Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Ethnographic Consultant Pedro Oliveira

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (prospective) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

Describe your background and career path in anthropology. 

I started out as a clinical psychologist, later moving to anthropology and completing a PhD at Brunel University in 2006. In Portugal, unlike the USA or the UK, training in clinical psychology does not require a PhD and it’s possible to complete the training while still fairly Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 9.06.41 AMyoung. I completed my clinical psychology specialization in my mid-twenties and decided that I didn’t have the maturity to practice as a shrink. Over time, I have come to realize I was never supposed to be a shrink in the first place. I’m glad I did it, though – it adds a different flavor to the way one looks at people.

I never enjoyed the statistical and quantitative methodologies that are very dear to psychologists, especially social and experimental psychologists. Realizing that anthropologists were mostly qualitative researchers, I went into it hoping to find a different way of looking into people and understanding them further. Winning a first grant to do a combined MSc in anthropology and psychology really helped. Winning a second grant to do a PhD in anthropology at Brunel University was the icing on the cake.

I became interested in corporate research after completing my PhD. In Europe, applied anthropology doesn’t have as much of a presence compared to the USA, so it took me some time to realize that I could actually make a living out of it on this side of the pond. Timothy Malefyt, another anthropologist in industry (now working in academia) and Robert Tian, a business anthropology academic located in China, helped me find my first gig here in Portugal. This was five years ago and I’ve been working steadily ever since.

After some years of agency-based work, I decided to become an independent consultant. Being an independent consultant in Portugal has allowed me to work with Portuguese-based technology multinationals from a closer position than most external consultants. Moving further into technology is something that I wanted to do for a really long time. One of my last assignments was a case study of work technology, very much along the lines of PARC-Xerox.

What made you decide to work in Europe instead of the US?

I am not sure if I ever consciously decided to work in Europe rather than the USA. I’m European, so it was logical for me to start my career here. At the moment, working in the field of business anthropology in the south of Europe is not exactly an option. I’d happily migrate to the USA or any other English speaking country where ethnography is at least part of some job description out there in the market, and if not as a craft, at least as one of the skills required to do the job. This is not the case here in Portugal. I have yet to see a job description here, in user experience or consumer research, where the word ‘ethnography’ is mentioned. At a time of great unemployment everywhere, my applications to the USA are really not going anywhere, so I tend to stick around my neck of the hood and make the best of it.

How does your training in both anthropology and psychology come into play in your work as a consultant?

Designer Ken Friedman talks of a clinical dimension of design research, wherein the designer is involved with a particular client and tries to make sense of that client and its needs. Clients are not exactly patients in therapy (although some resemble that at times J), but as a psychologist trained in the clinical research-practitioner model, I fully identify with the idea of a “clinical dimension” involved in understanding clients. Every client is a case, with its own needs, culture, processes, etc.

Anthropology, of course, gives you the core training in ethnography, which is the most qualitative of all research forms. If you can master ethnography, you can master qualitative research in all its variety. I’m very lucky to have this double training as it allows me to feel equally comfortable with the ‘exploratory’ forms of research closer to ethnography and anthropology, and the evaluative forms of research that are closer to psychology. This is particularly true in user experience research, where both ethnography and cognitive task analysis are required, although it is perhaps true for all the research forms that anthropologists in industry tend to practice. It goes without saying that with a PhD in anthropology, my heart leans towards anthropology and ethnography over psychology and experimental/quantitative research, but I think there is a place for both.

What do you do as an ethnographic consultant?

My typical responsibilities include understanding client goals, designing research plans, conducting research, supervising junior researchers, conducting co-creation workshops, and drafting and delivering presentations and/or research reports.

For some years I was an agency worker. Now, as an independent consultant, I tend to take a lot more responsibility as a client liaison. I usually introduce myself to companies as an anthropologist and an ethnographer. Some companies tend to cling to the term ‘anthropologist’ while others prefer the term ‘ethnographer’. I am not entirely sure why this happens, but I do make a point of explaining that these are different things, as much as people can bear hearing about the differences.

I also study as much marketing and design as I can get my hands on. Over the years, I think I have become a bit of marketer and a bit of a designer in addition to my anthropologist role, which seems to happen to all anthropologists in industry to different degrees. Don Norman has recently written to me complementing my book. I think the designer is starting to take over the anthropologist.

