Applied anthropologist example: Martha Bird and chatbots


Let me introduce Martha Bird to you via this article in Computerworld. She has a PhD in anthropology and has worked in a range of industries including a non-profit, telco and in e-commerce. She helps match user needs across multiple markets to products and services for global brands. Right now she is a business anthropologist working on how chatbots need to function for customers of an HR product and service provider.

She says that in her role she “is always about thinking about the intersections of technologies and people or, put another way, about the human-machine relationships in cultural context“. As an anthropologist, she is building on work done to date around UX and customer journeys in the company and explains: “the user’s journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped“. This is something that an anthropologist can offer.

One of the interesting things involved in her work is identifying “cultural precisions” where cultural differences need to be built into how chatbots function in order to meet user needs globally.

Full article here


What is triangulation in social research?

Triangulation in social research is a technique to increase credibility of research outcomes. Borrowed from navigational and land surveying techniques, it aims to overcome biases in single method, researchers, data sets and/or theories.

There are 4 types of triangulation:

  1. Methodological – two or more methods are used to collect data
  2. Data – two or more different data sets
  3. Researcher – two or more researchers investigate
  4. Theoretical – two or more theories approach the often described as a way of ensuring some form of ‘truth’ in research results. This is one reason to use triangulation, but another is to intentionally draw out some of the differences

As an anthropologist I think we constantly aim to reduce the influence of bias in research we do. A competent, self-aware anthropologist is very good at observing phenomena from multiple viewpoints. Of course we can’t always overcome our own biases,  so designing your research (and synthesis) with triangulation in mind can contribute to overall outcomes.

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is an academic discipline that studies humans (past and present). It has been around since the 19th Century. It deals with questions such as what it means to be human, how culture matters and documents the breadth of human experience.

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It has 4 main sub categories:

  • Biological
  • Linguistic
  • Cultural
  • Social

It’s a pretty substantial and broad remit which can often make it hard to grasp just what an anthropologist does. So to help with this I find it often can help to give examples of the types of topics anthropologists study. These include:

Power – e.g. who has it, how they got it, how they work to keep it

Culture – e.g. what is it, how does it exist, how is it transferred and passed on

Kinship – e.g. how are relationships structured, defined and maintained, what responsibilities are there for members of a kinship group

Ritual – e.g. what role does it play, what are different types of ritual, who is involved and why, when is a ritual private/public

Identity – e.g. how is identity constructed in different cultures, how is it communicated

Understanding, capturing and documenting the human experience is, as you would imagine, complex and at times difficult. While it can be challenging to define and share with others outside of the discipline (there are even debates within it!), anthropology is a fascinating field and offers amazingly rich ways to study the human species.