Sunday, November 13, 2011

Stories of Wage Theft: Jamal J.

The following narrative is the second in a series of narratives based on true wage theft stories from Memphis, TN. In the summer of 2011, I conducted interviews with four individuals who experienced wage theft (and other labor violations) in order to share their voices and educate the public about the extent of wage theft in the community. Learn more about how to fight wage theft and unfair working conditions at Workers Interfaith Network.

Jamal J.'s* passion is working on cars. A mechanic by trade, he currently works as a technician at a national oil change shop in Memphis, TN. Although he really enjoys his job and appreciates being able to do what he loves, he didn’t appreciate it so much when one day, his manager asked him to work while he was on his lunch break.

The shop where Jamal works is normally staffed with four people at a time, but management will sometimes send two people home if business is slow. When there are only two people left on staff, one of the workers will often take his 30-minute lunch break while the other continues to service cars. While Jamal was working, his manager asked him to clock out and begin his lunch break. As soon as he clocked out, two cars pulled up for an oil change. His manager then asked him to “help out” with both cars, even though he was on break.

At first, Jamal didn’t think it was a big deal, but once he began on the second car, he told the manager that he did not want to work while on break. But the manager brought up the fact that in the past, Jamal had come to work late a couple of times. When the manager told him to help him out with the cars to make up for it, Jamal felt that he was being pressured into essentially working for free.

That day, Jamal worked free for 15 minutes, and was never compensated for that work. He also ended up only getting 15 minutes to eat lunch. For a working man who supports a wife and three children on wages that are just above minimum wage, 15 minutes of pay can make a difference. And what is to say that it won’t happen again? Not surprisingly, Jamal knows of other employees who have also been asked to work while on break. He says that most of them are afraid to say something to the managers because they are afraid of losing their jobs. All that time can add up to serious amounts of lost wages on behalf of hard-working folks everywhere, and serious amounts of free labor for national chains like the one where Jamal works. “It’s a choice,” says Jamal. “You’re not being forced, but at the same time, it’s a thing you can’t do anything about. It makes you feel like you’re being used, like you don’t have rights, that you don’t have any say-so whatsoever.”

When Jamal was pressured by the manager to work off the clock to make up for being late, it really affected how he felt about his position. “He’s going to hang that over my head for the rest of the time I work here. I do admit that I have been late, but at the same time, I don’t think that should be held over my head.” He feels that he should have been disciplined appropriately for the infractions rather than having to feel as though he owes the manager a favor. Jamal’s overall perception of the management at the oil change shop is less than stellar. One manager sits around all day, feet propped up on the desk, while the technicians work hard servicing cars. He has also had to deal with a manager who has told offensive, racist jokes about African Americans. “A lot of times they figure if they’re in a management position, they can ask or do anything, whatever and whenever they want to.” Overall, Jamal feels that this company is a good company to work for, and that his negative experiences there have been shaped by individual managers. “It’s not so much the employer, it’s the employees that really make the difference.”

Jamal feels that employees who are taken advantage of in this way should be able to speak to someone at the company about the situation, a resource he does not currently have access to. He also believes that managers who ask their employees to work during breaks should be fined, and employees should be compensated for any time they worked without being paid. Unfortunately, Jamal does not feel he has any sort of recourse in his current position. “We figure the only thing the district manager is going to do is give the store managers a tap on the wrist. They don’t know what’s going on in the store because it never gets out. The store managers are still going to be there, and somewhere down the line they’re going to do it to somebody else.”

Jamal says that he doesn’t mind being asked to work while on break as long as he can clock back in and be paid for his work. For now, he plans to continue working at the oil change shop in order to save enough money to become an independent mechanic with his own shop. Jamal greatly appreciates the efforts of the Workers Interfaith Network and the individuals who stand up against wage theft and other workplace abuses. “All over the world people are getting misused and abused by their wages and their money, not just black people, but white people, Hispanic, all different kinds of races. We all have rights, but some of us are too weak to fight for ourselves. But there are people like you who are coming to fight for us. We really do salute you all and thank you, and are willing to stand behind you.”

WIN also appreciates individuals like Jamal who are willing to take the time to share their experiences with others.

*At his request, a pseudonym has been used to protect the identity of the participant.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stories of Wage Theft: Patricio G.

The following narrative is based on a true wage theft story from Memphis, TN. In the summer of 2011, I conducted interviews for a pro bono project with four individuals who experienced wage theft (and other labor violations) in order to share their stories and educate the public about the extent of wage theft in the community. Learn more about how to fight wage theft and unfair working conditions at Workers Interfaith Network.

Patricio G. understands what it is like to work in an environment in which employees are treated as expendable labor and management does everything it can to take advantage of the most vulnerable workers. When Patricio was forced to quit attending college because he could not afford the tuition, he got a job working at El Puerto Mexican Restaurant in Memphis, TN. He found out about the job through some friends of his family, who were looking to hire a server for the weekends. Patricio was grateful for the job not only because it gave him some extra spending money, but he was also able to contribute to the money that his family sent home to his mother in Argentina.

Right from the start, Patricio was informed that he would only be working for tips, instead of making $2.13 an hour plus tips as required by law. Although this was a violation of his rights as a worker, he agreed to the condition because he really needed the job. Patricio would start in the mornings by cleaning and preparing for the day, and would spend the rest of his shift serving tables. He would stay until after the restaurant closed to clean up, but was never paid for this extra work. Patricio only earned between $90 and $200 for working an average of 30 hours each weekend, which equates to between $3 and $6.67 per hour. As he continued at El Puerto, he also began to think that the manager was taking part of his tips from customers who used credit cards, which lowered his pay substantially.

One day, a customer came in with a coupon which specified that if the customer spent $200, he would get $100 off his total bill. The coupon noted that an 18% gratuity would be included in the total. After the customer paid the bill, the manager told Patricio that he would only be getting a 15% gratuity instead of the 18% gratuity he was owed. Because the total bill was over $200, he should have received at least $35 or more, but he was only given $15 for his work.

