This episode presents a recording of CASPR 2022, or the CASTAC in the Spring 2022 mentoring event, which took place on May 10, 2022. CASPRT 2022 was organized to encourage dialogue on breaking down binaries that have separated academe and industry. Angela VandenBroek (TXTS), Melissa Cefkin (Waymo), and Dawn Nafus (Intel) discuss their work in leading socially-informed research in industry contexts.
This episode was created with the participation of Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, speaker, CASTAC web producer), Melissa Cefkin (Waymo), Dawn Nafus (Intel), Patricia G. Lange (California College of the Arts, host), and Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, producer, sound editor).
The transcript of their conversation is available below. The transcript has been edited for comprehension.
Patricia G. Lange (hereafter, PGL):
Welcome to Platypod, the official podcast of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing. Here we host dialogues and conversations about the theories, tools, and social interactions that explore questions at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies. I’m Patricia G. Lange, one of the Co-Chairs of CASTAC, along with Baird Campbell. The following discussion marks the launch of CASPR, or CASTAC in the Spring, a yearly forum that brings together scholars and practitioners interested in anthropology and science and technology studies. Our first CASPR forum is entitled “Breaking Down Barriers and Binaries: Anthropological Adventures Beyond Academe.” We are delighted to welcome three speakers who will discuss working in industry and bringing anthropology to applied contexts. Today we welcome Angela VandenBroek, Melissa Cefkin, and Dawn Nafus. I will introduce each panelist in turn, and they will speak for about 10 minutes. We will begin with our first speaker, Dr. Angela VandenBroek.
She is Assistant professor and Director of the Innovative Anthropologies Lab at Texas State University. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist with a Ph.D. in anthropology from Binghamton University. She has worked as an applied anthropologist in design, branding, and information technology since 2008 both within organizations and as a freelancer. Her work sits at the intersection of business and design anthropology and science and technology studies and focuses on how ambitions for better futures by states, citizens, and entrepreneurs are co-opted and reformed by innovation culture and its infrastructures. She has conducted research in Stockholm, Sweden startup and innovation ecosystems and has started new research among entrepreneurs in the Texas innovation corridor between Austin and San Antonio. Please join me in welcoming Angela VandenBroek.
Angela VandenBroek (hereafter AV):
Thank you so much for the introduction, Patricia, and for bringing us all together. It’s been amazing working with you. So it’s been great. So as Patricia said, I’m Dr. Angela Vandenbroek. And I’m a professor at Texas State University. I teach about business and design, entrepreneurship, and Applied Ethics and methods. But before I came to Texas State, I had a 13-year career as an applied anthropologist, microfilm and design and branding. But it starts a little bit before that. So before I jump into a couple of Patricia’s questions that she sent ahead of time, I want to give some background about how I got here.
So I think the way I got into applied anthropology is pretty common, but not a way that we usually talk about–which is basically out of necessity. So I’m a first gen academic, I was the first in my family to graduate college, and I got my first job at 14. And I’ve been continuously employed since then. So my anthropological career is always parallel to a career outside of academics. And this career was primarily about subsistence. But I learned really early on that being an anthropologist, or rather thinking like one, was something I could do in any job. And doing so improved my work. The first time it really occurred to me was in an interview for a retail job. The manager was walking me through the petite and plus department of this department store. And he gave me this kind of throwaway interview question like, “Oh, I see you’re applying and as an anthropology major, how’s that going to help you as a associate here?” And I looked around in this petite and plus size department where they were operating under the assumption that the more stock you have on the floor, the more products you can move. So they had tons of racks on the floor, and they had double-stacked them: so shirts were hanging above pants and that kind of thing. And for me, as an anthropologist, I could think about more of the human experience of shopping and what it would be like as a woman in a body that was plus-sized or petite in that space. And I told him, “Have you considered what it would be like to be a plus-size woman and have to shimmy sideways and knock clothes on the floor as you’re trying to navigate a space when our society stigmatizes those bodies?” And he just looked at me dumbfounded and said, “We’ve never thought about that.” And it was this, that first time that anthropology really clicked for me outside of the classroom. I ended up getting the job, and they did reduce the number of racks and unstack to them, and their sales went up. And it also made the lives of those women just a little bit easier, which made me feel pretty good about anthropology and what I could do with it.
