Thursday, April 18, 2013

Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Stacey Burgin, Research Associate in the School of Social Work at UNC Chapel Hill

As part of a new series at Anthropologizing, I'll be posting some interviews in the upcoming weeks with practicing anthropologists about their jobs, backgrounds, and how they've been able to apply their anthropology training in the workplace. I'm starting off with a friend from grad school, Stacey Burgin, who is now a Research Associate in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Tell me a little bit about the organization, company or institution you work for. How did you end up working there? 

I work for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC. Specifically, I work in the School of Social Work. I ended up here over a year ago somewhat randomly. I was basically applying to every job I thought was somewhat relevant to my skills in the NC Triangle area.

Talk about your role/title/job in more detail. Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

My job title is Research Associate.  I basically support a small feasibility study which is implementing an intervention in local mental health courts. My daily tasks include following up with study participants, entering data, organizing data, and enrolling people into the study. The position is part-time so I only work up to 20 hours a week, and I supplement my time with temporary positions.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, or experiences as an anthropology student? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

I first got my bachelor's degree in anthropology at the University of South Carolina. That program gives students a broad perspective of the four-fields of anthropology, with a limited ability to specialize on a particular subject. I focused on cultural anthropology and tried to take as many relevant medical anthropology classes as I was able. My master's degree was in applied medical anthropology at the University of Memphis. 

My favorite research project was a joint project with an Master's of Public Health student. We were looking at the existing healthcare systems at the local prison and jail. This project allowed me to really look at the way some of the most vulnerable people in our society access healthcare. The thing about anthropology which drew me to the field and kept me engrossed in it was the perspective - looking at a system in a holistic way. I love trying to understand how different people look at the same phenomena in different ways, which can be especially important in healthcare. Moreover, generally in anthropology we try to record and measure phenomena and perspectives in a systematic way to ensure what we are reporting is accurate.

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?

In my current position I use my anthropological skills particularly when I am collecting data. I often have to probe subjects to give clearer and more relevant answers to the questions I am asking. I also created a structured interview to follow-up with study staff as the qualitative portion of data collection. I also use skills I learned in graduate school to analyze descriptive statistics using SPSS.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? How do you define yourself (i.e., as an anthropologist or with another title?) Have you taught others about anthropology's application to your organization? If so, what has this process been like?

The research team on this project is very small, so I haven't encountered too many barriers identifying as an anthropologist.  Generally when people look at me with a confused look on their faces when I say I studied anthropology, I explain that it is very similar to public health, but with more of a focus on the way culture interacts with healthcare and with a stronger emphasis on qualitative data.  Sometimes this still loses people, so I just shrug and say, "it's hard to explain."

What advice would you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

I wish that I had started out looking at different ways anthropologists can fit into a variety of job positions, and understood what those positions look for when hiring. For example, I feel that many anthropologists could be excellent at working in human resources, particularly in multicultural organizations, but I do not know where to look for those types of positions.  Additionally, I do not know how to best market myself to that sort of position because I do not know the language or experience they generally look for when looking at applicants' resumes. I guess the best advice I can give to students is to know the field you're applying to and be very specific about past experiences - steer clear of assuming your potential employer understands what anthropology is.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I regularly go through mini existential crises wondering if this is really what I am supposed to be doing and if this is the track I want to be on in my life (career-wise), and inevitably it keeps coming back to this: I love anthropology and I love trying to make it relevant to the job that I'm doing. My dream job is out there and I think my anthropology degree has prepared me better than almost anything else (although I might want to take a few business classes)! 

Note: I am looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series, so if you are interested in participating in an interview, please get in touch!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Starting a job in Corporatelandia? Work it like the anthropologist you are

These days, lots of anthropologists (and recent anthropology grads) are finding work in the private sector, oftentimes as researchers, analysts, or strategists at big corporations. My first job out of grad school was at an insurance and financial services company where I worked as a consumer researcher, business consultant, and project manager.

Although I had held lots of "jobs" before this first professional gig, I had never before worked in a corporation or any place like it. Likewise, I never had the opportunity for a corporate internship, and had no knowledge of how a large business actually functioned. All I had were my preconceived notions about corporations based on hearsay, the media, film and television, and critical theory.

Making the transition from academia to the corporate world was challenging. Not only did I have to do my new job and get my work done, but I also had to adjust to this new, fast-paced, business-oriented environment, jumping head first into projects, meetings, and corporate culture all at once. From conference calls to expense reports, everything was a new experience for me as I learned about and navigated the processes, systems, tools, organizational principles, hierarchies, and power dynamics of my new workplace. It was not until after about six months that I felt adjusted to my role, but I continued to adapt and learn new things until my very last day on the job.

