applied cyberanthropology

out of the box—anthropology put to use

Pygmy HunterNot just since the gates for anthropology were unshuttered at Redmond, corporate anthropology and applied anthropology is striving. And not since just yesterday parts of anthropology are appropriated by kin and not so kin academic provinces, e.g. the discipline ‘marketing’. Markus Giesler’s research is a perfect example. Markus is a young assistant professor of marketing—the fusion formula “(ethnography+Internet)+consumer research=rigorous and pathbreaking research, new marketing and consumer expertise relevant to business and business leaders” earned him the title of being l’anthropologue des cyborgs among the Canadian press. Anthro clearly is hip. In consequence of all this things-going-bump-in-academia necessary discussions on issues like anthropologists as counter-insurgents, morality and anthropology, and more on it rearise. To my eyes the resumption of these discussions are a symptom of the discipline still being healthy—it has to be doubted that them discussions ever really stopped, but weren’t as visible.

Anthropologists and anthropology itself clearly have jumped out of the box the ivory tower sometimes constitutes. German anthropologist Christoph Antweiler has attempted to systematize practice-oriented approaches and render anthropology as a societally relevant science/academic endeavour. (Antweiler 2001, deep link [.pdf | 117KB | in German]). Christoph’s abstract:

Anthropology as a societally relevant science. Systematizing practice-oriented approaches This article attempts at a contribution to a systematic foundation of a practice-oriented branch of cultural anthropology. Three bodies of literature, which are normally discussed quite separately, are integrated here: firstly a broadly conceived practising anthropology, secondly development anthropology and thirdly several approaches of critical anthropology. The latter is more politically ambitioned and not explicitly use-oriented but of considerable importance for practical issues in cultural anthropology. Taking the example of development it is argued that practical issues are historically and theoretically related to genuine anthropological questions. Practice-oriented work can and did contribute considerably to the core issues of cultural anthropology. Furthermore it is shown that a strong link to academia is vital for any practical anthropology if it will remain really anthropology. Drawing on a systematization of five basic approaches to “anthropology put to use” the author proposes a practice-oriented cultural anthropology as an anthropology engaged in themes relevant to society. Its function would be an empirically founded ethnologizing and anthropologizing of discourses on society instead of a politization in the form of advocating specific goals or values. Approaches to practical anthropology should be grounded in clear statements about the core interests, theories and methods of cultural anthropology in general and its relations to other branches of anthropology. Here cultural anthropology is conceived as being embedded in a broad bioculturally oriented science of humanity. In order to stimulate discussion, the position of a committed cultural anthropology taken by the author is not only presented programmatically, but fleshed out in some detail and by way of examples.

The incomparable Uri GellerBut why is it that the armed forces, intelligence services, companies like Microsoft, Intel, AT&T, Xerox, British Telecom, and the consulting business at large hire anthropologists—seem to embrace anthropology, its concepts and methods (about theory I am not so sure)? Let’s deal with the industry: I guess to a certain degree ‘they’ have lost faith in the likes of ‘marketing science’ and psychology. Additionally governments and corporations alike jump onto everything which ever so slightly promises an advantage over the counterpart, trying to fuse the cutting edge with the competitive edge. This embracement of the unusual is pursued unimpassioned—it’s perfectly rational and does not at all stop cold in the face of the downright weird. Intelligence services of the cold war’s both blocks have tried their luck with ‘remote viewing’ [that’s clairvoyance]. So have corporations, up to hiring my dear friend [no irony!] ↑Uri Geller. The consideration is: We do not know if clairvoyance works or even exists. But if it works for us we will have an advantage. If we try it and it doesn’t work, we will have lost a negligible amount of money. But if we do not try it, and if it is the key to valuable information and knowledge, working out great for our vis-à-vis, they will have the advantage! Unshakable conclusion: let’s try it. If hiring Uri Geller is a feasible option [no offence, my friend—quite to the contrary. I know that you understand ;-], hiring anthropologists certainly is. Right? Right!

