Why we need more anthropologists

Today I’m back at the University of Edinburgh talking to anthropology students about how I’ve used my degree in my global technology/development career. I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to speak to a room not obsessed with technology, or scaling projects, or measuring impact. For me, it’s always started with the people and, for everyone in the room, it will be the same. I’ve long advised people interested in a career in global development to study anthropology (better still, anthropology with development studies, as I did at Sussex University).

It may sound crazy, but there aren’t enough people focused on understanding people in the technology-for-development world (one week field trips carrying out surveys don’t count). You see plenty of ‘Technology Advisor’ roles, but where are the ‘People Advisors’? There’s plenty of everything else, just not enough of that. I’m currently looking at work opportunities in the technology-for-development sector, and don’t think I’ve seen a single job description define a major requirement for time spent in the field, understanding the context of technology use in global development. And, of course, no mention of the word ‘anthropology’ anywhere. Everything else seems to matter more than that, and it’s something we have to put right. Anthropology has a huge amount to offer the sector – it just doesn’t seem to know it yet.

A question that I often get asked when people get over the shock that I have an anthropology degree, not something computer science-related, is “What on earth would anthropologists be doing playing with mobile phones?”. The answer may be a little more obvious than you think, but let’s start at the beginning.

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other digital devices.

What anthropology isn’t

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads.

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

What anthropology is

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called cultural relativity, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the gobal development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as necessary today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

The importance of KYC (Know Your Customer)

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $75 smartphones), but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets) and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

My anthropology journey

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, mobile devices are closing the digital divide in ways the PC never did. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association, who have previously run Bridging the Digital Divide initiatives, today remain extremely active in the mobile-for-development sector. International development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives centred around mobiles and mobile technology. Mobile phones today are almost as exciting as big data, 3D printers and drones.

I’m immensely proud of my anthropology roots, and the insights it has given me in my work. Without it, I’d not have successfully conceived and developed FrontlineSMS. I’m also very proud with my ongoing association with Sussex University in my capacity as Ambassador for International Development.

And I’m always happy to do my part to promote the discipline in the technology-for-development world because I think it needs more – many more – anthropologists walking the corridors if it’s to take full advantage of the wonderful digital opportunity it has been given. I just hope it starts paying attention before it’s too late.

Unpicking the (offline) mystery of the mask

In an age where you can find answers to almost anything with the click of a mouse, it can come as something of a surprise when what might seem like a simple bit of research comes to an abrupt, premature end.

Back in 2004 I came across a strange-looking mask in a South African craft market. It immediately caught my eye and looked very different from the many others on sale. I bought it, packaged it up and brought it home. Before I’d even unpacked my bag my research began. I knew it wasn’t an original, but was curious to find out more about the people who might have made these decades or centuries earlier. These people, it turned out, were the Kwele of Equatorial Africa.

“With their slit eyes that elegantly curve to the temples, Kwele masks are readily identifiable. Looking at the subtly refined forms, the mild concave shapes, and especially the graceful heart-shaped face, one might be tempted to assume it to be a classic form of African sculpture. Strangely, this is not so, although art enthusiasts and specialists have admired these works for decades”

Art of the Kwele of Equatorial Africa (Louis Perrois)

Ironically, the search for my replica mask lead me to an auction which had an authentic piece for sale. Although unable to compete with hardened collectors, I had two things in my favour. Firstly, the piece was about as far from ‘museum quality’ as you could get, and secondly very little was known about where it was originally collected from and when. These two criteria are often high on the priority list for professional collectors. Few were interested, giving me a chance to snap it up.

The mask is incredible because of its condition – eaten away by the ravages of time, chewed at by insects, damaged during ceremonial use. Driven by curiosity, what I’ve managed to find out about the mask is this. It was most likely collected by Swedish traveller (and prolific African art collector) Jan Olof Ollers in the late 1930’s. Some reports say he may have been a missionary. He travelled widely and built his collection over a thirty-five year period, but then sold a large part of it – over 1,000 pieces – at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1973 before emigrating to Canada. For some reason he kept hold of the Kwele mask, possibly because of its ‘poor’ condition, or maybe because it was one of his favourites. Jan Ollers died in Toronto in 2001, and with him many of the answers I’ve been seeking today.

Much about the mask remains a mystery. Where was it collected? When? Did Jan Ollers collect it? If not, who did? What would it have been used for? What kind of mask is it? Although listed as an owl mask, other owl masks that I’ve found are round, and don’t have the large ‘wings’ (or are they ears?) that this one does. I do know that a number of Kwele ceremonial masks were based on the dreams of their makers, who were visited by forest spirits in their sleep. Was this one of them? If so, what was the dream? What’s the significance of the wings (or ears)?

However much I’d love answers to these questions, my chances look bleak. Maybe it’s best left this way. In a world where we can find answers to almost everything, a little wonder and mystery might be a good thing…

Anthropologists in a Global Village

Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.

If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).

When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.

After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.

A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:

Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world.  Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’

Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.

If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.