At first, he didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to get into an argument in the middle of his shift. But after his shift ended, he demanded that the manager give him the full amount, especially considering that he never made a whole lot of money working there. “A lot of days I would go in and not make a dollar because they wouldn’t get customers,” he says. If Patricio wasn’t making any money on tips, his employer should have been making up for the difference by paying him at least minimum wage, but of course they weren’t going to do that. Patricio also lived in Cordova, so the amount of gas he was spending just to get to work in East Memphis made it even more difficult to excuse the injustices he was experiencing. Not surprisingly, his employer never offered him any gas money for his troubles.

What really irritated Patricio was that the manager tried to give him an excuse for not giving him the full 18% gratuity. He said that because the coupon was donated to a charity raffle, the restaurant could only afford to give him $15 because it needed to make money off the coupon. This excuse was both hypocritical and intolerable to Patricio. “He didn’t understand that if you donate out of the kindness of your own heart, you shouldn’t expect profit off it,” he says. It was clear that the restaurant cared nothing for helping others but only about its own interests. To add insult to injury, the manager tried to make it seem like Patricio was complaining about something he shouldn’t be. Needless to say, Patricio ended up quitting that day.

Patricio did not try to recoup his wages because he did not want to create a problem between his family and the so-called “friends” who owned the restaurant. He sensed that other workers, including the other server and the cooks, were also being underpaid. Patricio feels that much needs to be done to protect workers from employers who take advantage of them. He believes this is especially true for undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in the restaurant industry and who are less likely to know their rights or have access to legal resources. He also thinks it would help if employees stood up for themselves. “It’s not helping you and it’s not helping the person who comes after you if you just let it happen like I did,” he says. “I just let it happen because I didn’t do anything afterwards. Just by quitting, somebody else is getting exploited now."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

100 Years of East London Style in 100 Seconds

Digital Life: Today & Tomorrow

Facts and predictions of the future of the internet, 2010 to 2015.

Fun fact: the amount of internet traffic generated by 20 homes today equals the total amount of global internet traffic in 1995.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Random crap for sale at Borders going-out-of-business sale

I stopped by Borders yesterday to see if there was anything worth picking up at their going-out-of-business sale, and couldn't help but notice the abundance of crap being purveyed as part of their going-out-of-business sale. I wonder if it's common practice to try and make an extra buck from bargain seekers by placing tables of random stuff that was never even sold at a store in the first place. Perhaps the thinking is that people are more likely to add to their purchases (the good deals they sought out in the first place) if they are convinced that these other items are also a good deal, even if they really don't need them. Of course, that's the nature of impulse shopping!
Who knew Borders specialized in fluffy blankets?! well as beach totes, duffle bags...and more blankets!
Piggy banks! Yes, I need one of those right now.
As if there weren't enough blankets!!! And at 30% off... what a deal!
Don't forget.......... fragrances!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hitler hates qualitative research...

...but he loves the cost-effectiveness and ease of moderating online focus groups! (of course he would...)

Hilarious dubbed clips from the 2004 movie Downfall, via Ethnosnacker.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Building the brand-consumer relationship through technology, social interaction and personalized experiences

In recent years, forward-thinking brands have become smarter about building interactive, personal relationships with consumers through the use of innovative technologies like Twitter and Facebook. I always enjoy reading tweets from the brands and personalities I follow, but I especially enjoy the personalized, one-on-one responses to tweets regarding comments, questions, or problems from individual consumers. This sort of banter can be fun and interactive, and can make consumers feel as though the big, abstract, global brands they follow really care about what they have to say.

The implications of this kind of marketing are great. Having such conversations on an individual level can create experiences and stories around a brand, experiences that exist outside the use of a brand's particular products. Like the experiences formed around products and services, however, online interactions have the power to build brand loyalty. There is also great potential for spreading this individual loyalty to others through social networks, both in the "real" world and online, as satisfied consumers share their stories and experiences with their friends and family members, convincing them of the merits of a given product or brand. If this results in the ideal effect of additional consumers, loyalists or converts, the strategy has done its job. What more could a brand ask for?

The reason for this post is not unrelated to one such experience I recently had with one of my favorite brands. Browsing through my Twitter feed yesterday evening, I noticed a post by Coca-Cola that asked followers what they think is the best sport with which to enjoy a Coke. I like responding to such posed questions every now and then, but don't usually expect to get a response back, especially from brands or personalities with lots of followers. Here is the conversation that occurred (if you can't read the image, click it to make it larger):

I should preface the rest of this post with a disclaimer about my love for Coca-Cola, specifically the classic version of Coke. Basically, it's my absolute most favorite soft drink in the entire world. And it always has been; all the others, especially Pepsi, just don't compare to the sweet, refreshing, satisfying, nostalgia-inducing, thirst-quenching bubbliness that is Coca-Cola. Like Sam-I-Am in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (after he changes his mind about the aforementioned cuisine), I love Coke in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, here and there, and really just about anywhere. Of course, I'm not the only one who feels this way about the iconic brand and its globally famous beverages. By the way, Coke is also hands down the best beverage for burping contests.

My friends can attest to my fondness for not only the classic soft drink but of the brand itself, hence the vintage-inspired Coke signage hanging in my kitchen and my small collection of glass Coke bottles. I also make it a point to visit The World of Coca-Cola whenever I'm in Atlanta. My friends also make fun of me for this, but it is probably no coincidence that when I'm drinking any tasty beverage, I will often exclaim that "it's very refreshing!" (the word "refreshing" was used in Coke's earliest advertising slogans). I've even turned a number of people onto the amazingness that is Mexican Coke, with its sleek glass bottle and lack of high-fructose corn syrup (it's sweetened instead with sugar... check out this NYT article by Rob Walker on the Cult of Mexican Coke.) (For the folks in Memphis, Mexican Coke can be found at most any Hispanic market as well as Cafe Eclectic and the Asian-Hispanic market on Cleveland.)