How do you approach the practice of ethnography?

In practice, I define ethnography as a form of description made of a triple dance:  1) An interaction with the people observed/experienced, their sayings, objects and practices; 2) An interaction with the researcher’s self; 3) An interaction with theory. What distinguishes anthropologically trained ethnographers from other ethnographers is that we have greater training in positioning our self into the research and in theory. Many of us have read plenty of ethnographies, and faced with new data, we can compare it and contrast it with the work of peers, in the search for common themes and wider patterns. Yet over the years I have come to see that these distinctions are only really interesting for people working in corporations with some formal training in the social sciences or psychology. Others just go around calling everything “ethnography” in the same way that we, social scientists, will never be allowed to call everything engineering.

In academic anthropology, there is an endless discussion about the difference between anthropology and ethnography. I think the discussion is not supposed to be conclusive in any way because many of the jobs in academia are sustained precisely by making discussions of this kind inconclusive.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to practicing anthropology?

Field notes are the bread and butter of anthropology; they are what make it possible to change your perspective on something and invite others to do the same. I am also developing a penchant for writing about theory for practitioners in industry – not the kind of high level abstract theory that you often find in pure, academic anthropology, but the kind of “practical theory” that works through comparing different case studies in industry and systematizing ways of practicing across different problems. I have dedicated a whole chapter on my recently published book to teaching marketing students how to make sense of field notes. I hope to write more about this subject in future.

How do you use social science theory in your work?

For every assignment that I have worked on so far, I have always found inspiration in the works of different social scientists. For instance, I was working on a project for a telecommunications shop, and I noticed a division between the customer space and the back office that illustrated Erving Goffman’s ideas around social performativity. I recently read Don Norman’s Living with Complexity, which has some very similar ideas around back and front spaces in commercial spaces; it’s a similar kind of thinking. In another project in the wine industry, also described in my book, the analysis of the data took me into ideas of structuralism and symbolic anthropology. Different projects evoke different models in anthropology and/or the social sciences, and consequently different ways of observing a problem, product or service.

Working as an anthropologist in industry, as far as I’m concerned, is often about finding the model in anthropology that can best help you observe the problem in hand while being careful enough to disguise the “theory” behind it in client communication. The last thing you want to do is to enter a heady discussion around social and cultural theory with a client who has no training whatsoever in the social sciences.

Thinking about this approach, there are two processes. I call the first process ‘epistemic transference’ – finding the right theoretical frame in anthropology around a particular business problem. I call the second process ‘controlled equivocation’ (following the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro). Controlled equivocation is about using what is apparently a very simple language (i.e., ‘simple’) to communicate complexity in a way that people who are not trained in anthropology can understand. I describe both these processes in more depth in my recently published book, People Centered Innovation: Becoming A Practitioner in Innovation Research (Biblio Books, 2013), in addition to other processes that happen in my work. As the title suggests, it is a rough drawing of my biographical journey into becoming an anthropologist in industry with some of the most important case studies that have crossed my way.

Recently, I have come to conclude that this talk of ‘processes’ in applied business anthropology research is unsubstantial for most people. Academics with no experience outside academia don’t tend to get it. Most non-anthropologist researchers who work in this kind of field will only take an interest in this kind of process if they have some formal training in the human sciences, or even anthropology in particular. Even so, most practitioners are often too busy for books while process talk sounds a bit too academic for many of them.

Personally, I want to carry on thinking about process and writing about it because it makes me a better practitioner but with little expectation of having an audience interested in discussing things like this.

What advice do you have for anthropology students for getting a job?

My first advice to an 18-year-old who tells me that he or she wants to study anthropology is: don’t do it. As a scientific and practicing community of people, until we assume greater responsibility for the thousands of kids we send to Unemployment Row every year, I don’t think we should encourage youngsters to come and study the discipline. There has to be more than the old, worn discourse of ‘anthropology is a way of forming citizens, not a market skill’ that often permeates academia. If you have studied anthropology and really want to carry on with it, my advice would be to take an internship in a public or private organization. You can always seek further post-graduate training afterwards and you will be far clearer on what you want that training to give you.

Editor’s note: Check out this extensive interview with Pedro at New Books Network where he discusses in detail his professional journey from clinical psychology to consulting in business anthropology, innovation, and design.

Check out the rest of the interviews in the Anthropologists in Practice series here.


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