Anthropologists as liminal thinkers


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During some internet searching today I came across Marianne Cantwell’s TED talk about liminal thinkers. These are people who can have a foot in multiple worlds but quite feel like they ‘fit’ in any single place. “Liminality” is a term that describes ‘a state of inbetween-ness – you’re not quite one thing but not yet another either’. This may be a term familiar to those who have studies anthropology and heard about liminal rites of passage (such as weddings). The author Dave Gray, who has published books on liminal thinking, explains in this Medium post and this podcast with UXpod that part of its roots lie with anthropology, as well as philosophy and psychology. A few definitions Gray offers which I think are the best to explain it are:

Liminal is simply a word that means boundary or threshold and it specifically describes the experience that people feel when they’re on a boundary or a threshold, between one thing and another.

Moments or periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction.

Now back to Marianne Cantwell, she uses a metaphor of continents to explain how we are told to think of being one thing, fitting in to one place and aligning ourselves to a particular profession. These ‘continents’ exist near one another, but do not overlap. The career goal for many is to find the continent where you fit, learn the customs and rise up through the ranks. But for liminal thinkers this is a ‘losing game’ because even when a continent can feel exciting and like a good fit, after a while it can become less exciting and less aligned with who you are and the search starts again for a new continent that is more ‘you‘. For those types of people, she suggests building an ‘island’ that exists near your favourite continents that you have a foot in and you bring in aspects of those continents into your own island.

Gray has a definition that is a bit more practical and aligns more with applied anthropology:

Liminal thinking is a term that I use to describe the skill or the ability that one can cultivate for getting better at these moments of transition and actually creating transitions when you might feel stuck finding your way through, out of these stuck points and into a new way of thinking about the world that can lead to much more interesting outcomes for you.

I thought it might be interesting for young anthropologists to think about themselves as liminal thinkers who don’t need to be concerned if they can’t find one continent to fit into. There aren’t many well worn career paths for anthropologists who are looking for ways to apply their qualification outside of academia and I think anthropologists are largely liminal thinkers who need to create their own pathways into industries and professions. Basically they need to build their island. This can be tough, but the great news is that according to Marianne, “we need liminal thinkers more than ever”.


Future consumer and design research trends from pioneer anthropologist

To me, Jan Chipchase is a pioneer in applying anthropological methods and thinking to business contexts. I first heard of him when he was working at Nokia years and years ago. Since then he’s been named by Fast Company as the ‘James Bond of Design Research’. He is the founder and CEO of Studio D Radiodurans a research, design and strategy consultancy which according to their website ‘provides discreet international research, design and strategy services to multinational clients’. He is due to release his third book The Fieldstudy Handbook in June 2017 which is a guide to running international field research projects.

This interview with him has some great info and perspectives including how human-centred design has evolved, which he outlines as:

Human-centered design is not static. Over time, the trajectory of it in the industry has gone from:

  • “Help us fix this” usability testing, to
  • “Help us make this” user experience design, to
  • “What should we make?” foundational research + ideation + design, to
  • “What is interesting and why?” exploratory field work (+ ideation + concepting + prototyping + design & engineering), to
  • “What are the second order effects of x?” anticipatory design (strategy, design fiction, scenario planning)

Other useful points for me on the following topics were:

Conducting research: unusual questions can reveal shaky assumptions (it’s almost about infusing childlike play as a research tactic); the skill during fieldwork is knowing when to step away from the process that has been planned in detail and allow things to play out naturally; embracing the creative diversity of research teams; he aims for a state of flow and immersion with research teams which can lead to a team being engaged for 16 hours a day without it feeling like work and also has produced some of the best and most rewarding work from team members.

Future research trends: more technology will be involved that can bring contexts closer to research teams without them being there, but he cautions that technology can only capture so much and that the researcher will need to factor in what is missing and how it impacts the approach; mining of historical data will become more prevalent to make future predictions and if the volume of data is sufficient, it may not matter whether you understand why because the required outcome—a reasonable probability of understanding of what will happen next—is possible. However, this carries a risk of offering short-term value (of things that are known and measurable) and mask longer-term risks (of things that are not yet known, and therefore not yet measurable); The reality behind the assumption that more data equates to better insight is that most of the new data is an iteration on what is measurable, and thus what is already known.

The future of work is…PLAY!


How exciting! Not only are workplaces going to be more flexible in terms of time and location of work but also more playful! We’ll be releasing our inner child and getting serious about bringing play into the workplace to get breakthrough ideas and beat robots. Project Play, a training provider of purposeful play, say that play improves ability to learn, increases openness to change and provides a sense of purpose and mastery. Sounds good to me.


What will it mean to be human in the future?


In my thesis I researched moral panics regarding technological advancements in human communication. The concerns around changes caused by technology’s encroachment into everyday life is a pattern repeated through human history (a great book about this is Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technology Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century). Artificial Intelligence is the newest form.

“…even if computers will outsmart us, we can still be the most creative act in town, if we embrace creativity as one of the defining values of humanness. Like funnily irrational ideas, or grand emotions”

This BBC article is a different take on what the workforce of the future needs in the world of AI, and what ‘human’ qualities machines can’t emulate are in fact our opportunities. We may be surpassed by machines in logic and rational thinking and processing power, but we excel at things I think we currently don’t value as much such as creative thinking. Even irrationality, the article argues, is a distinct human quality that machines will not possess but that will be a distinctly human quality we can use to our advantage. Another article on what our role will be in the AI world of the future suggests that AI will be relatively easily fooled and humans will be needed to be kept in the loop as a quality control and point of verification.

What biases are influencing the recruitment and working arrangements of working mums?

In this era of espousing workplace diversity and providing equality for women, this open letter to adland is so refreshing and gets far more real than most discussions on the topic. It’s so worth a read to get a different perspective on those well meaning strategies to ‘help’ women return to the workforce. Plus it’s a good laugh!