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An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

daniel-millerDr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has specialised in the study of material culture and consumption.

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.”

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

theory-of-shopping the-comfort-of-things2 417dC-J121L cache_46_ea_46eae409706da6c82c8046c5f650c494Did 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.

Read Danny Miller's piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

Read Danny Miller’s piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

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?

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…

A Psychologist Among Ethnographers: an Interview with Beatriz Arantes of Steelcase

Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) is a psychologist and senior researcher based in Paris for Steelcase’s global research and foresight group WorkSpace Futures, providing expertise on human emotion, cognition and behavior to inform organizational practices and workplace design.

Talk to any ethnographer outside of academia, and you will surely find a fascinating tale. In this post for the January EPIC theme, I interviewed Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) where she spins a rivitetting account spanning multiple continents. She recounts to us how she started out as a clinical psychologist and then ended up researching work spaces in Paris at Steelcase. One of the reasons we started Ethnography Matters is because we wanted to make the work that ethnographers do inside companies more public, so we are very happy to have feature Beatriz’s research.

Beatriz is currently a senior researcher for Steelcase, a leading provider of workplace settings and solutions for companies all over the world.  She is in the WorkSpace Futures group where she researches workplace behaviors and needs from multi-stakeholder perspectives to inform marketing, design and innovation, and examines how technology is changing these behaviors and needs. She has recently devolved into the necessary conditions for worker wellbeing, which you can read about here.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

 

Steelcase's 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Steelcase’s 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Beatriz, so you work with other ethnographers at Steelcase. So what do you gain by going to EPIC, a conference with more ethnographers?
EPIC was the first conference I ever went to that focused on my specific line of work, which was incredible. Yet within that focus, there was amazing breadth. The world is so big that we can’t each master it all. At Steelcase, we do take a broad look at the human condition and user experience in order to eventually narrow the application down to work situations, but there are definitely topics that are outside our scope. At EPIC, I could just delight in the variety of cultures, approaches, themes and theories. It’s a way to renew my own approach, to find inspiration, and make unprecedented connections. All of this enriches my own work. Besides, at such a conference, there is room to play, as well as to discuss the serious issues that we don’t usually take time for in our day to day.

Anything in particular that stood out for you?
I was also particularly enthralled with the quality of the keynote talks, each bringing profound wisdom on issues that had been gnawing on my mind and just provided the insight I needed. To have that put on a platter in an entertaining format, surrounded by peers… it’s a priceless experience.

Oh like what?
Like on the cultural origins of our visceral reactions to technology and artificial intelligence by Genevieve Bell, and like David Howe’s phenomenal critique of marketing’s dash for the privatization of the senses. What these talks all did was apply anthropological lenses to study our own culture’s assumptions – very dominant assumptions that often get the indisputable “science” stamp of approval, that end up clouding our judgment on the possibility of alternative realities.  This is important work, that challenges the dominating worldview that we take for granted and remains deeply entrenched, which is powerful because it allows us to really see our assumptions and opens new paths for exploration.  That’s why I liked your talk so much.

Why, thank you!
I loved your dissection of the very messy and emotional debate that went into establishing scientific measurement of electricity. Shedding light on the human-ness of measurement is extremely important in this moment in history, where we have never been so widely preoccupied as a society with measuring things as a way to reveal the truth about reality, through algorithms and big data. As if these measures existed in some pure form, waiting to be discovered. Your talk challenged our assumptions with an example of a measurement that we all take for granted. What you reminded us is that measurement is a human cultural production and we cannot put it above as unchallenged law. Scientific findings are constantly being revised, because they are our useful —  but crude and fallible —  approximations of reality. We can keep raising this caution until we turn blue in the face, but you shared a very elegant demonstration in your talk. This kind of argument provides substance to the debate we really should be having as a society to challenge the supremacy of algorithmic truth. Read More…

Play nice: design ethnographer meets management consultant, an interview with Alicia Dudek from Deloitte Digital

dudek-hi-res-headshotAlicia Dudek (@aliciadudek) is a design ethnographer and user experience consultant at Deloitte Digital Australia. She has experience in designing and conducting customer focused qualitative research in a professional services and academic environment. Her experience includes delivering useful, in-depth, and straight from the field customer insights for diverse industries including healthcare, agriculture, finance, telecommunications, and tourism. Her entrance to the ethnographic insights industry began at the University of Dundee’s Master in Design Ethnography program. She previous worked in product management and residential construction project management.

