The deskilling of ethnographic labor: an emerging predicament and a possible solution

An oft-stated rule in the world of design has been, “Good, fast, cheap: pick two”. The success of ethnography as a support to design, branding and marketing has forced this rule into action with a vengeance. Companies now demand that more and more ethnographic knowledge be produced in ever-shorter timeframes and on ever-lower budgets. Our work output has become a mass production item, and the pressure is on. Ethnographers like me find that our Ph.D.s and cosmopolitan outlooks are scant protection as we undergo the same process experienced by many other highly trained workers over the past two centuries: job deskilling.

Job deskilling is a two-edged sword that brings opportunity and misery at the same time, though not always to the same people. Without taking a position on merits or demerits, in my talk I will first review the mechanisms of professional deskilling as the manufacture of ethnographic output has expanded. I will also give examples from my experience as someone who is on both sides of the issue, often finding my own work situation deskilled, and sometimes required by business objectives to submit others to that kind of regime.

The resulting picture is a bit grim. Are those of us who practice ethnography for industry condemned to the same fate as the skilled automobile craftsmen of Detroit circa 1908? (They were replaced by machines, and now there are 680 million motor vehicles on Earth.) And are the outputs of our creative research destined to be commoditized, to the sad detriment of the products we help bring into the world? Perhaps not. So much is made these days of the need for disruptive innovation — what if we apply that outlook to the conditions of our own labor? I have in mind a collusion between ethnographic laborers and their more enlightened employers, in the service of a better paradigm, a realignment of “Good, fast, cheap” so there’s a chance for more “Good” to peek through.

But that’s impossible, right? Business would never stand for it…. To the contrary, I will assert that the material conditions of global production are soon going to require a disruptive change regardless of what the business world thinks. I will explain what and why that is, and urge that we make our new professional motto this one: “Why pay less?”

Gerald Lombardi is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who for the past twenty years has been traversing the border between academia and business: “The appeal of anthropology to me is its ability to create useful pretexts for vicariously experiencing other people’s lives.” In that pursuit, Gerald has studied the use of cameras as divinatory tools by members of an apocalyptic Roman Catholic sect, spent a year as in-house cultural historian at one of the world’s largest investment banks, attended law school classes for a study of how people learn to think like attorneys, and frequented halfway houses and juvenile detention centers while evaluating programs for at-risk teenagers in New York City.

Gerald has a particular interest in personal uses of technology by cosmopolitan middle classes, and conducted two years of scholarly research in Brazil on how people there incorporated the Internet into their everyday lives and thinking. He is currently a director at Hall & Partners Health in New York, the healthcare practice of the London-based brand and communications consultancy. Prior to that he was Vice President and Director of Observational and Ethnographic Research at GfK Custom Research North America, and was part of the Experience Modeling practice at Sapient, the technology consulting firm.

Before becoming an anthropologist, Gerald was a photographer and video producer, and devoted a great deal of time to documenting the human aftermath of deindustrialization in New England. During the transition between his two principal careers he curated a major historical exhibition on Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic world at the dawn of the modern age, which was presented at the New York Public Library and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

Gerald was trained at the University of Pennsylvania (B.A.) and New York University (M.A., Ph.D.), and held a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. He has taught at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, at NYU and at Parsons the New School for Design.

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