If you are in a similar situation, I suggest approaching it like an anthropologist might approach a new research site: with curiosity, purpose, open-mindedness, a balanced combination of observation and participation, a bit of reserve, and the practical application of anthropological training and knowledge. Although this list of 10 tips is geared toward those with anthropology backgrounds, it might also be useful to anyone that wants to employ an alternative perspective to understanding and navigating the social world of big business. It might even be applicable to other types of workplaces as well.

As always, if you have anything to add to the list, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom.
    1. Think of your new workplace as an exotic locale. Anthropologists are good at making sense of unfamiliar places by observing and understanding the behaviors, practices, languages, worldviews, values, beliefs and traditions (i.e., culture) of the people who inhabit them. As a newcomer, this is a great opportunity to use your participant observation, rapport-building, and analytical and communication skills as you attend meetings, work on teams, meet new people, and figure out how you fit in to the bigger picture. Use this firsthand knowledge based on what you see and what people tell you to come up with some theories of your workplace, and put them to practical use as an employee. Of course, don't just observe what's going, but participate in it!

    2. Pick up on the local language. Language is an important component of culture, and it's crucial to understand and use appropriately if you want to be effective and be taken seriously. It probably won't be completely foreign, but there will be noticeable differences, and you'll likely see and hear things that make no sense to you at first. You'll learn specialized terms for particular jobs, roles, departments, units, business processes, tools, and all kinds of other stuff. Some examples from my last job include terms like "high-level", "topline findings", "learnings" (ick), "actionable", "relationship manager" and "OOO" (out-of-office). Adopt the terms that are useful for communication, but be warned that even the corniest buzzwords will be regularly used and abused. Acronyms fall under this category as well. These corporate vocabulary flashcards might come in handy. Just relax, you'll be speaking like a pro in no time (and laughing at yourself about it, too)!

    3. Think holistically. A la Durkheim's theory of the organic solidarity society, organizations are like a big organism with interdependent parts working toward a common goal (at least that's the idea). You'll be working in a specific group or department that exists within a larger system (often hierarchical) with all kinds of workers, managers, leaders, teams, units, departments, etc. Each group is defined by its relationships with the others, and everything that happens will have some kind of impact on everything else.

    4. Ask lots of questions. Use context clues to come up with thoughtful questions about what's going on. Don't be afraid to ask what might be a "dumb" question, because people know you're new. You'll have a lot to figure out about even the most mundane occurrences. 

    5. Understand roles, identities and relationships. The corporate world is a social world. Everyone has ascribed and prescribed identities. People shape their roles and their roles shape them. They have agency, but they are also influenced by social structures and the expectations of peers. An internal org chart helps with explicit relationships (usually based on a hierarchical power structure), and you can make your own notations to it based on observations that describe the implicit, underlying social connections. These often coincide with the org chart, but not always. Each role or association implies a specific amount of clout. Over time, your observations will reveal who really holds the power to influence decisions, not just who reports to whom.  

    6. Build relationships and alliances. Organizations are built by people, and people are very political creatures. Take your knowledge of who holds the power and get on their good side, but don't isolate the others. Establish rapport and gain trust, and use your connections to your advantage, just not maliciously. Take a neutral stance whenever possible, and avoid gossip and cliques. If you feel strongly about something and want people to know about it, do it in the most diplomatic way possible, and be aware of the risks involved. Try not to make enemies no matter how annoying someone is, because you might need something from that person or have to work with them on a project, or they might be next in line for a managerial position - sometimes you will be surprised.

    7. Take field notes! It's one of the best tools in our toolkit for collecting data. And don't worry about what everyone else thinks - lots of people have caught onto the trend of carrying notebooks around in addition to laptops. Field notes can include contextual descriptions, maps, personal thoughts and reflections, you name it.

    8. Be prepared to tell people who you are and what you do. Have a few different answers to the question "What is anthropology and what can it do for our organization?" depending on who you're talking to and how much time you have.

    9. Be adaptable and flexible. Corporations are constantly in flux; sometimes the process of change is smooth, while other times it can be quite rocky due to poor planning. People change jobs, move up, move out, and get laid off. Consultants are hired. Job descriptions change without much notice. Entire departments get absorbed by others, and the transition can be messy. After all, the only thing that's certain is that things will change. This makes a great personal and professional mantra.

    10. Make a decision about "going native" and stick with it. Do you want to become personally vested in the mission of the company, or simply get some work experience and move on in a couple years? Will you drink from the ever-flowing fountain of proverbial kool-aid or politely pass on it? How important are your personal values, and how do they mesh (or not) with your workplace? This decision may relate whether or not you want to stay with this company for the duration of your career (not a likely scenario these days) or get some good experience and eventually move on. Some companies, like the one I worked at, prefer their employees to acculturate themselves fully into the company culture, mission and philosophy, but this may not jive well with people who have especially independent personalities or personal philosophies

    Update 4/17/13 7:08 pm: A while after posting this article, I recalled a post from August, 2011 that I did on this very same topic (right after I started the job I mention here). It's not as in depth or at all based on my experiences, but summarizes an article written by someone at Yahoo! Finance on how to play the role of anthropologist in a new job/when assessing organizational culture. 

