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"Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all. How do we define this lively darting about with words, of hitting them back and forth, this sort of brief smile of ideas which should be conversation?" ~ Guy de Maupassant ~

Monday, May 23, 2005

Applied Anthropology - Perspectives

An interesting perspective, on Applied Anthropology in the Financial Times Arts and Weekends section - Office Culture :

"Practitioners of social anthropology - the branch of social science dedicated to the study of human culture - have traditionally flocked to exotic spots: examining the sexual mores of Polynesian islanders; studying disappearing tribal cultures in the Amazon jungle; wandering with Nuer herders in Sudan. But in the past few years, some have headed off to places such as accountancy firms and technology companies, partly because there are fewer unspoilt “native” cultures left to study. But the shift also reflects the growing complexity of public and private sector workplaces and the realisation by companies and governments that they must operate in a global environment. In America, anthropologists have been hired by technology groups including Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Xerox. In the UK, the ''people watchers'' can be found not just pacing the corridors of blue-chip companies, but also the Ministry of Defence, Immigration Services, National Health Service and Foreign Office, as well as non-governmental aid agencies.

But some academics are uneasy about the trend. Is it valid for anthropologists to use their skills to serve giant corporations and governments? And can a discipline better known for examining the culture of exotic tribes really have anything relevant to say about the modern world of companies...."

The author goes on to share Simon Roberts' perspective - he has one of my favourite anthro-blogs at Ideas Bazaar

"Simon Roberts, the anthropologist at PwC, did his PhD in the 1990s at Edinburgh University, and decided to work in the Indian city of Varanasi, a sacred Hindu site. An earlier generation of anthropologist would have responded to the location by focusing on Hindu cremation rituals, but Roberts had other ideas - he investigated the impact of satellite TV. ''Almost overnight, Indian families had gone from having two TV channels to having dozens, from all over the world. I wanted to know how that affected households and how they looked on the world.''

For a year, Roberts watched Indian families watch TV. When he returned to the UK and completed his doctorate, he discovered his experience was in demand. The BBC commissioned a research project, and other work soon followed, which led him to set up his consultancy, Ideas Bazaar. By anthropology standards, this was a controversial move. As a species, British academics are often wary of the world of commerce, and guilty historical memories have made anthropologists particularly wary of working for the government. Back in the time of the empire, colonial administrators tried to use anthropologists to work out how to control the natives - a practice that most anthropologists later came to see as a shameful betrayal of their academic endeavour.

Roberts vehemently denies that he is doing anything wrong by offering his insights elsewhere. ''As a discipline, anthropology suffers from being far too introspective... it has to get involved in the outside world if it is to have an impact.''

And this is interesting :

 "The biggest boost to applied anthropology in the corporate world has come from a surprising source - US technology companies. At first glance, that might seem counter-intuitive: modern technology often appears to transcend cultural barriers with ease - the internet, for example, can be found in homes from Japan to Jordan to Java. Yet that very universality has created a new emphasis on cultural differences, and some companies have realised they need to adjust their western mindset if they want to reach customers or clients. ''Many companies assume that if they want to have a global website, say, all they have to do is translate it into different languages,'' explains Martin Ortlieb, an anthropologist who now works at a global software group. ''But that isn't true - what works in German can't just be translated into Japanese with the same effect.''

Its also amazing to see so many anthropologists taking to blogging!

Update :

Just noticed Alex has blogged about this too - her perspective as a working anthropologist in an organisation :

"There is actually lots of interesting info (too much to talk about) but I was disturbed by the comment of one of the consultants they interviewed. He noted, "What we try to do is describe what is happening, but we don't present solutions. We let the company decide that."

Perhaps it is because I work in design and innovation, but I believe that part of the value we can bring as anthropologists IS in offering solutions, not just observations. What is observation without interpretation, and isn't a solution a form of interpretation?"

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