Applied anthropology : toward an hermeneutic approach

Recently I have been thinking about how to apply my anthropology knowledge and ethnographer skills to work in organizations. Through the multiple experts, consultants and applied social scientists I met, there seems to be two different visions of the “applied social sciences expert”. On the one hand, there is the traditional consultant who comes with solutions based on his or her specific knowledge; this is the vision we often find in management consulting. On the other hand, there is a less mundane vision of expertise which is based on shared experience, learning and where the solutions are co-created by both parties. I think this vision has something to do with an hermeneutic epistemology and I will try to show that anthropology has the needed skills to act as a co-creation agent.

I have been told to find my very own approach so I could try to sell it to businesses and organizations. This approach had to offer new perspectives to clients using anthropological insights which are uncommon in the business ethos. It made me uncomfortable since I could not find how to offer an efficient and defined consulting service with precise deliverables. In fact, ethnographers proceed by inductive reasoning and rely mostly on informants, which means that the result of their researches is a construction based on fieldwork interactions. Therefore, it is difficult to clearly define – like precisely expose – the consulting economic benefits.

New qualitative approaches are emerging, notably here in Montreal, focusing on creating and sharing knowledge with (and not only for) organizations. Method names are countless : co-creation, facilitators, open innovation, knowledge sharing, livinglab, fablab, name it! Some of my informants even spoke about buzzwords. However, these approaches have in common the fact that they try to plug people with each others’ and create a context conductive to innovation, exchange and creativity. Well, of course it is an optimistic vision; these consultants mostly work with public service and community organizations but it shows an opening to a more social and human expertise.

The point is that as anthropologists, we have to work with people and keep the shared basis we have learned to build in the academy. As many present themselves as experts, I think we must keep the ethnographer’s hat since it carries its own knowledge. For example, we know how to take account of culture and analyze it through many perspectives, which gives us a large field of application. Moreover, we know how to seize dynamics as they appear and transform, in the present, right in front of our eyes. The anthropologist not only takes account of the results to confirm or refute theories but learns from the fieldwork itself as a living experience. A fieldwork is an encounter, not only a data gathering tool; many anthropology researchers showed how the encounter itself can teach as much as raw data can.

We should seize the opportunity to do what I will call applied hermeneutics. Hermeneutics, as Gadamer  saw it, is the study of the encounter between two realities with their own apprehension (or I may say prejudices). The interest here is not to understand objectively both of these realities but to show the nature of their encounter and what we can learn from this context. For example, we are always studying history through our present lenses ; we study the past but we should not forget that our point of view is tainted by present posterity.

I think hermeneutics is an important part of our work and we should put these skills forward. We can’t just show up with easily applicable ideas since it is not the nature of our work , we have to focus on what we can build on a human level and not much on business structure. Formations, workshops, attendees and researches are some of the floors where applied hermeneutics is possible and I think it is a good way to let loose ethnographic knowledge. We can’t compete against individuals practical knowledge but what we can do is helping them to change their mindset, make an epistemological switch. Of course it is hard to evaluate the concrete benefits of such activities and it may explain why we mostly find them in public bodies. However, it seems to be a good opportunity to do applied anthropology and put forward what we have learned on the field.

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