They're watching you

August 4, 2006

It pays to study people and their mores. Stephen Phillips learns why the corporate spotlight is turning on anthropologists

A bland office building in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, seems an unlikely setting for an anthropologist. But life can hinge on chance encounters. For Genevieve Bell, it was a random but fateful conversation with a stranger in a Silicon Valley bar in 1998 that led her to switch from a promising career in academia to work as a resident anthropologist at computer chip behemoth Intel.

The stranger, a technology entrepreneur, mocked her earning prospects in academia. Bell was unmoved. She wasn't in it for the money.

She had recently graduated from nearby Stanford University with a PhD in anthropology and was searching for a faculty position.

For her dissertation, she had written an "ethno-historical account of the first US government-funded non-reservation Native American school". Bell combed through "70 linear feet of records" to demythologise an institution that had become an "emblem of (Native American) assimilation". She viewed her work as "giving voice to people who wouldn't otherwise get into the discourse". Not concerns one readily associates with business. But the stranger brokered a meeting between her and an Intel researcher he knew. She admits to agonising over whether to take up the subsequent job offer, but hasn't looked back since.

Bell, who is now Intel's "director, user experience", isn't your average executive at the firm's sterile Jones Farm "campus", which, with its manicured lawns, coiffured hedges and car parks the size of football pitches, wouldn't look out of place in Slough.

A three-year, seven-country, 100-family project she recently undertook, to look at the way "cultural practice in cutting-edge Asian countries shapes people's relationships to technology", was rooted in the "multi-site ethnography" of George Marcus, a Rice University anthropologist. This, she says, offers a vision of "what anthropology in the era of globalisation would look like". It's something she could never have dreamt of doing in a university, given the lack of funds.

But why does a firm that makes computer parts need academic theory to underpin its marketing strategy? Bell is one of a stable of in-house social scientists, including psychologists, whose cultural insights inform product development and corporate strategy at Intel.

Intel isn't the only firm turning to social scientists and this interest is beginning to have repercussions for university curriculums. Since 2000, Microsoft has hired ten social scientists, and last month advertised for four more. Other technology companies employing anthropologists include IBM, Motorola and Sun Microsystems; and anthropologists are even being hired in the unlikely realms of office products (Pitney Bowes) and retail (US department store chain J. C. Penney).

They use techniques developed in anthropology that are now used across the social sciences - cultural immersion, "naturalistic" observation, open-ended listening and rigorous analysis of their findings. Companies hope these will make product design less of a gamble and furnish fresh insights into what consumers want.

Microsoft's ethnographer Tracey Lovejoy visited London and Barcelona last month to "shadow" 20 hand-picked mobile phone users to "learn what their phone means to them, what their communities are like, watch their rituals, travel wherever they go, and take photographs, video and zillions of notes".

At mobile phone manufacturer Motorola, anthropological observations that people described what they were looking at during calls led to a "push to view" feature that allows one party to snap an image that flashes up on the other's phone.

Donna Romeo did fieldwork for her PhD in cultural anthropology at Native American casinos in Arizona "with a view to helping casinos understand employees' lives". Now she is J. C. Penney's manager of consumer trends. "I bring the shopper to life," says Romeo, whose job entails "going to people's homes and shopping with them". Her feedback affects everything from store layout to merchandising.

Ethnography penetrates deeper than conventional market research, such as focus groups or surveys that can be contrived and limited by the questions asked, says Allen Batteau, associate anthropology professor at Wayne State University.

With the advent of globalisation, firms also prize anthropologists' cross-cultural insights. Intel anthropologists gleaned that in China, where a high value is placed on education, computers were viewed as a hindrance rather than a help because of the tempting distractions available on the web just a mouseclick away, Bell says.

Hence, Intel's "China Home Learning PC" features a parent-friendly, but childproof, lock and key that with a single twist places the web beyond reach - it was "what people wanted", Bell says.

Anthropology is more use to businesses than other social sciences because it considers the all-important social context, argues Christina Wasson, assistant anthropology professor at the University of North Texas.

Bell and others say they've won over the bean-counting business types and numbers-driven engineers who might be expected to find ethnography a bit nebulous. At Intel, senior executives are fluent in the concept of ethnography, Bell adds.

In June, Business Week proclaimed that "ethnography has entered prime time", and last November those in the field held their own conference, the inaugural Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference held in Seattle.

In 2007, Wayne State plans to launch the first masters in "design anthropology", which focuses on anthropological methods in product design. This September, North Texas is adding an online version of its masters in applied anthropology in which students can specialise in design. At the same time, a handful of US campuses have introduced higher degrees in anthropology with business focuses.

Other than that, there's been little impact on academic programmes. Many corporate anthropologists stumbled into design anthropology, unaware it even existed as a career path. "I thought I'd stay in academia, but it's difficult to get jobs and you're not well paid," Romeo says. Corporate anthropologists' salaries start at about $60,000 (£32,500) and can top $200,000, those who've made the move estimate - much more than they would be paid in academia. But they bristle at accusations that they've "sold out".

"When I took the job, the chair of my former department was horrified. It was like I wasn't in anthropology any more," Bell recalls. "I think of it as a failure of imagination. The idea that working for industry can't be real anthropology betrays a naive understanding of the world. What university doesn't get funding from sources that could be considered complicated?"

For Batteau, an academic anthropologist of business, it's a question of staying abreast of changes that, for better or worse, are probably here to stay. "The truly indigenous settings have almost disappeared. Anthropology has to catch up. For me, that has meant engaging with contemporary organisations, especially business."

Meanwhile, the appeal of corporate anthropology is not hard to see, as Marietta Baba, professor of anthropology at Michigan State University observes. "The money is fantastic and the work is fun," she says.

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