Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring practicing anthropologists who work outside the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to anyone who is interested in the application of anthropology in the real world, including anthropologists, anthropology students, prospective anthropology students, employers, policymakers and the general public. It seeks to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists, and create clarity around where and how we work. While all of the interviews 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.
The following interview features Will Tyner, a 2015 Fellow at Code For America. Will, who has a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Wesleyan University, discusses how his anthropology training plays a key part in designing for social good, and how it prepared him with the required skills of analysis, creativity, empathy and problem solving to help him improve the lives of others.
Tell me about your background and career path.
I studied cultural anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I suppose I was a fledgling anthropologist at a young age. For a first career, I was set on being the black Indiana Jones, of the non-colonialist flavor of course. Growing up, I couldn’t get enough of films like Jurassic Park, X-Men, Star Wars and Planet of the Apes. In each story, I was captivated by the fearless group of scientists or mutants who were driven by glory, greed, or the need to clean up (or bring to light) some monstrous, man-made mess. I wanted to be one of those people, traveling the world, conducting research, working with others to solve problems and build solutions.
In many ways, my interest in anthropology has been shaped by my fascination with science fiction, and its ability to creatively illuminate the power and peril of exploring the unknown. For me, science fiction not only warns us of the future but, much like anthropology, it holds up a mirror reflecting what is already in front of us, helping us see the world with a new set of eyes. As an anthropologist, that is what I strive to do – unearth and explore human experience. As a designer, I want to understand how we can improve that experience.
I started out at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, where I worked as a qualitative research intern. For one summer, I was thrown into the chaotic streets of Dhaka asking questions of anyone who came my way. It was life-changing because it showed me that the type of adventurous and challenging career I had always dreamed of actually exists! At the Grameen Bank, our research objective was to understand how the bank could better deliver its services to borrowers. We conducted ethnographic studies, interviewing women who had taken out loans to start a business or to improve their lives in some way.
Working at the Grameen Bank was an amazing opportunity to begin to hone my research craft. It taught me that I want to use my anthropological research skills and design skills to help individuals access services to improve their lives. Each role that I have subsequently taken has been about creating access to opportunities for everyday people. This focus is particularly relevant to my work at Code for America, where we use technology to help municipal U.S. governments like Albuquerque, Boston or Miami connect their residents to critical government services.
How did you become a Code for America fellow? What has the experience been like?
I found out about the Code for America Fellowship through a professor of mine at General Assembly, an education institution focused on technology, design and business. As far as the experience, it is an anthropologist’s dream. Seriously. I still wake up every day astonished by the fact that I am paid to travel the country and talk to different types of people, asking them questions, getting to the heart of their motivations, behaviors, beliefs and experiences, and building products that can, in one way or another, actually help them achieve their truest human expression.
Will Tyner conducts fieldwork in Albuquerque, NM.
At Code for America, my team and I have been working with the City of Albuquerque to understand the barriers that low-income residents face in accessing critical financial services. We’ve been designing products that increase their ability to build wealth, achieve financial stability, and move up the income ladder. It has been a fascinating opportunity to understand how mental fatigue and distressed social circumstances adversely shape one’s economic behavior. Most importantly, it has been inspiring to explore how design and technology can help residents in hardship access safe financial services and make more informed financial decisions.
What are your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities?
I collaborate with developers and designers to lead the research process for the Albuquerque Fellowship Team, translating user needs into product and design decisions. Whether one calls it design research, design anthropology, or user research, the bottom line is that I work to bring the voice and experience of our users to the fore so that we’re actually building something that solves a specific need.
My favorite part is being in the field, conducting ethnographic research, interviewing people, testing products with potential users, facilitating participatory design sessions, and then trying to creatively communicate what I’ve learned to my team. I love the stories. While I find the technical development of products interesting, challenging and obviously crucial, it doesn’t excite me the same way that fieldwork does.
Will Tyner speaks with a stakeholder.
What have been the most useful “anthropology” skills for your career?
In my work, I most value empathy, imagination and the ability to rigorously and creatively approach a complex research question. While it is important to know when to use pre-existing methods, it also very important to be able to innovate on those methods and come up with your own ways of measuring or understanding something.
My anthropology training didn’t just teach me how to critically analyze dense theory, but also how to analyze people with empathy. I have had many “aha!” moments when conducting fieldwork and interviewing individuals. I am thankful because I learned how to truly listen to others, and pick up on and interpret details that are easily overlooked. I also learned how to approach and understand my relationship to people with different social positionalities and within different power structures.
For example, when I am interviewing someone who is different from me and I want to engender a sense of trust, I will sit on the floor or do my best to make them feel as comfortable as possible, lessening the scientist – subject hierarchy. It is not necessarily about lowering yourself, but remembering the common thread between us all. It is subtle but absolutely crucial.
What career skills do you wish you had learned in school?
I wish I had learned how to market anthropological skills to organizations, how to apply them to real-world, non-theoretical problems, and how to package myself as a practicing anthropologist and actually get paid for it. When I ask colleagues what value they see in their anthropology, liberal arts or social science degrees, some of them undoubtedly scoff and say something like “I studied anthropology, so I essentially have no marketable skills.” I totally disagree. The challenge is understanding your talents and the value of what you’ve learned, and how it applies to solving important problems. You might have to gain or sharpen a few other skills (e.g., technical), but anthropology training provides perspective, a lens through which one can understand the world around around oneself. It’s really important and we shouldn’t discount its value simply because there aren’t tons of job postings with “anthropologist” in the title.
Anthropology training programs also need to better connect the theoretical and academic to the interesting opportunities in industry. Furthermore, the academy should not frown upon and deter students from taking those opportunities. It does the discipline, students and society a huge disservice.
Do you have a favorite research project, course, experience or professor from when you were a student?
I will never forget my Autoethnography course at Wesleyan with Professor Gina Ulysse. The Wesleyan Anthropology Department is very progressive and encourages students to reflect on how they are situated in social contexts, and how their positionalities relate to others. In that class, I was able to approach anthropology through a creative lens, combining dense theoretical concepts with autobiography and photography. That class showed me how I want to approach this work, even in the technology sector. I always want to keep that creative, self-reflective and honest perspective. When it really comes down to it, I want to tell stories about people, and do it creatively.
What advice do you have for current anthropology students for marketing their anthropology skills when looking for a job?
The single most important element in marketing your anthropology training to an employer is the ability to translate all of that fascinating, nuanced, insightful research into something meaningful that will help someone else do his or her job better or more effectively solve a problem. Insights cannot just sit in the ivory tower, which is where I believe many of them end up. In short, be able to show how what you’ve uncovered means something to someone.
I would also encourage students to keep that creative, theoretical, non-industry-applicable fire burning as well. Explore topics and interview people that have absolutely nothing to do with industry work. It will keep you honest and excited. Create zines, podcasts, documentaries or photo essays that explore ideas and the experiences you’re interested in… just because.