So I have moved through a career that included everything from retail to food service to manufacturing, childcare, private music, instruction, administrative work, and I eventually ended up in web development. And so I developed my skills through all of these jobs. Which takes me to one of the first questions Patricia asked, which was, “How did you craft your background and experience for a position in industry?” Essentially, I didn’t. I developed skills as I needed them. And I improvised my career depending on what jobs I could get at that moment. So while I didn’t plan for an applied career or study and build a skill set ahead of time, I did, over time, develop a kind of three-step applied practice of my own, which is part of what I teach to students now.
So the first thing was to treat every job like fieldwork. So I took notes, I did participant observation, I talked to my colleagues and supervisors and asked questions to get history and context. And this was never an official part of any job I had. But it became part of my everyday practice anyway. So I essentially used anthropology to help me understand the social structure and epistemological dimensions of the organizations I worked for, which helped me navigate my job, identify areas of friction, unpack the assumptions that the organization operated under, and how the things I learned as an anthropologist could be made meaningful in that context.
So the second thing I did is I took up questions and problems that emerged at work as anthropological research questions, no matter how mundane they were. So they could be things like, why did people frequently walk out on their bills at X restaurant? Or how does a website create an antagonistic relationship between students and college staff? These kinds of mundane questions made space for anthropology and my job in small or big ways, even when they weren’t part of my job description.
And then third, even though I never had anthropology in my job title or description before now, I would explain to my colleagues and supervisors how thinking like an anthropologist led me to insights that alleviated problems that they cared about, and sometimes to an absolutely annoying extent. But the better I got at it, the more often people turned to me with sticky and complex problems and asked for my expertise. And this is how I built my career over time by developing those skills of communication and learning on the job.
So what I like about this advice is that it isn’t really about telling students just to learn to code, or if they learn UX research procedures, that they will definitely land a job as an anthropologist in the job call. Instead, I want them to start thinking about what it means to be an anthropologist and decouple that from the procedures and social life of academics, and to expand beyond the confines of well-defined bounded research projects, and instead see anthropology as an ongoing practice and engagement that you can take anywhere, and you can grow those skills.
So one of the other questions Patricia asked was, “Once you’ve got the job, what knowledge or skills did you need to learn?” So I’ve personally learned a lot of random hard skills, from how to write PHP, how to teach a five-year-old to play the violin, how to fold jeans so that they sit flat and stacks don’t fall over when people pull them out, or how to access the accessibility of a website. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a specific set of skills that you can take tutorials on and be prepared to be an applied anthropologist. Every job is different and requires different competencies and skills. I think the more important thing is to focus on soft skills. Particularly, learn how to learn independently and how to identify relevant skills to learn. So that when you’re in the job, whether you need to learn a skill so you can translate your knowledge to someone who has that skill, or whether it is to take on that skill yourself, it is so important to be able to find information, assess it and teach yourself how to do the things that will make you successful.
Second is to practice communicating what you learn and translating anthropology in ways that are meaningful for the people with the power to make decisions and act on the knowledge you generate. And this is where treating your job like a field site becomes so powerful because the more you know about how people think and how your organization functions, you can start to communicate in ways that make sense to them.
Third, I’d say read and research independently with as much curiosity as possible and return to anthropological literatures as often as you can. It’s always amazing to me how even the weirdest esoteric theoretical anthropology articles will pop back into my head in a moment when I’m trying to deal with a really sticky, mundane issue at work. And so the more I can engage with that literature, the more I can bring it in and translate things. It gives me fresh ideas and new ways of thinking every time I return to those literatures. So I highly encourage you to always stay connected with them.
And then the next thing is: get comfortable with improvisation and being experimental. You’ll almost never be given the time or resources to conduct a traditional one-year field study. So develop your own methods and practices that meet your needs and give you flexibility. And make sure you reflect on them and document them so that you can hone them over time and put them on a resume or when you’re in an interview and someone says like “How can you help us?” You can talk about the kinds of methods you’ve developed to solve problems in the workplace.
