Can Anthropologists Create an Innovation Economy?



By Aditya Dev Sood


Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called for reductions in state appropriations for particular academic disciplines so that public universities can focus resources on producing graduates in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. This shift, he claims, would better serve the state by spurring job creation. For some reason, he seemed especially concerned that Florida universities might be producing too many anthropologists. He was quoted as saying: “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. … I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

It’s an old argument, rehearsed first between the left and right hemispheres of our mind and then played out in the public arena: Are we neglecting the fundamental kinds of knowledge that powers our industry in favor of more abstract, abstruse and perhaps gratuitous intellectual pursuits, which we cannot afford. It is an id-ic reflex, a sudden gagging of organons of the body politic, freaking out about coming tuition fees, freezing out the possibility of balance and wisdom. I should know, I’ve been there, as perhaps have all of us Anthropologists, Social Scientists and Humanists.

It is not easy, nor particularly interesting, to martial and arguments in favor of a balanced approach to the education of society as a whole. There is a point at which all of us will glaze over in the face of education policy. But I’m particularly interested in the fact that Anthropologists remain an emblem of frivolous and unnecessary kinds of knowledge, when in fact, this is the one discipline which has found new purpose and application in driving innovation forward, resulting in new technologies, products and services, which can create new value in an economy.

Of course, in the public’s perception, we generate knowledge first about Others, and only secondarily about human-kind as a whole or in fact our own society’s values and norms, as reflected through the prism of the other. Unlike, say, traditional Humanist knowledges of Philosophy, Literature, Theater, and even History, there are fewer local constituencies, or interest groups allied, even indirectly, to this kind of knowledge. It should also be pointed out that the original reason or cause for the emergence of the discipline of Anthropology was the colonial administration of cultures Other to that of the ruling society a situation that is at least a half-century behind us. In all that time, Anthropology has at first foundered, lurching first towards the literary and aesthetic interpretation of culture, and then towards a close alignment with, for example, economics and political science, while also developing a further internal critique of its own theoretical resources.

All the while, however, an increasing stream of Anthropologists have come to be hired into global corporations seeking to serve new kinds and categories of consumers, and seeking to incorporate cultural insight into the creation of new generations of technologies and services. I have met or worked with Anthropologists working at Intel, Boeing, Microsoft Research, Hewlett-Packard, Vodafone, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, as well as at large and small consultancies like IDEO, Frog Design, The Institute for the Future, Experientia, among many others.

Anthropologists typically create the most value when working in cross-functional teams along with Designers, User-Experience or Usability experts, and technical experts with a deep knowledge of the system or domain in which new inquiry is being undertaken. The goal of the team is to identify areas of opportunity and possibility, based on the existing behaviors, value-systems and symbolic logic of the user-community. An anthropologist’s facility with the field dimensions of her work, in the tools and techniques of ethnography, is of critical value in this process. But equally valuable, is her ability to interpret observed behavior and to suggest ways in which it might change or be provoked to change based on different kinds of stimulus or transformations in context, content, imagery or symbolic logic. These are highly refined skills, which are central to the success of any new product or service or system introduced into the market.

Of course, they are utterly useless if it is imagined that products never need to be upgraded and that the purpose of a capitalist market is not to continuously create new value through the creation of newer and more valuable kinds of experience for consumers. This, ultimately, is the central fallacy of Governor Rick Scott’s thinking — that an economy is a steady-system in which newer and more valuable forms of life-games cannot be created, through innovation.





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1 Response to Can Anthropologists Create an Innovation Economy?

  1. in the wake of this post i began thinking a bit about how STEM disciplines are constructed in india, particularly through the IITs and through the software and technology companies that hire their graduates. there would seem to be some critique to be offered about the deficiencies of this labor pool on account of their bias towards implementable solutions as distinct from developable options through innovation and design as well as their relative risk-aversion.

    but all this would become a very distinct conversation than they’re having on the other side of the world. witness more raging debate on these themes here:

    …but little edification.

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