I work as a design researcher for STBY, where many of our projects involve ethnographic research.
In 2015, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Japan and Zimbabwe for design and research consultancy Studio D.
The report in Zimbabwe was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and explored the impact that mobile money has on the behaviours of a population that has minimal access to formal banking infrastructure, and is coping with hyperinflation and its after effects. You can read it here.
Ethnographic research, for me, feels like coming full circle. I majored in social and cultural anthropology at university and was deeply affected by what I learnt there. It dismantled many of my assumptions about the world and the social constructs I had taken for granted. It taught me to constantly interrogate the origins and reasons behind actions, thoughts and beliefs.
I once gave up on my dreams of becoming an anthropologist, thinking I had to do a postgraduate or a PhD if I wanted to do fieldwork. Instead, I channeled anthropological perspective into my work as a journalist, teasing out the cultural logic at play in the everyday actions and decisions of those I spoke to, and explaining cultural context to readers unacquainted with that society or milieu.
In one sense, journalism and ethnography really go hand in hand. They both require you to be alert, notice everything, imbue the mundane with meaning, and explain strangers to other strangers. But where sometimes in journalism the details have to be ignored or subsumed into a story, ethnography leaves space for even uncomfortable truths that do not “fit” the narrative.
Coming back to Europe has made me realise that the West is still a very ethnocentric place. Orientalism is, unfortunately, alive and well. But it’s now companies, not countries, that perpetrate condescension or misunderstandings. I believe every company needs an anthropologist on board to better understand their users, clients, and those affected by their work.
Of course, it’s not only our understanding of “exotic” cultures that anthropology enriches. Many businesses don’t know how their products and services are actually used in the wild. Ethnographers, who show how people create meaning about their own worlds in their everyday activities, can teach them companies a lot about the subcultures or groups even within their own society.
Living in Japan, as different a culture as a European can experience, was good training as an anthropologist. Working in a different culture and in a different language invited daily reflection on how and why I, or we, or they do things the way we do. It taught me to stop the kneejerk judgments and baseless proclamations and instead search for reasons and cultural context. This quote, from longterm Japan resident and scholar Donald Richie, explains it well.
“Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. For me alone I wonder? I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb . . . it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding . . . It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better.”