And then the last thing I’d say is not really so much a soft skill as a frame of mind. But no matter what job you find yourself in, do not let you see yourself as anything less than an anthropologist. Anthropology is not a career path. It is a way of thinking. It is a critical and ethical commitment. It is an ability to sit comfortably with the intolerable complexity of social life and make sense of it. And it’s a curiosity and an engagement with anthropological conversations. So it’s really more of a way of moving through a career rather than a job title. And so, if you take that position forward, you can make space for anthropology. And sometimes your job might not allow you to do it full-time. But you can still develop those skills and take them into the next job. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Angela. Great. So now I would like to introduce Melissa Cefkin. She holds a Ph.D. from Rice University and is a senior staff researcher at Waymo, an autonomous driving technology development company in San Francisco, formerly the Google self-driving car project. Prior to that, she was principal scientist design anthropologist for over five years at Nissan Research Center. She has also served as the president of the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference and is an author of several patents. She is a corporate and design anthropologist with research, management, and consulting experience, who is passionate about social-driven research, innovation, and design. She is dedicated to the effective development, deployment, and take up of solutions in a way that is meaningful and relevant to organizations, their members, and their customers. She has also worked at IBM, Sapient, and the Institute for Research on Learning. She is the editor of Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections of Research In and Of Corporations published by Berghahn books. Please join me in welcoming Melissa.
Melissa Cefkin (hereafter, MC):
Thank you so much for that great introduction, Patricia! Angela, what a hard act to follow! That was so beautiful. I was furiously taking notes about advice and things to be done. So I’m thrilled to be here. I’m excited also for the breakouts because there are so many others in this room that share some of this experience and can just as easily be amongst the panelists. And so I think we’ll all have so much to learn from each other. But let me dive in for a few minutes to talk about some of the questions that Patricia asked.
So Patricia has already given background and history. I am now currently working on autonomous vehicle development and have a long history of looking at automation, and smart technologies in various forms, both in work settings as well as mobility and transportation. So that’s where my commitments have lived for, for a while now — around the automation side, as well as sort of work and labor side of things, which I don’t do as much currently. But let me just dive right into some of the questions that Patricia posed to me. I think some overlap, maybe some variety of differences. And I’m just gonna do a rapid-fire through a number of these.
So the first was, what is it like to work in industry? Which, of course, is, and I’m sure Patricia knew full well, an impossible question to summarize. But I did think it’s useful to stop and think about it.
I’ve had a long career. I’m not young. And I think that one of the things that I would like to really emphasize is that there is no one industry. They, what it’s like is many, many different things, depending on where you’re situated, what kind of work, what kind of organization, what its product services, commitments are, and how things are structured. So it can be anything like what I do today, which is fairly indistinguishable from any other employee in the company in terms of attending back to back to back meetings, problem-solving for what’s going on, attending to just the regular activity of the organization, to organizations where it is as close to academia, as you can imagine, like when I was at IBM Research, where really it was about setting longer-term research goals and agenda, really doing the in-depth background research. Half my work was, just like as a graduate student, done in cafes, with my computer just to go like, figuring out my own time and schedule. And what you’re called on, I think, is one of the most distinctive elements of working in industry that it’s essentially basically never enough to just be posing questions and exploring and expanding understandings and knowledge. But without that translation to “So what about it? What are the implications? What are the recommendations? What are the new designs? What are the new policies?”– the translation of your work into something, what Jeanette Blomberg, my mentor and former colleague, always talked about as thingify-ing. So those are some things that I think are fairly constant. Even though the settings, the nature of the work, the tempos, the rhythms, the expectations may vary quite a lot across organizations.