That's me at The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia (2010)

But back to my conversation with Coke. When I first received a notification that they had replied to my tweet, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like when I drink a Coke (as I referred to in my subsequent response). I messaged my friend Drew, who I thought would get a kick out of the tweet as well. I was right - he was quite impressed with what he described as Coke's "really f**cking good publicity."

At the time of this exchange, Coca-Cola had approximately 344,500 followers on Twitter. But this simple acknowledgment of my existence as a consumer-follower, my participation in this brand, and of course, my loyalty to Coke, made me feel all the more special, and succeeded in what I think is the point of such PR efforts, which is to create or build on brand loyalty. The two seconds it took their social media specialist to respond to my messages solidified my loyalty to the company and instilled in me an enthusiasm to spread the word about my experience to my friends, family members, and the readers of this blog. It was in this moment that I acted as a brand ambassador.

Coca-Cola essentially created a personalized experience by engaging me as a consumer, listening to my replies with sincerity (and what I perceived as genuine interest), building a relationship by replying to me directly (not just once, but twice), and making me feel as though my loyalty to Coke is truly appreciated (which I know it is, because they thanked me for it!) It's also a nice feeling because brands and corporations often seem like unreachable, unknowable entities to the everyday person. Many brands have realized that they can no longer stay walled up in their corporate towers and ignore consumer needs and desire. These same consumers are increasingly interested in learning about and interacting with brands, not to mention holding them accountable for their environmental and social impacts.

Such an experience can mean a lot to someone who isn't such a loyalist, but for someone who is already devoted to a brand or product, it can mean a whole lot more, because it reinforces what the consumer has always believed to be true about that brand or product. For example, I was recently on the job market as a new graduate, looking for consumer research positions at companies around the country. During one phone interview with a brand consulting firm, the interviewer asked me to talk about one of my favorite brands and to discuss how it has achieved success in some way. Coca-Cola immediately came to mind. I talked about how it earned its iconic brand status through smart marketing and maintained this status by continuously catering to changing consumer needs. They did this for the most part without alienating loyalists or drastically changing their image (ok, there was the 1985 New Coke blunder), and by adding to their classic product line through innovation and acquisition. Finally, Coca-Cola has a fascinating history and one that it is clearly proud of. Needless to say, I feel like I answered her question pretty well.

As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by why people do, say, think, and buy what they do, and how their desires and needs relate to the cultural, social, political and economic contexts in which they live. I am extremely excited to begin my new position as a consumer research analyst at a major U.S. company later this month, where I know I will be truly able to be passionate about my work. I am going into this field not only out of personal and professional interest, but because I want to be a part of a forward-thinking company that prioritizes innovative approaches to research (mixed-methods, online research, ethnographic research, etc.) and emphasizes the importance of building genuine, lasting relationships with consumers.

Coca-Cola truly deserves its status as an iconic brand. In fact, it is THE most recognized brand across the globe (according to BusinessWeek and others). They continue to set an example for brands that strive to gain such a status, and their success has provided a treasure trove of examples of what to do and what not to do to maintain and gain customers and grow loyalty. My experience yesterday is just one shining example. As for a return on Coke's investment in social media and consumer engagement, it was obviously worth the effort. After all, I just spent two hours writing this blog post, which will be shared via my networks on Twitter and LinkedIn, and possibly by others across the internet. Because of two simple tweets, Coca-Cola has reaffirmed my trust in, loyalty to, and love for their products and their brand. Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tips for starting a new job: Play the role of anthropologist

Image courtesy Understanding Science

In my search for advice on starting a new job, I encountered this 2006 article on Yahoo! Personal Finance by Jim Citrin, which suggests that the new employee "play the role of anthropologist" to get a good assessment of the company's organizational culture (and ideas for how to change it if in a managerial position). He writes:
As most people know, organizational culture is one of the most intransigent things to change. So don't try to transform it in the first 100 days. Assess the culture, and begin the change process slowly.

The way to start assessing a culture is to listen to how people really describe the organization, bearing in mind that within most generalizations lie an inner core of truth. Ask probing questions relentlessly, not only among the most senior people, but to those who others cite as thought leaders. Visit not only your largest customers, but also the smartest ones as well. You can be sure that they will give you feedback.

Play the role of anthropologist, searching for clues among the language people use and through physical evidence such as office layout, dress code, and the cafeteria. Once you finish your assessment, start experimenting with measures of success, incentive systems, and operating structures to find productive ways to get traction on the desired behaviors.
I think this is both a correct understanding of what an anthropologist does (or can do) and a nice way of incorporating the metaphor into an applied business setting. Here, the new-employee-as-anthropologist attempts to assess and understand the culture in which he or she is immersed by asking deep, thoughtful questions and talking with a wide variety of "informants" (to use the old-school term). The new employee also takes care to pay attention to every detail of the cultural context, from space/place and discourse to traditions of dress and social interaction. Finally, in an applied manner, he or she takes this information and processes it, and turns it into actionable insights in order to make changes within the workplace without disrupting the people and relationships that exist there.

Moving away from his direct use of the anthropologist metaphor, a lot of the other points he makes in his article resonate with the anthropological approach, including:
  • Do your homework/research about the company
  • Immersion (not total immersion in the sense of Malinowski, since you'll hopefully have a home to go to at night)
  • "...recognize that most will be listening through the lens of their own self-interest" (i.e. pay attention to positionality, hidden or overt agendas, etc.)
  • Don't make assumptions about the talent around you (in fact, don't make assumptions about anything, ever!)
  • You will need the buy-in of all stakeholders to move a proposal or plan forward
  • Establish relationships by understanding people's motivations, whether unstated or obvious
  • Communicate effectively
  • Understand how your decisions as a leader or employee will affect those around you

Nice job, Mr. Citrin!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Entrepreneurship and informal economies

Sighted in an East Memphis neighborhood. 

