Two recent articles about anthropology in the corporate environment caught my eye.
The article in Fortune magazine focuses on anthropological work at Microsoft and contrasts modern corporate anthropology with its origins:
“Their fieldwork is far removed from the popular perception of the anthropologist as lantern-jawed adventurer in baggy shorts and pith helmet, canoeing up the Amazon in search of the proverbial lost tribe. But there is a certain correspondence between Microsoft’s research agenda and the work of those old-time anthropologists, many of whom were funded by colonial governments that needed to understand their native subjects in order to rule them more effectively. The modern version of this knowledge-power dynamic is Microsoft, a multinational technology colossus that hires anthropologists who study the natives in order to sell them more software.”
I don’t think Genevieve Bell the Intel anthropologist quoted in the second article thinks of herself as studying the “natives”. But the parallel is hard to escape. Often when we are starting to research a new customer group, exploring a completely new domain, and users with their own work practices and needs – I quite feel like an anthropologist venturing into a new land myself.
But colonial undertones apart, it is the power of the anthropological approach that accounts for its rising popularity. Unlike the more cut and dried approach of psychology (especially experimental psychology), anthropologists try to get under the skin of the people they are studying. Psychological method shifts the focus to what can be objectively recorded and measured. Anthropology focuses on the complete individual, what drives them, how they work and play, how they think…
Since moving to HCI, I have personally moved towards anthropology. Most of my reading in the past 2-3 years has been in Cognitive Anthropology. Away from the lab, working with companies, I often find psychological methods lacking. The lab-based, experimental paradigm is often not possible, nor necessary. In fact, the part of my academic research experience that I find myself referring back to is the pre-experimental stage – when the research question is still being defined, when you are still trying to get a feel for how people think/behave in order to design your experiment just right. Its as if corporate customer research is always in the pre-experimental stage. The product is the experiment itself. A lot more messy, lots of uncontrolled variables, but an experiment nevertheless.
Given that a lot of what we do is help companies understand how their customers think – Cognitive Anthropology is particularly relevant. The premise behind Cognitive Anthropology is that culture and cognition are inseparable – if you want to understand actions, objects, relationships in a culture, you need to understand people’s cognition, their mental models. While Cognitive Psychology is individual oriented, Cognitive Anthropology methods lend themselves well to understanding the culture itself, even while studying the individual.
More about Cognitive Anthropology in a follow up posting.