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date: 27 October 2020

Anthropology, Technology, and Innovation

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Applied anthropology has become an alternative to the more academic anthropological tradition. One important area of engagement is technology and innovation. This increasing involvement has been tied to, and encouraged by, the growth of applied anthropology. Applied anthropology is just “anthropology put to use,” as John Van Willigen noted, to solve practical real-world problems by applying anthropological theory and methods. The field of applied anthropology can be categorized into two overlapping groups of practitioners: those who apply anthropology while based in academia and those who practice anthropology outside of academia. At first, applied anthropology was dominated by those within academia who applied the theory and methods of anthropology to understand real-world problems for themselves or for a client. However, by the late 1990s, the problem-solving value of applied anthropology was becoming recognized in government, as well as in the private and not-for profit sectors. With recognition, employment opportunities outside of academia expanded exponentially. More and more anthropologists began working for manufacturers and technology companies as marketing professionals, user experience researchers, and insight managers, among other job titles. Most of the first anthropologists to work in product and technology companies were accidental innovators. It was not the intention of these early applied anthropologists, such as Suchman, Squires, or Brun-Cotton, to become innovators. Rather, they were primarily interested in applying anthropological theory and methods to solve serious problems faced by the companies for which they worked. It was only in the process of finding answers that they stumbled across new ways to frame issues and uncovered insights leading to novel solutions—innovation. Over time, labels such as business anthropology, design anthropology, and digital anthropology were used to distinguish those applied anthropologists working in product and technology industries. Fundamentally, however, they were anthropologists putting anthropology to use.

By 2005, applied anthropology within industry had come of age with a definitive boom of published literature, written primarily for or about the private sector. Resisting approaches that emphasize quantitative data, these publications maintain the value of qualitative and mixed methods approached from the perspective of anthropology. Ironically, despite the growth of applied anthropologists working in the product and technology sector, most of those who are currently publishing study innovation rather than participate in innovative activities. There may be a couple of reasons for this. First, those that work in the private sector do not have the time to write, or they have signed non-disclosure agreements that do not allow them to publish. Alternatively, there is a trend in which senior applied anthropologists who formerly worked in the private sector are returning to academia where they have time to write. Whether in the private sector or, now, in academia, the innovations that have resulted from the work of these anthropologists cannot be underestimated.