Making the familar unfamiliar- why anthropology matters

I find myself in a pensive, reflective mood and in a frame of mind to put down some thoughts on the benefits of anthropology and the ethnographic approach. As someone with a Bachelor and a Masters in Socio-Cultural Anthropology my focus has always been on getting an understanding of the lived experience of people and what this can tell us about the subject being explored but I see a particular value for the anthropologist to work in organisations in liminal spaces. For someone to be in a position to observe, explore and analyse current practices as part of organisational strategy seems eminently sensible and I think there is an increased recognition of the usefulness of ethnography and anthropology in a variety of settings (see

Back in March 2014, Donna Lanclos, an anthropologist working in academic libraries, visited the University of Huddersfield and reinvigorated my enthusiasm for ethnography and anthropology*. Donna talked about how the presence of anthropologists in industry and institutional settings creates a liminal space, which in turn is an opportunity for change and innovation. Donna also made a great case for being more committed (including allocating resources and people) to qualitative research because the outcomes provide opportunities for change, moments to disrupt current practices, to dwell with the possibility of something else. In contrast, quantitative data very often tells you very little and gives you description rather than lead to new insights or explanations.

As Donna said at the time, the idea is not to thumb our noses at current practice, but to actually provide a place for the new to emerge. Anthropology can be seen as a practice concerned with making the familiar unfamiliar or strange and the strange/unfamiliar familiar. This relates to the power of cross-cultural insights, which allows fresh eyes on our own society, the practices of others helping us think critically about our own practices.

I believe that there is much positive benefit to observing and analysing our own communities, whether this is academic libraries or any organisation that needs to take into account their end users. An anthropological approach involves attention to processes as well as tools to question logic and rationale.

In my work at the Teaching and Learning Institute I have found that most useful developments of network and innovate practices arise in conversational spaces that lie in-between more defined spaces, where roles and responsibilities are delineated. As a result I have spent a lot of time thinking about and creating environments that allow such conversational spaces to exist.

*these are of course my reminiscences about what Donna talked about so she bears no responsibility for any inaccuracies in my account.


About kshjensen

Anthropologist. Ethnographic research and user experience. I craft, bake, like real ale and stacking stones.
This entry was posted in anthropology, ethnographic praxis, ethnography, inbetween, liminality, user experience. Bookmark the permalink.

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