Tricia Wang’s Thick Data = Ethnography + Big Data

On a recent episode of This Anthro LifeAdam Gamwell, Ryan Collins, and Matt Artz got to interview Tricia Wang on the topic of applying ethnography to big data to produce thick data.

About Tricia Wang

Dr. Tricia Wang sees her work consulting as sitting at the crossroads of data and social justice. As a global tech ethnographer, Dr. Wang is obsessed with how technology and humans shape each other. In her own words, she wants to know, “How do the tools we use enable us to do more of what humans do, like socializing, emoting, and collaborating? And how do human perspectives shape the technology we build and how we use it?”

Said differently, Dr. Tricia Wang’s expertise inhabits a gray space between industry and the academy. A space where many social scientists do not find easy comfort. Yet, Dr. Wang’s very candid enthusiasm is enough to draw in even the most ardent skeptics. In her own words, Dr. Wang has “always been between worlds” seeing the best in both. Though academics tend to value known discovery methods, and excel, they are less likely to engineer new prototypes.

Watch Dr. Tricia Wang’s TED Talk

Dr. Wang is a global technology ethnographer. What this means is that she does deep work inside international corporations. But what is her reason for doing so? Dr. Wang believes that “we don’t truly understand how people make decisions” or actionable insights (to use a buzz word). To have an insight is to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing. Making an insight “actionable” means finding a purpose for the new knowledge.

One of the biggest insights Dr. Wang has is recognizing that every company is its own beautiful nation. Traditionally, anthropologists had gone off to faraway lands to study remote peoples. To find insight in culture one needed to experience a group that was different. Sometimes this difference has been referred to as otherness. For a while, it wasn’t accepted that anthropologists could study others if they stayed to close to home or even conducted research in their own country.

Dr. Wang is not saying work at home. What she recognizes is that the difference between corporations, their cultures, norms, and history are much more distinct than you might imagine on the surface. This is even true of corporations which might share in the same interests, markets, and products. These differences need to be understood, and not taken for granted, for someone to make a difference. Dr. Wang’s goals are about relationship building especially when major corporations don’t realize how different they are from their competitors. Here is where anthropological methods of coming to understand culture can become important in big ways.

Read: Why Big Data Needs Thick Data

The corporations Dr. Wang researches tend to work with big data. Big data is big business, and that makes it political. How corporations use it, what they prefer or discard, and who has access are part of how political lines are drawn. Big data can easily be misused and can be hegemonic, holding power over different groups to the point of racism. This is because people’s data is being used with no context and without their permission.

Dr. Wang’s first big insight was that big data is not being misused, it is being abused. She discovered this during her dissertation research, seeing the problems with big data as being so severe that issues stemmed beyond personal infringements upon privacy. Instead, Dr. Wang recognized something more heinous, that even the notion of personhood was impacted.

With this critical insight, Dr. Wang has sought to first translate and promote awareness of abuses. In her own words, “I see my work inside corporations as an act of social justice. I fight hegemony.”

Discover more of Dr. Tricia Wang’s Insights on triciawang.com

Being an anthropologist at the nexus of industry and academic worlds, one must ask: how do you get there? Luckily, Dr. Wang is full of great advice! When you boil it down, Dr. Wang’s outlook is heavily influenced by her strong growth-oriented mentality. If at first, you don’t succeed, keep developing your experience and learn to let go of your fear to try the unknown. Because, in Dr. Wang’s opinion, “You have to be a lateral learner, go to talks, enterprise UX; cross-functional events.”

This is what Dr. Wang says to the undergrad seeking an industry job but can’t find one specifically called anthropologist. In some ways, as Dr. Wang suggests, an undergrad seeking an industry job needs to be open to unlearning. It feels like the sagely advice Yoda might offer a young Luke Skywalker. Recognizing that knowledge of an industry comes from experience not expectation. Following in this theme, Dr. Wang offered another piece of advice. “You have to ask what the higher order of my mission, what impact do I want to have on society?”

Think through your impact, and when you have a job ask if the company is a fit with your needs. Not everything valuable is measurable. And more than that, find a mentor. For Dr. Wang, this is how she measures her success, by following people who inspire, who are lateral thinkers and doers.

Learn more about Dr. Tricia Wang and Consulting from Women Talk Design

Dr. Tricia Wang’s work with Fortune 500 companies has been featured in Techcrunch, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Slate, Wired, The Guardian and Fast Company. She has dedicated her life’s work to advancing how organizations use technology to serve people. Additionally, Dr. Wang is a co-founder of the consulting practice Sudden Compass and her content and advisory firm on the Chinese consumer, Magpie Kingdom. She’s the proud companion of her internet famous dog #ellethedog.

Other Examples of How Ethnography Used in Industry?

For some great examples of how ethnography is used in the industries of business, design, and tech, check out these posts:

Dr. Alexandra Mack uses her business anthropology toolkit to lead innovative problem solving and strategy development based on a deep understanding of the surrounding culture and activities.

Dr. Natalie Hanson has been working and researching at the intersection of business strategy, technology, social sciences, and design for nearly fifteen years.

 

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