Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A brief hiatus from my hiatus to try to make sense of a few design and social science things

"Clifford Geertz, the eminent American anthropologist, once gave the following piece of advice: 'If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do.'"

So begins Simon Roberts' review of Ethnography for Marketers by Hy Mariampolski. (Actually, the post begins with Simon saying that it's a "tragic book" and that his review should have been more forthright. But that's all good, better late than never.) In any case, his review highlights something I have also witnessed in "design research" or "design ethnography". Simon writes:

"Th[e] focus on the practical and logistical is understandable but it betrays a common confusion as to what ethnography is, its roots and how this informs what we do as researchers and what we give our clients. Mariampolski seems to be writing about one aspect of ethnography, the act of doing fieldwork, focusing almost exclusively on being in the field.

Ethnography, however, is as much about interpretation, the post-fieldwork-fieldwork, as it is conducting participant observation. Ethnographers can draw on a wide body of literature, concepts and intellectual tools that allow them to make sense of their experiences. It is the 'making sense' that is the productive, valuable activity and what clients pay researchers to do.

To focus so strongly on the fieldwork seems to me to reveal the dynamics of the market research industry itself: namely 'fetishise' the method, commodify it and then sell it by the unit. Ethnography offers the opportunity to sell thinking not research, but this book offers little in the way of insight into how to think ethnographically."


Imagine, if you will, a designer for which everything revolves around the doing of design, and the material making of design objects. She gets frustrated with theoretical discussion; she wants to stop talking and start doing. For her, design production is always tied to making something. But not anything. Not ideas. Or words. Or performances. Or texts. Our designer struggles to imagine a collective of humans and non-humans, but is confident in her call for getting on with it. Will she do this playfully? Sure. But also in goal-oriented ways. Useful ways. Real ways. After all, she is busy building the internet of things (btw - check that report's rhetoric). Our designer clearly separates thinking from doing, talking from making. She prefers one rather than the other, as if she's being made to choose. To her, assembling sounds inefficient, or irrelevant; just more talking heads, less action, less stuff. She is confident that she does everything she reasonably can. She believes her products will be used exactly as people see fit. She works to put an object out there as quickly as possible, and then she lets go. Whatever happens, it will emerge, naturally, as it is meant to. (Cue Austin Powers saying "Yay capitalism!")

Christena Nippert-Eng has written that one of the strongest contributions sociology can make to design is the application of "distinctive conceptual and analytical frameworks". In other words, and just as Simon says above, how we make sense of things, our ways of thinking. But this still leaves us in the position of having to justify our value and worth; it is we who are charged with convincing others. In coversation with our designer above, we might feel compelled to prove our points to her. After all, she speaks the language of proof and we're taught to describe people in their own language. But what if our ideas can't or shouldn't be proven? What if they can't or shouldn't prescribe direct action? Does that make them worthless to our designer? And if so, what kind of designer does she make?

And elsewhere, Lucy Suchman's Anthropology as 'Brand': Reflections on corporate anthropology (pdf) is still my favourite take on relationships between anthropology and corporate research. In it, she unpacks the assumption that the telecom industry's increasing interest in anthropology and ethnography is indicative of some sort of industry turn towards 'the social' and leaves us with this brilliant scenario:

"Our work as [corporate] anthropologists sits uncomfortably inside the close-knit interweaving of consumer experience understood as something prior, discovered through anthropological investigation and then addressed by design and marketing, and consumer experience understood as constituted through activities of design and marketing, in their contributions to the creation of desire and the crafting of cultural imaginaries. I don’t believe that we can resolve this tension."


Blogger Mike Kuniavsky said...

