Tag Archives: featured

Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama

Silvia Lindtner

Silvia Lindtner

Amelia Guimarin

Amelia Guimarin

Editor’s Note: (@yunnia) and (@femhacktweets) round out the March-April theme on makers, hackers, and engineers with this post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space.

Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) is a postdoc at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai, and is the cofounder of Hacked Matter. She researches, writes and teaches about maker culture and its intersections with manufacturing in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use.

Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) is a independent producer and researcher at UC Irvine.  She has a background in anthropology and documentary filmmaking and focuses on issues of identity, labor and sustainability.  She also runs femhack.com, a showcase of DIY strategies for females with a hacker attitude.


“Making” is envisioned as a new mode of engaging the world, empowering citizens to turn from passive consumers into active participants in economic processes, state affairs and technological innovation. It is heralded as the saviour of broken economies and educational systems, across developed and developing regions alike. This vision of the rising maker is a powerful one. Indeed, it has attracted significant corporate investment (from places like Intel), drawn the attention of governments (from Obama to China) and mobilized money and people across regions (enabled in part by the set-up of new hardware accelerators like HAXLR8R). Making gets people excited (again). It is the story of adventure and of conquering unfamiliar territory to reinvent how technological futures are made today — at its heart it is a vision of technological and social progress. Journalists, scholars, and makers alike have been busy telling this story, joining in on the promotion of making as the harbinger of an industrial revolution (Anderson 2012).

What has fallen through the cracks, however, are other stories of making that do not neatly fit the maker story of linear technological progress, of the Californian culture of cool and of embarking on a bold adventure. In this blog post, we focus on telling this other story of making — of those makers who are rarely thought of as makers and whose stories are less often told.

Earlier this month, we traveled to Shenzhen to attend China’s first featured Maker Faire. Both of us came to the Maker Faire predominantly as researchers, although with different vantage points. Silvia lives in China and has been conducting ethnographic research with China’s maker scene and its intersection with manufacturing since 2010. Amelia lives in California, where she has been working as a documentary filmmaker and researcher on the topic of hacking and education. We recently embarked on a collaborative project of producing a documentary film on China’s makers, with a particular focus on what is going in the Southern parts of China, where small scale maker entities are forging new connections with manufacturers.

There is both a power and responsibility that comes with holding paper, pen and camera – a topic that has received much attention in the discipline of anthropology. The ethnographer makes her fieldsite – she choses whose story to capture and how to tell it, co-constructing the sites she studies through the narrative that emerges from her work. It was in the evening of the last day of the maker faire, when it occurred to us that there was another maker story to be crafted here; it was the end of two exhilarating days filled with workshops, panels, and product showcases with presenters ranging all the way from small-scale start-ups to large corporations like Intel and Foxconn. We were about to head back to the hotel to drop off the equipment, when we paused. Something had changed. The streets that were filled, just hours before, with thousands of enthusiastic makers and visitors were empty, aside from a group of workers, who were in the midst of tearing down the large tents that had protected the booths of gadgeteers from the heavy rain of southern China. It was quiet, aside from the shouts of the workers who in a coordinated effort disassembled the tent. A few hours later – while the makers partied, drank, danced, talked, and celebrated their successful event – the tents were dismantled and loaded onto large by-standing trucks, with no sign left of a big event having ever taken place. A woman with a broom made out of twigs swept the street of the faire’s last remains.

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

It was in this moment that it became clear to us how much attention is paid to the making of the thing, while the work that goes into sustaining and enabling making the thing is rarely appreciated or lauded as equally cool and valuable. Who builds up and tears down (literally and metaphorically) the maker tent? Who performs the work of organizing maker faires and conferences, of raising money, of building important social connections to promote and engage makers and consumers? What other modes of making are there? What alternative models of collaboration and open-ness do we overlook?

This post will not be about the loudest, boldest and coolest projects at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. It will be about those who work more quietly, and perhaps with more sincerity, than their noisy counterparts on stage.

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Engineering obsolescence

Marisa Cohn

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social


Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”

Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These make great bookmarks now. Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FortranCardPROJ039.agr.jpg

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?

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Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.


In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/188629337/

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

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Measurements: The Qualitative Work of Quantitative Work

Katie Pine

Katie Pine

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron

Editor’s Note: and continue this week’s theme of makers, hackers, and engineers with a post about the politics and performativity of measurements, central to the practice of many engineers and scientists.

