My challenges as a cultural anthropologist are very different than those faced by biological or linguistic anthropologists, or by archaeologists. Case in point — (a little humor for the day) – archaeology problems:
I wish I could show all the puzzled faces I’ve seen when I try to explain business anthropology. My interests lie at the crossroads of medical and design anthropology rather than business anthropology, so maybe it’s my lack of expertise. But I don’t think so. I’ve talked with numerous other anthropologists who get that same baffled look when they mention using anthropology in a business setting.
Starting Without the End in Mind
I came across an article on http://www.uxmatters.com called The Insights Event: Leaving the Dark Side of the Two-way Mirror that does a great job of explaining how an anthropological approach can improve user experience. One of the hallmarks of research in cultural anthropology – and one of the reasons it can be hard to explain to business people – is starting without a solution in mind. I’ve worked with designers who have a hard time wrapping their brains around that idea. I’m not throwing stones though. We all (at least those of us in the global West) are taught to seek solutions as quickly as possible. It’s helpful for me to remember a quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
What Mona Patel describes working with a client and realizing she and her team needed to approach the problem differently. Rather than observe the users, they needed to become the users. So they redesigned the research and turned the users into the investigators and experts – and of course came up with great results.
That’s what I love about applied anthropology. We turn others into the experts and then we learn from them. It’s my way of empowering others and skewering the paradigm of top-down authority. Users unite!
I get a lot of questions about what “applied anthropology” means. People (even practicing anthropologists) get even more confused about the term design anthropology. That’s part of what led to the creation of this blog – to explain the connections between anthropology and practice.
I came across an article in the New York Times recently that was a great example of how the approaches and practices of anthropology show up in unexpected places. Talking about Apple’s development methods, Jonathan Ive stated that “Form and the material and process – they are beautifully intertwined – completely connected. Unless we understand a certain material — metal or resin and plastic — understanding the processes that turn it from ore, for example – we can never develop and define form that’s appropriate.”
If you see people as the form and material, the same can be said about anthropology. Unless we understand the people affected by a process, we can’t develop and define a process that’s appropriate.
Ive went on to say that, “Something happens between what we objectively see and what we perceive it to be. That’s the definition of a designer – trying to somehow articulate what contributes to the way we see the object.” Context – of which culture is one example – is one of the things that “happens” between what we view and what we perceive. It’s one of the insights anthropologists can offer to business, social services, and any other setting where understanding perception is important – because culture and perception are intimately intertwined.
What can anthropology do?
This is an interesting video of Lynxes vocalizing – sounding a lot like the stuff of nightmares. The thing that really caught my attention, though, was the mention of a book by Mara Grunbaum called WTF Evolution: A Theory of Unintelligible Design. I have got to buy that book!
I love research. Not a little bit. Passionately, deeply, and a little insanely.
The article below is a great example of why. We all have stereotypes. On a basic level, grouping people together into categories is a logical, rational strategy. Our brains could not possibly assimilate all the information presented to them if we didn’t group it together somehow. So we create labels and put groups of things – people, items, ideas, images – into those categories so we can conserve energy and space in our internal computers. Sort of a biological defrag.
Gender categories are a great example. We put “femaleness” in one category along with a host of behaviors and characteristics, and then we put the opposite people and traits in the “male” category. It’s a rational survival strategy. The problem is that those categories prevent us from seeing differences, and the breathtaking, beautiful complexity of the world (and human beings). We all “know” that girls don’t do as well as boys in math after a certain level of schooling. But knowledge is a tricky thing. Sort of like my previous post about the dangers of using anecdotal “evidence.”
One of the many things I love about anthropology is that what I think I know gets challenged regularly. Apparently what we know is wrong: http://time.com/81355/girls-beat-boys-in-every-subject-and-they-have-for-a-century/
“Studies documenting the gender gap relied almost exclusively on scores on achievement tests like the SAT, rather than on school grades.”