So what is it like it my organization? This was the second question. So my organization Waymo is still a startup. So I work for a startup now, which is hilarious, if you asked me. I never imagined myself in such a situation. But it is a quite large startup with a quite long history. And so there’s a very funny mix of constant urgency and pressure, we have to keep moving, we have to stay the lead of the game, we have to be positioned for what comes next in terms of the market and what’s happening. But also simultaneously working on autonomous vehicles and transportation, which is such a safety-critical, and such a consequential domain of development and exploration, that there is also a simultaneously “Whoa whoa whoa, keep things slow, be very careful, be cautious, be thorough, and just make sure that we really know what we’re doing” in the accountability that I think everybody feels for putting a ton of steel on the road that’s going to barrel down the road at people. So that kind of balance makes for an interesting environment. I am currently in a product organization, as a user experience researcher. And as I had to confess recently, it’s actually my first what I would call a real user experience role, even though the work that I’ve done over time and in the past would have been called user experience. This is the one that I think the field of user experience has evolved into. When I was at Sapient, I should say, there was no such thing as a user experience field or domain. And we’re just giving shape to it in the 90s, when this kind of emerged as a full-fledged environment. But why do I call out about being in a real user experience role? There’s so much to do across an organization like ours, everything from informing what safety drivers are doing, thinking about their job and role and responsibility, how they’re trained and prepared, and how they interact through technology, with the goals of the system, all the way to what cities, governments, municipalities, and publics are interested in and what they are trying to inform, and where and how technologies such as ours, and the way that we play as a citizen in these environments engage with their interests and expectations, to the kind of work that I focus most my time on, which is how do autonomous systems on the road interact with everybody else that’s around them. So my people, if you like, are what we call ORU, or other road users, their manual drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, folks like that. What are they doing on the road? How do they make sense of it? What are the kinds of orders of things in the local orders of things? Where and how can we recognize variation and difference? But all of this is done within an organization that is building the product and the product of Waymo is a driver. What we claim is we are building the world’s most experienced driver. So it’s all about the software development that goes into the vehicle or that the vehicle is using to go about what it’s doing. It is also rider experiences and the apps and those things. But my particular focus is on OR use space.
So being in a product organization means that I have to, again, constantly be translating insights (I always want to do the scare quotes, but I’m trying to train myself not to because I don’t want to diminish the fact that is so central to how we frame our work and what we’re doing), bringing those kinds of insights to bear in such a way that action can be taken, whether it’s modifying autonomous systems, or redesigning the interface for an app, or whatever it is. And in a product organization in the startup, that means you’re working pretty fast in a lot of clips of small effort. The questions we ask become very narrow, and then over time, they expand, and expand, and expand, or we start broad, and then go narrow, narrow, narrow, so that they circle around each other, so over the course of time you build a kind of expertise. So it’s been a very interesting and somewhat challenging experience being in this kind of role.
The next question was the topic of a breakout that I’ll be talking in, which is “How do anthropology and ethnography influence your approach to work?” I’ll just say here, very briefly: everything from designing field studies that are intended to draw out a real, back to the old days of a kind of “natives’ point of view,” how was the world seen, experience structured, ordered through different participants in the world who don’t share the same interest commitments as we might walk in the door with, to the broader questions of what unit of analysis? One of the big things that I think anthropologists tend to bring into the settings, there are a lot of places where the lines blur as to who has what kind of skills and what kinds of things we might do; ethnography is surely not ours to own everybody has a version of ethnography. But let’s say you encounter a social psychologist in your realm, which there are many that I work with, they share many of the same commitments. But there is that kind of psychological pullback to individual emotional experience and cognitive experiences. And I think with the anthropological [approach], we pull it the other way, which is the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts aspects of what’s happening. And so, coming at the world from that side, and posing questions, and constantly coming back up to who else is affected, what else is going on, what are the dynamics, how are things changing is one of the unique offerings that we bring in these settings.
Have I circulated my findings and insights beyond my organization? And have I published in academic venues? Yes, I have. And yes, and yes, is the answer. Although I will say this is part of this Waymo difference for me and being like a real UX researcher, I haven’t yet done much of that, while I’ve been here [at Waymo] for almost two years now. And again, the questions are so small and so specific, and so narrow, the attention to how we communicate and what we communicate is probably stronger here than in any company I’ve ever been in. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of freedom as to what kinds of things I’d be writing about or communicating. And partly because we don’t work at the heart of the core IP, or I haven’t been as much in the past. So there wasn’t the fear that we’re going to accidentally sort of expose something. What I do now is much closer to that. And so it’s a little bit more of a dance.