I'm very fascinated by the ways in which people supplement or create incomes through informal and underground economies. These are strategic methods used to create household or individual income and are untaxed and sometimes illegal. My curiosity centers around the questions of what causes people to go into these forms of business and how they decide what to sell (presumably this has to do with supply and demand economics). What needs, desires and structural forces are behind this crafty entrepreneurship? Are the profit margins worth the effort, and how are prices determined? How much is made on average, and what is done with the income? Are there neighborhood territories marked by vendors, goods hawkers or service-providers, as there are with some illegal drugs and services? 

I think my curiosity stems in part from my own lifetime of entrepreneurship, which started as early as the rite of passage undertaken by many American children - the corner lemonade stand, complete with cardboard box storefront and funded by investors who were willing to take a financial risk (a.k.a. your parents). Then there was middle school, when I sold candy on the school bus in the mornings. In high school, I also sold candy, but - get this - I did it in my 9th grade math class (my teacher allowed me to do this during the first five minutes, perhaps because he was impressed with my interest in business, but more likely because he was a lazy teacher who didn't really give a damn). From high school and on, there was never a moment in which I wasn't involved in some method of making money for myself, probably because it was a way for me to feel like I had power as a minor, and because I wanted things for myself. And this was aside from the "regular" jobs I had in retail. When I was in college, I worked at the library, for the student paper, as a writing tutor, and as an assistant in the anthro department. As for my informal income, I ran an Etsy shop, babysat, pet sat, house sat, tutored, cleaned offices, catered and served at private parties, did the books at a local mechanic shop, and the list goes on. 

Moving onto fieldwork, some examples I've encountered include a woman who was the "candy lady" on her street - she sold candy and snacks out of her front door to add to the income generated from her husband's wages as well as government assistance. In 2009, I tutored two twin brothers whose mom sold homemade freeze-pops made from Kool-Aid or fruit juices as well as candy, chips and snacks. The goods that were for sale were stored in a separate pantry and cooler, in a side room away from the kitchen. 

Another woman I met during a grad school project had what was comparable to a miniature drug store on a bookshelf, which was strategically placed by a side door where neighborhood customers presumably came to purchase goods such as nail polish, ibuprofen, and other cosmetics and medicine. 

One last woman, who was the mother of a young girl I knew personally, hosted pool parties/cookouts during the summer (and for back-to-school) at her home for the neighborhood children. She charged $2 per person to get in the door. The young girl I was acquainted with mentioned that another lady down the street sold snacks and cigarettes. 
These last examples have much in common - the entrepreneurs were African American women with household incomes on the lower end of the scale, and who lived in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What makes a good ethnographer?

What makes a good ethnographer? Members of the Ethnography Forum group at LinkedIn have been holding an ongoing discussion regarding this important question, and I found their responses to be insightful, useful and so spot on that I wanted to reproduce a summarized version, in list form, of their replies, with a couple additions of my own. I think these traits are applicable to ethnographers in both consumer/marketing contexts as well as more traditional contexts (academic, international, community-based, etc.)

A Good Ethnographer...

Is curious
Is open-minded
Has a sociable personality
Is flexible and can adapt to changing situations
Is good at delving deeper into cultural phenomena
Knows how to translate insights into action
Appropriately probes for deeper meaning
Does not rigidly stick to discussion/observation guides but uses them as just that: guides
Has empathy
Is adventurous and is not afraid to take risks
Is able to establish rapport and relationships
Asks good questions
Is a good listener and observer
Is self-reflexive
Has excellent data collection and analysis skills
Can sit back and let others talk or ask questions and solicit information when necessary/timely
Is a good story-teller
Understands the implications of findings within organizational or other contexts
Can explain their methods to others (especially clients)
Can pull the meaning out of the mundane

Here are a few I would add:

Is well-prepared before fieldwork, having done the necessary research, but does not let this preparation cloud the research or any opportunities for discovery
Enters situations well aware of positionality, biases and assumptions
Considers both emic and etic perspectives
Iteratively analyzes data and reflects on process
Is respectful of and grateful to those who are sharing their time, knowledge and other human resources
Goes into situations as an observer with minimal influence on participants
Incorporates both theory and application
Is good at describing not only the who, what, where, when and how, but also the WHY

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lessons learned: the challenges of moderating non-English-speaking focus groups

image by eyewrisz

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to moderate my first ever Spanish-language focus group as part of a current project on community revitalization in three Memphis neighborhoods. For this project, my partner and I are conducting two to three informal focus groups (we are calling them "discussion circles" so as to make them less threatening when working with marginalized communities/populations) as well as individual interviews in each of three target areas that are considered to be economically disadvantaged or poor. We are basically collecting information, including people's perspectives and perceptions of their neighborhoods and where they feel resources should be directed to, to supplement a new mayoral anti-poverty initiative as well as the efforts a grassroots program called Community LIFT. It has been our goal since the outset to make this a more participatory project in that the neighborhood-based groups will eventually become connected to Community LIFT, which will focus on leveraging resources within those communities, as well as on the issues identified by residents and on bridging neighborhood networks of active, action-oriented stakeholders to build neighborhood capacity.

This particular focus group consisted of 13 participants (and their children) who are originally from Mexico and who all live in the area. It was convened at a popular grassroots community center, which many view as the center of this culturally diverse neighborhood. Participants were each paid $20 in cash for their participation. (We have realized that people are much happier when you can pay them for their time right away, rather than making them wait a week or two for a check from the University).

Moderating the discussion was an intense and difficult yet useful experience in many ways. First let me say that my many years of studying Spanish (from 6th grade through my third year of undergrad, including study/travel abroad, for a total of 10 years) really came in handy. I consider my speaking and comprehension skills to be at a proficient enough level for normal conversations, presentations, and speaking with individuals and groups, but I am definitely not completely fluent, or as I told the participants, "no soy completamente fluida". Hence, the challenges of this language barrier would make themselves apparent throughout our discussion.

