Doing anthropology

Technology Anthropologists – I have talked before about the idea of being a technology anthropologist. It was a random phrase that popped in my head one day. Some of you remember Dian Fossey the anthropologist who went to Rwanda to live among, and thereby study, gorrillas. There was movie about her life called Gorillas in the Mist.

Anyway, I sometimes find myself observing people as they interact with technology as an anthropologist would observe, say, gorilla behavior. Now, I don’t mean that I think that I’m somehow superior to others and I therefor see them as apes. What I mean is that I am fascinated by how the rapid intrusion of technology into our lives has forced us to grapple with strange tools. The gap between the capabilities of the tools and our understanding of how to best make use of them is somewhat akin to the gap between two closely related species.

Anyway, perhaps there is a safer metaphor. But the key thing is curiousity. I am infinitely curious about how we will learn to accommodate technology. Kids are interesting, but they aren’t adapting to technology. It’s just there and they use it. But adults, especially older adults are fascinating. I’m not the only one who is reporting on these strange encounters. Jenny does it frequently, and did it again today in a post that starts by referencing a Dave Barry article. Jim McGee does it too; his inclination is toward the effect of technology on business. But, of course, he’s interested in technology in broader ways than just business, as his post today on the difference between technology and magic demonstrates.

Phil Windley has a post today on KmIrony that qualifies. Any others?

[Ernie the Attorney]

Ernie is on to a nice meme here. Another term to throw into the mix is “ethnography.” While usually associated with doing anthropology in the field, it’s also become a legitimate research tool in organizational settings. I find an anthropological approach particularly useful in the realm of technology for a couple of reasons. First, technology is too dynamic for a lot of other research approaches. Along a similar line, organizational research is not a place where you get to do controlled experiments. It’s either impractical or unethical (sometimes both). That leaves you with observational techniques of one sort or another. One advantage of ethnographic/anthropological approaches is that they explicitly recognize that the anthropologist/observer is part of the system.

Another reason that I prefer anthorpological approaches is that technology and knowledge management issues lie in a space that Gerry Weinberg describes as “organized complexity.” The following diagram comes from his excellent Introduction to General Systems Thinking:

In that environment you need tools that are robust more than you need tools that are precise. You tolerate fuzziness in the answers in exchange for getting answers that are directionally correct in a manageable amount of time.

One consequence of doing anthropology is that you have to develop some sense for who the observer is. You’re not doing experimental work that can be replicated. You’re doing a certain kind of storytelling that depends on observational skills and narrative skills. Unlike a fiction writer, you aren’t using stories for the abiilty to make stuff up out of whole cloth (I suppose fiction writers don’t really do that either). You are using narrative as a tool to reveal gaps in the logic, to discover what’s missing in the logic of the story that will point you toward new things to look for.