Tag Archives: anthropologist

An Engineering Anthropologist: Why tech companies need to hire software developers with ethnographic skills

1955a58Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: I’m very please to announce that the next contributor in the Co-designing with machines edition is Astrid Countee (@ianthro), an anthropologist, software developer, data analyst and writer all-in-one. In this article, Astrid illustrates how being an anthropologist makes her a better developer, and argues that the gap between the social science and tech must be bridged to reach new innovations. Her article echoes themes brought up in edition contributors Stephen Gustafson’s and Che-Wei Wang’s post – where both authors discuss the importance of the human side of AI innovations. As a long time fan of Astrid’s work, I’m also excited that we get to hear her recount her journey of starting out as neurosurgeon student to becoming an anthropologist and then a software programmer. She is an organizer for Rails Girls, a workshop that teaches girls and women how to code. Her newly available book, Family Talk and Chronic Disease, a practical guide for black families to manage diabetes and hypertension. She is currently pursuing a masters in computer science and math. Read more of Astrid’s writing at Ianthro.

photo by Martin QuirozI did not always have dreams of being a software engineer. For a very long time I dreamed only of being a surgeon. I was fascinated with medicine, and longed to be able to help people from the inside out. It was with this singular focus that I entered college as a forensic science pre-med major and started down a path that I thought for sure would end with me in the operating room.

But my fate was changed, at first very slowly and then with a quickness. The first couple of years in school had been rough on me. It made me question if I was doing the right thing since I wasn’t enjoying my major as much as I thought I would. I didn’t like the way that the natural sciences taught through memorization. I was interested in discovery, and wanted the challenge of making something new, rather than learning how things already worked. All of these things were small nuisances at first, but they let to me deciding  to drop my pre-med designation. I was now free to take classes that I found interesting. I found a better fit studying psychology, neuroscience and linguistics. Then I took my first anthropology class. This ushered in the quick change. I found the discipline that I would continue to study in graduate school, and a worldview that gave me the chance to discover. I loved the integration of natural science, philosophy with art and history. It allowed my mind to see the world from a new angle.

While working on my graduate degree, I also worked full time at a data company. It was at this company that I learned about technology and my love and affinity for it. I learned how to run queries, how to build databases, and how to manipulate data in ways I had never thought to before. It was a great compliment to my graduate studies as a medical anthropologist. It was also at this company that the seeds were planted that lead me to become a software engineer. It was that same sense of discovery combined with tools to build what I wanted into existence.

I found ways to apply anthropology to everything that I did, including software. Anthropology and software are not exactly peanut butter and jelly, but they do maintain a delicate balance to innovation.

Digging into Anthropology

Anthropology is a broad discipline concerned with techniques like ethnography, often using grounded theory, where you go out into the field and allow a culture to tell you who they are and how they do things. It is a science unlike any other in that what you can study nearly knows no bounds.  The vastness of the discipline trains you to see universal patterns. Everything is understood as belonging to a system. It is through understanding the system that you can find your footing in something unfamiliar, and find your way through it. It is no wonder that when I started working as a software engineer, I was drawn to DevOps and systems engineering. My anthropological training lead me straight to the framework for how technology works.

I know the value of holism, of seeing how one piece affects another. It is an obvious thing that often gets ignored when building technical systems. People often think of technology as machines talking to machines. And while that is true at some level in the technology stack, building software is more about people than anything else. There are people who are using the systems, there are people who are architecting the systems. There are people who are writing the software. The human footprint can be found everywhere you turn. So, it makes sense that humanistic thinking in software is revolutionary. It is the reason why Apple can change the world by taking their iPod and attaching it to a cell phone. 10 years ago smart phones were an extremely small part of the market. Now, in the western world, it is likely that there are more smart phones and tablets in a home than there are personal computers. It isn’t by accident, or only by great marketing. It is by using technology to tap into a holistic system. These systems exists around us all the time, and an anthropologist is trained to root them out, understand them, and predict how they will change.

Gearing up with Engineering

But like any balanced equation, being a software developer has changed my view as an anthropologist as well. My training, even as an applied practitioner was not nearly as project driven as my work as a software engineer. In order to break down the problems I am looking at, it is helpful to start doing something, in order to understand it. Even if that means sketching out the chain of events that I am trying to fix, action is a virtue. You are a software engineer because you write working programs. That’s it. No peer-reviewed work, no list of accolades to prove your value. That intentional execution has influenced the way that I think about problem solving. It forces me to get deep into the dirty work much sooner. It also means becoming expert at shrinking big problems down to size. The only way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. No one knows that better than a software engineer. It is a huge part of the job to dissect what you are doing down to small chunks of solvable problems.  Being in the thick of it is what I loved about being an anthropologist. Being a software engineer takes that to a whole new level.Read More… An Engineering Anthropologist: Why tech companies need to hire software developers with ethnographic skills

Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

Dhruv Sharma has a background in anthropology, has worked in various countries as an ethnographer, and also holds a master’s degree in design ethnography from Dundee University. His doctoral research is concerned with radical digital interventions designed to address issues of loneliness among the elderly. As the title of this piece may suggest, he believes that Everybody is an Ethnographer!

