Monday, April 26, 2010

Anthropology Outside Academia

The research mantle can have an isolating effect. Anthropologists, like most other scientists, are trained to process information in very specific ways and they learn to talk about this information in very specific ways that are often inaccessible to the general public. Research is its own fan—researchers write and speak to each other, drawing on theory and jargon that means little to a non-scientific audience.  The result is a disconnect between science and the public—and industry.

Anthropologist Rachel Black recently discussed her experience doing ethnography for for industry with a few bloggers. She found that her [industry] colleagues had no interest in reading lengthy articles, and that they had little or no formal training in anthropology and references to fundamental theories were entirely lost on them. She has called for a round-blog discussion of applied anthropology and what it means to bridge this divide. I've chosen to participate in the conversation because it gets to the heart of Anthropology in Practice—that is, looking at ways to share information with the general public. This is hopefully the first post in this installment, and links to updates will be posted at the bottom as they become available.

Why does it matter? Public support for scientific endeavors begins with understanding. Findings may have the potential to change a community, an organization, even the world, but if they're unintelligible to the population, then there is no progress in science—there's no feedback, no real data, just theories and labs. As organizations look to applied anthropology for solutions to work "smarter"—maximize productivity, boost morale, improve collaboration, etc.—and the scientific community tries to be heard about larger issues, can science be an active participant in these dialogues?

Anthropologists can be instrumental in this initiative because the problem is tied to an understanding of how people communicate and how they process information. Social and digital media has really changed our relationship to data. As I have noted here, the PowerPoint Movement is gaining younger and younger members, as students are being encouraged to use the program to present papers and research at ever younger ages. They are learning to ask questions, and format and process information in very measured ways. People are looking for easily consumable information—and bullet point and subheadings have pushed the traditional research paper to the margins for the vast majority of the public. To be effective, to reach the public, science must learn to speak in this way. It must put aside the feeling that its importance is tied to heavy words, and determine succinct means of showing how ideas are related to everyday events that are important to the members of the public.

Culture Logic is an organization that is trying to bridge this divide. It is an innovative communications consulting company run by psychological anthropologist Axel Aubrun and cognitive linguist Joseph Grady, who collect empirical data to determine how the American public actually thinks. They then determine how messages should be presented to increase understanding about an issue. For example, as opposed to talking about climate change in terms of the "greenhouse effect," they've suggested using the metaphor of a "carbon dioxide blanket." They argue that few Americans have interacted or otherwise experienced a greenhouse, and while the term may be factually correct it is not one that the public can relate to. Talking about a carbon dioxide blanket allows the public to understand how warming can occur—making the information accessible to them.

What happens to theory in this case—and does it matter? Without theory, do we lose the capacity to truly understand our data, to explain our data? Not necessarily—theory doesn't need to disappear, but it needs to be managed differently. Yes, it's an important part of research design, but if you cannot make it relatable it loses its relevance. To help break out of the scientific mold for thinking and presenting arguments, social scientists should be exploring the dynamics of social media, and learning how to communicate through the mediums of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs and getting a sense for how the public interacts with information in real time. I am not saying that lengthy research papers are archaic and outmoded—they're an important tool for unpacking information, and should be available for those interested in pursuing deeper explanations, but the general public has not had the experience of the scientist in working with data in this form. Social media can be one means of understanding how the public actually consumes information. At the same time, scientists can use these media to help acclimate the public to obtaining scientific information from these sources by becoming active participants in the social media world.

For applied anthropologists in particular, this may mean acting as a mediator of sorts between theory and data and the results/next steps and being involved with the organization for an extended period of time. The anthropologist must become an expert in communication—distilling important theoretical points and presenting them in a way that is relevant to the reader. Organizational change that needs to be built around theory will have to be accomplished in small steps, with greater emphasis on the real time results rather than the overarching vision. In business, the end goal is dependent on the successful completion of many smaller projects, so involvement with industry demands a shift in how data is applied to real world situations, requiring constant reinforcement over time highlighting successful returns.

If you're currently involved in applied anthropology, take a moment to share with us your experiences—they'll certainly be valuable to the discussion. What solutions exist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can we help industry folks doing mixed method research do ethnography better? How can we help give depth to their practice and analysis?

Updates to the round-blog discussion will be posted here as they become available.

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