it’s impact could be massive and far-reaching. Enjoy Lionel’s insightful observations, fascinating field note excerpts, and colorful “field experiences” (when was the last time your bus trip’s soundtrack was a chorus of inebriated Englishmen?)
Cars, trains and planes promise mobility, freedom and discovery, but traveling on them is becoming increasingly expensive. The decision to deregulate European long-distance travel prompted SNCF (French Rail) to aim for the lead in this market by providing high-quality European Coach travel services at affordable prices.
Méthos undertook Europe-wide ethnographic and design research to define the service guidelines for a high-quality holistic travel experience, which SNCF has implemented in the/its successful iDBUS (service). A collaboration with the innovation consultancy idsl presented as an artifact at the last Epic Conference in London.
ON THE ROAD
Europeans look down their noses at long-distance bus travel. It is inexpensive and second-rate, and therefore tacitly intended for penniless students, immigrant workers and young professionals hoping to make it big in our European capitals. In many ways, therefore, long-distance bus travel is a parallel means of transport, frequented by populations that we do not see on trains or planes—even if higher fuel and train ticket prices are ushering in growing ranks from among other social classes, which the economic downturn is slowly reaching.Read More… Ethnographers creating a better bus riding experience for a diverse set of passengers
Editor’s note: Mario Campana (@mariocampana), a PhD student at City University London’s Cass Business School, researches the growing trend of local currencies – of which there are currently over 3000 around the world.
He recently presented at EPIC, where in a Pecha Kucha presentation he discussed his research into the Brixton Pound, a neighborhood in South London. Expanding upon the research presented in the rapid-fire format of his last presentation on this aspect of his research, this article expands upon his ethnographic inquiry into Brixton’s local currency, delving deep into the social forces driving the development of the currency and the surrounding community. Such forces include issues of gentrification, and the conflicting notions of community and belonging between previously settled and locally rooted immigrants from the Caribbean and the recent influx of young, wealthy, and upwardly-mobile settlers from other parts of the city.
When we talk about money, we usually refer to national or supra-national currencies such as the Sterling, Euro, and Dollars. However, the variety of money is much more extended, and there are many other currencies used to demarcate different types of exchanges. In the last few years particularly, the phenomenon of complementary currencies has been rejuvenated. A recent study counted over 3000 systems globally (Longhurst and Seyfang, 2013).
In this post, I am going to discuss what I presented in the Pecha Kucha session at EPIC 2013. My focus is on a specific complementary currency: the Brixton Pound in London. I have been conducting an ethnography on this local currency since March 2011. During the first year of my PhD in Marketing, I became interested on how consumers approach and stigmatise the mainstream financial system, especially during the last financial crisis.
Local currencies represent a good context to show how communities try to build resilience to fight financial instability. Furthermore, the Brixton Pound was the first local currency to appear in a huge metropolitan area. In an era where cities are increasingly global and old bricks-and-mortar neighbourhoods have been substituted by new shiny buildings (Zuckin, 2009), it is quite unique for a neighbourhood to claim its own historical, cultural and economic identity through the creation of a currency.Read More… Funny Money: An ethnography of local currencies
Editors note: Energy usage and conservation can be a seemingly mundane part of an individual’s daily life on one hand, but a politically, ecologically, and economically critical issue on the other. Despite its importance, there is a startling lack of insight into what guides and influences behaviors surrounding energy.
With conventional quantitative analyses of properties and income explaining less than 40% of variations in households’ consumption, Dr Dan Lockton (@danlockton) and Flora Bowden set out to unpack some of the behavioral nuances and contextual insights around energy use within the daily lives of British households, from the perspective of design researchers. Their interviews had them meeting everyone from “quantified self” enthusiasts to low-income residents of public housing, and involving them in the design process. What they discovered bears significant implications for design which seeks to influence behaviors around energy, for example, where policy makers and utility companies see households as “using energy”, household members see their own behavior as solving problems and making their homes more comfortable, such as by running a bath to unwind after a trying day, or preparing a meal for their family.
Read on to see what else Dan and Flora learned in their ethnographic research, and how understanding “folk models” of energy – what energy “looks like” – may hold the key to curtailing energy usage.
It’s rare a day goes by without some exhortation to ‘reduce our energy use’: it’s a major societal and geo-political challenge, encompassing security, social issues and economics as well as environmental considerations. There is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem, both technological and behavioural.
However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something fungible—homogeneous even—to be addressed primarily through giving householders pricing-based feedback, with an assumption that they will somehow automatically reduce how much energy they use, in response to seeing the price. There is much less emphasis on understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing?Read More… A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use
Editor’s Note: Dr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is an anthropologist who has contributed foundational theoretical and empirical work to the study of material culture. Even though Danny’s work is in academia, his research on consumption continues to influence the commercial world. As such, EPIC invited Danny to be one of the keynote speakers in London.
After reading Danny’s work for over a decade, I was beyond excited that I got to meet him at EPIC. In this interview, Danny tells us about his applied research on hospices and his current massive, multi-year, global social media research project that recently led up to what some called the “facebook kerfuffle.”
Did you ever imagine that your work would become required course reading and end up on almost every anthropologist’s and sociologist’s shelf?
It’s something of a paradox that anthropologists who specialise in social research are still often represented in the highly individualistic mode of popular culture which is devoted to the individual as a `name’. I come out of a more European tradition which is why there is very little out there about myself. The work that I do and is found on people’s shelves is not really about me as an individual. I derive most of my ideas from a specific literature, mainly in anthropology, such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but also from many other academic disciplines, such as insights from the sociologist Simmel or the philosopher Hegel. In turn my own work will be reflected mainly as citations in other people’s academic writings and interests. So really I am part of a process, trying to employ an extraordinary legacy of ideas to help us understand our contemporary world.
I guess one reason for the popularity is that word `contemporary’. While anthropologists tended to look to things with long traditions, I am currently writing about `snapchat’ and I think my work coveys my excitement and enthusiasm for the world we actually live in. By the same token I think people have responded to my desire to leave behind the more obscure jargons of academic and try to create a writing style that re-integrates the humanity and poignancy of people’s lives alongside our more abstract and academic concerns. I hope people enjoy this intense engagement, which is just fine, because I certainly do, and in some ways I feel I have only just started my work.
Hopefully this also reflects a wider realisation, that approaches such as `big data’ and perspectives modeled on science, look terribly important and promising. But again and again people come to the realisation that to understand the world there are no short cuts, and the best way is the patient qualitative and engaged research that is the delight of anthropology.
Why did you agree to speak at EPIC?
— EPIC 2014 (@epiconference) September 17, 2013
To be honest I knew very little about EPIC, and the main reason for my involvement was that my Department at University College London was partly hosting this year’s EPIC and so it was natural for me to be involved. Having said that I have been a long term supporter of acknowledging and fostering the relationship between anthropology and applied work, including commercial work. Most students in anthropology will end up somewhere in that sector and I think it is appalling the way many academic anthropologists try and ignore the importance of this relationship and pretend all their students are going to end up as pure academics. As I argued in my talk I think anthropologists have just as much to learn from the applied sector as the other way around.Read More… An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices