UX, sociologists and anthropologists, and changing cars

Design thinking has come to Ford and with it insights from sociologists and anthropologists:

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work…

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s…

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Both disciplines of sociology and anthropology could benefit from sharing how corporations use them. UX is a growing field and majors in these disciplines could offer unique skills in going after such jobs.
  2. This reminds me of the process social scientists often go through with new concepts. If they pronounce concepts or labels from above, they may then get pushback from those closer to everyday life. On the ground realities should influence how we understand larger patterns. At the same time, the reverse could be true: the user-experience/everyday realities could become so important that they overshadow the larger patterns or constraints.
  3. That Ideo is involved in this process does not surprise me. In class, I use an old Nightline clip of Ideo designing a shopping cart to illustrate how organizations could work.

Coastal elites among middle America = “Margaret Mead among Samoans”

The quasi-anthropological quest of liberals to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump continues:

Third Way’s researchers are far from the only Americans inspired to undertake anthropological journeys in the past year. Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s election shocked the prognosticators, ivory-tower types are still sifting through the wreckage. Group after group of befuddled elites has crisscrossed America to poke and prod and try to figure out what they missed—“Margaret Meads among the Samoans,” one prominent strategist remarked to me.

HuffPo embarked on a 23-city bus tour to get to know places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg undertook a series of carefully choreographed interactions with factory workers and people on tractors. The liberal pollster Stan Greenberg appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his findings from a series of focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters in Macomb County, Michigan. A new group of Democratic elected officials hosted a “Winning Back the Heartland” strategy conference in Des Moines this month. The title of yet another research project, a bipartisan study underwritten by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, encapsulates the sentiment: “Stranger in My Own Country.”…

The other groups of anthropologists roaming Middle America face the same quandary. Having gotten the country drastically wrong, they have set out on well-meaning missions to bring the country together by increasing mutual understanding. They share Third Way’s basic assumption that mutual understanding is something Americans can agree to find desirable. But as hard as they try to open their minds to new perspectives, are they ready to have that basic assumption challenged?

The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see.

Theoretically, academic ethnographic fieldwork should be different than some of the approaches described here which primarily seem to be concerned with finding support or reassurance that liberal perspectives or approaches resonate to some degree throughout the United States. An academic approach could better disentangle personal political views from those of the group who is being studied, or at least clearly demarcate when the personal subjectivity of the researcher influences the interpretation of the group under study. Such academic studies already exist – such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in a Strange Land which she summarizes here – and surely more are to come. What will the academic consensus be within ten or twenty years and how will it sit beside more partisan interpretations of the 2016 elections?

In related matters, Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans holding a combination of conservative and liberal viewpoints has decreased. Thus, the growing need for the two sides to embark on safaris to interact with and try to understand fellow citizens (who do not even necessarily live that far away if we look at Democrat-Republican splits between big cities and outer suburbs).

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Anthropologists used to convince Americans to eat organ meats during WWII

Need to get Americans to eat organ meats so beef can be sent to soldiers during World War II? Bring in anthropologists:

To head the committee, the NRC recruited anthropologist Margaret Mead, along with German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin (considered to be one of the founders of social psychology). At the top of their agenda: addressing the looming meat shortage. More specifically, they needed to devise a way to convince Americans to abandon their steaks, pork chops, and other familiar cuts in favor of the meats that the soldiers wouldn’t eat—the hearts, livers, and other organs that remained plentiful stateside.

The committee members had their work cut out for them. Organ meats at the time were largely shunned by all but the poorest Americans, considered a marker of low social status or a rural, unsophisticated upbringing—and of all the social taboos, those related to food are among the most difficult to dispel, said Barrett Brenton, a nutritional anthropologist at St. John’s University…

One of the major reasons, they soon found through their research, was organs’ unfamiliarity—people balked at the idea of serving something without knowing its taste or even how best to prepare it. In response, the committee urged the government to produce materials that couched the new meats in more comfortable terms…

And thus, “variety meats” were born. Butchers, who already sold organ meats for fewer ration points than premium cuts, were encouraged to adopt the new term with their customers; so were reporters with their readers…

The effect, though, lasted barely longer than the war itself.

Not quite the glamor of Indiana Jones but still fighting the Nazis by replacing beef with lesser cuts of meat. This also hints of American’s long interest in beef, not just an invention of fast food or post-World War II prosperity.

Would leading anthropologists be willing to join such a war cause today?

 

Would you rather have been a European or Native American in 1491?

A 2002 article from The Atlantic about pre-Columbian North and South America includes this fascinating paragraph:

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him—or that’s what my grandfather told me, anyway.