(@khpine) is a postdoc in Intel Labs Cultural Transformation Lab, and is currently in residence at UC Irvine.  Katie’s work bridges Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Organization Studies, and Science & Technology Studies.  At present her NSF-funded research examines micro-foundations of IT-enabled accountability policy and practice in the healthcare domain.

(@maxliboiron) is a postdoc at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of environmental harm manifest.


From common core to quantified self, measurement is increasingly part and parcel of our daily lives.  We use number-driven measurements to make visible, manage, and regulate increasingly nuanced aspects of daily life, work, public institutions, and our environment.

However, measurements are never mere faithful representations of nature, but have social and political origins and ramifications.  We are exploring two aspects of measurement that often go unnoticed: first, the situated, complex work that goes into making measurements work in the first place (and the fact that this work is inherently social, cultural, and political), and second, the idea that measurements themselves can be seen as performative, creating and re-creating the very things they are intended to make visible.

Representational theory defines measurement as “the correlation of numbers with entities that are not numbers,” a process of transformation, translation, and even interpretation at the level of sampling and gathering data. What is selected for measurement and what is not, how measurements are standardized, what counts as an important unit of measure, and how measurements are used all have stakes for the systems of which they are part.

Moser & Law (2006) argue that current metaphors for information as “flow” are inaccurate, as these metaphors presume that information is immutable, something that is created and exists in the world and thus can be taken up, passed around, and used for calculation.  Moser and Law instead argue that we can see information as something that is inherently mutable and relational, that changes its shape as it is circulated and used.  To put it more simply, information never fully has meaning on its own – it becomes meaningful and usable when a particular person or group make decisions about what the information is and how they can use it.

binarycounting01

A good example comes from a recent study on counting rates of infection in hospitals (Dixon Woods et Al., 2012).  The authors found that an act as seemingly simple as counting infections was actually highly social and cultural – the answer to the question “what counts?” varied widely from one hospital to another, calling into question the current focus in healthcare (and investment of healthcare dollars) on quality measures as a tool for achieving reforms such as infection reduction in practice. Making meaning of numbers requires acts of both calculation and judgment, what Moser & Law call “qualculation.”

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Studying Up: The Ethnography of Technologists

Nick Seaver

Editor’s Note: Nick Seaver (@npseaver) kicks off the March-April special edition of Ethnography Matters, which will feature a number of researchers at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing on the forefront of exploring the cultures of hackers, makers, and engineers.

Nick’s post makes the case for the importance of “studying up“: doing ethnographies not only of disempowered groups, but of groups who wield power in society, perhaps even more than the ethnographers themselves.

Nick’s own research explores how people imagine and negotiate the relationship between cultural and technical domains, particularly in the organization, reproduction, and dissemination of sonic materials. His current project focuses on the development of algorithmic music recommendation systems. Nick is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at UC Irvine. Before coming to UCI, Nick researched the history of the player piano at MIT. 


When people in the tech industry hear “ethnography,” they tend to think “user research.” Whether we’re talking about broad, multinational explorations or narrowly targeted interviews, ethnography has proven to be a fantastic way to bring outside voices in to the making of technology. As a growing collection of writing on Ethnography Matters attests, ethnography can help us better understand how technology fits into people’s everyday lives, how “users” turn technologies to unexpected ends, and how across the world, technologies get taken up or rejected in a diverse range of cultural contexts. Ethnography takes “users” and shows how they are people — creative, cultural, and contextual, rarely fitting into the small boxes that the term “user” provides for them.

But ethnography doesn’t have to be limited to “users.”

Engineers in context. cc by-nc-nd 2.0 | http://www.flickr.com/somewhatfrank

My ethnographic research is focused on the developers of technologies — specifically, people who design and build systems for music recommendation. These systems, like PandoraSpotifySongza, or Beats Music, suggest listening material to users, drawing on a mix of data sources, algorithms, and human curation. The people who build them are the typical audience for ethnographic user studies: they’re producing technology that works in an explicitly cultural domain, trying to model and profile a diverse range of users. But for the engineers, product managers, and researchers I work with, ethnography takes a backseat to other ways of knowing people: data mining, machine learning, and personal experience as a music listener are far more common sources of information.

Ethnographers with an interest in big data have worked hard to define what they do in relation to these other methods. Ethnography, they argue, provides thick, specific, contextualized understanding, which can complement and sometimes correct the findings of the more quantitative, formalized methods that dominate in tech companies. However, our understandings of what big data researchers actually do tend to lack the specificity and thickness we bring to our descriptions of users.