Even though we did get some good input from participants on their concerns as well as improvements they would like to see in the area, and even though it wasn't a total flop, I don't feel it turned out as well as it could have. This is because I really couldn't get as in-depth as I wanted to with most of the topics. Language was really the crux of why the focus group was only moderately successful (perhaps a 6 out of 10, if I were to rate it on a scale). The quality and quantity of the information collected was greatly affected by the language barrier, which sometimes made it difficult for me to keep the discussion going smoothly, probe for details/solicit further responses, and to completely understand people who spoke rapidly or quietly, or who used slang. I translated the questions into Spanish ahead of time (this really saved me, and made it so that the translator didn't have to moderate the entire thing), but the difficulties I encountered were mostly with follow-up questions and probes as well as establishing a true connection to the participants. I was able to get people to speak who weren't actively participating, and was able to probe for more information using words like "why?," "how many?," "when?," and other phrases, as in a normal conversation, but it didn't work out so well when I did not completely understand what was being said or when multiple people were talking at once. There were a couple moments at which I had very to little sense of what was being said, but for the most part I kept up with the discussion and could ask appropriate follow-ups. Again, the translator came in handy for clarifying both my questions and participants' responses.

Another thing about barriers. I am about 98% sure that the participants were all undocumented immigrants, which also presented a few obstacles in terms of establishing the rapport that is so crucial when speaking with people who don't know you, let alone people who speak another language. When we began, most of the participants were hesitant about signing the consent form, especially because it was not in Spanish (this was a big mistake on our part and something I felt extremely embarrassed about not having planned for ahead of time). Even though our assistant was able to verbally translate the consent form, and although I explained the project thoroughly before we began (I also prepared a Spanish version of this to read to them), I firmly believe that it's just wrong to ask people to sign something that they cannot actually read. Period. One woman really illustrated the issue at hand when she half-jokingly asked if signing this would make her go back to Mexico. Others shared her sentiment. On a related note, those who are undocumented may also not want to sign their full name, put down their (non-existent) Social Security numbers (this was required for the University's files but there was obviously no way we could collect this information), or their addresses. These are important factors that moderators should expect with this type of group.

The very understandable lack of trust also reared itself in other forms. For instance, here I am, a middle-class, white, American, college-educated woman who works for the University and who doesn't fluently speak the language. Yes, I explained the project, who I am, who my partner is, what we are hoping to do with the information, that names and information are confidential, etc., etc., but this didn't matter. They had never seen me before, so I was asking a lot. I could still sense a level of mistrust and misunderstanding about what we were up to; my positionality as researcher and the positionalities of the participants in terms of the obvious power dynamic played a big role in this. Toward the end of the discussion, the same woman who made the comment about the consent form also remarked that she was basically tired of people (outsiders, researchers, government officials) coming into the community and asking people for their opinions but not actually doing anything with the information they collect (or worse, making and breaking promises). This too was not surprising, and I have come to expect comments like these from groups who have been misused and abused by researchers in the past. In turn, I told her we respect and agree with her opinion and can understand her frustration. I also tried to reassure her that we were here to try and help but that the ultimate use of the information would be out of our control and up to the City and Community LIFT. By this time I was so overwhelmed with the challenges of moderating this group that I probably didn't do such a good job explaining these details.

This experience has further solidified my opinion that non-English-language focus groups really necessitate having a fluent (preferably native) speaker as moderator so the linguistic connection is not an issue. This is crucial if you want to work with marginalized or vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants, who live in constant fear of deportation and who rightfully mistrust those in power. If you don't have someone on staff who speaks Spanish (or whatever language is needed), then you need to hire one as a consultant, because it is absolutely essential if you want a successful session. It is even better if the moderator is familiar to the community or to the specific group of participants, or has some sort of cultural connection (such as being from the same country or region of a country). This way, you can ensure even stronger rapport between moderator and participants, and therefore a higher quality and quantity of information shared. Second, it is extremely important that every aspect of the research project is explained to the participants so they are fully aware of what they are participating in, if there are any risks involved, if their names and information will remain confidential or anonymous, etc. (this last point is especially important for undocumented populations). On this note, if you are going to ask people to sign a consent form or any other sort of paperwork, it must be translated into their native language (not to mention read/explained to individuals who may be illiterate).

It was my fear initially that having the translator moderate the focus group would be a bad idea because she had no training or experience in this area. Now I realize that meeting up for a couple hours beforehand to discuss how to moderate groups with her would have been a great way to avoid most of the problems I encountered. That way, I would still have been able to ask follow-up questions and be a part of the conversation, but as a secondary participant. Perhaps the participants would have opened up more to her because she spoke their language and was familiar to the community. It would also have been a chance for her (a senior undergrad in criminal justice) to gain experience in focus group moderation, and for me to aid in the democratization of research by sharing/relinquishing the power inherent in such a role.

One last thing. I mentioned above that many of the participants' children were around while we conducted the discussion. My suggestion is to be flexible and tolerant of noise, talking, playing, etc. that can be loud enough to be disruptive and distracting. It's just one of those things you can't really avoid unless you have arranged for childcare in another area of the facility, and even then some parents may prefer to have their children nearby. Also be prepared for late-comers and people who might have to leave early. If you are providing cash incentives, make it clear at the beginning that the individual must stay for all or most of the discussion if they want to get paid. I cannot emphasize it enough: clarify, clarify, clarify!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Macy's Path to Peace Rwandan Baskets

Lots of companies have been jumping on the social/environmental cause bandwagon, offering variations of this marketplace-based charity model for selling everything from home decor and body products to shoes and sunglasses.

A recent email in my inbox from Macy's advertised their Path to Peace baskets, handwoven from natural plant sources by Rwandan women who use the funds to support themselves and their families and improve their lives while "enhancing" ours with their works. Macy's has been selling the baskets, which range in price from $46 to $60, since 2005.