Finally, what advice and next steps would I advise students? This is where I can’t hold a candle at all to the beautiful comments from Angela. And I really appreciated those. I’ll just say two things. One, I’ve already commented on a lot, which is about this understanding that in some way, shape, or form, the work will need to turn into a prescriptive or action-oriented set of results at some point. And maybe you yourself, as an anthropologist in the settings, would be the one to do that. Maybe you’re just working with partners, and that’s what they will need to do, taking your findings, and your work and translating it. But to recognize that the name of the game is to take action based on what we’ve done. That can take many forms, but to be comfortable with that shift and to find ways of communicating well.
The second one, and I’ve talked about this in some other settings as well, it’s just that I think I’m going full circle back to where I began my comments about what is it like in industry, it’s like so many different things, because there are so many different parts of industries, so many different roles, and functions, and goals, agendas, product services, enterprises, that I think really is worth learning about and thinking seriously about the different nature of different kinds of roles. It’s not inter-industry. But do you want to develop products? Do you want to do core research in some sort of research environment? Are you part of the shared services kind of service-oriented set of functions that are like providing consultation or instruction or facilitation of things within organizations? There are so many different facets of the kind of work that we do that the risk is, and I’ve had this when I’ve been trying to hire for more kind of long-term systemic research agenda-driven work, that I would get, for example, user experience, people who would want to tell me about the cool interface that their research helped inform, and it was just like, that’s very cool, but there’s not you know, they’re kind of missing the beat about what is our work that isn’t that. So I think trying to embed yourself, ensconce yourself in some sense of the differences of organizational structures and roles and functions and what might be needed and desired by role is very valuable and useful. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Melissa. Thank you so much for some very insightful and helpful remarks for those that are interested in how folks can go into industry in a variety of different ways. Next, I would like to turn the floor over to Dawn Nafus, and I’d like to say a few words about her. She’s an anthropologist and senior research scientist at Intel Labs, where she leads research that enables Intel to make socially informed decisions about its products. Dawn Nafus holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is an expert on health and environmental sensing, how data and measurement have changed societies, and on digital research methods. She is the editor of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies In Everyday Life from MIT Press, co-author of Self-Tracking by MIT Press, and co-editor of Ethnography for a Data-Saturated World (Manchester University Press). The New York Review of Books has called Self-Tracking “Easily the best book I’ve come across on the subject,” while Science Magazine notes, “Self-Tracking develops a nuanced position, but acknowledges both the opportunities and the challenges raised by self-tracking.” She has also served as program co-chair for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference. Please join me in welcoming Dawn Nafus.
Dawn Nafus (hereafter, DN):
Thank you so much, Pat. I’m really excited to be here. Also, just listening to Melissa and Angela, I myself started to think about my own career. I just learned a tremendous amount in the last 20 minutes or so. I definitely would echo all of what the previous speakers had said. So just before I get into my own specifics, I just really wanted to pull out, you know, a couple of themes that I thought were particularly significant and really emphasize them. One was Melissa’s last point about really getting familiar with the different organizational roles and structures that are possible. It’s sort of a different thing, to be in a consulting role as it is to be embedded in a design function as it is to be in a broad research pathfinding role, which is the one that I’m in. Another one that really resonated with me too was this notion of, you know, all jobs being fieldwork from Angela. And certainly, that has never stopped being true for me. So I’ve been in the same organization for an embarrassingly long time. 16 years now, which, in Silicon Valley years, it’s got to be like, at least 50. This is just kind of a wild thing. But it happens a lot at Intel. And I still find myself doing that on a regular basis. Because there’s just so much to learn, and so much nuances with different teams in different situations. I shared Angela’s experience of finding myself in industry, more frankly, of necessity than anything else. Back when I finished my Ph.D., I was in what people are experiencing more frequently now, but it was certainly true then — this kind of steady stream of postdoc positions, fixed term type stuff, and just doing job interview after job interview, this one came up, and I got the offer, and I was faced with [a choice]: do I want a job where I can be in one place and roll the dice or not. And that’s literally how I found myself doing this. So and I did it because, frankly, the people who I had met in the job interview process were just really wonderful. And so I rolled the dice with them and really didn’t regret it. Because, at a certain point, who you’re working with kind of matters more than almost anything else.
