Monday, February 22, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Anybody out there tried out Aardvark yet? You know, that Q&A site which Google paid $50M for. The way it works is you post a question, wait a few moments and receive many excellent and some pretty good answers.
If a set of actions are recognized (either mentally or more sensually) by a group as signifying something greater than what is explicitly said, or even something that can't be said, then the event takes on ritual importance. The bigger the web of meaningful associations connected to the actions is, the deeper their influence to bring a group together, to make them feel connected to one another.
The same simple event might be ritualistic for one person and not for another. Imagine making coffee in the morning before going to work. For one person, imagine this is a largely unexamined action. Even though he does it five days a week in almost exactly the same way, he doesn't care that much about it and has no particular memories to associate with it. Nothing in his life hinges on the act. It is habit. Many people would call this a ritual; I would not.
Imagine another person who makes coffee every morning. She remembers her mother making coffee every morning, and this memory has some emotional significance—perhaps positive, perhaps negative. She makes the coffee not just for herself, but for her whole household. She takes pride in the making. She chooses fair trade beans at the store, aware that people in the tropics work hard to grow and pick this crop. She washes her prized coffee pot gently afterwards with a mind toward tomorrow morning. She has the unspoken sense that the act sets the tone for her day and for the day of everyone else in her household. I would call this a ritual.
Ritualization is an intentional, strategic way of acting. When one chooses to give actions significance, one performs a ritual. When you choose to be mindful of how a set of actions connect you to your family, to your neighborhood, to the rest of humankind, to all of nature, you ritualize otherwise mundane events.
If you want to read an academic text that looks at our history of using the term ritual and proposes ritualization as a lens for examining social activity, check out Catherine Bell's "Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice."http://books.google.com/books?id=hQQYXZeK0ksC"
Monday, February 15, 2010
Being an anthropologist and reading, Gavin Johnson's Ethnosacker interview made me smile. I too opted out of academia after completing my PhD in anthropology. As I am also a psychologist, I chose to go back to clinical practice after a four-year long PhD affair with anthropology.
On the one hand, Gavin’s interview brings out what is often the good spirited nature of the kind of social scientists who do not take themselves too seriously (unless, of course, they are talking to a stereotypical academic anthropologist). On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that for those of us anthropologists who stray from the academic path there is a legacy of guilt, or a tint of shame, or some unresolved conflict we must tackle through humour. If this is entirely my projection so be it. Yet being a psychologist too, I get to decide whether or not this is entirely my projection (thank you very much).
What I still struggle with - not suggesting that Gavin does, this is now officially about me - is this idea that commercial ethnographers produce something less ‘worthy’ than our academic peers. I want to challenge this a bit.
Take as example the questions of the funding of academic ethnographers. Funding agencies are not private clients, but PhD candidates still have a lot to answer in terms of what they set themselves to research from the very beginning. Do you often wonder, in a world where people often see the place they belong to as the major identity definer, why we still have more ethnographies of race or ethnicity than, for example, ethnographies of place and space?
Well, if you go somewhere like a race and equality board and ask for a grant to study a part of a city, your chances are substantially reduced if you set yourself to study a particular ethnic group in that part of the city. Try a PhD funding research proposal of the Afro-Caribbean in Brixton. If you are presenting it to a funding agency with clear concerns around ethnicity, compared to an ethnographic study of ‘Brixton as a multi-racial part of London’, your chances of funding will certainly increase. Of course, once you’re there (writing the thesis up) you can always ‘deconstruct’ ethnicity. That’s probably why so many anthropologists feel they need to deconstruct something in the phase of writing: they could hardly deconstruct it while applying for the funding.
Academic work, like everything else in the world, is politically rooted and partially commissioned. Funding agencies are not private clients. That does not mean they do not actively shape the research objects from the start, dividing them in useful and acceptable research objects and something else, on the other side.
