When Everyone Becomes a Participant Observer


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Tomorrow I’m participating in a “Breaching Boundaries” conversation at the American Anthropological Association’s yearly event.

Here are my thoughts as a layperson and fan of anthropology;

I went for a whole 10 years once without anthropology.

After a few ethnography and anthropology classes in undergrad to support a comparative religion major, I took what I needed for critical thinking skills but tucked the rest of those liberal arts away so they wouldn’t interfere with my job search.

Somehow I talked my way into Wall Street, analyzing emerging technology companies that made semiconductors, the machines that made semiconductors, the first Internet companies. There might have been anthropologists hidden away at these places I studied, but they did not push any of the levers on my Bloomberg screen, so they remained hidden from view.


The traders on the floor were hyperventilating over inventory ratios, unexpected growth trajectories, and the precise prediction of exactly how many pennies of earnings per share we expected next quarter. No time in that 5 AM to often 1 AM shift for observation, reflective thinking, or deeper rumination on the human condition. Too bad. My former boss, alleged linchpin of a massive insider trading scheme, may have benefitted from such reflection.

After the obligatory MBA in France, where they do NOT teach anthropology in the core curriculum to the future French business elite (can you believe it – neither Levi-Strauss, nor Mauss), I found myself back in NY, working at one of these internet start ups I had only seen from afar. And there, in week two, when delivering an e-commerce strategy for a computer retailer, I encountered Anthropological Thinking. An information architect, Robert Fabricant, wanted to pause for a moment. Do some research. Observe people, interacting with technology. Test out my various business strategies with prototype designs.

It was like an old friend had returned, all of these luxurious, humanistic principles, tucked away in my brain all of those years, but not forgotten.

Since then it’s been easy to keep anthropology close, and in fact I rarely encounter a project or idea that hasn’t been framed by anthropological thinking, whether or not the client or agency or designer knows it or not.  Which might be a different kind of problem. Several trajectories have brought anthropology into the mainstream of business culture.

Human Computer Interaction brought humans into the machine making process.

Design as Innovation tool leaned on ethnography for the deepest sort of market-changing insights.

Two years ago at a collaborative curriculum-building conference hosted by the Designers Accord, an organization I helped instigate and support as a founding board member, anthropological inquiry was considered a cornerstone of sustainable design thinking. Since most ecological impacts occur during the ownership phase of products, it would make sense to understand how we humans behave after the moment of purchase.

Now, social media is sucking every last inch of our distracted days, as we watch, participate, reflect, and tweak our connections, wondering if this pastime is actually just making us more disconnected. There is no barrier to entry to becoming a social media guru, and everyone of them (of us) is an armchair anthropologist, commenting on the cultural trends observed while drinking a latte, while listening to a conference call in one ear, and a TED video in another.

I teach – I’m an adjunct at NYU ITP. And I build components of anthropological thinking into a course about systems thinking, sustainable design, and life cycle assessment. I teach geeks and future geeks how to stop, pause, participate, observe and reflect before they commit to making a new thing. But I am not a scholar.

My work is seeped in anthropological thinking, but only occasionally includes verified, AAA-member anthropologists. When the budgets are plush, and we have time – these are conditions I am rarely granted these days.

Which brings me to my challenge question(s): What is the role of professional and academic anthropology to us amateur armchair anthropologists? What happens when everyone becomes a participant observer, even Wall Street stock analysts?

Thanks to Inga Treitler, PhD of Anthropology Imagination, LLC for organizing this discussion tomorrow, based on a conversation that started in an airport shuttle at last year’s Aspen Design Summit. You can observe the challenge questions and participate with the other panelists over at Breaching Boundaries. These people don’t Twitter, so it’s a rare chance to see measured, reflective thinking.