The growing work of anthropologists with the military parallels the evolution of design anthropology – 15 years later…

Lord knows I would welcome much stronger examination of the credentials of people that claim to be social scientists / anthropologists that are working in the military. There is the potential for the development of an excellent sub-discipline of anthropologists doing direct applied work for various forms of the federal government and the military (which for all I know already exists, I am new to this arena). I have no doubt there have been anthropologists working in all levels of Government/Military/Intel worlds for many years, but they may have not been/are called anthropologists in most official job titles I suspect. (note: I say it this way as I have not actually tried to find out, therefore it is assumption based on my past professional experience). This is not to hide anthropologists, but in my corporate experience, getting HR systems to create of a new kind of position description and title is something that requires so much red tape you used to wind up being called a “Staff Scientist” or “Human Factors Engineer” or “Analyst”. Never confuse institutional bureaucracy, ineptitude, disinterest and glacial speed of change with conspiracy, things that seem to be confused often.

With programs like the HTS the role of anthropologists has become much more visible to people outside of the government and military worlds (including higher visibility to those in anthropology). This is ironic given that very few people in the HTS have any background in anthropology at all, much less appreciable experience in ethnography. (A curious waste of self-righteous resources to focus on an organization with so few anthropologists actually involved. Not to mention the little academic cottage industry of publications it has spawned has certainly profited the critics CV’s as well as bringing them to an audience they were unknown to before. But these are mysteries to be plumbed later.) But with this visibility, it also means the time is ripe for pulling a number of fragmented efforts together, but also this visibility and boomlette in the military hiring “social scientists” also leads to the hiring of numerous unqualified among the qualified individuals. To me, this development has interesting parallels to the boom, bust and then stability of the practice of ethnography and anthropology in the corporate world. And as in the corporate world, if the military and federal government sees enough value in the work provided long-term, anthropology/ethnography can survive the current fad and shake out the charlatans on the way to a more robust sub-discipline.

I was one of the people that started working in the corporate world using anthropology to inform product and services development, strategy and business innovation in the 90s, the boom years, and until 2008. The uproar that currently exists about anthropologists working with the military world parallels with the uproar I recall that existed about anthropologists “selling out” to industry. Back in the mid 1990′s there were also calls in the AAA to ban all forms of proprietary research primarily as a way to devalue what anthropology could bring to the table in industry, since no company wants its business strategy research made public for competitors, and certainly not going to hire someone that won’t honor a non-disclosure agreement. As that discipline, often referred to now as Design Anthropology, grew (despite the AAA mind you) we also saw the rapid growth of hiring ethnographers/anthropologists. By 1996-97, “Ethnography” was the go to business fad of the moment and the more prominent ethnographers/anthropologists in the industry were getting written up in high profile publications such as Fast Company, Business Week, The NYT, Wired and more. I remember getting calls from companies that wanted to hire me to be an anthropologist but had no idea why they wanted one. All they knew was their competitors were hiring anthropologists and so they figured they should check out “what dinosaurs had to do with product development.” That is nearly a direct quote from one conversation that shows just how much in the infancy it was at the time.

So the next thing you knew in the boom there was a massive uptake of anthropologists into industry to do User Experience Modeling (sometimes referred to as UA or UX), strategy, business consulting of all kinds. Many were unqualified due to lack of experience, unable to make the adjustment to the corporate world, unable to provide clients with understandable and actionable recommendations, and the many outright charlatans with dubious backgrounds but since they talked to people in their homes, it was “ethnography”. A lot of little consultancies grew then later crashed and burned as the never-ending faucet of money dried up with the dot-com bust and people started asking the really hard questions: What exactly are we getting out of having an anthropologist hanging around here anyway? Something more universities need to do as well, but I’ll save that for another day.

Mind you, design anthropologists, like me, were not the first anthropologists working in the corporate world; many had been there for years, often referred to as Organizational Anthropologists studying the internal culture of the corporations. But with anthropologists taking a more active role on the profit creation side of the industry, actively working to make product recommendations, develop strategy and in may own case working as an inventor as well as strategy and product innovation, where was even a schism in that little niche.

To start with, there were those that felt doing organizational analysis was OK, but actively working to develop new products based on interviews with people was not. Then even within the field then there was an academic/applied argument: Those that saw themselves as academics first and the need to make the material actually be of value to the needs of the corporate culture a distant second. Then the camp that saw themselves as academically trained product developers, strategists, experience modelers, and all kinds of buzz words that we frankly created as we tried to fit in someplace. Over time, those that saw themselves just as academics that happened to work in industry (and apologetic about it) were weeded out and went off to do something else. Over time, the major companies that had been doing working with, and in many ways helping to shape the field for a while, became more educated about not just how to work with anthropologists, but what to expect from them and most importantly, what crap research looks like. So many of the outright charlatans, though still around, have also been weeded out at this point in 2009. Mind you for those of us that have been in that discipline from since then (I chose to make a career shift last year), we went through the lean rebuilding years, which also required asking just what value we provide and to who, taking responsibility for informal standards and the creation of honored competitors. It improved the quality of the work and the services that companies receive and therefore increased the confidence and stability of the field.