Just as ethnography is an excellent tool for showing how “users” are more complicated than one might have thought, it is also useful for understanding the processes through which technologies get built. By turning an ethnographic eye to the designers of technology — to their social and cultural lives, and even to their understandings of users — we can get a more nuanced picture of what goes on under the labels “big data” or “algorithms.” For outsiders interested in the cultural ramifications of technologies like recommender systems, this perspective is crucial for making informed critiques. For developers themselves, being the subject of ethnographic research provides a unique opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

Starbucks Listeners and Savants

Among music tech companies, it is very common to think about users in terms of how avidly they consume music. Here is one popular typology, as printed in David Jennings’ book Net, Blogs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll:

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“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

Phoenix JacksonPhoenix Jackson is a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a Cornelius Hopper Diversity Fellow with UCSF, and a Somatic Counseling Psychotherapy graduate student at John F. Kennedy University.
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This post is re-blogged from the Center for Critical Public Health.

Editor’s note: My colleague Phoenix Jackson wrote these poignant field notes after we went out to recruit focus group participants for a study on health inequities among African American youth.

While following the #dangerousblackkids tag (started by @thewayoftheid and Mikki Kendall @karnythia) over the past few days, we were struck by parallels between Twitter users’ pushback against perceptions of Black youth as “dangerous” and the lived experiences of study participants evoked in these notes. 

Like #dangerousblackkids, this post highlights what’s omitted from dominant narratives about who is afraid and who is dangerous. Perhaps Michael Dunn was afraid of a group of teenagers in a car playing loud music. So afraid, in fact, that he took the life of a 17 year old child.

Who’s dangerous again?

(Rachelle)

[Slider image via @taciturnitis]

Street-level recruiting, downtown Oakland, Broadway 13th to 16th, Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly but officially known as Frank Ogawa Plaza). We’ve been talking to all kinds of people – students, workers, merchants, customers, pimps, players, hustlers, dealers, addicts, sex workers and eyeballing the BART police roust a youth for nothing that I saw. I’m standing in clouds of cannabis smoke exhaled from the people we’re talking to, and no longer feel how cold my head is. We’ve finally got our posse of people walking back to the office, and I’m struck by how secure one feels in a mass of people traditionally feared. People walking in the opposite direction make wide berth around us, and some look at me disapprovingly, and I wonder about what microaggressions these young men deal with as they move through their lives. And then the hardest and loudest of the bunch paces Rachelle and I talking strategy.

“Hey, y’all got to understand – y’all prolly scared of us… we scared of y’all too!”

There’s a smile, but it’s pointed, and I know they are checking my reaction. I smile at him as if to say, “I hear you,” but then gesture to my colleague known for being even more quiet than I am, saying with a chuckle, “You know, I’m not sure she and I can take all six of you in a head to head.”

Drawing by focus group participant

Drawing by focus group participant

Brother with the neck tattoo has been inside before. Jail. I know it without knowing it. We’re on the tail end of the three quarter mile walk back from street-level recruiting. One of the little hoppers (young hustlers) has already very pointedly asked if we’re FBI or with any kind of police. “Where? That building that got FBI in it?” He might as well not ask – my reassurances that they will leave our company unmolested are met with a tough-generous smirk and posture that lets me know he thinks the whole thing smells no matter what I say, but the steady footfalls and banter of the bigger, older muscle along with the joint being passed back and forth between them placates them enough for me to drawl, “They gone. They moved out of the building.”

“Where?”

“Dunno, and don’t want to. Ugh. We don’t get off into all that. Don’t nobody want to talk to the police more than they have to.”

Their thoughtful silent assent keeps us walking. Read More…

A shift in the business environment that ethnographers can’t ignore

kenandersonKen Anderson (@kxande2) manages the Cultural Transformations Lab at Intel. He is an iconoclast by nature and a symbolic anthropologist by training. Over the last 20 years, his research has explored the relationship between identity, culture and technology (ICTs). Besides his research duties, Ken is spearheading efforts to develop world-wide university collaborations with Intel around “green by information and communication technologies (ICTs)”. Ken’s career has included positions in the labs of AT&T, MediaOne, US West, and Apple Computer. He has taught at Brown University, UCHS and Bethel College. He is founder and currently president of the board of directors for EPIC and on the governing board of National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Editor’s note: In the last post in the EPIC edition, Ken Anderson (@kxande2) from Intel shares his thoughts on the latest shift in ethnography in the business environment. He argues that there is a new market for ethnography, and it’s one that we can’t ignore.