What are the most forward thinking management consulting firms doing? Hiring ethnographers. That’s right. In this post for the January EPIC theme, I interviewed Alicia Dudek (@aliciadudek) from Deloitte Digital Australia. Through our hallway conversations at the Royal Institution, I found out that Alicia is Deloitte‘s first design ethnographer in Australia. At Deloitte, she has worked in a diversity of fields from health care, agriculture, finance, telecommunications, and tourism. In our interview, Alicia talks about her experience in designing and conducting customer focused qualitative research in a professional services and academic environment. She provides additional answers to the question I posed in the opening post of this series, Why Go to an Ethnography Conference? 

Alicia posted additional reflections on EPIC 2013 on the Deloitte Digital blog (Deeply understanding your future customer, ethnographically speaking). If you want to find out more about Alicia’s work, be sure to read her fascinating guest post on Ethnography Matters co-authored with Rachel Shadoan where they discussed their use of hybrid methods (Plant Wars Player Patterns: Visualization as Scaffolding for Ethnographic Insight). Check out Alicia’s website for a  treasure trove of links and thoughts.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

image source: Alicia Dudek

So Alicia, thanks for chatting with me for our January Epic theme. So tell me, why did you go to EPIC?
A few years ago when our cohort was studying on the masters of design ethnography course at the university in Dundee, our course leader was Catriona Macaulay, an organiser and participant in the EPIC community.  She often mentioned the conference, its proceedings, and most of all the people who participated. Since then I have always viewed it as a goal to attend. This was my first year at the conference and it was even better than expected, especially to be listening to many of my heroes in the halls of the Royal Institution in London.

At EPIC 2013 and so excited to be meeting my ethnography heroes in the science and history soaked halls of the Royal Institution.

At EPIC 2013 and so excited to be meeting my ethnography heroes in the science and history soaked halls of the Royal Institution.

What did you learn at EPIC?
I learned that big data was a big deal to ethnographers. I learned that everyone is still figuring out how to do ethnography in diverse and new environments. I learned that the only way we get better, faster, stronger is by sharing stories in words, on film, in video, or even live (if your budget allows). The lesson that constraints breed creativity was reinforced again and again, as researchers showcased many Macgyver worthy data collection methods. The most important thing I learned was that every single person there was always working for the work itself. You can say that it is a place where passionate and curious ethnographers converge.

How did you end up at your current role as design ethnographer at Deloitte Digital in Australia?
A few years ago Deloitte Digital was one of the early adopters of design thinking and customer experience research as core business drivers. This is part of a design thinking methodology that is being spread throughout Deloitte Australia.  I like to think that the people who hired me in Deloitte Digital thought that a design ethnographer made sense in the user experience team and were willing to roll the dice. In the time since I came on board I have spent a significant amount of time learning about technology development, user experience methods, business analysis and interaction design. Our national team works as more of an experience design team that pulls together diverse skill sets to research, design, and develop holistic customer experiences. Ethnographic work in this case usually lives in the problem definition and customer research areas of the design process. Read More…

An Interview with the head of User Research at the UK Government Digital Services: Leisa Reichelt

leisa_square-1Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) is the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office. She leads a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design. 

We are excited to interview Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) for our January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters.  I met Leisa at EPIC 2103 in London at Mark Vanderbeeken’s townhall meeting on Big Data. When Mark told me about Leisa’s work, I became sooo excited because I just love talking to UX brains who are obsessed with strategy. While UX designers and ethnographic researchers engage in very different processes, both are creating products and processes for organizations–organizations that are often resistant to change. We are lucky to have Leisa share her thoughts on this topic in our interview.  Leisa is also looking for passionate people to join her team at Government Digital Service! Read more to find out the details.

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

Tricia:  Leisa, thanks so much for taking time out to chat with me! So let’s get straight to it – you think most UX is shite. When you wrote a blog about this in 2012, the reaction was just amazing! People were beyond happy that you laid it all out. While many designers have made similar arguments, your polemic essay stood out because you tackled one of the major issues that are often ignored – how organizational culture leads to bad UX.