Perhaps that’s the point of this note: Applied anthropologists working in the military and other areas today are at the early stage of a discipline arc that Design Anthropologists experienced 15 years ago. Today, over a decade later, you can find anthropology programs that are actively working with students to pursue careers in industry, working in all kinds of capacities. To be sure, there are still those that don’t approve of such work for anthropologists, but I think they are not winning a lot of converts because, simply, the jobs aren’t there in academia and people often find Design Anthropology an interesting field to pursue. Many people in academic world are putting up a valiant struggle to make cultural anthropology relevant to more people that just anthropologists. Without those people, and if they don’t succeed, cultural anthropology could well become some academic backwater (I think it’s already well on the way) that is viewed as an interesting part of the evolution to a more robust and useful field that will be inter-disciplinary in nature. There is already a conference that embraces that group of strugglers called EPIC that attracts anthropologists, designers, human factors folks, engineers and others that consider themselves all part of that community. Oh, and the AAA and NAPA also help to sponsor EPIC, ironically in some ways, given the issues with proprietary research people would like to see addressed in the code of ethics.

So, perhaps this argument about anthropologists in the military, as poorly crafted as it often is, is just a symptom of the potential development of a sub-field growing in visibility, and in some cases, not unlike coming out of the closet. Just as Design Anthropology did in the corporate world, this is an evolution of anthropologists going from writing about the culture of the military to actively and visibly working with the military to affect change on a host of levels. Just as in the corporate world, these applied anthropologists are taking a very active role in shaping directions of inquiry, how the military can approach cultural issues and in some cases shaping policy.

But, taking that kind of active role is problematic, no question. Look, applied anthropology is messy and doing applied anthropology for the military or an NGO in a war zone / refugee camp / oppressive regime is going to be messier still from an ethical stand point, if you can’t deal with that, then perhaps being an applied anthropologist is not for you. You can’t take a one size fits all approach to ethics, it is counter-productive, naive and certainly does not prepare someone for the on the fly decisions that have to be made in the field. This is why long and vigorous discussions about ethics are paramount before going into the field. Not because you need to have the answers going in, but because you are always going to be in that situation you don’t have a clear answer for and it hopefully provides a firmer foundation to make those leaps from. At some point you have to quit wringing your hands and actually do something, and in turn take the risk of making a little, or very big awful mistakes. And yes, they have real world consequences. In the corporate world, if you are working at a higher level, your mistakes can cost people jobs, homes, health insurance. You go someplace where people’s lives are teetering on the brink, the stress of your choices is hardly reduced. There is no tenure, no do-overs, no intellectual jousting in journals trading quotes from dead French philosophers. People get fired, lose lives, put resources in the wrong place with all the follow on effects that can last for years and all manner of other problems.

But for some of us, this inherent messiness is not a showstopper, it’s part of the work that you have to take into account and worry over as your try to move forward. Stop trying to convince those that disagree, it only takes up valuable time and holds back the development of and substantive arguments needed for this nascent field.

Ordinary People Project – Roger from Yukon Territory

I met Roger, a master carver, while staying at Nugget City, Yukon. Enjoy!

Go Barney Go!

I am a registered independent, I always have been. I have voted all over the political map because I don’t think I should have to vote for a party but the person. With the health care debates its hard NOT to see the republican party as the greed supporting evil empire. There have been death threats of people attending meetings, republican operations to disrupt meetings. Look, my late father.. a die hard conservative republican family practice doctor… spend some time as the medical director of an HMO. The result? He resigned the position within 6 months and was a staunch supporter of socialized medicine ever after. So here is my breath of fresh air for the day. Mr Barney Frank….

Patience 101: Just Wait Until You Hear This

CNN has reported that Trina Thompson, age 27, is suing her alma mater, Monroe College (New York), for not being sufficiently helpful in supporting her efforts to find a job since her graduation this past April.  Headlines describing the suit sum it up as follows: “Alumna Sues College Because She Can’t Find a Job.”

Recently, for personal reasons, I have become very interested in what social sciences might have to say about the personal quality we call patience.  A perfectly good definition of patience might be, “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay,” but what does that really mean in cultural terms?1

Ms Thompson completed her degree in April, and felt that four months should have been plenty of time for a gal with an information technology major, as well as a “2.7 grade-point average and a solid attendance record” to find a job.  Apparently, patience was not her minor.