So backing up, what the heck do I do? So I’ve been at Intel for a long time now. So I’m in the Labs function of the broader company. Investment in research has been a pretty substantial part of what Intel does for very long time. It’s primarily engineering research. I now sit in AI Lab for, I guess, particular reasons. And so, in a sense, the job has never changed. So it’s always about what’s called pathfinding. So that’s [about] what is the world going to look like in the next five years? And where should we place our bets? Where should we be making investments? What are the new kinds of technologies we should be paying attention to? It eventually makes its way back to the kinds of not just chips but really where hardware and software start to integrate; a lot of planning has to go into that. And if they miss the boat, as has happened from time to time, that’s a problem. So that’s why they keep social scientists around. So in terms of what I researched, that’s always a negotiation. It’s reading the tea leaves about what’s on people’s minds and then making a guess about “okay, well, you know, a research project that did XYZ can help shed light on that problem.” And so that’s been everything from questions about mobile phones and mobility through to a lot of work in consumer wearables and notions of data as something that’s not just a thing for data scientists through to now I do a lot of work with artificial intelligence. And I helped my lab director set up Intel’s responsible AI council. So I do a lot of responsible AI work. And then in my research job now, I’m looking at sustainability and questions of what can a technology company actually do? And what’s possible and what’s not possible and situated where we are?
I’d say that the responsible AI thing has really changed the game in a lot of ways, even if you don’t care specifically about AI. Because before that topic really exploded in the popular imagination and the STS imagination, our voices were in a sense limited to what directly comes from our individual empirical research (Melissa scare quoted) “insights.” Politically, frankly, what was any deeper critique we might have was, well, you know, that’s sweet, darling, but, you know, we’ve got to get on with things. And now, that’s really different. Now, there’s, you know, a substantial social movement, civil society groups, academia are saying, “Hey, we’ve got a really serious problem here. And we need to fundamentally call some stuff into question.” And that, frankly, has been a game changer for me because the kinds of things I can do is to bring that in and make sure that it is heard. It doesn’t have to be my specific research anymore. And that gets into more contestation and heated discussion and all the rest of it, but still a good thing overall. So it’s regardless of whether you want to be inside industry or outside industry, that engagement has really changed, and I think, for the better, and I hope that that continues.
I’d also echo Angela’s notion that thinking big and broadly and staying engaged with the literature is just remarkably and surprisingly important. I find myself regularly, even when I am called upon to serve on some task force that’s about some deepest, darkest technology that five people understand, it’s amazing, just how often in the absence of, you know, I’ve not actually had the opportunity to study this, but what I can tell you is X, so, bringing in [the questions], depending on the day, like what are notions of bodies? What are notions of gender? What is a charismatic leader? Why would we be concerned about that in the context of the crypto nonsense that’s currently happening right now? So I’m always pulling on those things. And so those things never really go away. But what I would say, to wrap up my remarks, is, I think, what tends to have helped people and what I’ve seen with my own younger colleagues is as you’re transitioning, particularly from the Ph.D. into whatever it is you want to do, as Angela said, really focus on those soft skills, for sure, but also find just one little project, one project that is small and achievable for you, that really solves a problem. So whatever problem you think is worth solving, that you can actually go tackle, start to build up those skills, more in the interest of making what you already know legible to potential employers than anything else, but also, you know, to get a handle on Okay, well, what is it to make a recommendation to somebody who would then have to act on it? How confident do you have to be? You should be pretty darn confident if somebody’s going to use it. So just doing that in a practicing way before it’s high stakes and before you’re trying to actually be on the job market might help kind of smooth the process because, you know, often that’s not the sort of thing you get in graduate school. So I’m just gonna wrap it up there.
Okay, great. Thank you so much, Dawn. What I’d like to do now is, for about 10 minutes or so, open the floor. We have some questions that have popped up in the chat. So I’m going to pick a few of them and see if we can get going. For now, I’d like to open up the question-and-answer session with a question for Angela. There’s a question about what kind of applied research do you folks do in the innovative anthropologies lab and whether it is open for collaboration with external members in short-term projects, say around things like product design?
