Category: "applied anthropology"
(via Bits and Bytes) The true value of IT will come not from information or technology per se but from the social side. Therefore anthropologists and other social scientists will become more important to Information Technology (IT) Departments than IT itself, says IT analyst Tom Austin in an interview by Fast Company.
The interview does not deal with user centered design but with shaping a climate of creativity in the workplace in the Web 2.0 era with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis and other online social network tools:
A new species of Information Technologist is emerging from the primordial ooze of Web 2.0 – social scientists and humanists who focus on human behavior more than software code. (…) As computer systems become ever more automated and transparent, attention will shift to how to use these tools as social lubricants in the workplace.
MySpace or Facebook will become models for business interaction, Austin thinks:
Look at teenagers today. They’re teamagers. They work on projects as a group and think nothing of doing it that way. I expect to see that kind of thing percolate through the enterprise as an unstoppable force over the next two decades.
Austin tells about companies that are using websites like Facebook to help reinforce or build a social network inside the company to enhance collaboration and productivity:
They use a variety of tools where employees are encouraged to create a personal page where they share not only name, rank, and serial number but also information about prior jobs, interests, hobbies, other skills they may have, projects they’ve worked on, and so forth. That becomes a dynamic and important tool for navigating through the network of people inside the company to find others who may be able to help you.
In this world of the “ad hocracy” that we live in, where people get thrown into project after project, it helps to look at information and figure out, these three people I’m meeting with tomorrow who I’ve never met before. What are they like? Is there something we share in common – a hobby, a background, education, a boss we hated – that you can use to strike up a conversation?
The problem with IT today is there are too many engineers and not enough social scientists. Look at the numbers of features and controls we put on how things are done. That’s an engineer’s approach, versus some of the free form approach of Enterprise 2.0 and social networking.
There is another business anthropology story in the news: In the article Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?, New York Times author Sara Corbett writes about the work done by Nokia-researcher Jan Chipchase, a “human-behavior researcher” and “user-anthropologist” (but with a degree in design, not anthropology):
His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company — to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.
He works in a similar way as many design anthropologists:
Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company — loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be — the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner’s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they’re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.
The whole article in The New York Times is interesting but quite long. For a summary including comments see the post over at Neuroanthropology Cellphones Save The World. For more information, see Jan Chipchase’s blog
For an earlier entry on Jan Chipchase, see Capitalism and the problems of “High speed ethnographies”
UPDATE (14.4.08) Anthropologists are part of a research team that wants to find out how mobile phones might be used to allow people to share content with each other >> more information at The Engineer
How can anthropology contribute to understanding and fighting inequality? The new issue of Anthropology Matters brings together articles from the first British postgraduate MA in Applied Anthropology and Community and Youth Work. Most of the students are experienced youth workers, working with underprivileged, marginalised youth in the UK.
All the papers are in some form interested in the lessons from and for anthropological theory and analysis in its engagement with applied action. The articles focus on youth, encourage youth workers to be critically aware of the policy discourses with which they operate, the structural inequalities which they veil, and promote a more reflexive praxis of working with youth in order to create spaces of critical thinking between them.
One example is Saffron Burley’s analysis of the growing trend among young people in urban areas in the UK to own fighting dog breeds such as bull terriers, and the resultant “moral panic” that this has caused among dominant groups. Burley employed participant observation by taking a young Pit Bull Terrier called “Biscuit” out for walks in the area, in order to understand these young people better.
The result, Alpa Shah writes, is “an insightful ethnographic account which explores the subtle potentials that exist in the union of the young person and the dog":
Burley’s work not only contributes to our understanding of inequality, marginalisation and animal-human relations, but concludes with some lessons for community and youth workers - rather than seeing the dogs as “problems", as external to the young person, the dog needs to be drawn into the centre of understandings of the dilemmas and tensions faced by youth.
The issue is dedicated to an engaging anthropologist and participant of the MA course at Goldsmith who was killed in a bicycle accident in January: Paul Hendrich. In his phd-project on “Charting a new course for Deptford Town Hall”, Hendrich examines his own institutional context at Goldsmiths College and the debates surrounding the history of the racism of the British slave trade that is embedded in Deptford’s former Town Hall:
As I was putting the finishing touches to this editorial, Paul Hendrich’s wife, Sasha, called with the devastating news that Paul had been run over on his bicycle by a lorry. Paul was 36 years old and had a one year old daughter, Agatha. His death is a deep loss to all of us. Paul was a very special person with some extremely rare qualities. His life was committed to engaging an everyday struggle against racism. He held a passion and belief that anthropology could and should be used for and rethought through this struggle against racism and it is this that guided his engagement with academia.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns ominously of an ‘unforeseen and unprecedented’ decline in world food supply. Anthropologists should contribute their expertise and knowledge to this emerging problem, Solomon H. Katz writes in the current issue of Anthropology Today (accessible for subscribers only).