Indeed, if we accept that there is something as proper ethnographic objects, here comes the second fallacy on the relation between academic anthropology and commercial ethnography. I think the time will come where commercial anthropologists will lead the forefront of the discipline, at an academic level as well. This isn’t just because academic departments, as we all know, are struggling to survive. If anthropology is a holistic subject, commercial anthropologists, by bringing together data from ethnography, cultural theory, semiotics, social theory, constructivism, neuroscience, thematic analysis etc, more often in the same research project are starting to articulate in practice the holism that academic anthropologists often allude to as the failed promise of the discipline.
There shall be no place for feelings of inferiority regarding our academic soul mates: commercial ethnographers are the only kind of researchers who are TRULY pushing the boundaries while making sure the discipline survives. What we know need is a good high brown theory for what we do, a theory that can shed light on our practices, illuminating the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, just like our informants. Ideally, this theory will inform academic anthropology, in a feedback loop. I’m a strong believer this theory will come, when the time is right. And by the work everyone is doing in commercial ethnography, it’s probably going to come sooner than we all expect.
I have currently resigned from my post as a psychotherapist (enough stories of misery) and looking forward to begin a career in commercial ethnography. I’ve got all the theory in the world and plenty of qualitative research practice in two disciplines…so if you know someone who can use a trilingual anthro-shrink as a commercial ethnographer...
Saturday, February 13, 2010
I downloaded Aardvark to my iPhone the other day because I had read about Google buying them out for $50m. Almost a week later, and I am still asking around 3 questions, answering 3 questions and asking to be sent the answer to 3 questions from other users, every single day.
Friday, February 12, 2010
A few years ago I came up with another one of my fantastic, technology has yet to catch up with it, ideas. And it was this: Let's take a client's meeting room, place floor to ceiling video walls all over the... walls and live stream webcams installed in a dozen kitchens (if you are a food client) or bathroom (if you are a personal care client). Then clients could immerse themselves into the kitchens, bathrooms and any other rooms of whoever they wanted to. They could look around their meeting room and see/hear real people going into their fridges or shaving. Live. And they could toggle between different households too.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Would you believe me if I told you that it took me a good month after its launch to convince a key colleague to load our Ethnographic Research App to his iPhone?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
A while ago we conducted a series of explorations for a client to help them better understand moods and modes in real, every day life, situations.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I am starting a whole series of conversations with my peers from around the globe to better understand how they think and how they work. Starting with Gavin Johnston of Two West who have offices in Kansas City and Los Angeles.
Siamack: Hi, Gavin! What shall we talk about?
Gavin: application vs. academics
Siamack: Can you please start by introducing yourself...
Gavin: absolutely. I'm Gavin Johnston, chief anthropologist at Two West Discovery & Design.
Siamack: Can I have a link to it? What kind of explorations do you specialize in? And are you an anthropologist
Gavin: Yes, we're at www.twowest.com. We focus heavily on messaging design and semiotics. So translation of symbolic life into marketing and brand design.
Siamack: Your clients?
Gavin: Sprint, H&R Block, Miller Brewing, DDB, United Healthcare, have been our principle clients, but we have numerous project-oriented clients too.
Siamack: Are you an academic? I am interested in methodology/tools you apply
Gavin: I was, but I have a certain distaste for academia. Theoretical work is tremendous and grounds what we do, but it rarely finds its way out of the university and rarely has direct input on society, so I've kept relatively clear of academic settings for the last ten years or so.
Siamack: Are you an anthropologist by education?
Gavin: I am an anthropologist, specializing in linguistics and ethnography. I fell into this by dumb luck about ten years ago.
Siamack: When and why did you fall out with academia?
Gavin: An up-coming child was the real drive. I joke, but there is truth to it. A friend saw an opportunity and we jumped, not knowing we could make a living. After about two years I realized we were doing better work than academia was doing, at least as it applies to design and real-life use. Our company, however, had difficulties since we had no business experience.
