In this episode of the Anthropology in Business podcast, Melissa Cefkin speaks with Matt Artz about her career as a business anthropologist. Melissa discusses how her interest in anthropology began in high school and was further cultivated by her family’s international background and experiences living abroad. She pursued her PhD at Rice University, focusing on the Middle East and questions around rethinking anthropology as a discipline. Melissa then transitioned into practicing anthropology, joining the Institute for Research on Learning and exploring the introduction of technology into work systems. This sparked her interest in studying automated systems, leading to roles at companies like IBM, Waymo, and Nissan, where she examined how people interact with and perceive autonomous vehicles. Throughout her career, Melissa has focused on the intersection of people and complex technologies, emphasizing the need for critical thinking and social theory in researching issues like automation and AI.
About Melissa Cefkin
Melissa Cefkin holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Rice University and has applied her anthropological training and multidisciplinary approach across a range of roles focused on social and behavioral research in organizational and technological settings. Most recently, she transitioned into consulting, focusing on organizational transformation and complex technology development. She previously led user experience research for autonomous vehicles at Waymo and initiated a global research team on vehicle-road user interactions at Nissan. Earlier in her career, she directed research teams at IBM and Sapient focused on data analytics, peer-to-peer work systems, and organizational learning and development. She is also the author of Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter.
- Melissa’s interest in anthropology began in high school and was influenced by her family’s background.
- Her work focuses on understanding how people interact with and make sense of automated systems.
- She emphasizes the need for a social theory-informed approach to research and the importance of bridging the gap between academia and industry.
- Melissa believes that anthropologists can and should play a crucial role in shaping the development and implementation of complex technologies.
00:01:14 – Melissa’s early interest in anthropology
00:03:57 – Melissa’s academic journey and PhD at Rice University
00:06:00 – Transition from academia to practicing anthropology
00:08:00 – Joining the Institute for Research on Learning
00:11:00 – Transition into the high-tech industry
00:12:27 – Introduction to technology in workplaces and unintended consequences.
00:14:00 – Transition to digital environments and design anthropology.
00:17:00 – Focus on automated systems and autonomous vehicles.
00:25:00 – Learning from interactions with automated systems and trust issues.
00:25:11 – Automated systems and the need for guardrails.
00:28:00 – Importance of critical thinking and social theory in research.
00:29:00 – Concerns about reliance on automated tools and solutions.
00:32:00 – Communicating social theory without jargon and references.
00:35:00 – Consulting work at the intersection of people and complex technologies.
00:37:00 – Working with academics to open horizons and evolve disciplines.
00:38:48 – Bridging the gap between academia and industry