In a recent episode of the Anthropology in Business podcast, guest Melissa Cefkin shared fascinating insights from her journey as an anthropologist working at the intersection of people and complex technologies. One of the key takeaways was the critical importance of applying social theory when researching automated systems like autonomous vehicles. As Cefkin explains:

“The onus is on us to develop a language that can be convincing and impactful in various settings.”

Cefkin has spent much of her career exploring how people interact with and make sense of automated systems that are increasingly being thrust into our environments, often without our explicit consent or understanding of how they work. She emphasizes that we need to go beyond surface-level observations and tactical research to really understand the social dynamics at play:

“I think you could also equally argue it’s about bringing multiple perspectives. And about exploring things from different angles and different points of view.”

Taking this social theory-informed approach means:

  • Posing questions and looking at automated systems from different angles before jumping to immediate answers
  • Considering what silences and structures of power are being formed that redirect control
  • Bringing in multiple perspectives beyond just the developers of the technology

The Risks of Rapidly Deploying Automated Systems

While slowing down to thoroughly examine the social implications of automated systems may seem at odds with the breakneck pace of technological development, Cefkin argues it is a wise long-term investment:

“Recognizing at times it may be worthwhile to slow things down a bit to save your investment out the other end and you’ll have to always, um, redo things.”

She cautions that when automated systems are rapidly deployed at scale, people’s interactions with them quickly become “mundane, naturalized and, um, uncritical.” There is a risk that we abdicate our responsibility to fully understand how these systems work and where breakdowns may occur as they become woven into the fabric of our lives.

Bridging Social Theory and Practice

For social theory to have an impact in the development of automated systems, Cefkin believes the onus is on anthropologists and social scientists to communicate in terms that resonate with those outside academia. This means judiciously using jargon and being savvy in how theoretical concepts are translated into practice.

Having straddled both academia and industry herself, Cefkin sees an urgent need to evolve how social theory-informed research is conducted and disseminated. She is working to open up new pathways between the two worlds:

“I feel I have the privilege, but also now the duty as somebody who has lived most of her professional life, beyond the academy, to try to work with academics and the academy with our disciplines in this case, anthropology, but with social theory informed disciplines of the humanities and social sciences to engage more broadly with opening the horizons of what their students will be doing and what the discipline needs to continue to evolve and grow.”

The Path Forward

As automated systems become more ubiquitous and complex, Cefkin’s insights underscore the need for anthropologists and social scientists to have a seat at the table in their development. By taking a social theory-drenched approach, we can surface crucial questions and ensure multiple perspectives shape these technologies.

Bridging the gap between social theory and practice is essential for this knowledge to have real-world impact. It will require anthropologists to be multilingual in speaking the language of both social theory and business. With pioneers like Cefkin leading the way, the discipline of anthropology has an opportunity to grow and meet the challenges presented by our increasingly automated world. The path forward is clear, if not always easy.