Companies and administrations long for information and knowledge about people. About their lifestyles, norms, values, and ideas. We’d say about society and culture. But understanding society and culture isn’t readily available. The proof of not succesfully having understood society and culture are failed social interactions which were based on the assumed, but flawed understanding. My conjecture is that in the recent years exactly that happens more often and often inside corporations and ‘on the market’. Then somehow anthropology has acquired the reputation of being able to cope with the bizarre, ungraspable realms of society and culture. This has become even more virulent by the new [?] cultural and social phenomena triggered by personal computers, all its offsprings like game-consoles and cellular phones, software, and the Internet-infrastructure itself.

There definitely is truth in Markus’ dictum: “Technological products change not only the electronic infrastructure of the marketplace but also the social fabrics of consumer culture and, consequently, the ways we think about and theorize consumption, markets and culture down to the methodological and epistemological level of analysis.” By means of “extensive sociological and ethnographic analyses” Markus wants to wrestle down the new intellectual conundrums posed by the ‘Internet-age’. He doesn’t need me for an encouraging ‘good idea—go ahead!’, as he obviously already is very succesful at it. But to me the stumbling block in his dictum is the prefix ‘consumer’ annexed to ‘culture’. [But I certainly like ‘social fabric of culture’ ;-] ‘Consumer’ implies passivity and malleability—certainly not the way the people ‘constituting cyberculture’ (hackers, open source programmers, gamemodders, etc.) are. They deal with technological artefacts in a very active way. In the wake of sociocultural anthropology’s opening itself up to modernity and the global, the paradigm of cultural appropriation of globally diffusing commodities gained tremendous status inside the discipline. The concept stresses action, creativity and innovation. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is no buzzword outside anthropology, but ‘innovation’ is. Douglas Rushkoff, the man who allegedly coined the term ‘cyberia’, has written a new book soon to be published: Get back in the box: Innovation from the inside out:

[…] “American companies are obsessed with window dressing,” Rushkoff writes, “because they’re reluctant, no, afraid to look at whatever it is they really do and evaluate it from the inside out. When things are down, CEO’s look to consultants and marketers to rethink, re-brand or repackage whatever it is they are selling, when they should be getting back on the factory floor, into the stores, or out to the research labs where their product is actually made, sold, or conceived.”

Rushkoff backs up his arguments with a myriad of intriguing historical examples as well as familiar gut checks—from the dumbwaiter and open source to Volkswagen and The Gap—in this accessible, thought-provoking, and immediately applicable set of insights. Here’s all the help innovators of this era need to reconnect with their own core competencies as well as the passion fueling them.

Get back in the boxI am absolutely not sure if the book will be in any way relevant to my project, but some things in the above quoted paragraphs struck me: ‘evaluating from the inside out’ and ‘going back to where things actually happen’ seems to point to a kind of ethnographical approach. On the other hand there is advise for ‘this era’s innovators’ [whoever that may be] to recollect their own core competencies. My preference for attempting to understand the actions and interactions of human beings always will remain the magic of sociocultural anthropology, and surely not the wizardry of ‘management wisdom’. There’s nothing wrong with applied anthropology, with working for the industry. It may well become wrong when solely aimed at caring for shareholder value. Therefore every kind of practised anthropology should retain its roots inside the comparatively ‘free’ milieu of academia, of real universities. For the free milieus are the realms where innovation and creativity are born and nursed, where they live. That’s also true for open-source programming, car-customizing, gamemodding … If my project here ever will get finished, it may well contain the occasional bit of valuable knowledge for the IT-business. That’d be all right with me—as long as it remains open, accessible knowledge.

I am not at all a sworn enemy to ‘putting anthropology to use’, and I second almost every argument and thought in Christoph’s article quoted above—you’ve guessed so much. It already has been pointed out correctly, that the academically institutionalized sociocultural anthropology in Germany has belied itself for too long a time by pretending to train students for the sole purpose of them becoming professionals in academia. Which of course is an utter impossibility in the face of facts like e.g. our institute over here currently dealing with 1600 students studying anthro. So my advise would be: study anthropology [because it’s great!], then go out and get hired by corporations, consultancy companies and whatyouhave. If it has to be some intelligence service—so be it. [Jason Bourne] Work for them and impress them with the magic of anthropology. Once you got the key, bend and twist it. And then perform some topsy-turvy counter-insurgency: At a time convenient slowly start to covertly indoctrinate them, turn them around by trickling in the sweet poison of the sociocultural anthropological approach, vantage point, and philosophy …
—whatever that may be.

initially triggered by entry at boingboing
  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.