Anthropology's technology-driven renaissance

Anthropologists are a vital tool in developing mobile phones for the third world.

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 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 known for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones or other high-tech gadgets. In today's high-tech world, anthropologists are as visible as anyone. In some projects, they're all that's visible.

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki 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. Is there even such a discipline?

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 1990s, she was accused of "selling out." Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in the technology industry has become THE thing to do.

So, if anthropology isn't the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as "the scientific study of the origin; the behavior; 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 individual's beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of his or her own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context - the social and physical conditions under which 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 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 subfields, and, yes, one of those does involve poking around with old bones and relics. But, for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting subfield because of the role it plays in the third-world 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 analyze the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970s, making development anthropology as relevant today as it has ever been. Many academics - and practitioners - 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.

It's widely recognized that projects can succeed or fail on the realization 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 ICT sector - particularly within emerging market divisions - it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of high-tech companies. Intel and Nokia are two 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.

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