Ken believes that we are now in a  complex market environment. In this new context, he says that ethnographers should be answering new questions for businesses: instead of asking how research can reduce uncertainty, we should be asking how research can introduce temporary order. He provides an example of how businesses like Claro Partners and a few others have adapted to this new market. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with Ken? Tell us in the comments!

A great follow up piece to read is Ken’s essay on ethnography in the Harvard Business Review.

Ken also talks about how his early research with the Inuits’ where he observed ice building techniques links up to his current work at Intel. Yeah. We think that’s awesome.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

sand

It isn’t complicated; it’s complex

As is evident by columns in Ethnography Matters ethnographers have concerns about other methods, whether those be “big data” or attaching electrodes to people’s brains to get “real” data. I’m not too concerned about these, for me, they are merely tools for use in ethnographic studies. What does concern me is a shift that has been occurring in the business environment over a number of years, and how that might affect us.

When I was in graduate school I wanted to study the Inuit. I was an archeologist at the time and was amazed at how the Inuit adapted material culture to an environment of relatively (to me) scarce resources. For example, I never would have considered ice as a building resource for home building; peoples optimize resources for environmental circumstances.

Looking through some recent books on ethnographic praxis (e.g,, Gitta Jordan’s Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Andy Crabtree’s Doing Design Ethnography, Danny Miller and Heather Horst’s Digital Anthropology, Melissa Cefkin’s  Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations),  ethnographic practitioners find ourselves in about in the same position as the Inuit; we’ve done a great job of optimizing our practice for the environments we work in.

Unfortunately, when environments shift, then the tools and technics created may not fit in as well. In our case, the market environment has shifted upon us. Things that were once common practice to optimize our resources, like 3 week field studies of entertainment in homes in Shanghai, LA and London, followed up a month later with a 2 day work session with clients and a life of sticky notes may no longer be the optimal paths for ethnography to retain value. Let me explain what is happening.

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Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education

wasson Christina Wasson (Professor of Anthropology, University of North Texas) investigates communication, collaboration, and community-building in face-to-face and virtual settings. She was a founding member of the EPIC Steering Committee.

Editors note: A collaboration of social, economic, and technological factors have contributed to the flourishing of MOOC’s – massive online open courses. With public universities’ tuition more than tripling since the mid-80’s, fewer people have been able to access a traditional four-year undergraduate education. While this seemingly places MOOCs in a position of strength, this fast-moving frontier of education is still young, and suffers from design issues.

One such issue lies in the fact that while students are beginning MOOCs in record numbers, far fewer actually finish. This and other challenges plays to  Christina Wasson’s strengths, and particularly her penchant for researching “communication, collaboration, and community-building.” Here, she gets beneath statistics and surface level assumptions, employing ethnographic research techniques to study the students in her course. Her ethnographic study of online learning revealed serious limitations to the potential of MOOCs.

As one of the founders of EPIC and lead developer of the online Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Texas, her considerable experience in academia and online education come through in her post this month.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

ECONOMIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL UPHEAVALS

Jung-picture

The coexistence of destruction and creation,
Image 70 in Jung’s The Red Book

People are inventing creative ways to respond to today’s economic and technological upheavals. In the American educational sector, we see the extraordinarily rapid rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as a potential way to manage escalating college costs. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” and Time Magazine heralded MOOCs as “revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges.”

But what do MOOCs look like from the students’ point of view – the users? Considering that typically 85% of students drop out, it would be useful to find out how they experience MOOCs. As of fall 2013, no substantive studies had been published about MOOCs targeted at college students. However, I did lead an ethnographic study of a small-enrollment online course, and its findings have clear applications for MOOCs.

THE PROMISE OF MOOCS

MOOCs have captured the imagination of the business press, venture capitalists, and university leaders because they seem to solve knotty problems created by shifts in educations costs, while generating business opportunities.

In the US, states have increasingly reduced their subsidization of public universities, shifting the financial burden onto individual students. As states provided less funding, tuition went up. This graph from the College Board shows that even adjusted for inflation, tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1984.

tuition-rise Read More…

Strategic Ethnography: Reinvigorating the Core of a Retail Giant, Tesco

ed_team_brannen-m-y A well-known international scholar in multinational affairs, Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) received her MBA with emphasis in International Business and PhD in Organizational Behavior with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Having taught at various Universities in the United States, Japan, China and France, Professor Brannen’s consulting specialty is helping multinational firms realize their global strategic initiatives by aligning, integrating and deploying critical organizational resources. Born and raised in Japan, having studied in France and Spain, and having worked as a cross-cultural consultant for over 20 years to various Fortune 500 companies, she brings a multi-faceted, deep knowledge of today’s complex cultural business environment. She has published many papers. In addition to publishing papers, she speaks to the press about her bicultural work.