First, anthropologists are often on the ground in remote places in societies which should, but often do not, figure in the mainstream of news stories about food problems. By the nature of our work, anthropologists are often close to the centre of the most desperate problems. We need to report these problems, especially through blogs, wikis and other instant communications within our means.
Second, anthropologists need to communicate beyond our own field about these food problems – with other scientific disciplines, the media, public policy advocates and elected officials who can help implement corrective change. The economic community has begun to focus on the micro level, which is consonant with the anthropologist’s study of problems at the local level.
In the case of food problems, for example, we can share our knowledge of how households, villages and communities are being affected and are coping with the rapidly increasing price of food throughout the world, and we can do so without delay.
Third, anthropologists need to be fully involved in building increased lines of communication that represent their collective perspectives more effectively, and can provide new insights for the media and policy-makers and help change the way societies think and act on problems of global concern.
Finally, we need to help develop a systematic way for government policy affecting the human food chain to be tested before it is adopted, in order to avoid unintended consequences.
The anthropologist is mentioning an online wiki web page and database of reports from the field as part of a new ‘world food problems’ wiki that he launched in December 2007 at http://wfmo.pbwiki.com Unfortunately, it seems he has taken it down already as it is password protected.
Katz has organized a panel entitled ‘Food to Fuel’ that I organized for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington in December 2007.
He writes that the food crisis is the result of the sharp rise in competition between food and fuel, together with the higher costs of energy to produce and transport foods, the increased use of maize as animal feed in China and elsewhere, and the rapid changes in climate and rainfall patterns:
Last winter, within a month of Felipe Calderón taking office as the new president of Mexico, there were so many protests over the rise in corn prices induced by the US corn-to-ethanol policy that Calderón had to reverse his free trade philosophy and immediately fix corn prices or risk further street violence during the opening days of his presidency.
Similarly, the wheat price crisis has sparked street protests in Italy and Russia. In Africa there have been major protests, and the real spectre of food shortages this year resulting from prohibitively high prices looms in at least 37 countries.
UPDATE: The Guardian (26.2.08) reports Feed the world? We are fighting a losing battle, UN admits
Can anthropology help us to understand the current Wall Street crisis? Of course. Anthropologist Gillian Tett is an assistant editor of the Financial Times. “It is undoubtedly an unusual background for a financial journalist", she writes:
Indeed, whenever I reveal my strange past today, bankers usually either react with horror (what does she know about finance?) or incredulity (why would anyone spend years studying Tajik goat-herders?). But a decade later, my years in Tajikistan are suddenly starting to look a whole lot more useful.
For one thing that anthropology imparts is a healthy respect for the importance of micro-level incentives and political structures. And right now these issues are becoming critically important for Wall Street and the City, as the credit crunch deepens by the day.
One of the important issues is the culture of power:
(G)roups such as Citi or Merrill appear to have developed a more hierarchical pattern, in which the different business lines have existed like warring tribes, answerable only to the chief. Moreover, the most profitable tribe has invariably wielded the most power - and thus was untouchable and inscrutable to everyone else. Hence the fact that, in this tribal culture, nobody reined in the excesses of the structured finance teams at Citi and Merrill.
(W)hat is crystal clear is that if you want to understand which banks will emerge as winners from the current mess, it is no longer enough to look at their computer systems and balance sheets. Now, more than ever, investors need to understand a bank’s culture too - and the degree to which it is tribal. As I said, a training in Tajik anthropology is suddenly looking very useful.
Gillian Tett has also written Office Culture - good overview about corporate anthropology
Another example of anthropologists in product development: As a consequence of anthropological research, Xerox is developing a new kind of paper where the printed information simply disappears within about 16 hours, allowing the paper to be reused.
Why this? Xerox-anthropologist Brinda Dalal, an anthropologist at Xerox, found out that 21 percent of copier documents ed up in the recycling bin on the same day they are produced. In most offices, paper is used as a medium of display rather than storage. Paper is only only printed out or copied when needed for meetings, editing and annotating, or reading away from a computer. The result is, of course, an enormous quantity of waste paper and environmental problems.
Actually, the New York Times wrote about this self-erasable paper one year ago. They called anthropologist Brinda Dalal for “garbologist”. She told, she was surprised by the results: “Nobody looks at the ephemeral information going through people’s waste baskets.”
>> Publications by Brinda Dalal (several papers to download)
A few days ago, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) decided to oppose the embedding of anthropologists in military teams (HTS) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of anthropological knowledge in the U.S. military and the militarisation of anthropology has been the most discussed topic among anthropologists this year.
The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes (i) that the HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and (ii) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study.