As social techniques enter the process of corporate technology creation, I think we're running up against a definition shift. To marketers, design researchers and others, the academic terms are useful shorthand for describing a new way of writing product requirements or evaluating results, but they're only using a sliver of the full definition of the field whose name they're using. I heard that in Intel, where there's a big shift going on in terms of thinking about technology in human terms, everyone who is doing social research gets called an "anthropologist" by the engineering-centered old guard, regardless of what work they actually do. This is because they're doing a kind of applied anthropology, but there isn't a good term for it yet, so people are borrowing from related concepts. There isn't yet is a term that refers to the engineering equivalent of social research (as engineering is to, say, the broader disciplines of physics and chemistry). At one point, everyone thought it was "usability," but that label doesn't really fit. Of course this field--whatever it's eventually called--won't be as deep or as wide as the larger titles from which it gets its methods, but that's because the constraints of working to deadlines in a production environment is different than research into fundamental phenomena. There's a good vocabulary in the physical sciences separating bridge building, metallurgy and physical chemistry, but it hasn't yet developed for the application of social sciences in an industrial environment. That's unfortunate, becuase it just introduces confusion.

Blogger Anne said...

Good points Mike. But to me, confusion implies misunderstanding - like corporate designers misunderstand what ethnography "really" is, or like anthropologists misunderstand what corporate design "really" is, and I think it's more complicated than that. For example, you write that design research "won't be as deep or as wide as the larger titles from which it gets its methods, but that's because the constraints of working to deadlines in a production environment is different than research into fundamental phenomena." At face value this seems reasonable, but it simultaneously hides the fact that these practitioners may be choosing to use only those aspects of anthropological ethnography that do not critique or threaten their "production environment" - and that would indicate fundamental differences in the two approaches. The more skeptical part of me might even go so far as to say that, in that case, corporate design researchers would be appropriating only those academic ideas that serve their interests. And this wouldn't be like a playful or joyous remix, it would be more like a calculated co-option with dodgy ethics.

Blogger Mike Kuniavsky said...

I think applied sciences always carry with them the potential ethical breaches you mention. That's because it's not their job. Or, I should say, it's not the job of their practitioners. Applied science/engineering/professional societies have codes of ethics, because there's an ongoing concern about the application of their methods in ways that are considered to be harmful in the long term. At the pure science level this kind of social control of practitioners isn't as critical, I don't think, because their job implicitly inclues the consideration of the long-term, broader implications results of their research. (This is, of course, in theory)

Applied science, on the other hand, is all about the short term, which naturally means that it's about reinforcing the values of the organization for which it's being conducted, as a tradeoff for getting things done. To do otherwise would not be thinking in the short term, by definition. It's upper management's job in any organization to enagage in long-term thinking (again, in theory), but at the applied scientist level, their role is to solve specific problems, which often requires using available tools from other disciplines and applying short-term ethical boundaries (such as informed consent agreements for social scientists, or standardized experimentally pre-validated procedures in other fields). In such an environment there's going to be self-interested behavior, which is--kind-of--the point.

I'm not trying to justify unethical behavior here, btw. I'm trying to identify that the practices which are appropriately ethical at the pure science and the applied science level are different. At the pure science level the broadest concerns, and the broadest definitions, apply. At the applied level, narrower concerns (following procedures and specific ethical guidelines) are appropriate. Translating the broader theoretical concepts to pragmatic procedures that embody ethically appropriate behavior is process that used to be done by guilds and unions (look at the history of building: it's all about creating ever more detailed standards to keep people from building things that won't kill their occupants) and now happens more organically. Social research as an applied science is sufficiently young that this hasn't really happened, yet, which is why the definitions are in such flux.

Anonymous Linda said...

But anthropology has a long history of being an “applied science” –long enough for the division between “applied” and “pure” to be heavily disputed, since making this distinction reinforces a distinction between doing and writing. If the label “applied” is put in front of some types of research, one inevidably end up saying that what is not termed “applied” is somehow “non-applied” -that it doesn’t act. I had a course named “applied anthropology” in my second year of my anthropology degree, where this was a continiuos concern.

