From academia to industry: Takeaways on anthropology in tech from the 2018 AAA conference – a guest post by Mary Robertson

Editor’s note: In this guest post by Mary Robertson, a newly minted PhD anthropologist now working in technology, Mary shares some key takeaways from three sessions at the 2018 American Anthropological Association conference focused on doing anthropology in industry. Her experience indicates that discussions of practicing anthropology in design, business and technology continue to take place as more anthropologists enter this field. While Mary found the career advice and discussions of practice and ethics to be really helpful, she observes that there is still more work to do to bridge the gap between academia and practice to make the transition smoother for students, graduates and academics. 

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In November 2018, I attended the annual American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting in San Jose, California. I had just recently graduated from the University of Chicago with my PhD in anthropology. During my graduate studies, I attended the AAA’s several times to present my dissertation research and attend panels related to my project, which focused on media, advertising and race in South Africa.

In the last six months of finishing my degree, I decided to pivot toward a career path in applied work, and was about to start my first contract as a user experience researcher at an innovation lab in the aviation industry. I noticed over the last few years that the AAA was offering more content on doing anthropology in industry, and I was very interested to check out some of their panels on anthropology and design/technology specifically.

At the conference, I attended three events looking at this field of practice:

  • “Design Anthropology: Ethnographic Approaches to Innovation”, presented by Tamara Hale (Workday) and Matthew Bernius (Cornell/Measure for Justice)
  • “Anthropology and Tech: How to Use Anthropology in Tech Fields (Start-Ups, Advertising, Human Design Thinking)” presented by Yaya Ren (PreeMe + You) and Matt Hermann of V2 Brand Consulting
  • and “Change in the Anthropological Vocation: Resisting and Adapting Technology in Silicon Valley” organized by Nadine Levin (Facebook) and Emily McDonald (Assistant Professor at CUNY, John Jay College (NYC) and Airbnb Senior Research Manager, Humanitarian Team)

The large number of attendees at each of these events confirmed my sense that more and more anthropologists are exploring options to practice their craft outside of academia – not only recent graduates like myself, but also people further into their academic career paths. At one workshop, I met a tenured associate professor of anthropology. I also met someone in a tenure-track position, who had become doubtful of attaining tenure, despite currently having a book in press. It was sobering to be reminded that precarity doesn’t necessarily end if one bags that prized tenure-track job.

Practical career advice: key takeaways

Similar themes regarding the practice of anthropology in industry emerged across the three panels. Not surprisingly, a lot of attendees wanted the panelists’ advice on how to transition into non-academic roles, all of whom had made this transition very successfully themselves, working for companies ranging from tech giants such as Facebook and Airbnb, to smaller startups and consultancies. Some advice from the panelists:

  • Get experience doing research that produces something other than a paper or dissertation, which you can talk about in job interviews for industry positions
  • Look for internships while in school (these opportunities are increasing)
  • Get experience with design and user experience research methods when conducting fieldwork – this includes figuring out how such methods overlap with anthropological and ethnographic methods. They might not be called the same thing, but can often be very similar practices – for example, participant observation and contextual inquiry.
  • Involve research participants in identifying opportunities from the research that can help organizations make decisions
  • Exercise translation skills, or – to use a geeky anthropology word – commensuration, between the language and practice of those working in academia and those working outside of it

Applying an anthropological lens to business, technology and design problems

In the panel on anthropology in tech, the presenters spoke about the importance of learning the language of those you work with – paying attention to how they describe what’s important to them, asking questions to understand the terminology they use, and using this to frame how an anthropological approach can help with business and design priorities.

One example from the world of branding was the notion of ‘authenticity’ that brands pursue. Anthropologists can help brands connect with people ways that feel authentic because anthropology provides a depth and context that can help answer such a complicated question. To practice thinking about the commensurability between anthropology and branding, we did a fun exercise where we collectively brainstormed what the ‘brand’ of anthropology currently looks like, and how we would ‘rebrand’ it.

The perceptions were diverse, and the exercise was useful to illustrate what branding entails, but I found myself wondering about the place of critique in this kind of practice. Even as we named ‘critique’ a brandable element of anthropological practice, where was the space for critique directed at the overall mission of helping brands frame themselves as ‘authentic’ to sell more stuff to consumers?

Ethics and the critical eye in a capitalist system

This question of anthropology’s critical role and of ethics in general came up in all three sessions, but was discussed most fully in the session with anthropologists working in Silicon Valley. In one session, attendees raised questions about how panelists saw the ethics of working to further the profit margins of corporations, with one questioner suggesting that anthropologists in industry might be considered ‘handmaidens of capitalism’.

The panelists’ responses to this provocation were thoughtful and reflexive. One person pointed out that academic employment is hardly insulated from the system of capitalism and its exploitative elements. For this reason, the relationship of one’s work to capitalism is a dilemma that concerns all of us, in industry and academia alike. Another panelist pointed out the small but consistent ways she uses her position as an insider to influence how decisions are made, for example by striving to include marginalized voices in research. Others spoke about tactics that they use to lobby for ends they consider ethical.

Again, this involved the practice of commensuration – for one panelist, this meant aligning the desire of her company to make users happy in order to increase profits with her own personal pursuit of broader socially progressive goals. Of course, for those working in companies where user happiness is not equated with profitability, commensuration is more complicated. The panelists acknowledged the institutional constraints of their individual agency, and agreed that for change to happen, the structures of capitalism that prioritize profit have to be challenged in both industry and academia.

A need for stronger ties between academia and practice

Overall, I really enjoyed the sessions and the collegiality and community I experienced. I appreciated how generous the presenters were with their time and advice – they did not receive any kind of monetary compensation for their efforts. One final but very important takeaway for me is that practicing and academic anthropologists need to forge stronger ties to draw on the differing strengths of their respective positions. For example, academics can concentrate on research that provides critique, and practitioners can draw on these critiques in their work, situated as they are in the heart of companies that are shaping our present and future realities. These sessions are a great start in forging these ties. I hope the AAA annual meeting continues to add more of this content in future meetings to build up the momentum.

Note: After the conference, the organizers of one of the panels, Nadine Levin and Emily McDonald, started a new Google group/email listserv to continue the conversation of practicing anthropology in industry. You can join by sending an email or signing up on the Google group page.

Another listserv worth joining is Anthrodesign, which has been around for 17 years, and was founded by Natalie Hanson.

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