Some of reasons for making this choice:

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of the world’s largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán dazzled Hernán Cortés in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land was “so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people … [that] I would rather live here than any where.”

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European life. France—”by any standards a privileged country,” according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger’s constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts “like common dung” (the simile is Daniel Defoe’s) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, “merely a realistic detail.”

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson’s history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: “the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe.” Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams wrote, “they will not conclude of ought … unto which the people are averse.”

Much to take in.

Anthropologist behind story of Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to bypass Disney lines

Lost a bit in the story about Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to avoid lines at Disney is how the story came out: from the research of an anthropologist.

“It’s insider knowledge that very few have and share carefully,” said social anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin, who caught wind of the underground network while doing research for her upcoming book “Primates of Park Avenue.”

“Who wants a speed pass when you can use your black-market handicapped guide to circumvent the lines all together?” she said.

“So when you’re doing it, you’re affirming that you are one of the privileged insiders who has and shares this information.”

A win for social science? Perhaps not – Wednesday Martin was trained in comparative literature. I imagine there is some more backstory to this including how Martin found out about this practice and how this information made it to the media. Here is more about the book with an intriguing title which is to be released next year:

What happens when an anthropologist from the Midwest moves to Manhattan’s most prestigious zip code…and raises her children there? Primates of Park Avenue is an anthropological memoir of Manhattan motherhood by Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).  By turns hilarious, touching and insightful, Primates of Park Avenue reveals the pressures, conundrums and competition that make mothers and mothering in Manhattan unique. From a deconstruction of the exercise and self-care practices of the caste of women with children she calls “Manhattan Geishas” to the lurid details of her own crazed pursuit of a Birkin bag; to an analysis of the rites of passage like the coop board interview, the gut renovation, bed bug battles and “ongoing” school applications that brought her to her knees; to an exploration of what she calls “the world’s most complicated, fraught, and misrepresented relationship, the dance between mothers and the nannies they hire to help them raise their children”; to an inside view of the galas, benefits, kiddie birthday parties and other extravaganzas of conspicuous consumption that define her adopted tribe, Martin spares no detail in exploring what makes Uptown motherhood strange, exotic and utterly foreign and fascinating. At the same time, Primates of Park Avenue illuminates the quests, anxieties and ambitions–for a healthy, happy child, a good night’s sleep, sexual satisfaction, financial security and a concealer that actually works–that connect women with children all across the country and all over the world.

An “anthropological memoir” – this might be easier for the general public to understand than saying it is a personal ethnography. It sounds like the book, in the words of one of my colleagues, will take the familiar, the wealthy in New York City, and make it exotic.

Reassessing Mead versus Freeman in their studies of Samoa

A new look at anthropologist Derek Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead’s famous study of sex in Samoa suggests Freeman may have manipulated data:

But Shankman’s new analysis — following his excellent 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy — shows that Freeman manipulated “data” in ways so egregious that it might be time for Freeman’s publishers to issue formal retractions…Now Shankman has delved even deeper into the sources; in 2011, he obtained from Freeman’s archives the first key interview with one of the supposed “joshing” informants, a woman named Fa’apua’a. This interview, conducted in 1987, allegedly bolstered Freeman’s contention that Mead had based her “erroneous” portrait of Samoan sexuality on what Fa’apua’a and her friend Fofoa had jokingly told Mead back in the 1920s.

But Shankman shows that the interview was conducted and then represented in deeply problematic ways. The 1987 interview with Fa’apua’a was arranged and carried out by Fofoa’s son, a Samoan Christian of high rank who was convinced that Mead had besmirched the reputation of Samoans by portraying his mother, her friend Fa’apua’a, and other Samoans as sexually licentious…

But why did Freeman get it so wrong? Shankman’s book suggests Freeman was obsessed with Mead and with what he saw as her dangerous stories about the flexibility of human cultures. He saw himself as a brave “heretic,” a man saving true science from Mead’s mere ideology.

I wonder if Shankman’s work is the start to a solution to this debate. If two anthropologists disagree so much, wouldn’t bringing in other anthropologists to review the data or conduct their own fieldwork a possible answer to adjudicating who got it more right? There is a time factor here that makes the issue more complicated but people in addition to Shankman could review the notes and comparisons could be made to other societies which might be similar and offer insights.

More broadly, I wonder how much incentive there is for researchers to follow up on famous studies. Freeman made a name for himself by arguing against Mead’s famous findings but what if he had gone through the trouble and then found Mead was right? He likely would not have gotten very far.