Category: Beyond the Academy

Who are the Influencers?

It’s not a new idea, but the term “influencer” likely has not crossed the desks of those outside the world of marketing and advertising. On the surface, it’s a relatively straightforward concept: some individuals have more of an audience online than others. Among these, some have a knack for recommending products or services that are then purchased by others. For anthropologists and media researchers, the concept of an influencer recalls Bourdieu’s theory of social capital, and is a contemporary example of the kinds of influence addressed in social and actor/network theory (see here and also here). Attempting to understand the social uses of technology without considering monetization and the role of commerce is to ignore one of the strongest forces driving interpersonal dynamics online. Therefore, my intention here is to argue for both the relevance of “influencers” as an emerging concept, but also to highlight the ways in which it extends (more...)

On the Relevance of a $5.9B Videogame Industry Deal

I spend an inordinate amount of time watching the news, blogs, and social media that swirls around what can at best be vaguely called "the videogame industry." There are multiple industries, markets, cultures, interests and to pretend that it is a kind of unified monolithic industry doesn't really seem to fit much an more (if it ever did). Yet, many CASTAC readers and authors are interested in structure. Why do particular socio-cultural-political-economic formations persist remains an important question that seems to cut across the interests of CASTAC readers. For context, Activision, one of the already largest videogame publishers, announced on Tuesday their acquisition of King, a developer and publisher of popular web-based and mobile-based "free to play" (F2P) games. To put this in context: The giant company’s acquisition of King is the biggest merger in gaming since the combination of Activision and Blizzard in a nearly $19 billion deal in (more...)

Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

Numerous battles are being fought today within and across America’s political landscape, from global warming to the regulation of new technologies (e.g., GMOs, fracking). Science plays a big role in these debates, and as a result, social psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other social scientists have become interested in the question of why people (or rather, certain people) don’t accept scientific findings. These social scientists have converged on a concept called motivated reasoning: that because our reasoning powers are directed towards particular ends, we tend to pick facts that best fit our needs and motivations. Motivated reasoning, in this explanation, is a universal concept, perhaps a product of evolution; all human beings do it, including experts. It also raises the profoundly disturbing possibility of a scientific end to our Enlightenment hopes that experts—let alone publics—can be rational, that they can neatly separate facts from values and facilitate a harmonious society. Influential science journalists (more...)

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a (more...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, (more...)

Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.” – Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent (more...)

Understanding How People Use Technology: A Primer on Human Factors Engineering and UX Research

Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the  anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn't coincidental, of course--there's long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies. (more…)

Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM ‘s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group. So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity (more...)

From Academia to Business: How Barry Dornfeld brings ethnography to the business world

Barry Dornfeld's 1998 book Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture was a formative one that knocked me from media studies to media anthropology (and made me realize that my "revolutionary" new idea for fieldwork had been scooped). For my first post on the CASTAC Blog as an Associate Editor, I want to return to my intellectual roots to interview Dornfeld, and discuss his transition from NYU assistant professor and University of Pennsylvania Communication program director to ethnography evangelist in the business world. Producing Public Television saw Dornfeld conducting full-fledged participant observation amidst the producers at PBS while they assembled a transnational documentary called Childhood. This book has influenced both my dissertation and my fieldwork among television producers, particularly for its treatment of expertise. Dornfeld, for example, addresses the degree to which producers consider themselves proxies for their audiences, vehicles for a kind of mass-mediated paternalism, or feel shackled by a (more...)

Are You Singing of Science?

In January, researchers from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan and Alpen-Adria-Universität in Austria published a study in the journal Public Understanding of Science exploring the use of science words as lyrical elements in popular Taiwanese mainstream music. The intent of the study was to understand better how non-scientists were using science terminology in creating pop music songs, and perhaps learn something about bridging social contexts by exploring aspects of the most fundamental element of science communication: words. The study examined the content and quantity of scientific terms and expressions distributed throughout mainstream music lyrics as a potential reflection of the presence of science into Taiwanese popular culture and life. Starting with a list of 4526 songs created between 1990 and 2012 generated from the Golden Melody Awards, Asia’s mainstream music awards, the authors then reduced the sample based on the “relation of lyrics to science/technology” criterion. A total of 377 songs were ultimately selected for analysis by (more...)