According to Macy's the baskets symbolize the hope, progress and success of Rwanda, 17 years after the infamous genocide. Their site features a video of one of the basket weavers, who thanks the viewer for "changing our lives" through the purchase of a basket, which has allowed her to support her family of six, buy a cow and goat, and have enough clothes to wear a different outfit each day of the week. Another woman was able to procure a savings account; one was able to pay for school tuition and uniforms for her children; and another was able to buy her husband a bicycle so he can travel to collect the sweet grass used to make the baskets. This use of "producer" testimonials has become a very popular way of enhancing the consumer experience through establishing a connection between producer and consumer and making the consumer feel like they are really helping someone. Macy's notes that Path to Peace employs thousands of Hutu and Tutsi weavers to produce the well-received baskets, emphasizing the coming together of the two ethnic groups at the center of the 1994 Rwandan conflict.

It's a nice little effort by Macy's, but I have to ask, what percent of the profits are going directly to the women, and how much is Macy's raking in? I doubt we'll ever know. Macy's is getting a cut because they are bringing the baskets to the global marketplace as the middleman, providing an outlet for sales that the "rural" women would never be able to reach. At the same time, it bugs me a little that such a corporation is profiting off women whose misfortunes were likely caused by a combination of larger, historic forces, including colonization, imperialism, war, and various other forms of exploitation that all lead back to the global capitalist system. Of course, we can go ahead and criticize the system and its limitations, and the role of these women as producers who must weave baskets to feed themselves. Or we can view the women as actors with personal and communal agency within this system, women who are making choices and making do, rather than as passive victims of progress who have no say in their futures.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Job interviews: don't forget, you're interviewing them, too!

In a previous post on job interview questions for people with social science backgrounds, I discussed a series of questions I recalled from my various interviews and the direction I went in with each of them. This time, I'd like to share the list of questions I referenced during the same interviews. These are the questions I asked in order to get a better sense of each company/organization and to gauge its respective work culture, to understand the position and what it would entail, and also to show my interest in the position and my ability to come up with good questions for my interviewers (asking good questions does impress people).

Again, I used this list as a reference, which means I didn't ask all of these questions at each interview, but picked and chose depending on the position, what had already been discussed, etc. As expected, some of the questions would be answered without me having to ask them, and it was also often the case that new questions popped up throughout the course of the interview or conversation.
  1. Can you give me some specific examples of projects I will be assisting with?
  2. Who exactly will I be working with and what will my specific role(s) be?
  3. What is __________'s process for research proposals and design?
  4. Since my strengths are primarily in qualitative research, and the position is for a qualitative researcher, will I have any opportunities to be involved in quantitative research and expand my skills in this area?
  5. How would a person in this position be evaluated? What would be your expectations of me in the first six months?
  6. What are the biggest challenges for this position, especially for a new graduate who is coming from an academic environment?
  7. Will there be any travel involved? If so, how much?
  8. What percent of my position would be independent work versus team work and other duties (such as attending meetings, etc.)?
  9. Will there be any opportunities to be involved in grant/proposal writing or project management?
  10. How would you describe _________'s management style and work culture?
  11. Can you tell me more about opportunities for professional development?
  12. It is important to me that I am able to maintain ties with my discipline and can keep up to date on relevant research. Will I have the opportunity to attend relevant conferences and what is the availability of funding?
  13. When do you expect to be making decisions about the position
One piece of advice that I believe is common sense but that some people might forget: Don't ask questions for which the answers can be found on the company's/organization's website or other public materials. If you do your homework, you will know lots going into the interview, which will reflect nicely on you as a candidate, but will also help you to come up with well-informed questions for the interview.

As an aside, I am happy to announce that I have accepted a consumer research analyst position at a large company in the mid-west, contingent upon background check, etc. More details to come once the position is finalized, but it is such a nice feeling to be past the work I put into getting to this point.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More like "Georgetown Suites Thanks You"...

This is a photo of a sign in a hotel bathroom at the Georgetown Suites in Washington, D.C., I took while I was in town for a job interview. The label reminded me of an article or blog post I read some time ago (sorry, but I can't remember where) about how hotels are appropriating green movement rhetoric in order to cut their own costs for water, power and other materials. Not only that, but labor costs (and the need for more laborers in general) go down when fewer hotel maids are needed to change out towels and sheets if the guests of the hotel don't need or want them to.

Basically, hotels convince guests that they are doing "Mother Nature" (their appropriation of this term is just disgusting) a favor by re-using towels and linens. Yes, we all know that re-using and recycling is good, but the impact of individual acts (via the individualization of responsibility) has a very limited impact compared to the potential of more large-scale changes. Really it comes down to cost-savings for the hotel in both materials and labor. So next time you want to re-use towels, go ahead, but keep in mind who is really benefiting in the long run.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Interview questions for people with [applied] anthropology backgrounds

Now that there's a big, bright light (or two) at the end of the job search tunnel, I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the interview questions I encountered along the way. The positions I interviewed for fall into the areas of entry-level research associate and analyst positions in consumer research/marketing/branding (for small and large firms as well as corporations) and research associate positions with non-profit consultancies in social policy/health, all with a primary focus on qualitative research

I have tried my best to recall the most challenging and interesting questions (in as close to the original wording as possible) and, for each, have noted my response or the direction I went in with my answer, or any other advice that I think might be useful to those looking for similar positions. I would like to remind readers that I applied for these positions as a newly-minted (I graduated a little over two months ago) practicing anthropologist with an applied anthropology/social sciences background. All of the interviews except one were telephone based since I applied primarily for jobs outside my current location.

Tell me about yourself.

