Friday, 13 July 2012

The "boomlet" in anthropology-inspired business consultancy...and a useful byproduct

I found myself promoting consultancies run by or employing PhD anthropologists in the early noughties boomlet for such companies described by a new post by Laurel George here: They wanted to cultivate a mystique around anthropology/ethnography and position bone fide academically trained practitioners and their approaches to research as essential to solving certain business problems relating to marketing and R&D.

This goal was somewhat undermined by a legion of rivals newly describing their own qualitative approaches as ethnography, making it hard to bring attention to the particular skills possessed by anthropologists and further removing the process from anything the academy would recognise (Simon Roberts lists many of the approaches lumped under the umbrella of ‘ethnography’ in the book edited by Sarah Pink ‘Applications of Anthropology’, pg.86). That's not to ignore the prior adoption and adaptation of ethnography in the hands of other academic disciplines.

Arguments about what is or isn’t ethnography aside, the boomlet did help to spread the word about anthropology. On a personal level, without it my interest in anthropology may have never been piqued to the extent of pursuing a Masters in digital anthropology at UCL.

At a time when some in anthropology are asking "why the discipline has not gained the popularity and respect it deserves" (, those in Laurel's past position and the third of anthropology PhDs for whom there are no academic positions at all (Spencer et al., 2005 – have surely contributed to getting the word out. Beyond inadvertently turning people like me on to the subject, whatever their doubts about participating in commercial activity they, along with other applied anthropologists, are arguably also helping advance the grander goal of “making [culture] available as a scrutinizing lens for our society at large,” a useful byproduct (

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mining Codes

Interesting talk by UCL Material Culture masters grad Sam Barton who is works at commercial semiotics company Added Value yesterday at the UCL #anthropology department. He ran through the conventional company credentials and then explained the origins of commercial semiotics in literary criticism and cultural studies before engaging in a bit of deconstruction.

In short, brands are cultural entities and if culture informs communications then you need something like semiotics, which draws on a plethora of theories, to see the patterns. Brands need to understand dominant culture to continue to be relevant to it. This inverts Williams' whole dominant/emergent/residual theory of culture whose purpose was to liberate through a revelation of culture's workings. Basically what he was saying was that on a pessimistic view, the very entities which certain theorists of a Marxist persuasion viewed as the enemy are benefiting from these theorists' insights. In a final insult, an academic mystique (I thought much like the scientific mystique around neuromarketing: has been cultivated around semiotics which obscures its nature as a pragmatic technical process (Latour). This is a form of enchantment (Gell).

Semiotics is by no means the only domain in business with roots in academia to cultivate a mystique by association. Anthropologists also 'black box' their work in the corporate space although reservations hinted at in this talk remind me of an interesting paper by Lucy Suchman which examines anthropology's role in the 'cultural turn' and the battle faced by many social scientists with their conscience when: "incorporated economically into an organisation committed to operating in the Market." But with a limited number of academic jobs on offer, you gotta earn a crust and code mining sounds more appealing than coal mining...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Oxford Internet Institute presentation

Just created a blog page with the transcript of my recent OII presentation on urban food futures and ICTs:

I discuss what has been going on at MyFarm, billed as an experiment in the collective management of a real farm over the internet by the public ( I recently completed ethnographic fieldwork there and at the National Trust owned farm in Cambridgeshire (Home Farm) which the MyFarm participants follow the progress of and have a say in running through a monthly vote on an issue.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Subsidies for journalism and the public sphere

Sir Martin Sorrell called for subsidies for quality journalism recently: see & Immersed in public sphere scholarship this summer I noticed that this viewpoint makes him an unlikely if uneasy bedfellow with sociologist Rodney Benson (

The former, who runs global advertising agency behemoth WPP, is presumably interested in the potential for aggregating such journalism and generating advertising revenue around it. I imagine he is thinking of the Channel 4 rather than the BBC model in the UK.

The latter is more concerned with the conditions under which an independent public sphere may flourish, with a focus on the US and a conviction, more a legacy of Bourdieu/Durkheim than Habermas/Weber, that the state is the most appropriate guarantor of this independence. Accordingly Benson attaches diversity to his call for quality and asks: “What are the laws and regulations and tax breaks and subsidies – in short the rules of the game guaranteed by the state through democratic political processes – that nudge and prod and encourage journalism to more closely meet ideals of deliberative democracy?”

Despite the different agendas and leaving aside the tricky issue of what exactly constitutes quality and diversity, as an occasional (and I would like to think quality) journalist who doesn’t object to (quality – do your bit too Sir Martin) advertising, I look forward to the time when they find eachother and harness Benson’s ideas to Sorrell’s talent for promotion.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Fieldwork. In a field.

I won't inflict a picture of a horse in a field on you, dear reader, but I will inflict my picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture of a horse. Which is slightly more interesting because it means I can cite it as an example Bolter and Grusin's notion of remediation in practice (in 'Remediation: Understanding New Media').