Insofar as the term “applied” still stands within anthropology, what sets it apart is not that it’s short-term or less concerned with facilitating change, but rather the position it chooses to act from. The history of “applied anthropology” is more than 100 years old including some pretty dark chapters as part of the colonial administration, which has learned all anthropologists a lesson or two about always taking into account the institutional contexts and power relations in which one’s research is entangled. If you look at the “applied anthropology” being conducted by anthropologists working within e.g. the development industry it is often explicitly concerned with questions of power and policy, which is perhaps why it often end up taking the shape of advocacy.

Blogger Phil said...

look at the history of building: it's all about creating ever more detailed standards to keep people from building things that won't kill their occupants

Isn't that rather a pessimistic view?

Seriously, I think your comment exemplifies the contradictory role of ethics in applied scientific work: ethical claims (and ethical codes) are always present, but they're present precisely because they're liable to be overruled. Codes of practice are to the shortcuts of the business world as law is to public disorder - neither makes sense except by reference to the other. The really interesting thing about anthropology, as Linda says, is that - by situating theory within social activity, or by addressing the making of theory as a social activity - it doesn't permit the luxury of projecting a 'pure' academic realm where these tensions don't exist.

Blogger Anne said...

I agree with linda and phil that it is not so simple to separate "applied" and "pure" research, or more specifically, I believe that they are separated in order to maintain particular boundaries and ethics.

What troubles me about Mike's position is that it neutralises divergent and conflicting social interests by claiming they are inevitable. By associating "pure" science with broad concerns and "applied" science with narrow ones, we deny the ways in which they are already interconnected. But more worrisome is that we maintain a mutual exclusivity in terms of accountability. This kind of system seems to encourage all parties to say "But that's not my responsibility..."

Blogger Mike Kuniavsky said...

Linda: I agree. I'm using the terms broadly to make a general point about terminology use among different communities of practice, but there are many gradations in terms of how the circumstances in which social researcher is conducted that make it difficult to draw any hard lines.

Phil: my view is only pessimistic in that it assumes that reinventing the precepts of building construction will tend to produce more dangerous situations than following a known-good pattern. I don't think that means that innovation in construction should be stifled, but my point is that the industry has standards bodies (now, it used to be the guilds and unions) that rigorously investigate the implications of innovation and define envelopes for it that are more likely to introduce success than failure when applied in situations where such rigor is impossible, or unlikely, to happen. In other words, they take a pragmatic approach to how buildings are built and make it easier for people to do the "usually right" thing than to do something that may be right or wrong.

My point about ethics, and in turn terminology, is not that following orders is an excuse for avoiding responsibility. Everyone has the right and obligation to consider the long-term effects of their actions. It's that market researchers, usability testers, human factors engineers and design researchers working in organizations work in a different set of circumstances--with more immediate pressures and less control--than anthropologists and ethnographers do. Each have the same broad ethical responsibilities, but in the constrained situations of a production environment there is not necessarily the option to take actions based on the broadest view.
That's why, in my perspective, there's an ethical responsibility of the community to create such "usually right" standards (such as informed consent) which make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing and remind people of their broader responsibilities. Grousing that corporate practitioners are using the wrong words is applying the standards of a group with a broad ability to act on their knowledge of the potential consequences of their actions (and thus define terminology that reflects these concerns) to the practice of a group with much more constrained capabilities for acting on their ethical judgements.

And Anne, I'm not advocating a situation that causes a responsibility gap. I'm suggesting that everyone needs to be responsible, but there are different circumstances in terms what people can actually do to express that responsibility. Judging the actions and language of one group by the standards of another doesn't recognize the circumstances of that group's work practice, and should.

Blogger Anne said...

Mike - I don't read anyone complaining and I don't understand where you get that the practices of one group (designers?) are being judged by the words of another (academics?).

If you recall, my presentation at Design Engaged specifically recognised the actual constraints under which designers and design researchers work. In fact, my point was that these very constraints can be problematic, and not only by the standards of my academic discipline.

What words should *we* be using to explore - to affirm and to challenge - these possible problems? What scale should we use to measure the extent of these implications?

