Anthropologists in Silicon Valley

Jim Whitehead (
Thu, 10 Jun 1999 09:31:59 -0700

"Coming of Age in Palo Alto; Anthropologists Find a Niche Studying Consumers
for Companies in Silicon Valley"

A really nice article discussing how companies in SV are increasingly using
anthropologists to study how consumers actually use the products they
develop, or study the environment into which a new product will be placed.

I'm a big fan of having anthropologists involved in product design. All too
often computer scientists try to create their systems based on a theoretical
view of how it will be used, without getting empirical backup.
Anthropologists can tell you how a product is actually used, completing a
vital feedback loop into the design process.

Unfortunately anthropologists are still mostly considered a novelty -- in my
view their involvement is crucial. But this attitude is changing, not a
moment too soon.

The article brings up an interesting ponit about oversupply of PhDs, since
it states that anthropologist's involvement in the corporate world came
about when the supply of anthropology PhDs exceeded supply of academic
positions starting in the 80's. Now that they're involved in industry, it
seems to me we now have a shortage of trained anthropologists to fill the
need for them in industry. So, is this an oversupply or a shortage? An odd
example of Shay's Law I suppose.

I was a bit dismayed by the article, since UCI has a core strength in
producing anthropologists with a technical background in our Computers
ORganizations Policy and Society (CORPS) research group, which is fairly
unique nationwide. Bonnie Nardi, featured in the article, is a near-diety at
the far end of my office hall, where the CORPS grad. students have their
offices. Yet, for lack of a full-time PR person, our department didn't get
any mention in this story.

- Jim