Academia seems mired in rehashing theory, espousing unidirectional political and economic views and maintaining disciplinary walls. It is frequently about defining a person’s identity more than it is about finding answers. I'm of the opinion that good work comes from a range of experiences and dialog. Academia is driven by maintaining those walls.
Siamack: What has influenced your approach?
Gavin: The biggest influences are structuralism and deep-dive field work. We go in assuming everything is data and we will be with key informants for at least 6-10 hours at a time. Ideally, we’re in a setting for multiple days. Context mapping is a key element as is lexical dissection.
Siamack: What are the biggest challenges to your approach?
Gavin: Clients seem to give push back on timelines. We prefer longer sessions but it can be difficult to pull them into that model. I think it's a matter of the goal, frequently. If the goal is marketing, a cross- functional team is central to what we do. Context mapping is essentially mapping where language utterances occur and comparing them against what is literally mapped in the physical environment. So it combines workflow and real life movement (and material culture) with what is being said.
Siamack: How do you convey your findings?
Gavin: We limit what we actually show them because, frankly, they're usually looking for the big idea. We demonstrate linkages b/w concept vs. reality. So shopping, for example, is about being a good mom, entertainment, etc. So the idea is to give different trajectories. I think we interpret and uncover the right questions. It is half science, half intuition I always tell people.
Siamack: How do you 'manage' intuition?
Gavin: People are obsessed with science as numbers. I think it's about discovery. I use examples to manage it. A friend of mine works at JPL (NASA) making robots. I can’t do that, nor do I want to do that. I CAN uncover the strangeness and complexity of the human condition.
Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. Don't get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it's difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms -- they simply don't speak the native tongue. Some, like myself, are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their "anthropologist" identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Another discipline?
Siamack: Is there something else to yourselves?
Gavin: I don't worry about the titles much. "chief anthropologist" sounds cool, frankly. Ethnography could be a powerful tool, but it's being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless. What we do is uncover meaning and complexity -- systems of meaning. If someone can uncover a good term for that, they will be a millionaire
Siamack: I'll get working on it.
Gavin: There's a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. I think it comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook. One thing I'm hoping is that anthropology programs will change and get back to their roots.
Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.
Siamack: favourite insight you can share
Gavin: telling miller brewing that no one cared as much as they believed about the taste meant opening up design and marketing in new ways. cheap beer has nothing to do with beer connoisseurship and everything to do with making people feel equal in a social setting. Guinness is about being smarter and cooler. It is about having mastered a more nuanced sense of taste. Miller Lite is about an iron worker and a CPA (accountant) sharing experiences. It is a populist beer that signals an invitation into the drinking circle rather than excluding people. It is expansive in nature rather than restrictive and therefore fits into specific contexts driven by cross-subgroup social interaction. The result for miller was to incorporate more realistic drinking venues into their ads, start messaging around the shared experience (unlike Bud Light, which is about humor) and start hosting “parties” in places like Culver City -- midway between white collar and blue collar.
Gavin: Clients think ethnography is a panacea and it isn't. It is one of many methods in a system. To really articulate our value I think we have to drag clients into the field and point out where the mistakes were made. I think we also have to demonstrate how it makes them money. We deliver a lot of info, but avoid telling them what to do with it. We have to start telling them what to do. As a company, we make every client sit through a day or two where we work with them to build something meaningful at the end. It makes all the difference in the world.
Siamack: Thanks so much for your time, Gavin. Really enjoyed our chat.
By the way, this was a Skype chat. Half talking face to face and half typing. Which is a surprisingly easy way to chat and discuss. If you feel I omitted any questions or have any questions of your own, please let me know.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Monday, February 1, 2010
It's been fun.
- How to write an insight statement
- A deaf Easter post
- Pune Morning day 5
- Viewpoint: The faddish breakouts of ethnography
- I'm crazy about street photography
- Key concepts in anthropology
- Commercial vs. academic anthropology: a guest post by, Pedro Oliveira
- Chelo Kabab in Olympia
- Mobile ethnography tasks and probes: