Meet the Crew: in conversation with Dawn Walter, social anthropologist


“When I talk about ‘culture’ to clients I explain that we have our own culture”

Our Crew is a diverse bunch of creative thinkers beyond what you’d expect from a standard agency set-up. They’re a big part of how Firehaus approaches challenges differently. In this month’s Meet the Crew, we chat to Dawn Walter, social anthropologist and founder of the Anthropology + Technology Conference 2019.

Beth Pope: Welcome to the Haus, Dawn!  You're a Social Anthropologist.  That sounds very exciting.  What does that entail?

Dawn Walter: Thanks Beth! I’m delighted to be part of your Crew. Social anthropology is the study of human groups from a social and cultural perspective. People think that anthropologists study remote tribes and that’s certainly where our discipline started – the desire to capture lifeways before they disappeared – but nowadays many anthropologists have turned their analytic gaze towards their own culture and society, and many of them, like me, work in business. 

BP: Culture is one of those words that can be pretty broad in meaning. How do you define it?

DW: When I talk about ‘culture’ to clients I explain that we have our own culture – in essence, shared meanings and learned behaviours. Culture is part of our everyday lives and because of this it’s largely invisible to us until we, for example, break a social rule, such as queue jumping (we English love to queue, don’t we!), or travel overseas and see for ourselves how other cultures ‘work’ in relation to our own. Anthropologists like me make the invisible visible and help clients understand how important the socio-cultural is – ignore it at your peril!

BP: How did you get into anthropology in the first place?

DW: I’d been working in tech – software development and electronics companies – for a some time (this is in New Zealand, where I lived for 20 years), and was being drawn towards UX (user experience). I was doing all the usual UX things – usability testing, interaction design, wireframes, paper prototypes, and so on. But I wanted a deeper understanding of people. I’ve always been interested in why people do what they do. Growing up I’d been exposed to very different cultures (my parents lived in East Africa for two years when I was a kid, we travelled a lot, and I spent a year in Fiji as a teenager). So I felt that going back to university to study social anthropology would help me make sense of the questions I had. I discovered I absolutely loved it – so many aha! moments, for a start. 

BP: And now you work as a business anthropologist.  Why is anthropology so useful to business, and brands in particular?

DW: Anthropology is incredibly useful to business – business and brands are selling to people, and people are at the heart of anthropology – we always start with people – who are they, what are they doing, why are they doing what they’re doing, what’s important to them, how do they see the world, and so on. 

BP: How does that take us beyond what we might think of as typical consumer insight?

DW: People can say one thing and do another – and understanding the why is what we do, from the invisible, taken-for-granted, often-overlooked social and cultural perspective. You can have the most amazing idea but if you don’t understand the people you’re designing for, it might be doomed to failure. And it’s very easy to think that oh, I’m like my target audience so I know what they want – you might well be right but it’s worth involving an anthropologist like me to verify those assumptions before you spend time and money on something that might fall flat.

BP: I can imagine that avoids a lot of wasted effort.

DW: I was having an email conversation with a technologist recently and he told me he’d spent five years doing a PhD on energy disaggregation, only to discover near the end of his PhD that people don't really change their behaviour if given itemised electricity bills. As he said, “the computer science works. But no one cares!”.

BP: Ouch! Can you give me a feel for the type of work you like to do?

DW: I’m drawn to interesting, meaningful projects – they are all really varied and cut across different sectors – tech, health, charities, education, food, and so on. At their heart they all involve understanding the people in our client’s world and how a deeper, more nuanced understanding of those people helps our clients design, develop, and brand products and services people actually want and need. 

BP: What are some of the client challenges you’ve helped address?

DW: We’ve helped – and can help – businesses and organisations understand their customers as well as reveal pain points and unmet needs, and innovation opportunities their competitors have overlooked. The health leaflet about breast cancer that only features white women – which effectively says to women of colour that they don’t get breast cancer so they don’t check themselves and eventually discover they have late-stage cancer. The campaign that wants to change people’s behaviours but doesn’t truly understand those behaviours so it falls on deaf ears and costs the business thousands. The product that isn’t taking off – no one gets their brilliant idea – because no real qualitative research has been done, it’s all based on assumptions and speculation. The branding that isn't really connecting with people, that doesn’t stand out in the crowded marketplace. 

BP: You're also the Founder of the Anthropology + Technology Conference 2019, which is in its first year.  What drove you to set that up?

DW: The impetus for me to create the conference was the pace of artificial intelligence (due to the development of deep learning over the past few years), the social impact of algorithmic decision-making, and the fact that the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” is largely being driven by technologists. We need a broader conversation.

BP: I couldn’t agree more. It’s not about stemming the tide or being afraid of technology. More about it as a positive force for humanity and the planet.

DW: So for me, it’s about bringing other fields, other disciplines, other ways of thinking into the conversation, in this case anthropology. Anthropologists can help technologists understand how technology can align and integrate with humans — what aspects can be automated and what needs to be done by humans. Because machines are fantastic at some things and humans excel at others. The questions we should be asking are not, “will a robot be taking my job?” but rather “how can emerging technologies be designed for human futures?” and “what should those human futures look like?”. For us anthropologists the wrong questions are being asked.

BP: What are some of the highlights you're looking forward to at this year's conference?

DW: I’m excited about the whole day to be honest! We’ve got a fantastic line-up of keynotes from technology, anthropology, and law, a great panel in the afternoon, amazing PechaKucha (lightning) talks in the morning, and then there are the keynote Q&A sessions – which are essentially conversations between our keynotes and our delegates, moderated by some amazing people (to be announced soon). 

BP: That combination is going to make for some interesting debates!

DW: It’s the cross-disciplinary conversations I’m really looking forward to – everyone who’s attending is really curious and excited to learn from each other – the anthropologists and sociologists want to learn from the technologists and the technologists want to learn from the anthropologists and sociologists. I find that really exciting. And everyone is welcome – you don’t have to be a social scientist or technologist to attend – come and watch some magic happen as these two worlds come together!

BP: Why should brands care about better collaboration between technology and social science? 

DW: Technology plays a huge part in all our lives and brands need to keep up with what’s happening with AI and cut through all the hype. The intersection of technology and social science is hugely important for many reasons, not least the need to ensure technology design and development takes place in a multidisciplinary environment. But probably the one which is of most interest to brands is innovation. The aim of this conference is to foster collaboration between two disciplines – two very different ways of thinking and approaching the world – and for me that’s key. When you get people from different disciplines coming together, that’s when great ideas flow. Siloed thinking is limiting. As Thea Snow from Nesta UK has written, “The most interesting innovations emerge when two unlikely disciplines intersect” (and she cites our conference as “a great example” of “cross-sectoral events” that should happen more often!). 

BP: That philosophy is close to our own heart at Firehaus.

DW: I think Firehaus embodies this approach – your Crew – the fact that you want to work with people who think differently to you, with different specialities and expertise, and bring them onto projects as and when appropriate – stand back and watch the magic happen, folks!

BP: Thanks Dawn!

The Anthropology + Technology Conference 2019, championing socially-responsible AI, is at the Watershed Bristol on 3 October 2019. Dawn is also founder of Mundy & Anson.

Beth Pope