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”


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?

Residents As Experts


I smiled when I came across this headline: The Best Commentary Out Of Baltimore Is Coming Straight From The Mouths Of Its Residents.

Two things about this made me smile. One is the truth behind the statement. The other is the sense of surprise conveyed by it. Those of us in cultural anthropology aren’t surprised at all.

The headline summarizes exactly why I’m an anthropologist. Because I believe passionately in the truth that the people living within a situation are the experts on that situation. I have seen over and over again that if we treat community members (however we define community) as the experts they are, they will provide the best solutions to any problems they perceive.

That’s another reason I love the anthropological approach. Outsiders don’t get to even define what the problem is. Baltimore, for example. The outsiders – police – may define the problem as one of controlling the population. But the insiders – people who live in the area – know that if you address police violence as well as poverty and lack of resources, we’ll come much closer to actually solving the underlying reasons behind the uprising.

The video from which the headline comes is below.

In addition, I’m including a video of a Baltimore resident calling national media out on their lack of understanding and concern about Baltimore beyond the protests. He’s not just yelling at Geraldo Rivera (& Fox News) – he makes great points.

Seeing the World Through a Practical Lens


I could only have become an applied anthropologist. I recognize the value of theory and use it, but an academic life is not for me. Professionally, I’m a pretty practical person (don’t ask my mom about my practicality in my personal life, though).

I’m drawn to the practicality of applied anthro. How can we interpret the world in ways that make practical sense? How can we make the world – in concrete ways – a better place?

So the following sentence on the I F****** Love Science website immediately caught my attention: “Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual,” Bonn says, “and had never sought a scientific explanation.”

I missed this when it was published last year, but scientists have solved the mystery of how Egyptians moved the massive stones for the pyramids across the desert. The article (linked below) explains in detail. Basically, pouring a small amount of water on sand changes the texture enough to make it easier to move objects over.

Social scientists are not immune from prejudices. The only advantage we have is that we are aware that prejudices exist, and the ones I respect try to examine their own biases. But we’re human. It’s easy to see ancient peoples as somehow different from us. As if they were so scientifically unaware that they would practice rituals rather than science. I would point out any sports fan (or player) who is superstitious as proof that we are no different than our ancestors. And we do this despite clear proof (i.e. the pyramids) that their building techniques were advanced.

I’m posting this as a reminder to myself to assume, because it’s probably true, that the people with whom I work are likely smarter than I am.