What seems to be going on here, kind of, is the logic of immediacy and the logic of hypermediacy, all at once. The former uses digital applications to remove the sense of the media and reach ‘an immediate (and
hence authentic) emotional response’ (p53), while the latter’s use of digital hypermedia ‘seek the real by multiplying mediation’ (p53).

Those other pictures/films have already made it into the ether. The first aims to give the viewer a first hand encounter with the subject: whilst the rest are more 'knowing' in showing how the first was produced: (although the second could have made it more straightfoward for me to squeeze a theoretical point out of this experience by displaying the first video as it appeared on the MyFarm website).

Lecture over. Enjoy the horsie...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Friending our four legged friends

What does a pregnant shire horse called Queenie have in common with a German hamster called Hans? Both are Internet webcam stars, in Hans' case for 10 years although the excuse to explain his different appearance roughly every two years (that he "changed his coat overnight") doesn't wash with me any more. Queenie is a main draw over at MyFarm, an experiment in open source farming run by the National Trust. As I write she is expected to give birth and has a live webcam in her stable to catch the moment.

As Hans' case shows, webcams trained on everyday scenes aren't new: the first was set up in the early nineties to monitor the goings on around a kettle in a Cambridge lab. Our motivations to tune in probably haven't changed much either, judging from the analysis in this New York Times article from 2000.

In a 2003 paper  anthropologist Daniel Miller observed how the web can harness the power of narrative much like soap opera. However, it can also make this narrative about 'real' people living simultaneous lives and thereby more compelling, much like reality TV. In a final development he saw the Internet's potential for interactive involvement by the user, elaborated in in his 2011 book 'Tales from Facebook' (p 73). He stressed how co-presence is established, reciprocity is possible and thereby relationships are formed, superseding the capacities of earlier media.

I am not sure he had inanimate objects and animals in mind as subjects but if reality TV could encompass the natural world with shows like 'Big Cat Diary', then why not take it to the next level online and start friending our four legged friends?

I'm off to check in on Queenie...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Suchman: anthropology as square peg to business' round hole?

UCL hosted eminent (commercial) anthropologist and definitively NOT the inventor of the green photocopier button Lucy Suchman on Monday. Having tired of working at Xerox a while ago and now back in academia she turned her experience into a paper due to go to the ARA later this year. The thrust was that there is a poor fit between what anthropology/ethnography can offer and what a commercial ‘centre of innovation research’ expects in terms of deliverables.

Not me, guv
Her biggest gripe was with different understandings of innovation i.e. as discontinuous, transformative, centralisable and down to the efforts of a heroic designer vs. the reality of innovation as a gradualist, reproductive, contingent, distributed and collaborative process.

Check out ex Intel anthropologist Simon Roberts' blog, Ideas Bazaar, for another take on 'Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter', incidentally-on-purpose the title of an instructive book by Melissa Cefkin which looks at the pluses as well as minuses.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

iPhones = unreasonable behaviour? Sensibly, tech isn't made deterministically responsible for poor marital relations but it’s acknowledged that mediated communication may also be used to avoid facing relational problems (see Fortunati 1998 - Telecomunicando in Europa – for a discussion).

Absorption in mediated communication, which fosters a state of so-called 'absent presence' (see Gergen 2002 in 'Perpetual contact. Mobile communication, private talk, public performance') could equally refer to burying your head in a newspaper of course….

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

ehealth as oxymoron - technology induced mind change a top threat for humanity. Hyperbole perhaps, in comparing the threat to that posed by climate change, but Susan Greenfield is doing what she does best and getting her research agenda noticed. In doing so she raises questions for public policy and health promotion about the use of digital channels.

If her concerns turn out to be well founded then the emphasis of public policy on personal responsibility for health, achieved in part through the use of ICTs to gather information, may even contribute to the problem if as she postulates: ‘using internet search engines to find facts… [affects] people's ability to learn’.

There are more specific examples of health services deploying novel strategies to reach audiences over digital channels, such as NHS Direct’s presence on Habbo Hotel. I’m not saying that such a presence encourages social networking (another area of concern for neuroscientists) per se: After all health promotion is about reaching audiences wherever they are. However if Greenfield and others are right, the possibility of damaging “mind change” would have to be borne in mind when public policy and health promotion initiatives concern digital channels or they risk unintentionally contributing to the fall of humanity...

Courtesy of 'fearmyrobotbrain' blog

P.S. Leaving "hard science" aside, Susan Greenfield will no doubt be relieved to know that social scientists have been investigating the broader social and cultural implications of digital technology for a while now even if our conclusions are more equivocal than she might like. 