Of course I'm going to begin with this one, not because it's anything new or out of the ordinary, but because there is something about this question that I want to point out to people, which is that it's not a question about your personal life or interests, but a question asking for you to summarize what's on your resume. You will more than likely always get asked this question at the start of each interview. The way I approached it was by beginning with my educational background (dates of degrees, universities attended, and specific training that is relevant to the position, examples of research projects without going into too much detail), moving to my current situation (e.g. I'm a recent graduate, I'm looking for x type of position because of x, y and z; current employment status/position), and finishing with why I would like this position and why I think I'm a good fit. I really see this as the interviewee's chance to sell herself, her skills, her personality, etc. It's like your 2-minute elevator speech, so be prepared with what you want to say and make sure you say it well.

Tell us about some of your past research experiences.

What they are looking for here is for you to talk about two or three projects that are relevant to the job in question. Ideally you will provide a general summary of each project, the research design, the methods used for data collection and analysis (especially innovative methods), how you did your sample (convenience, snowball, probability, etc.), any key findings (not exactly necessary but good to talk about if they're interesting), what specific roles you played (was this an independent project or a group project?), and any other information that lets them know how you handled the logistics and about any products/deliverables that came out of it. I suggest also using at least one example of an independent project and a group project to show you have experience with both. For those who attended applied anthropology grad programs, focus on your practicum experiences and the emphasis of real-world/hands-on experiences in your departments (at least that's how it was at mine).

Why research?

The answer for this, like most other questions, is going to be based on the individual. I gave what I think is a bit of a canned response and talked about how I've always been curious about why people do what they do, how I enjoy the challenges of research and answering interesting questions, and that research is what I am good at and enjoy. I say it sounds a little canned but that doesn't mean it's not true!

Why anthropology?

This is kind of like the "why research?" question above, and the answer can sound canned, but the good thing is that you can put a personal spin on it. I did so by starting off with how I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist since I was 14. I learned about anthropology from a video game called Amazon Trail in which you meet an ethnobotanist-anthropologist. I was immediately hooked, but at that time had a very simple understanding of what anthropology is and can do (it didn't go far beyond the exoticism of cultures, foreign travel and cross-cultural comparisons, etc.) Throughout the years, my understanding grew, especially during undergrad and grad school, and I became more aware of what all I could do with training in this discipline. Thus, its adaptability and flexibility and applicability to nearly everything made it even more appealing. Then I talked more about anthropology's approach to answering questions: it's holistic, cross-cultural, contextual, it looks at the details and the larger picture/systems, it uses both the emic and etic perspective on any given phenomena to better understand it, there's a focus on process, and it's informed by both practice and theory. [My advice here: memorize this list, memorize these buzzwords, because they will come in handy when someone asks you what's so great or different about anthropology, and you will be able to impress them with such a response.]

Why did you decide to attend a liberal arts institution as an undergrad?

I didn't expect a question like this but was prepared with an answer because it's something I've put a lot of thought into in general (I mostly focused on the breadth of a liberal arts education, how the skills I learned prepared me well for grad school, the emphasis on real-world experiences/experiential learning, study abroad, writing, being well-versed in a lot of subject areas, etc.)

What was your favorite class in grad school? What was your least favorite?

This was a fun question that was asked during an HR phone screen. I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to talk more about a class I loved (Culture and Consumerism) and why, and relate it back to the position I was applying for. It also gave me a chance to talk about a class I wasn't a big fan of (Statistics) and why, but I made sure to give good reasons. The important thing with this one is that you don't want to talk negatively per se, about the class you didn't like, but give constructive criticism of the class and plausible reasons for why it wasn't a good one. A good answer will consist of well-informed, well-constructed opinions.

How would you rate your writing skills on a scale of 1 to 10?

This was a chance for me to shine, particularly because I am good at writing and have experience as a college-level writing tutor. I said a 9/10, but prefaced this bold statement by remarking on how I don't think there are any perfect writers and that I am continuously trying to improve myself as a writer. yes, I could have said 8 or 7, but this is about being honest while not over-stating your skills but also not under-stating them either. Really it's a very subjective question. It also allowed me to talk about my experiences with writing as an undergrad (most of my courses involved a lot of writing and lots of different types of writing exercises) and graduate student (here I could focus on agency reports and class research projects).

Tell me about a brand that really stands out to you as a successful brand and why.

I should have expected a question like this coming from a branding/marketing consultancy, but it caught me off guard, so I had to come up with an answer off the top of my head (I actually like answering questions I don't expect). I used Coca Cola as an example and discussed how it has maintained its image as a classic American beverage throughout the decades while reinventing itself when necessary, but without losing its original brand identity and keeping/growing its fan base. I threw in my trips to the Coca Cola museum and how I was continuously impressed with the brand's global reach. [The interviewer followed this question by asking me to talk about a brand that has had to expand its product range to meet changing consumer needs and lifestyles. I talked again about Coca Cola and how it has expanded its line of beverages and other products, including through the purchase of other beverage companies, to meet changing consumer lifestyles and desires, especially with growing health concerns.]

What challenges do you see with transitioning from an academic environment to a corporate research environment?

I talked about how they are both similar in terms of the tools and methods that might be used for research and about the importance of being skilled at talking about research with/to a greater diversity of audiences, like corporate executives or those who are not as familiar with social science research/anthropology.

How would you go about building relationships with people across the company?

I don't recall my exact response, but I focused on the importance of building good, working relationships and understanding the needs of clients/in-house departments who may need assistance with a research problem.

Have you ever had a time where you were working on a team project and were having difficulties with another member of the group?
I laughed in my head when I heard this one because I had the perfect example from a project I was part of in one of my first grad school courses ever. Without going into too much detail, I talked about how out of seven group members there were only two people with anthropology backgrounds, including myself. This made for a difficult semester because we all had our own ideas for how to design and execute the project, what the research questions should be, what types of methods to use, even down to the final report. Of course, the two people with anthropology backgrounds thought we would try and explain how anthropology projects are usually done without coming off as mean, sounding inflexible or acting like we didn't care about the others' opinions. Our intentions were not well-received/were misunderstood and this created a lot of unnecessary drama. Needless to say, we finished the project, but not without a lot of obstacles along the way. I commented on how I learned about how to work with others, especially those from other disciplines, about humility and about how to negotiate group roles and be respectful of others' opinions. I concluded by saying that I would likely encounter this situation again in the working world and would be prepared to handle it in an appropriate manner.
Most of your experience is with research projects centering around social issues like poverty and health. How do you feel about transitioning from this sort of research to consumer research in a corporate setting?

