15 September 2016

Articulating the Anthropological Toolkit to Non-Anthropologists

As a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology, I am currently teaching Communications to Engineering and Technology students. I am surprised almost everyday at the various ways I use my anthropological and ethnographic training in my department. I've been brought onto projects in my short 9 months of tenure because, according to some, 'I think differently'.

The uniqueness of the anthropological training was articulated in a relatively recent article Why Tech Companies need to hire Software Developers with Ethnographic Skills by Astrid Countee, In this article, Countee describes how her anthropology degree and ethnographic skills afforded her a unique perspective in the world of software development.

Countee's article is chalk full of gems about the nexus of anthropology and the software engineering world. Below are a few excerpts from her article. I've highlighted what I think could be useful terms to define the unique attributes of an anthropological training to non-anthropologists:

I know the value of holism, of seeing how one piece affects another. It is an obvious thing that often gets ignored when building technical systems. (...) There are people who are writing the software. The human footprint can be found everywhere you turn. So, it makes sense that humanistic thinking in software is revolutionary.

How am I a better software engineer because of anthropology? For starters, I am insanely curious. (...) As an anthropologist, I am interested in every possible solution. (...) I think of code as a tool for solving the problem, not the only way to solve a problem.

Being an anthropologist forces me to be a good communicator. (...) Understanding what a client really needs is half of the battle. Even the process of gathering requirements, which seems pretty straightforward, can be fraught with minefields if you don’t fully communicate with others. I take the time to learn about the people that I am building software for. It helps me to have empathy for their needs and to better understand when to reach out for guidance.

As an anthropologist, I think about representation and power. I am aware that there are systems of power at play that affect what people are willing to say and what they are not. (...) Making technology should be about solving problems within a functioning system, but there are people in high positions that may try to skew your project into technology that makes them look good.