From Critical Theories to Practical Frameworks: A Call for Translation
From the Series: Technology and Anthropological Ways of Knowing
From the Series: Technology and Anthropological Ways of Knowing
“You’re so lucky to have a PhD in anthropology, those are so hot right now” is, I confess, not what I expected to hear when I abandoned the academic job market. However, away from academic anthropology programs, ethnography had become a valued skill in product development, even taught in business schools. Like most anthropologists who moved into tech, I became a user experience researcher and grew from there into managing a team of researchers. Initially, I used my qualitative research skills to help design and product teams understand the needs of the people using their products, identify better solutions to people’s problems, and identify new problems to solve through their innovations. Now I advocate for research, mentor, support my team, and intentionally build learning practices.
Anthropologists in tech has been a growing trend for the last five years, although pathbreakers like Genevieve Bell and others have been bringing anthropological perspectives to corporations since the 1980s. Until this recent shift, user research was dominated by psychologists and neuroscientists. The field was heavily focused on understanding the individual interacting with technology and the influences of biology and neurology on behavior, and these analyses often centered the individual in design practices. Anthropologists embedded with product teams can use anthropological theoretical toolboxes to bring the social into consideration.
Technology companies run on frameworks. Frameworks have dual meanings; in software, a framework is a development environment that allows people to contribute and reuse code, defined but customizable by many thinkers and contributors. Frameworks are also shared sets of concepts and ideas that help people communicate and work together effectively. In both senses, frameworks provide the structures for thought and construction of systems. Frameworks matter; they are essential tools for communicating effectively across cross-functional teams and for turning insights into action. In short, frameworks can be thought of as theories, providing shared ways of seeing the world that structure the choices made during technological development processes.
Anthropologists joined companies with transferable skills at interviewing and observing people, but we often silenced or hid our theoretical tools, our understandings of systems of power and difference. We limited our conversations about theories to conferences and para-professional settings. However, translating theoretical lenses from the social sciences into shared frameworks offers a path to deeply shape the development of technologies to be more inclusive. That is more urgent than ever at this moment when tech companies are expanding their complexity, scope, and influence significantly, often moving into service design as well as product design, and creating things that people engage with constantly. The reach of technology is ever expanding, but the lens of UX research analysis when building products remains primarily on the individual. Thinking about power and difference is not widely institutionalized in boardrooms and engineering teams.
To imagine a future that serves more than the narrow needs of business, we need to help companies learn differently and change their frameworks, their metrics for success, and their approach to understanding the world. Social theory and diverse perspectives help us adopt lenses that position our products not in relationship to individual users, but to something like “society,” or “culture,” by which I mean the systems of relationships and webs of meaning that bind people together and push them apart, that mediate how people experience the world. We can’t design for a better society until we recognize that the social systems we build for are vastly more intricate than the technical systems we are building. Instead of “human-computer interaction” we need to develop a framework for understanding society-computer interaction.
My transition from researcher to manager was a gradual movement from the realm of working in evidence to working in relationships, turning my research tools inward to the organization around me to work on not just creating frameworks, but teams, and working for their acceptance, growth, and adoption. As my role has grown, my focus has shifted from helping product teams understand their users to working to influence and change the way my organization learns and operates. As a manager, I advocate for research and navigate structures of culture and power to push teams to think systemically. I work to change the way we learn. As a manager, I understand how my organization makes choices, I’ve seen the trade-offs, political influences, and compromises required to be effective in a business environment. My perspective as an anthropologist keeps me questioning the most fundamental “givens” of our industry: what does it mean to create value? Why should “innovation” lead to the concentration of wealth among a few? What jobs are valuable? Why do we fetishize endless growth? How is my company structured and why? What incentives hold up the current structure? Who makes the decisions in different circumstances? Questioning helps me both to learn to navigate systems effectively and to target interventions for change.
Our moment offers opportunities for both businesses and society to imagine and design different and better futures. Companies are engaging with complex social problems. Human-centered design positions meeting individual wants as tech’s highest good, with unintended devastating consequences. The effects of powerful companies operating with narrow and normatively privileged perspectives are all around us today. From bias in AI to misinformation shaping a global pandemic and high-stakes elections, the effects are evident. Crises like these not only enable but demand new ways of thinking, creating windows for questioning seemingly settled practices and shared common sense about whose expertise is valued, what lenses we use to solve problems, and how we think about the markets for our products. Inclusion is a core precondition for good research and social science, good theories, and good frameworks. Explicitly valuing and introducing social theories as key parts of product researchers’ practical toolset cannot replace the need for more diversity among the voices speaking inside the walls of companies and making key decisions (Ahmed 2012; Friedner and Weingarten 2016).
Those of us thinking about people and technology in business environments are at a crossroads. Building diverse and inclusive research teams and translating theoretical tools that tackle social complexity into shared frameworks expands the viewpoint we can communicate to our colleagues, helping them understand not just the direct users of the tools and products we make, but the social worlds in which they operate and the ripple effects of technological innovations and decisions.
Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Friedner, Michele, and Karen Weingarten. 2016. “Disability as Diversity: A New Biopolitics.” Somatosphere, May 23.