‘Why newsrooms need anthropologists’




Trusting the Experts: Basketball Players


One of the things that I love about anthropology is that it teaches respect for people. In my first anthropology class, Dave McCurdy explained how anthropology could be applied in business settings. He talked about James Spradley’s work with Dannon Yogurt. Rather than doing business consulting from the top down – focused on management’s perspective – Spradley talked to the workers to find out what they wanted and needed. He asked them how to make the business operate more efficiently. He treated the workers as the experts they are.

One of the mistakes that many businesses make is seeing employees as adversaries. They would deny to the death that they do it. They neglect to understand that the employees have a stake in making the company profitable. Not always, but management and employees essentially have the same goal more often than not.

Apparently one basketball coach believes in trusting the experts  – the players, as reported on Facebook:

Gregg Popovich: San Antonio Spurs Coach Watches Players Coach Themselves During Timeout   

With less than a minute remaining in the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Popovich called a timeout. Guard Tony Parker lead the players in discussion. The Spurs won, 99-95.

According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive, in order for people to be motivated, they need three things: 1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. (http://www.danpink.com/drive-the-summaries/)

Giving employees – basketball players in this case – control over the decisions that affect them – works. Beautifully.

That quality input doesn’t come without successful leadership.

During a timeout with less than a minute left in the game, Spurs guard Tony Parker sat in Popovich’s chair and animatedly talked to his teammates. Meanwhile, Popovich just sat on the bench, taking it all in.

The Spurs are such a well coached team, that moments like this just happen naturally. Even when they are leading by seven points with 55 seconds left, the Spurs are not going to let the game get out of control. And they didn’t against Cleveland on Thursday, defeating the Cavs 99-95.  (http://www.cbssports.com/nba/eye-on-basketball/25450545/watch-spurs-coach-themselves-during-timeout-popovich-listens)

Popovich would do that because he has strong, experienced players on the team. He knows that because he’s coached them. If businesses train and coach their employees well (which happens far less often than it should), the employees will be able to manage themselves.

Call in anthropologists – stat!


Millions of Americans Are “Getting Lost in Translation During Hospital Visits

Miscommunication due to language barriers is a growing health care issue, and technologies to aid interpretation are racing to keep up”

~ Smithsonian.com

The article below is a perfect example of the need for anthropologists in business settings. The headline says technology will aid interpretation. Maybe. But technology doesn’t solve translation problems; humans do. The technology has to be designed correctly, with all the stakeholders having input. The needs of everyone in the communication channel have to be considered for it to be successful.

Whenever I see or hear the words translation or meaning, I suspect there’s a role for anthropology. Communication problems are often the result of differences in meaning, which is right in anthropology’s wheelhouse. Meanings are dependent on context. Culture is context. Applied anthros can do the qualitative research to determine how meanings differ between stakeholders.

I think humans tend to depend on technology as an “easy answer” to communication problems. Humans are complicated, therefore communication is complicated. Technology is a tool, but we need to understand the communication issues from the viewpoint of each stakeholder before we wade in.

As Einstein said,

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Humans have an evolutionary drive to make life easier, I believe, and that often translates into wanting quick answers. But solutions in our current world work better most of the time if the needs of everyone involved are taken into consideration.


Business Anthropology – Right Out in the Open


I know this blog is about hidden anthropology, but there are times when applied anthropology is right out there in the open. I think those are important. I’ve struggled with how to explain what I do. I’ve struggled with what words to use to translate my skills into business/government/non-profit lingo. I know I’m not alone in that. Here’s one example of how anthropology works in a business setting.


Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

(EPIC) is a great organization and conference. Their tagline is “Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry.” Well worth checking out.

Using Business Anthropology for Strategic Cost Reduction


This is how to build a successful business


Want to build a successful business? Use anthropology:

“Before we did anything, we brought together a group of community leaders, and we just asked them to tell us exactly what it is they were looking for in a neighborhood grocery store.” – Jeff Brown, a fourth-generation grocer

Why A Philadelphia Grocery Chain Is Thriving In Food Deserts


The Heart of Anthropology is Inquiry


If you don’t know about or follow the astonishing Humans of New York posts (Facebook or Twitter), you need to. It is EVERYTHING. Humor, hope, people, caring…in what may be the only instance where I recommend this, read the comments!

Brandon is a photographer who takes pictures and talks with people in New York. This was one of today’s Facebook posts (I’ll include info on this current series at the bottom of the post):

“The school was founded to find out why boys were having so much trouble in school. We wanted to know where the gaps are. One thing we found is that boys are naturally competitive, so we give them plenty of opportunities to compete. For the youngest kids, we’ve created a storyline where Shredder has kidnapped all the Ninja Turtles, and he’s going to shrink them and eat them in his soup. We call the students Knowledge Ninjas, and the only way for them to save the turtles is to win points. This week they get points for going to tutoring. Next week they get points for taking notes. At the end of every week, when they get enough points, a teacher comes out dressed as a turtle and the kids celebrate like they won the lottery.”

Here’s the anthropology: they founded the school to find something out about the students. Most schools are founded with the belief that the teachers/administrators know what the students need. To begin with a spirit of inquiry is sadly unusual. It also means the school has a much greater chance of helping their students be successful.

It’s human to want to be certain, and uncomfortable to be uncertain. Anthropology, as I want to practice it, calls me to be uncertain. To inquire, rather than tell. There’s so much power in inquiring, and the answers other people provide almost always surprise and delight me. Other people know what they need better than I do and I can help them get those needs met if I start with asking.

The Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a school supported in part by the Robin Hood Foundation. The Robin Hood Foundation has the simple mission of ‘fighting poverty in New York City.’ Last month I visited several of the programs that Robin Hood supports, and over the next few days I’ll be sharing some portraits and stories from people helping to battle poverty in NYC.

User Input in Disaster Relief


“Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta were graduate students at Columbia University’s School of Architecture in 2010 when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. In one of their classes, they were assigned to develop a new innovation to help with disaster relief. Many students focused on designing shelters but, after speaking to a relief worker in Haiti, the two discovered that an often-ignored need following disasters was access to light.”

I could almost leave that here with no other comment. It encapsulates the importance of user input perfectly.

We all make assumptions about what other people want or need. We don’t live in a culture that’s very good at listening, or being humble. Those things aren’t usually rewarded in the way that we reward bravado and telling other people what to do. Applied anthropology requires this kind of humbleness. To use some new-agey words, I have to be teachable.

These young women were teachable. Their classmates made assumptions about what was needed, but they went to someone on the ground.

So, it’s cheesy, but I’m curious. Where in your life are you making assumptions that may be getting in the way of being teachable?