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.

4 thoughts on “Why we need more anthropologists

  1. Mark Davies says:

    Ken, I was also schooled in ‘Social’ Anthropology in my college days. Fascinated by a King Lear reference in English class at 16 years old, to how seemingly simple societies held complex rules and behaviours.. i was hooked. And I was always curious as to what this passion would lead to in my professional career.. i suspected Academia or Development in the traditional sense. But i went on to create five technology startups as an ‘accidental’ entrepreneur. But throughout all of my career I had this natural empathy of trying to assume what would motivate my audience to adopt a service or product. I think my background in anthropology was immeasurably helpful in taking the focus off the seductive elements of ‘what can be’ (recurring waves through the revolution).. to what was needed. I didn’t always get it right, but i think people still struggle to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to launching product. Anthropology gives you the wide view, and sensitizes you to look for and listen to people, especially those that may appear different to you… and to knit together the commonalities we all share. That’s surely fundamental in any kind of business.

  2. kiwanja says:

    @Mark – Always great to hear your perspective. Your experiences echo mine totally. During my talk in Edinburgh, a Masters student made the point that anthropologists had done a pretty bad job of selling their value to the global development sector, and that it needed to shout louder. I agree – but just wonder how we make that happen?

  3. Mark Davies says:

    defining anthropology is always challenging by virtue of how broad it is.. and that’s its essence. I think we need some superstar anthropologists to help refocus the conversation from ‘human centred’ (something that always annoys me, because what wouldn’t be?) to comparative and embedded techniques. The Anthropologist Jan Chipchase showed up in Ghana once leading Nokia’s efforts to design mobiles in the local markets through fun and simple competitions. His example, and the noise Nokia was able to generate, created a buzz about anthropology in modern business, which i thought was good. But i fear the discipline is so broad that shouting won’t help. My sense is that it’s more of an insider’s secret… we’ve got an edge in business because we’re naturally interested in understanding the people we serve… Maybe if we could out the anthropologists who’ve been successful in business we’d all be surprised, and the secret would be out!

  4. kiwanja says:

    @Mark – I’m totally with you here. The very idea that it’s suddenly become vogue to put ‘human-centred’ and ‘people-centred’ into tech-for-development activities would imply that no-one realised the importance of people before. That there was ever a time when people weren’t considered just sounds like something from another planet. But now we are in a place where the sector is at least making the right noises, but still it’s actions are often far removed. For human needs to be ingrained in ICT4D it needs people with the kinds of skills anthropologists have fully engaged. The people part should be intrinsic and constant throughout, not an activity. As for us being a well kept secret, I think this would be fine in a cut-throat business environment. But when lives, and quality of lives, are concerned, the dysfunction and failure of the sector in much of what it does is morally wrong, and for that reason I would love us to all be able to find a way to put things right. Maybe a register of ‘practical’ anthropologists working in global development?

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