Leisa: It was definitely one advantage of being a freelancer – I was able to say exactly what I thought without worrying about how it reflected on my employer. I get really tired of organisations not walking the talk when it comes to user experience. It’s very easy to say that customers are your number one priority, but for most it will require some pretty fundamental change to actually follow through on this, and most aren’t up for it. Hiring a bunch of designers and researchers and sending out lots of surveys doesn’t cut it. You need to empower those teams to do good work and push the user focus throughout the entire organisation, not just attempt to delegate it to a UX team.

Tricia:  So a year or so after your post, you entered into a behemoth of an organization – the UK government! Why did you take this job on and what it is like to be inside an organizational structure that is not known to be easy for designers and cultural change?

Screenshot 2014-01-16 14.16.41

Leisa: I’m not sure I would have been so brave if not for the work that the Government Digital Service had done well before I joined. Through the process of designing and launching GOV.UK they laid out a great example of how a clear focus on user needs proliferating throughout an entire team can lead to great outcomes for citizens.

I initially joined to work on a really interesting identity project but saw a great opportunity to help GDS become even better at understanding and focusing on user needs by better integrating user research into agile teams. Government is a challenging environment to work in, but it is full of people who are really committed to doing the best they can for their country and its citizens. Traditionally a lot of research in government has still placed a lot of distance between the people who make the decisions (whether it’s interface decisions or policy decisions) and the people who are affected by those decisions. We  are trying to close that gap and help enable teams to be able to see what the impact of their decisions will be for citizens. It’s exciting to see how enthusiastic people throughout government are to do much more of this kind of work and how well it works within the agile process. Read More…

Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano

picture of Julia SeranoJulia Serano (@juliaserano) may be most well known for her groundbreaking book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, but she is a person of many talents. In addition to having just released a new book (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive), did you know that Julia is also a musician, a performer, and a geneticist with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Physics? And although she doesn’t work as an ethnographer, she is an insightful explorer and student of culture.  Her experiences as both an activist and a biologist give her a unique perspective on this month’s theme.

We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.

EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.

I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.

Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.

Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.

EM: Were you interested in that growing up?

Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.

This is all fruit fly stuff

Drawing of fruit fly with text from William Blake's poem "The Fly"

Saint Drosophila, CC BY-SA Sage Ross
(Poem by William Blake)

EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.

Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”

She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.

EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…

Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.

Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.

The natural/unnatural binary

EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.

Cover of the book "Excluded"The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.

Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?

EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?

In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.

As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.

Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried. Read More…

Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA

Alondra_1.5

Alondra Nelson

Ed. Note: Alondra Nelson (@alondra) is an interdisciplinary social scientist who writes about science, technology and inequality. Her forthcoming book is The Social Life of DNA. In this interview we did via Skype, she talks about the implications of the expanding use of genetic analysis, touching on subjects such as the early Black Panthers’ use of community-based genetic screening for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are.
(PS: This edition of EM comes with a soundtrack. We asked Dr. Nelson what music the topics she is researching brought to mind for her, and she followed up with an email noting all the songs contained in this post, which will also be in our playlist.)

(Slideshow image:  DNA CC BY MIKI Yoshihito)

I wanted to ask you first about what you’re working on these days. I think you have a new book coming out.

My book The Social Life of DNA (@sociallifeofdna) is coming out next year with Beacon Press. “The social life of DNA” is both a methodological phrase and also an analytical or theoretical claim. The methodological use, you won’t be surprised to hear, comes from Arjun Appadurai and his edited collection The Social Life of Things, which was about material culture – much more material than the genetics ancestry testing that I follow in my work. Appadurai’s mandate is that scholars can understand social meaning, in part, by following things around. That important insight was from the late 1980s. And, then more proximate to us, about six or seven years ago Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts wrote a book called Born and Made, which was on preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In that book, they discussed what they called “the social life of PGD;” as ethnographers, they were in some regards following tests around and following users around. People who had done the diagnostic tests, and the various stakeholders who were involved in the tests…

I think what’s different about the way that I’m using [the social life of things model] is that there’s an ephemerality to genetics; you can’t see or follow necessarily with your eye — the gene or the genome. You can’t even really follow the genetic ancestry tests, which are often inferences about forms of identity: racial identity, ethnic identity. Increasingly, they’re inferences about health factors and the like. It’s harder to follow these around.