And I'm not talking about the "right" to call oneself an anthropologist or ethnographer. I'm talking about taking into account and be accountable to other people's concerns.

In other words, what should we expect and value from designers and academics - and who gets to decide?

Blogger Phil said...


Phil: my view is only pessimistic in that

You might want to re-read the sentence I quoted!

market researchers, usability testers, human factors engineers and design researchers working in organizations work in a different set of circumstances--with more immediate pressures and less control--than anthropologists and ethnographers do. Each have the same broad ethical responsibilities, but in the constrained situations of a production environment there is not necessarily the option to take actions based on the broadest view.

No offence, but this is precisely the common-knowledge baseline that I was trying to problematise. As I see it, the ethic-overriding imperatives which characterise "the constrained situations of a production environment" are constitutive of the field within which ethical codes themselves exist - in very much the same way that disorder is constitutive of the field from which legal codes begin. The point is not that ethical codes prevent ethical breaches, any more than laws prevent crime - the terms in each pairing are complementary, effectively defining each other. You're right to say that invocations of absolute Ethics from the vantage-point of some academic Parthenon would be inappropriate, but not for the reason you give. I'd argue, rather, that the Ethics invoked would be a consoling fantasy, since academic disciplines themselves are governed by ethics with a small e.

Blogger Mike Kuniavsky said...

Unfortunately, I missed your DE presentation. And it sounds like I've offended you, for which I apologize. My reaction is to (what I understood to be) the implication in your distinction between "our points" and "the designer" that she doesn't care about the larger implications of the research--Roberts' criticism of marketers' ignorance of post-fieldwork interpretation. In your description of the problem, I read a value judgment: that it's wrong (maybe only a little wrong, but still improper) your designer doesn't feel interpretation is worthwhile. That its value shouldn't require proof to her because she should see its worth implicitly, and that the problem is that she doesn't, which is frustrating. I believe that this judgment sits at the core of the tension that Suchman identifies (which I agree with). My perspective is that it's not particularly useful to judge the use of terminology or technique by one kind of practice based on the standards of another. Although there are many gradations, I believe there are two different practices at work here: one with an explicit mandate to take the broadest implications of fieldwork into account and act on it, and one without either that mandate or the ability to act. For example, in Intel there is the People and Practices group--which I would classify as being in the former group--and human factors engineers, who are in the latter. The two are using similar terminology and techniques, but the capabilities of each are so different that judging the latter by the definitions of the terminology of the former is missing the key difference in their practices, that really they are using the same words to describe different practices.

If my interpretation of your writing is incorrect, and that there's no value judgment implied, I apologize.

Phil: you're right.

Blogger Anne said...

Mike - no offence taken at all! But I think we may be talking past each other a bit ;)

First of all, I understand judgment to be about right or righteousness (and wrong or wrongness), and that is not my intent or interest. I also agree that it's not helpful to judge one activity (or culture!) by the standards of another but, yes, I am interested in unpacking the different values at play - and not least because mutual exclusivity and absolute relativism are politically and ethically dodgy.

(For my part, I don't find it helpful to talk about "gradations" and then return to rather rigid distinctions between academics and corporate researchers, especially in terms of their mandate and ability to act. I find that too limiting and prescriptive.)

But I think we would both agree that the contexts of work we're talking about are sufficiently different to warrant different vocabularies to describe them. I also think we'd agree that, currently, designers and design researchers are the ones borrowing the vocabulary of the social sciences.

My point is that this borrowing is not neutral. Now, I'm not saying that designers are bad people or irresponsible practitioners, but this borrowing works most often as a one-way exchange, and in contexts that are sometimes contrary to the theoretical frameworks that lay within these borrowed methodologies.

What I'm really interested in is how these ideas and practices change, and how they are used, in different cultural (practitioner) contexts. Of course this involves value discussions, but it should not assume judgment. From my perspective, there is no good and bad, only better and worse, depending on context. And I'm not willing to let either academics or design researchers off the hook so easily by saying that only they should get to discuss and decide what their practice involves.


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