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.
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…