Interpreting genetic ancestry tests

[Jeans by Quadron]

In my earlier ethnographic work, I was trying to understand what people got out of the tests, because you’re basically sending cheek cells to a company in a FedEx package, and you get back pieces of paper that give you inferences about who you are. In some instances you’re getting sets of genetic markers written down on these pieces of paper, but the untrained eye doesn’t really know what to make of all of those As, C, G, and Ts. At any rate, these lists of genetic markers or “certificates of ancestry” that one receives are the outcome of the process. These artifacts aren’t always interesting in and of themselves. Far more interesting, I found, was the social life of the test results. I came to follow the way that these genetic ancestry tests came to be used in ways that we couldn’t necessarily anticipate. Read More…

On the Importance of Ethnography in Education: an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Mizuko 'Mimi' Ito

Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Editor’s Note: We finish off this month’s theme on ethnography in education with an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito (@mizuko). Mimi has some impressive experience with the topics covered this month: she is the Research Director at the Digital Media and Learning Hub, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning, and a Professor in Anthropology and Informatics at UC Irvine (after getting two PhDs from Stanford). And she is as kind and generous as she is brilliant.

In this interview, Mimi provides insights on bridging disciplines – from ethnography to economics – and institutions – from academia to industry. She also discusses the challenges and opportunities in forging new research agendas and shaping a field, something with which she has a lot of personal experience. We are thrilled to share Mimi’s insights with you to round out this month’s theme on ethnography in education. To learn more about Mimi, check out her many books and reports, summarized at the end of the interview.


Morgan: You’ve worked on a lot of compelling projects using ethnographic methods. What do you see as the strengths of ethnography?

Mimi: I think, for me, I was always in an unusual bucket as an ethnographer because I’ve always done research ‘at home’ and I haven’t taken on the frame of culture in quite the same was as ethnographers do, but I’ve adopted and adapted the perspectives and political commitments and methods of ethnography, and for that has worked very well in studying youth media. My approach has been to study youth culture and media as a space of cultural difference within a particular society. These technologies are new and children and youth occupy a somewhat segregated culture. Feminist ethnographies look at social stratification, and my approach shares affinities with those.

When I started out, there wasn’t a lot of work in anthropology looking at children and youth cultures, and I found that the perspectives of ethnography was really useful for looking at these subaltern and disempowered groups. A lot of my perspectives came from my training in anthropology about how to give voice to the unique ingenuity and perspectives of those who are disempowered. The role of youth in most societies as a relatively oppressed and marginalized population has been relatively under-studied in anthropology. The field has done a great job of studying regional inequities, and gender, race, and class, but has been remarkably silent about the everyday oppression that most societies have based on age. Read More…

Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal

Steve Headshot B (Small)

All rights reserved

Editor’s Note: This post for May’s Special Edition on ‘Talking to Companies about ethnography’ comes from Steve Portigal who has a new book out this month titled Interviewing Users. As someone who’s been in the trenches for decades now running his own successful consultancy, Steve has done a great deal of both ‘interviewing users’ and ‘talking to companies about ethnography.’ Below we take the opportunity to interview him! We at Ethnography Matters are also big fans of the ‘War Stories‘ series on his blog where interviewers report on the unexpected things that happen to them in the field.

Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. Over the course of his career, he has interviewed hundreds of people, including families eating breakfast, hotel maintenance staff, architects, rock musicians, home-automation enthusiasts, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of mobile devices, medical information systems, music gear, wine packaging, financial services, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. He blogs at portigal.com/blog and tweets at @steveportigal.

This interview is available en Español – Habitantes Experiencia Diseño Innovación

interviewing-users

Image courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

Ethnography Matters: First all Steve, congrats! We are so excited to have a copy of your book. Before diving into the specific questions, we want to know what motivated you to write this book?

Steve Portigal: Thanks! I’ve wanted to write a book from the time I was a little kid. I didn’t imagine it would be non-fiction, though! A lot of folks in the user experience and design worlds were feeling the need for a good book about this and my name came up as the author they’d want to see something from. I had been talking with Rosenfeld Media for a while about writing something, but it seemed like a daunting commitment. But when your peers are asking for it, it’s pretty compelling!

