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 Times. Jared 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.
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.