Sure. So Innovative Anthropologies Lab is very brand new. I soft-launched it this last semester. I’m in my first year here at Texas State. So we’re all very preliminary. But essentially, it is part of the cultural part of our applied anthropology Ph.D. program, which is also quite narrow. So the other cultural faculty and I are working collaboratively on this Lab. And we have different competencies. So mine, particularly, is in business and design. We have medical anthropology. We’re bringing someone in to do activist and nonprofit work and that kind of thing. So we’re really looking at all different kinds of applied anthropology. But what we really want to do in the lab is create a space where our students can learn those soft skills, learn the niche skills for the jobs they want to get for the kinds of careers they want to find. So rather than teaching all of our students one particular applied methodology, giving them the space to learn and experiment with all kinds of different skill sets and to build a sense of community among them. We’re also hoping, later on, to take on external collaborations and do things like contracting work to give our students experience, things like that, and do some more applied research with industry partners and other partners outside of our organization. So it’s all coming. So stay tuned.
Great, thanks so much. And now the next question is a general question that I think maybe all three could probably answer, but maybe we can start with Dawn or Melissa? But one of the questions is, how close is the connection between industry and academia? Things like publications, collaborations? And is it possible for people to move back and forth because people are often getting these warnings that once you step outside academia, it’s hard to return? So I think this question is very interesting in terms of that, so maybe Dawn or Melissa, you might want to take this one.
So I think it’s a mix. And I would encourage, by the way, on this question, there are some people who probably have more recently been making the switch, such as Angela, maybe Liz, some other people in the audience who probably have a somewhat different experience than somebody like myself might have had. But what I’m saying is I wouldn’t say it’s a myth. I don’t think it’s easy to come and go. And other than perhaps in some sort of guest teaching capacity. But in terms of actual positions, the interplay that I know of, is I’ve tended to work in research settings, much as maybe what Dawn described, where researchers of all kinds are having academic collaborations. It’s really common in the hard sciences that you know, computer science or other fields, that they would have some academic collaboration with specialists in various fields. It’s maybe slightly less common to my knowledge in the social sciences writ large, whatever those include. I will say, it’s not easy, though, because in most of these environments, you have to manage and negotiate a lot of agreement around intellectual property in advance, around responsibilities, the lawyers get involved. So it’s usually done as I’ve seen it in situations where there’s an academic department or professor and grad students, for example, who really have a lot to offer in a very specialized area. And then the results that they’re going to provide will be used in particular ways in the organization. And it can take months or a year to put that deal together before the work can even begin. So it’s not like, Well, yeah, sure, why not. That said, I have had the great pleasure of having some academic collaborations. Jan English-Lueck is here. I’m now a visiting scholar position at San Jose State University. I’ve done projects with Jan, through her class and her team or her students who will do classroom projects. We will be the client for them, we might motivate the questions, but it’s still very independent. And then that input is brought back to our organization, largely for kind of inspiration, maybe an idea here or there. I’ve done similar things with some other universities around the world. So I do think there can be interchanges, but as for an individual going back and forth, to mount an academic job search from having done industry work… First of all, I’ve done that. It’s exhausting. It is utterly exhausting. It’s a whole other job. I’ll say I did it successfully, but then COVID his so then I didn’t take a position. And by then, you’re kind of committed also to your various organizations and the differentials. So I don’t think it’s an easy corridor back and forth. I’d like to imagine that’s changing now. So I’m curious, Dawn, yours or other people who are here who have had some of that experience, also, what you would say?
Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely been… I’ve had a similar experience, both on the collaboration side. There’s so much you can do that looks and feels like the good parts of academia that I don’t feel particular loss. But it’s true that moving back and forth is incredibly challenging, and it really comes down to publications and time. So my partner will joke with me that, particularly when I was publishing quite a bit, and I do less of it now, but, you know, he would sort of say, “Oh, which job are you doing today?” Because it’s like two full jobs. And that’s not fun, really. I do like writing, but at a certain point, your intuitions change about what’s valuable and how to speak, and you kind of have to do that code-switching stuff. You forget what sensible things in academic land are. I don’t know of examples. Maybe Melissa or Angela do of folks who have kind of done that going back route. It happens on the engineering side, it happens all the time, just on the regular, so it shouldn’t have to be that way. But it’s also true that things have changed. From the days of “oh, my gosh, you’ve gone off to that icky foreign land of industry” to those same people saying, “Hey, how do I do that?” Very, very senior, very well-known figures, you would be scandalized, call folks like Melissa or me on the regular about what to do. So I don’t know, there are many ways to think about fluidity, I’d say. And if you can think creatively about it, then that’s, that might be a better route.