I responded by going back to my training and background in research methods in applied anthropology, emphasizing the applicability of my training to any area of research, whether it's health or consumer insights or marketing. [Here's a good time to bring up some specific examples of projects or skills you have and how they can be used in the specific area you're applying for. Also, if they're asking for more of a personal perspective in terms of transitioning from a focus on social issues to the corporate, capitalist environment, you have the choice of being honest about how you feel or subtly avoiding the question. What I said is that those things are still important to me and that I can still be involved in social issues in my personal life through volunteering or pro bono assistance for community organizations while working at this particular company. Again, I think it's important to be honest.]

What sort of experience do you have with data analysis?Here you can talk about your experience with qual and quant, what types of analysis you have used in the past with data sets, how you have recruited participants for projects, and give one or two examples from past projects. Mention any software you've used or your training in data analysis for both qual and quant (statistical tests, use of statistical analysis software like SPSS, etc.) When I was asked this question or if I were talking about data analysis in general, I would mention that my strengths are in qual and ethnographic research/analysis, but that I am interested in expanding my basic training and experience in quant data collection/analysis.

You said you are primarily interested in research and can see yourself doing that for your career. Would you be interested in any sort of managerial responsibilities as well?

I wasn't sure about this question, so I reiterated my interest in research and asked if he meant "leadership" roles when he said "managerial responsibilities". He said yes and I responded with a positive "yes", especially if I could still be involved in research in some way.

What is a writing consultant? or Tell me about your work at the Eckerd College Writing Center.

This question won't apply to most, but it's an example of how interviewers will ask you about things that may not be directly related to the position you're applying for, including past jobs/work experience. I was actually asked about my work as a writing consultant (a fancy term for writing tutor) at least two or three times and was glad to talk about it. Even though it wasn't directly related, writing is obviously very important in the research world, so it gave me a chance to talk about tutoring students and growing as a writer, as well as Eckerd's emphasis on making quality writers of its students by incorporating a "writing across the curriculum" philosophy into its liberal arts education. [Ironically, I noticed a typo on my resume in the section where I mentioned this information, long after I submitted the resume and was asked this question by the interviewer. I guess it just goes to show that we're all human, because I was still offered the position. :) ]
What are your salary requirements?

This one's always a toughie, and my best advice is to do some research on the internet about the multitude of ways to answer this question and go from there based on what you feel most comfortable with. The standard answer I came to develop after trying different responses is to use a range of about $10,000 (e.g. $55,000 to $65,000), a range based on the cost of living in the city where the job is located as well as market-rate salary averages for that position or related positions and your experience. is useful for this kind of information as well as job/company/interview reviews. If you give a range, you can ask them on the spot if this is similar to the range they have in mind. In the beginning I resolved to not give an answer right off the bat based on the advice of job search "experts" on the web, but I soon realized that it's better to give them some sort of answer because it helps them to figure out if you're cheap enough (hey, that's the reality of the economy) or if you're going to be too expensive for their tastes. Once when I said I would prefer to discuss salary if we were to move forward with the position in question, the HR rep threw the ball back in my court and said it would be easier for them to determine whether or not to move on if they had this information. Again, this one is never easy.

* * *

So, those are the questions I was able to recall. Ideally, I would have written down each interview question I was asked so I could review them for subsequent interviews and prepare better responses as well as share them with folks who might be interested. Obviously this is nearly impossible to do, especially if you want to remain focused on your interview and do a good job without distracting yourself. I should have done what a good anthropologist would do and written down my "field notes" after each interview, because, as some wise anthropologists say, if you don't write it down, it never happened! I think my excuse, and it's not a good one, has more to do with the exhaustion of hour-long phone interviews and the relief of being done and wanting to do something completely unrelated to job hunting, like vegging out in front of the television.

I think my overall point is that the more you interview, the better you get at it, and I say that from my own experience. My first phone interview wasn't terrible, but it wasn't stellar like some of my later ones. I think this was partly due to the fact that I spent the day before the interview preparing but also fretting, over-thinking it, and being nervous. I realized quickly that this was not the best plan of attack. Preparing is definitely something I advise (researching the company/non-profit, coming up with some possible questions they might ask and what you would say in response, etc.) But don't over-prepare, don't over-think it, and just go for it. My best interview was actually one in which I walked in the door five minutes before they called me and winged it (I purposefully got myself out of the house to do something distracting - I think it was grocery shopping - so I wasn't just sitting around the house and making myself more anxious).

Here are some final, general pieces of advice for the amateur interviewee:
  • Do something that will relax and distract you from worrying too much before your interview, but make sure you are prepared!
  • Don't be afraid to say you are not sure how to answer a question if you don't feel like you have the right answer.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the interviewer to clarify their question if you are unsure about what they are asking.
  • Play up your strengths and be honest about any areas you want to improve.
  • No one is perfect! Almost anyone gets nervous when it comes to interviews, so relax and do your best. And don't walk away focusing on what you wish you would have said or things you forgot. Instead, focus on the positives and how good of a job you did. They don't expect people to be perfect but to be themselves.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask them. Do not ask them questions for which the answers can be found on their website.
  • Always offer to send a couple writing samples. They will appreciate the offer and it will show them what kind of work you can do. (sometimes they will ask you for this themselves, but it's nice if you can beat them to it.)
  • Remember, you are interviewing them as well! Not only are you vying for a job, but they are vying for good human talent! Contrary to what some may say, you do have power when it comes to applying for and negotiating jobs, so keep that in mind.