Editor’s Note: In 2011, TESCO had stumbled. With dipping market share and profits, they were desperate to reverse the trend and called upon the research skills of Mary Yoko Brannen, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore,  and Christopher Voisey,  drawing upon their deep experience and the company’s myriad potential sources of knowledge to turn itself around.

Mary Yoko Brannen (@maryyokobrannen) presented this work at the most recent EPIC conference, and I’m delighted they’ve decided to further share their work here. One reason I love this project is because it illustrates the usefulness of ethnographic methods to one of the world’s largest retailers, showing that there are few limits to the range of organizations that it can serve. I also believe this research was key for negating a common misconception in many global companies: the flow of insight is not “one way.” Creative ideas to improve the service offerings of more established branches in Europe and America can just as easily come from their more recently-established branches in emerging markets (although I disagree with and avoid using the term “reverse innovation”).

Companies with the opinion that more developed markets have a monopoly upon good ideas are missing a broad spectrum of different perspectives that could lead to new and refreshing initiatives from other contexts. The researchers’ refining of a method to systematize the building of a “bicultural bridge” is, as they say, potentially groundbreaking for the fields of anthropology and management alike. Read the Globe’s recent coverage of Mary and her team’s work.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

tesco_2161591b

In 2011, the retail giant Tesco UK  was in crisis mode. Tesco’s profit in the U.K. had fallen by about 0.5 percent—a rude awakening after having been the market leader in the U.K. and the third most profitable food retailer globally. At the same time that Tesco’s profits were falling in the UK, however, worldwide profit had actually risen 30 per cent, thanks to its Asian subsidiaries.  That year, the company tasked me and my colleagues, Terry Mughan, Fiona Moore, and Christopher Voisey with identifying and assessing “the Essence of Tesco”, i.e., parts of the firm’s culture which were distinctive to Tesco and which could be transferred abroad to other parts of the firm’s global reach. The project had the dual objectives of helping Tesco (1) understand and evaluate the core practices that comprised the essence of Tesco’s home country advantage, and (2) identify sources of learning from Tesco’s foreign subsidiaries to aid in reinvigorating its core in order to make it more competitive at home. Read More…

Ethnography in Communities of Big Data: Contested expectations for data in the 23andme and FDA Controversy

IMG_2834 Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) is a PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Washington and she holds an MA in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. Her research focuses on the relationship of technology and emerging cultural and organizational forms. Her work cited in this article was supported in part by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and an Intel grant.

Editor’s note: One of the disciplines big data is most strongly influencing is medicine, and here Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) applies her expertise to examine the interplay between health and technology to understand the implications of today’s unprecedented levels of patient data collection and analysis (although, notably, seldom including access to the data by those very patients who produced it).

Brittany hits upon a key issue with her post: seeing “big data” as a means of eliminating uncertainty through statistical analysis. While the elimination of uncertainty through statistical analysis is nothing new, the difference today is the scale at which collection and analysis of such data is unfolding and the diversity of the fields in which it is occurring.

Read on to discover the nature of conflict between the main personal genetics testing company 23andme, the importance of and difference between big data, small data, thick data, and DaM data, and the role that “Blue Suede Shoes” play in all of this.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.
23andme box

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid laughingsquid.com

Across the field of health and wellness there is a lot of talk about data, from consumer self-tracking and Quantified Self data, to data-driven, personalized health care, to data-intensive, crowd sourced, scientific discovery. But what are these different stakeholders talking about when they talk about data and are they talking about the same thing?

At EPIC, in the “Big Data/Ethnography or Big Data Ethnography” session, I presented on this topic drawing from our ethnography of the impact of consumer big and small data on institutions of healthcare. In this post I use the recent controversy between the FDA and personal genetics testing company, 23andme, to exemplify many of the concepts my co-author, Dr. Gina Neff, and I develop in our EPIC paper “What we talk about when we talk data: Valences and the social performance of multiple metrics in digital health”, rather than simply re-present them.  I also demonstrate how ethnography can be leveraged in the context of so-called “big data” or data intensive transformations in science and practice. Read More…