    Friday, April 12, 2013

    First name: "Research Consultant" Last name: "Anthropologist"

    This automatic CV/resume reader is clearly really effective. Actually, I've seen this a few times when applying to companies that use such software. It's supposed to scan applicants' materials and, in theory, automatically fill out the application for them. But every time I've used one, it rarely gets it right, and I end up having to fill out the application myself anyway. So much for technology!

    Sunday, April 7, 2013

    Research design: online chats vs. face-to-face group discussions

    There is a lot of talk these days about online qualitative research. I recall a meeting from late last year during which some coworkers discussed the possible advantages of online research over traditional methods like group discussions (aka focus groups) and in-depth interviews. They were particularly interested in the potential to save time and money on things like participant incentives, researcher travel, and facility/moderator costs.

    Personally, I think that there's a time and place for online research, and I don't think it can or should always be used as a substitute for in-person research, which is just better in so many ways. Resource and time permitting, face-to-face groups (and better yet, ethnographic or observational research if appropriate) seem to be better options because of their potential to yield deeper insights from consumers by providing an unparalleled setting for group dynamics and social interaction. I do think that online research can make a good partner in a mixed-methods project, and can suffice if you're in a pinch or don't have a lot of money. Decisions about research design should be based on the question or problem at hand and the monetary and human resources that are available. 

    One example of an online research method that's growing in popularity is moderated chats. Much like face-to-face discussions, online chats involve recruiting a group of consumers, users or stakeholders that meet specific criteria (demographics, customer segments, etc.) to participate in a moderated, semi-structured chat around a particular topic. The goal, as with face-to-face groups, is to gain insights that are more in-depth than what can be gleaned from a survey (they can also be used to compliment or develop a survey), but in a shorter amount of time than would be needed to interview everyone individually. If possible, take the opportunity to learn more about incorporating online research into the context of your organization's research efforts to see if it makes sense, but be aware of the potential effects of cost-cutting on the quality of data.

    There are methodological, logistical and financial benefits and limitations to every research tool that exists, and it's important that we recognize them. I don't personally do much online research these days, but I thought it might be useful to put together a side-by-side comparison of both methods for those who are trying to decide which one to use. This is by no means an exclusive list, but this is what I could glean from a few sources I found online and in my bookshelves (listed below). Likewise, some of what is listed here may also pertain to a comparison of other, similar qualitative methods (like in-depth interviews versus Skype interviews, for example).

