I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Thursday, June 09, 2005

How do anthropologists blink?

We (at Pitney Bowes) just had a visit from Patrick Whitney and some of his students (and recent graduates) from the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. The visit itself was the culmination of a design course we sponsored, but we also had some interesting conversations about other work. Pat and others at ID have a project called Design for the Base of the Pyramid. Most of the research has been conducted remotely in India. The ID folks have set up templates and sent them to various researchers in India (social workers, architects, and MBAs, all new to observational research) with instructions to gather information in the slums of Mumbai.

One of Pat's goals is to develop reusable frameworks for research and analysis...I think this is interesting, though I guess as an anthropologist I am skeptical whether detailed frameworks can really be reusable across very different projects (though I will be watching what they come up with, and one thing I have learned is that designers sometimes get more attention on their research because we anthropologists don't always know how to communicate what we do as well visually).

Anyway, these templates have enabled people without ethnographic experience to gather data that Pat and his team have been able to use to design from. It is undeniably a quick and inexpensive way of doing field research. But I also wonder how much is lost...when I am in the field I see things that spark my interest, and spur me to go deeper or change direction...it is based on experience and instinct.

One of my coworkers, an extremely inventive engineer (who is also a fan of Triz, where I think this thought came from) suggested that it must be possible to come up with a decision tree that would enable even inexperienced researchers to make those same observational decisions.

I hope I am not just being defensive, but I think I do bring something to my work that can't just be transferred to others. I started reading Blink the next day, and really hooked into the idea that there are things we thin slice and detect instictually, without necessarily being able to explain. And those of us with specific expertise "think without thinking" in our areas of expertise and should embrace it...made me feel better.

I still think I am pretty good at what I do ;-)

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