EM: So which part of the book was the most fun to write? Which part was the hardest?

SP: There were creative and intellectual challenges and rewards all the way along. A lot of the writing process was taking topics I had been speaking about for years and crafting the kind of text that is appropriate for a practitioner book. It was fun to revisit familiar points and find a better way to convey them. And then once in a while I’d hit on something that I maybe would typically gloss over in a presentation and realize I’d better dig a little deeper into myself and find away to explain something. The details of some of those moments are lost to memory, but the part of the process where I was discovering something by articulating it was pretty wonderful.

Read More…

In between is the place where you have to understand people: Social science, stigma, and data big or small

Judd and Tamar

Editor’s Note: Judd Antin @juddantin is a social psychologist and user experience researcher who studies motivations for online participation. In 2011, he was named an MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35. Prior to joining Facebook, he worked with Yahoo Research.  His educational background includes Applied Anthropology, Information Science, and training at the French Culinary Institute. One of my favorite papers of his is Readers are Not Free Riders: Reading as a form of participation on Wikpedia (pdf) [1].

Tamar Antin is a research scientist who uses mixed and especially qualitative methods to critically examine public health policies and narratives. She has several years of experience in public health research. One of her recent publications is Food Choice As a Multidimensional Experience [2].   Her dissertation [3] combining three papers on food choices and body image is excellent reading for any student of qualitative methods. 

I’ve known Tamar and Judd for several years now, and Tamar has been a mentor to me. Every time Tamar and I talk about research and ethnography, it never seems to last long enough; I just want to ask her more questions. And every time I see Judd, I want to ask him a million questions too. So a post for Ethnography Matters was a great excuse to get together with them for a chat on anthropology, Big Data and Small Data, and other interesting things.  -  Rachelle

P.S. This isn’t a straight transcript of our conversation but a sort of Frankenstein transcript made out of chopped up pieces sewn back together. 

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1. Two Ethnographers
2. What they’re working on
3. Stigma and hacking
4. Qualitative research as art, science and handmaiden
5. Big Data and Small Data

1. Two Ethnographers

What’s your background in anthropology?.

Judd: I have an undergraduate degree in anthro from Johns Hopkins, where I was one of seven anthropology majors I think, like in the whole university. It was a small department. I got interested in anthro primarily because of my adviser, who became our friend, Felicity Northcott. Coincidentally she also married Tamar and I. She was internet ordained and she officiated our wedding. She’s awesome.  She was just a very down to earth, foul-mouthed, passionate anthropologist.

Tamar: And for me, I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology also, from the University of Texas. I was having this conversation with the undergraduate adviser there at the end of my senior year, like okay now I have this degree, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I went to the career center, and they had a list of all the jobs that you could do with certain majors, and I think the only job that was listed for anthropology majors was travel agent.

Judd: What?

Tamar: Oh yeah. I was thinking, well I don’t want to do that.

Judd: Travel agent?!

Read More…

A Retrospective of Talks Given by Ethnographers at Lift Conference since 2006

Pic by Ed Horsford

ImageOf all the conferences that are dedicated to discussions on technology and society, there’s one that has continued to consistently curate an amazing line of up speakers while maintaining an intimate environment for meaningful exchanges without any elitist barriers to participation –  Lift! Since 2006, I’ve been following Lift because they continually have featured speakers who focus on the social side of technology.

So when Nicolas invited me to speak at Lift ’12 in Geneva, I broke my promise to not leave my field site for a year. I took a break for a week and it was well worth it because I got to meet people whose work I’ve been following for a while. I was also forced to analyze my data, which wasn’t a bad thing. My talk, Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks, was about some of the ethnographic work I’ve been doing this past year in China.

After my talk, I had a chance to chat with one of the people I’ve been virtually brain-lusting for years,  Nicolas Nova, ethnographer, co-founder of Lift, and Lift program curator. Nicolas found time to sit down with me to give a retrospective of past ethnographers who have given talks at Lift.

Oh and one of the best parts about Lift is that there are videos for each speakers! Each of the talks are around 15 to 20 minutes and they are pretty dense, so read this when you have a chance to ponder about the wonders of life and ethnography! Read More…

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