One of my favourite of many examples is Danah Boyd's PhD on teen sociality. It deploys structural analysis to look at how the networked public in general, or the particular 'participation architectures' of sites such as Facebook, structure peer relations. I.e. how technology may replicate, reinforce, or alter the practices of peer relations. In a very unapocalyptic fashion she finds that teens primarily use social network sites in ways that reinforce and replicate unmediated social dynamics.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

We are all cyborgs now: A pill that reminds you about your next dose Is this ‘Endocolonisation’ in action? Paul Virilio would not be a fan.

His concept describes how the human body is increasingly becoming a site of technology which implies: “an emptying out, a deterritorialisation, conducted in conjunction with a technoscientific reterritorialisation which disrupts and fractalises human and social totalities, which Virilio insists should remain whole,” - see - here endocolonisation is adopted as a concept by a ‘cyborg anthropology’ scholar.

Medicine formed one of the first areas of study for cyborg anthropology, which considered subjects such as reproductive technology and genetics. More recently issues such as privacy, identity and connectivity have come to the fore in connection with other technologies that blur the boundaries between machine and human. Endocolonisation by microchips links this more recent work to medicine once again.

This presentation by Amber Case is a good summary of the kinds of issues cyborg anthropologists are considering now:

Monday, 30 August 2010

The NHS Direct helpline is dead. Long live NHS 111! A shame - NHSD provided a reason to think about Freidson’s "lay referral system" again, this time in connection with ICTs (Freidson 1988).

No, you’re not.

Freidson made the point that we need to think about the temporal trajectory of sickness. This meant considering seriously what happens before we opt for a consultation with a medical expert. He noted decisions about whether to access professional healthcare are conventionally first made in our immediate kin/community context, looking at both social relationships and cultural themes as factors.

If ICTs, now a “mundane reality” (Nettleton 2005) for many in seeking out health-related information and advice, have impacted that context then the lay referral system and its two components (the extent to which lay culture is congruent with professional health culture and the cohesiveness and extension of the lay referral structure) may have to be amended.

For example, has the effect of more information availability through dominant providers such as NHS Direct aligned lay health culture more closely with the knowledge base underpinning professional health culture (an especially relevant question for those identified by Freidson as not sharing in that culture, namely the 'lower classes')? Secondly, with the option of finding condition-specific social networks online, those identified as relying on a loose and truncated lay referral structure to help make decisions (identified by Freidson as the 'middle classes'), may find such structures extended, if not more cohesive.

Ultimately, how will digital ICTs interact with other factors, such as the Government's aim to encourage more healthcare to take place in home settings, to change the proportion of referrals to professional medics, if at all?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The opinions of Professor Field are not the same as evidence from the field

Healthy living is commonly seen as a rational choice on the part of individuals. Indeed, Prof Fields' outlook (click his name for a summary from the Herd blog) seems to be grounded in theories about the rational actor/self regarding individual.

Durkheim initiated a long tradition of sociological and anthropological opposition to the kind of assumptions underpinning Prof Fields’ views, with his examination of the social origins of individual thought.

We need to think about the influence of socio-cultural factors on perceptions, i.e. the norms and values associated with culture and reference groups. We also need to think about the organisation of social relationships, using social network analysis for example, to determine the effect that family and friends can have on decisionmaking.

If we do so, and as any parent can tell you, we will realise that behaviour is infrequently changed by more information or persuasive arguments in isolation (e.g. see Lewis way back in 1945: ‘Conduct, knowledge and acceptance of new values,’ in Journal of Social Issues).

Finally, here's the video referred to in the Herd blog for a great counter to Professor Field's outlook, focusing on social processes:

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Is remote healthcare remotely healthcare?

New fangled approaches in healthcare will always get some peoples’ backs up and the idea of a virtual medic is about as new fangled as it gets:  Both patients and practitioners ( and somewhat inevitably insurance companies with competing premium member services have raised objections to mediated interactions where the purpose is diagnosis or advice. Nevertheless, NHS Direct (a bit of a misnomer given its callcentre and website operations essentially mediate the healthcare experience) has proven enormously popular in England – with 18 million visits to its website in 2009 and 5 million calls to its call centre.

Anecdotally, some of the strongest objections to the ‘re-mediation’ of healthcare come from Northern Ireland where NHS Direct isn’t available. The primary concern there isn’t necessarily about mediation, after all doctors there allocate time in the day to take phonecalls and even emails from patients, a situation also common in the US. It’s the idea that advice should be given by anonymous practitioners who have no idea of your medical history (moreover they are nurses, complain the doctors).

I have been speaking to some of those within the NHS who would like to get to the bottom of ‘resistance’ on the part of both patients and practitioners to more technology-enabled services. Many share a vision where interactions with health services ultimately become like interactions with banks: the 2020 Public Services Trust is doing some thinktank work on this front.

With the Northern Ireland example alone, it’s clear that a patchwork of values concerning healthcare exist and that’s before considering constituencies such as the poor where issues of access also come into play. Clearly, more work needs to be done to understand what lies behind those values and what the information needs and access issues of patients are. Ethnography can help on these fronts.