Yeah, I agree with both Dawn and Melissa. Structurally, it is really difficult to do both at the same time and go back and forth, mostly because of the way academics is structured. But I want to add that you don’t have to be in a tenure-track job to be part of the academic anthropological community. And if you can find a good home for your anthropology time and you’re thinking, like CASTAC, for example, it’s really great. CASTAC has been my community for a really long time. And so it’s nice to be able to talk with these folks and write with them on the blog. And if you can find communities to participate in, that’s really great.
But I also wanted to echo a point that Liz Rodwell said in the chat, that another good thing you can do is adjunct in the way adjuncting was really supposed to be. So I used to work in full-time in an IT department during the day and then adjunct teaching anthropology at night. And that was really rewarding for me. And it was one way to kind of stay connected between the two. Yeah, really, I think, think more broadly about what it means to be part academic and applied, beyond just the two career paths, but about how you can be part of both communities, whether it’s via publishing, attending conferences, and that kind of thing.
Yeah, great. I just can’t help but put two cents in here, which is that I love this point that it’s being made about the different ways of engagement, that it doesn’t have to be seen as, hopefully, a binary. Part of this conversation is that it’s amazing that you look at Dawn and Melissa: they published in academic venues. And I think that is one example of how there’s more fluidity or possibility of fluidity to have a statement, that is an academic statement, while also doing applied anthropology to help do socially responsive research and, and developing products. So I have this burning desire to have a tweet that says, you know, a person that says they’re not an applied anthropologist is basically an applied anthropologist for one, their career. So I have this burning desire to put this tweet, but I don’t know how many people I will offend, I probably won’t do that. But so I’d like to, perhaps, turn the floor over to Dawn for a question that’s come up in the chat. What can an anthropological or sociological perspective bring to the industry type of job versus, say, what a user research division might do? And this is also perhaps even a question for Melsssa as well. Would it be explorative, critical, or pragmatic and problem-oriented? But this was originally dedicated for Dawn.
Okay, just to give an example of what I did on the self-tracking side. So this was a moment in time when consumer health technologies (Fitbits, Apple Watches… but there were really a lot of them on the market at the time, the watches tended to win out in the end)… But I started that work as a debate with a strategic planner, who was saying, “Look, Dawn, you know, all of these clinical devices are now becoming consumer devices, right? They’re getting miniaturized and are getting cheaper, you know, are people going to want this?” Which really means, should we invest money in it? And I just, I didn’t exactly tear him a new one. But I gave him an earful about Foucault: why are we managing our bodies in this medicalized way? Like, isn’t this an actual problem? That the question is the problem. The only effect that is really going to have is a bunch of guilt and a bunch of shame. I raised a barrier to adoption. Nevermind the terrible social consequence. And he’s like, “Look, I’m a, I’m a type one diabetic. And if I don’t monitor my glucose, I’ll die, so, I mean, I see your point. But also, there is some utility.” And then I, “oh, okay, now you’re onto something now.” So I made sure my goal was not to make people so into their heart rate that that’s the only thing they stared at all day. The goal was to say, “all right, right, that would be the straight user experience version, how to make heartbeat a pleasurable thing.” And I think where the anthropology came in was to say, “Okay, look, that’s a problem. But also in that gray area, there are things that people might actually want to do, and patients taking charge of their health in a new way, really contesting medical authorities, also something that goes on with these devices” and to raise the question about how do we need that side of the equation. So I think that that’s where that critical lens kind of came in.
Great. Thanks. Melissa, do you have anything to add?
I really agree with Dawn’s points… that critical voice, which I’m sure every one of us here continues to bring forward and finds a role for, but also the ability to hear others.
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