Bringing Cultural Anthropology to the Tech Table

Anthropology & Tech:

The Value of Fieldwork, Intercultural Communication, and Workplace/User Diversity to Tech Innovation is Rising


Cultural Knowledge is a Tech Fundamental

Anthropologists have, for centuries, attuned their work to understanding humans, how they organize into groups, and how they interact with and build out their environment to solve critical problems so that they can survive and flourish. We understand people, and we understand the material and technological world. User experience research, design thinking, global marketing, and diversifying the workplace–very different projects and processes– take on new dimensions when empowered by the insights cultural anthropology brings to the table.

Beginner's Mind and Intercultural Understanding

When a senior anthropologist enters her fieldwork, she practices beginners' mind: learning a new language, attending to bodily movements and social norms, witnessing the way values and worldviews guide human action and interaction. We know that understanding the problem to be solved through digital design-and that understanding the humans who need and utilize the solution-is fundamental to engineering.

Anthropology is a field equipped with a host of specialized tools to understand users, their communities, and the interactions between them, the technologies, and the platforms and tools that mediate them.

As tech considers its ability to serve the needs of people and communities who lie outside their "cultural default"–users with the kinds of identities and cultural experience that most match those of the programmers-it also understands that it cannot know the motivations, contexts and experiences of diverse users without engaging those users. By using beginner's mind to engage and understand digital problems, solutions, and users, industry becomes more flexible, more nuanced, and more poised for global innovation. Anthropologists use cultural relativism to suspend their assumptions about why people do what they do in order to observe, question and converse with the people and cultures they study. In fact, doing this well is the cornerstone of participant observation, our tried-and-true method.

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.
— Yonatan Zunger

Fieldwork as Methodological Innovation

Field-tested, Ph.D.-level anthropological researchers are the leading global experts on ethnographic methods and qualitative data, while our students–undergraduate and graduate anthropology majors–are influencing industry with applied research skills and cultural insight. A professional anthropologist has seen through a dissertation project–an immersive research experience that allows Ph.D.-level researchers six months to two years of intensive collaboration, data collection and interpretation. 

My own dissertation research with media producers in Dakar, Senegal, for instance, helped me to think through concrete modes of recording women who were speaking and singing without radically altering the context of their performance. In doing so, I hoped to richly document and understand women's communication without disrupting political, ritual, or domestic events. In order to understand what was happening in different areas of the ritual space as it unfolded, I wired up six participants with microphones and digital recorders and then overlaid the recordings together in the production studio, toggling from one sonic perspective to another. In another study, I focused my field camera not on the drummers who seemed to be the center of a musical event, but instead on the feet of the dancers as they dug into the sand--for hours on end. It was with this special attention to the unexpected that I understood the patterns in which participants moved over the course of the event, and the ways a ritual changed the local landscape, beat by beat.

  • Research Design
  • Collaborative Anthropology
  • Digital Field Methods
  • Working with Global Minorities
  • Culling Data from Open-Ended Interactions


The Global Dimensions of Diversity and Inclusion in Tech

eBay going global

Microsoft going global

Intel going global

Facebook going global

The Rise of Digital Anthropology

Material culture

Media anthropology

Digital anthropology

Design Thinking is Ethnography 


Re-Imagining Tech Through Anthropology

AliColleen Neff