More parallels between anthropology and design

As more anthropologists work in the realm of business, parallels between the design profession and the business anthropologist continue. A recent business week article dated August 29 is about the challenges that designers face has they climb the corporate ranks towards the executive suite.

As the article notes unsurprisingly, designers often don’t have the basic skills in management, leadership or finances that someone in the upper management would be expected to learn at a more traditional business program. The same can said of anthropologists entering the business world, with just as few skills in how to be truly effective within the complex culture and language of the corporate environment..

In the past I’ve had conversations with both anthropology graduate programs, and graduate design programs about just this difficulty. I have to admit, it seems difficult to achieve this well-rounded education without turning it to your program into a three-year course of study.

The question is really what you want people to know at the end of the day. Do you want them to have Interest, Aptitude or Expertise in a particular topic area? For example, generating interest in a particular topic area would seem to be more about just simply giving someone to be exposure to know that it is an area of value to them. For example, many cultural anthropologists are not trained in quantitative research methods, it is valuable to have them at least be interested in what those methods have to offer.

When thinking about aptitude, that’s the ability to actually see and start to incorporate the value of other disciplines into your own core discipline. And of course if you’re training someone for expertise then that means you’re trying to make them competent all by themselves in a particular area.

What the best route for creating a multi-disciplinary person?

2 thoughts on “More parallels between anthropology and design

  1. Mark:
    I think what you are asking about is what is appropriate for university education, and what is appropriate for corporate training.
    To follow with your example of quatitative methods. Should the university teach general social statistics, or SPSS? If we teach stat and use the current version of SPSS as an aside, I think that we are doing our job. Teaching “SPSS” should be the job of the company or office.
    Occasionally at the university we give in to the temptation to write training into our curriculum by a need to feel up to date by writing a particular technique into the curriculum.
    Too often though this backfires when technical developments pass us by, and we are stuck with an obsolete class which we teach into eternity. Quite often, this happens because we at the university want to be “reponsive to industry.” There is nothing wrong with this in the big picture. But we also need to stay near our area of competence, and away from training which is usually better done on-the-job.

    Tony Waters

    PS this is a comment. I will come up with something independent soon.

  2. Well, you have hit on the rub Tony. When I think back on my time in grad school, I feel like we didn’t have enough time to get the depth we needed just in anthropology, much less tossing in other subjects! But being out here in the business world, I could have been more effective in my early jobs if had a better understanding of corporate cultures. But, let’s be clear. I am not advocating that all anthropologists (or anyone planning on a career in academia) get supplemental training in fields such as business. My interest is aimed squarely at those that want to work in business rather than academia. But the article also says (and I have found this to be true), you don’t want people that are slaves to the business numbers to either. One of the values of being an anthropologist or designer is that we do think about the world differently and bring a different point of view than an MBA or other profession. We have as they say, ten gallons of water and a five gallon bucket.

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