As I searched (lightly) for some cross-cultural insights to patience, I found that while anthropologists had approached the topic in their usual eclectic manner, another social science , economics, happens to be quite curious about the ins and out of this virtue.  It turns out, not entirely surprisingly, that the costs and benefits of short term versus long term investments, and the psychology & culture of risk management (or lack of management) are of much interest to economists.

And when you cross anthropology and economics…. well, consider this:  Dr. Victoria Reyes-Garcia, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and her colleagues hypothesized that one of the features of complex, contemporary Western-style culture is that increased patience is rewarded economically, or as The Economist (2/7/07) reported it, they “guessed that as the [the subjects] became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less.”

They began by setting up a situation that mandated this reward structure, i.e., Reyes-Garcia offered various Amerindian villagers a small reward of food/money if they took it immediately, a bigger one if they were willing to wait a week or so, and a REALLY big pay-off if the subject was willing to wait several months.  In this initial experiment, the researchers found that there was a correlation between the length of time people were willing to wait for a reward and the amount of education they had had (no comment on methodology).  Those who had attended the missionary-run elementary school were significantly more likely to opt for the delayed gratification option that offered the ultimately greater pay-off.

Five years later, Dr. Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues returned to interview the participants regarding their current financial situations.  They found that “those who had shown most patience in the original experiment had also seen their incomes increase more than those of their less patient counterparts.”  The more educated, and therefore more patient (Were they patient before they met the missionaries? Did they learn deferred gratification in school? Are people who are really into waiting for heaven more patient, more Western, more educated?  The mind boggles with questions…), had seen their incomes rise on average 1% more than those who had taken the  bird in the hand instead of the two in the bush.  As the authors point out, if that growth could be sustained, over a lifetime, those people  just might become a bit wealthier than their neighbors.

Education itself, of course, is a form of delayed gratification.  It’s a beautiful day out, but I go to geometry class instead of the beach in the hopes that it will pay off for me in the long term.  To return to Ms Thompson’s situation mentioned above, perhaps she is guilty of learning the lesson of education = patience = pay-off too well.  She is demanding that the system ante up.  As she explained in her justification for suing, “It doesn’t make any sense: They went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald’s and Payless. That’s not what they planned.”

Maybe she should try going to grad school…


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A Rejuvenating and Inspiring Experience.

I had the opportunity to attend a youth summer camp that the company I work for ( holds every year in Big Pine, CA. The camp is for American Indian children (ages 5 to 17 years) residing in the Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and Fresno areas and it is a week long. This is the second time I’ve attended, as I did attend last year’s camp as well, and  just like last year I was so inspired about the overall

Summer Camp Participants!

Summer Camp Participants!

experience and specifically a couple different things.

First of all, I was amazed at how you (or at least I) feel so very rejuvenated and inspired after spending that much time with our youth. By “our youth” I mean American Indian youth (I am also American Indian, a member of the Chukchansi tribe of Coarsegold, CA). I’ve heard various people claim that American Indian culture is being lost and will eventually cease to exist because of assimilation, however, after having this camp experience and seeing the efforts made in my local American Indian community…. I’m not so sure I believe that.

The camp is great fun for the youth. Around 70 youth attended the first camp, and the second camp is going on as I write this and has about the same amount of youth. They participate in so many activities: horseback riding, archery, pow wow dancing, drumming, pinewood derby, and theater to name a few. Some elders of the Paiute tribe also came to sing some songs for the youth. But I believe another highlight for me was the farewell ceremony. A ceremony was held where adult staff and volunteers did a blessing, prayer, and sang a traveling song. The real highlight was two youth (around 8 year old male and female) sang a song in their own tribal language. These are youth that have been raised in the city, many experiencing difficult life situation… but it spoke volumes to me the pride and courage they showed singing in front of the crowd and the extent to which they knew a great deal about their tribal cultures. In addition to that, every person in the crowd shook hands with every other person at camp during the ceremony, and as I was shaking their hands I was amazed at how many young ones were able to tell me farwell in their tribal languages. It makes me sad to think American Indian tribal traditions are being forgotten over the years, but this inspired me to think otherwise.  It confirmed what I’ve been taught in school….cultures change. But in this case it may be changing but traditional practices are not totally being lost.

I was also amazed at how well the youth listened. They were so well behaved for the most part and I believe that is because their interest was consistently captured on positive activities.

I love how the young ones are sometimes so funny (in a good way) in what they say, and they don’t even realize.

I’m doing a video documenting the experience so I’ll have to see if I can post it up here.