Thus the Executive Board expresses its disapproval of the HTS program.
In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds. We have grave concerns about the involvement of anthropological knowledge and skill in the HTS project. The Executive Board views the HTS project as an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.
To facilitate discussion on this subject, the AAA has created this blog as a forum for members to post comments regarding the Executive Board statement and related issues. Currently, their first and only blog post about the Board statement has 64 comments!
It was fascinating to see how quickly the anthropological blogosphere reacted. Short time after the publication of the statement, the first blog posts appeared:
L.L. Wynn at Culture Matters summarizes the statement and the first reactions.
Alex Golub, Savage Minds sounds enthusiastic:
The statement clearly (in my humble opinion) shows the influence of SM (Savage Minds) and the anthropological noosphere more generally on the AAA exec board and every reader, commenter and Mind should be proud to see that this is really a case of our community forming a ‘civil sphere’ that can inform AAA decision making.
I am blown away by the quality of the comments on the AAA blog, as well as the fact that they are published by professors writing in their own name. This is the first time I have seen the anthropology professoriate as a professoriate. I hope that the AAA blog become a major site in the anthropological noosphere.
One of the most detailed commentary can be found on the blog Open Anthropology by Maximilian Forte. After having read through over 60 comments on the AAA blog he wrote the post Empty Scholasticism at its Best on the AAA Blog. See also his comment Politics and Ethics: Anthropologists and Human Terrain Systems.
Futhermore, Forte noticed that the AAA still has job adverts for the HTS by the U.S. military on its website (see an example). “This should be a source of embarrassment for the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, although thus far there is little indication of any", Forte writes.
UPDATE (17.11.07):“The AAA disapproving of HTS is unfortunate, U.S. militrary anthropologist Marcus Griffin writes. “Anthropology will have failed to take advantage of an important opportunity to make a difference in the world". >> continue reading on his blog (link updated)
More and more people live in mega cities. Rather than fixating on investing in the countryside, donor agencies need to recognize that people want to come to the big cities. And rather than demolishing squatter developments one should integrate these self-made communities into the surrounding neighborhoods, anthropologist Janice Perlman said in a lecture according to Multi Housing News.
The cities whose populations are expected to increase the most Mumbai, Lagos and Mexico City etc) are according to the anthropologist also the least equipped to handle the massive influx of people. The world’s slums will likely become even more massive in scale, and this, in turn, will hinder the ability of many cities to be truly sustainable. However, according to Perlman, there are steps that can be taken now to avoid an ecological disaster.
The anthropologist is the founder and executive director of the Mega-Cities Project, a transnational nonprofit network that strives to aid urban dwellers around the world. It concentrates its efforts to make cities more socially just, ecologically sustainable, politically participatory and economically productive.
According to the Megacities website, Perlman is about to finish a book on the dynamics of urban poverty in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The book’s working title, Marginality from Myth to Reality: Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, 1969-2005 is based on field research she has done over that period of time. This study documents what has happened to the original study participants of her 1969 research which became the classic book, The Myth of Marginality: Urban Politics and Poverty in Rio de Janeiro (UC Press, 1976).
As a young graduate student in 1968-69, during the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship I lived in three favelas in Rio de Janeiro and interviewed 250 residents in each.
I discovered that the prevailing stereotypes of favela residents (which I termed the myths of marginality) were “empirically false, analytically misleading and invidious in their policy implications” – as they were used to justify the eradication of favelas. My book created a paradigm shift from “blaming the victim” to recognizing migrants as highly motivated urban pioneers and from socio-cultural modernization theory to structural dependency theory.
How has life changed over the last three decades? (…) The answers are paradoxical. While the material condition of life has improved, the human condition has deteriorated. The fear of favela eradication has been replaced by the fear of being killed in the cross-fire between drug gangs and the police. Despite the return to democracy after the 20-year dictatorship, people feel more excluded and say they have less bargaining power than before; and despite community upgrading, the poor feel more marginalized than ever.
She has put online several papers on her research in Rio’s favelas, environmental justice and related issues.
David Graeber is one of the authors in a new journal called Radical Anthropology. The journal is available for free. You can download it as pdf-file. The journal follows Graebers vision of anthropology as an “intellectual forum for all sorts of planetary conversations” that makes “common cause with social activism for the sake of human freedom".
The first issue consists of two essays
David Graeber: Revolution in reverse
The idea of radical change today seems unrealistic.Why?
Camilla Power: Religion as spectacle
Richard Dawkins may think it’s just a delusion, but religion had amore interesting evolutionary role than that.
The journal is edited by The Radical Anthropology Group that was founded back in 1984. Many members are active in indigenous rights movements and combine academic research with activist involvement in environmentalist, anticapitalist and other campaigns.
>> previous publications by The Radical Anthropology Group (lots of papers!)