Editors note: Dhruv’s delightful post takes us on a journey that begins with a shape shifting monkey jumping over the ocean on a rescue mission. We segue via the wonderful term ‘lemon difficult’ (derived from twisting the strange English colloquialism ‘easy peazy lemon squeezy’). Finally, Dhruv explains how evolutionary factors have endowed our whole species with a tacit interpretive ability. If everybody is an ethnographer, then perhaps the future role of professional ethnographers is to play a supportive role as facilitator: is our future to act as the opposable thumb to the fingers of humanity?

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley.This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here! and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

Mythology of the ethnographic hero

In the Hindu Mythological story of Ramayana, the evil king Raavana had abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita. When Rama and his army of monkeys (Vanaras) found out where she was being held captive, they wanted to send someone to find her to check if she was doing okay and to reassure her that Lord Rama and his army were on their way to rescue her. The only problem was that she was located on a remote island. Lord Rama et al. had no means of crossing the ocean to reach her.

There comes a point in the story when Rama and his army have reached the edge of the sea and are wondering if they’ll ever be able to send a messenger across. In the absence of any other means of getting there, they need someone who can leap across the ocean to land safely on the island and still have enough energy left in them to leap back after finding Sita. According to the story, Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) was frustrated at the group’s inability to find a way to get there. Unaware of the part he would ultimately play, and the extraordinary abilities that he would have to draw upon, Hanuman was destined to fulfil a crucial role. In the meantime though, he sat depressed in a corner.

Hanuman was born with supernatural powers, including the ability to alter his body size at will and take giant leaps. However, as a child, he was very mischievous and while playing he would often cause disruption to religious rituals. When it became impossible to control and discipline young Hanuman, one sage put a curse on him making him forget the abilities and super powers that he possessed. The curse would only be lifted when Hanuman’s powers were the only viable option. In the aforementioned scene of Ramayana, Hanuman keeps suggesting that he is not able to cross the ocean, but through constant convincing, reassurance and cheering by his peers, he finally realises his potential, the curse is lifted, and he emerges as the hero. Hanuman had the innate ability to perform the task but needed help, support, encouragement and reassurance to lift the curse and to put his abilities into practice.Read More… Everybody’s an Ethnographer!

Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference


TTricia Wang his month’s theme features a series of posts from EPIC 2103  (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference)and is edited by Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), who gave the opening keynote at EPIC, “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript).

Most ethnography conferences are largely academic affairs and have been ongoing for years. The American Anthropological Association is in its 113th year; the Ethnography in Education Research Forum, its 35th; the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, its 26th; and the Chicago Ethnography Conference, its 16th. In contrast to conferences that are mostly academic in nature from the speakers to the attendees and content, one relatively new conference focuses on the work ethnographers do within organizations: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference), which was held most recently in London from September 15-18, 2013 (draft proceedings of papers & program).

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. That said, I have attended my fair share of academic conferences such as HCI, CHI, CSCW, and ASA. By and large, I haven’t been overly impressed; the academic rigor of presentations wasn’t always coupled with inspiration and the events could be incredibly sleep-inducing (except for the fun meet ups afterwards where everyone becomes human!). I generally prefer conferences that challenge me to think about the unfamiliar, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear from an ethnographer.

But I can now testify that I have attended my first ethnography industry gathering and I found it very inspirational, indeed!

In September 2013, I traveled to London to attend and speak at EPIC 2013. It was an honor to deliver the conference-opening keynote lecture entitled “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript). While there was some variability in the quality of the presentations, the ones that were high quality were beyond inspirational. Equally brain-exploding were the fantastic hallway conversations with other accomplished ethnographers.

EPIC is a gathering where academic ethnographers and corporate ethnographers mingle as equals. In its sixth year, EPIC “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings.” EPIC started out with folks who were working at large tech companies such as IBM, Xerox Parc, Intel, and Microsoft, but it has now evolved into a conference that welcomes attendees working in boutique research firms, design studios, and consulting agencies.

There is no other conference in our field that is so interdisciplinary in attendance and ideas. I met attendees who deal with ethnography in every context, including marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia. Simply put, this is the conference to go to if you wish to learn how to make products, services, and organizations that truly serve people.

To capture the memorable presentations, interesting conversations, and useful workshops from EPIC 2013, Ethnography Matters will present a series of guest posts from presenters and attendees of the conference.Read More… Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference

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.

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