    Considerations for Online Chats vs. F2F Groups
    Online Chats
    F2F Groups
    BENEFITS: great for projects that need quick turnaround time (a week or so)
    LIMITATIONS: quick turnaround might not yield best data and limits depth of research
    BENEFITS: quicker than some other methods (e.g., in-depth interviews)
    LIMITATIONS: usually takes a day to do 2-3 groups in one city; travel to other cities to get geographic diversity  = a few weeks or more from start to finish
    BENEFITS: ability to screen participants for selection criteria; people can be anywhere at any time; may increase access to hard-to-reach populations (e.g., doctors, busy professionals) and special interest groups; potentially cheaper recruit costs; may use online gift cards (e.g., Amazon) for incentives instead of cash; also, some companies have private online communities with a reserve of people waiting to be contacted for this type of research
    LIMITATIONS: if you can’t see someone, you don’t know if they are who they say they are; possible selection bias (e.g., skewed toward the internet-savvy)
    BENEFITS: ability to screen participants for selection criteria
    LIMITATIONS: participants have to be in one location; might skew toward stay-at-home parents, retirees, unemployed, students unless selection quotas are used; potentially higher recruit costs, and most participants prefer cash-in-hand
    Participant dynamics
    BENEFITS: Dominant talkers, shy participants and ramblers less of an issue; anonymity lessens “social desirability” effect and might facilitate positive social interaction
    LIMITATIONS: Loss of face-to-face group dynamics and richness of social interaction leading to disconnected participants; anonymity might facilitate negative social interaction; potential for group think
    BENEFITS: Rich group dynamics, visual body language, face to face social interaction
    LIMITATIONS: Dominant talkers taking over, shy participants not participating, ramblers; participants might engage in “group think” and refrain from sharing true opinions because of how they may be perceived by others  
    Level of participation
    BENEFITS: participants can do it on their own time and from the comfort of their own home or office, or a coffee shop
    LIMITATIONS: multitasking might get in the way of full participation = half-hearted participation
    BENEFITS: participants possibly more compelled to participate since they’re there
    LIMITATIONS: participants get bored, their minds go elsewhere if it’s a boring topic, if they’re tired, if they have something on their minds, if the moderator isn’t effective
    Individual contributions/talk time
    BENEFITS: participants may contribute at any time without waiting for others to finish; no need to take turns or worry about long responses or rambling; potential for more equal distribution of participation
    LIMITATIONS: potentially slower interactions and pacing
    BENEFITS: richness of discussion facilitated by pro moderator
    LIMITATIONS: limited amount of time for everyone to share; moderator has to work to maintain pacing, control participants, incite participation  
    Number of participants
    BENEFITS: moderator can handle more participants without being overwhelmed; can follow-up with multiple people at once
    LIMITATIONS: barrage of responses might cause missed opportunity to ask follow-up questions, especially if there are too many participants
    BENEFITS: 6 or 7 people (max) per group allows for everyone to contribute at a deeper level; fewer people to keep track of/respond to
    LIMITATIONS: only one person at a time can talk
    Client viewers
    BENEFITS: a potentially unlimited number of clients can tune-in on the conversation and send questions to moderator via email, chat, conference call or in-person; transcripts available immediately; presence of viewers potentially more easily forgotten than in focus group
    LIMITATIONS: not as interesting as viewing a real group of people; clients may  be distracted by other work; flat text is not as interesting as live conversation
    BENEFITS: in traditional market research facilities, clients can view the research live from behind one-way mirror or in back of room
    LIMITATIONS: moderator must leave room to get client questions, or someone has to send in a note which interrupts discussion; participants may feel uncomfortable knowing they’re being watched and being reminded by one-way mirror
    BENEFITS: potentially easier to moderate because of limited dynamics; can have multiple moderators (e.g., one can lead while the others probe) to keep things moving
    LIMITATIONS: have to be able to keep up with text-based conversation; lack of body language disallows moderator from using body language to his/her advantage; the chat might turn out to be a serial interview rather than an actual discussion
    BENEFITS: skilled moderators can take on the dynamics, context and topic of any group and elicit insightful information; easier to facilitate a "discussion" rather than simply asking a battery of questions one-by-one
    LIMITATIONS: human dynamics always make things more complicated, so moderator has to be good at controlling them
    Follow-up questions/probing
    BENEFITS: can follow up with multiple people at once, individually or as a group
    LIMITATIONS: limited use of probing techniques (e.g., can’t use probes that involve silence, body language)
    BENEFITS: numerous techniques for probing involving language, body language, silence, etc.
    LIMITATIONS: following up with individuals may be easier because only one person can speak at a time
    BENEFITS: ability to show text, video, images without special equipment; people can react on their own
    LIMITATIONS: limited options (e.g., no physical prototypes or anything that can’t be digitized)
    BENEFITS: numerous opportunities to incorporate stimuli like text, video, images, prototypes, social interactions, etc.
    LIMITATIONS: might take more time to set up or need special equipment
    BENEFITS: convenient for participants, researchers/moderator, clients (everybody can stay where they are); no fees for facility rental or travel
    LIMITATIONS: everyone being in different places could potentially create some minor inconveniences
    BENEFITS: nice to have everyone in one place to facilitate discussions and benefit from face-to-face interaction
    LIMITATIONS: it costs money! (researcher/moderator travel, client travel, facility rental, and higher incentives for participants)
    BENEFITS: overall way cheaper; incentives for participants can be lower since they don’t have to show up in person and because chats are usually shorter in duration
    LIMITATIONS: you get what you pay for
    BENEFITS: you get what you pay for
    LIMITATIONS: overall way more expensive
    Output (transcripts, video/audio) and data analysis
    BENEFITS: quick data collection; immediate transcript from chat record; no need for transcribing; can start data analysis right away
    LIMITATIONS: discussion may be less interesting, interactive and in-depth because of lack of human dynamics; no video or audio recordings available, just flat text; data = less robust?
    BENEFITS: verbatim transcripts and video illustrate a real, face-to-face conversation; video/audio can be reviewed; data = more robust?
    LIMITATIONS: transcripts take longer because videos/audio must be transcribed by a person (which may take days/weeks)

    Research Methods in Anthropology by Russell Bernard, 5th ed. 
    Issues in Online Focus Groups: Lessons Learned from an Empirical Study of Peer-to-Peer Filesharing System Users, from the Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods 
    Online focus groups as a tool to collect data in hard-to-include populations: examples from pediatric oncology, from BMC Medical Research Methodology 
    Online focus groups versus telephone and face to face, by market researcher George Silverman 
    Online focus groups, by professor of marketing Dr. Ed Forrest