Data Don't Think

Put that on a bumper sticker. I'm at a group lunch at work and artificial intelligence comes up. "Well it depends if you focus on the artificial or the intelligence,” says somebody at the table. Yeah, cuz data don't think. I'm drinking coffee and jamming out on the power of predictive analytics and machine learning with a crazy brilliant Business Intelligence colleague. "What really matters are the questions we ask and the stories we tell (sell?)," he says [well more or less, that is mostly me interpreting what he said, but I bet he would concur]. Yeah, cuz data don't think. Don't get me wrong, I am actually diving deep into big data. There are great things we can do with it. But my core is softie soft qualitative data -- direct observation (data are observations after all). But my self says to me "but what's really important is how I process what I see and how I disseminate it to others in order to help them understand better and to do something with it." Yeah, cuz data don't think. I am saying absolutely nothing that is new, nor that many don't know. But the big data revolution has become one big shiny bauble luring us into false hopes. Data is great and more of it is available than ever. But be careful, cuz...well you know.


Photo by Cody Davis on Unsplash

Key to Innovation? Traditionalists.

Workplace culture impacts the potential for innovation, but not as you might think. People argue that a business will never innovate if all they do is struggle to maintain the status quo. Recent research however, suggests that a culture of “traditionalism” may help not hinder innovation; traditionalists, the data shows, increase the potential for implementation/execution of innovative ideas. The key? A team of creative innovators will come up with great and workable ideas, but the “traditionalists” will make it happen!


Photo by Sebastian Molinares on Unsplash

Tiffany Everyday Objects

When cultural and consumer trends intersect, sometimes it's an awkard fit. Take Tiffany's Everyday collection. The word Tiffany next to everyday seems oxymoronic. What's everyday about Tiffany products? Isn't the whole idea of Tiffany all about "not everyday?" Apparently Tiffany needs to connect to the current cultural wave of dressing down, common, everyman or everywoman that is the current zeitgeist. Two Tiffany bone china paper cups for $95. A sterling silver tin can to hold those pencils  that just have nowhere to go on your desk -- $1000. A great business case for the budding consumer anthropologist in all of us!

Watching a Grown Man Cry in a Grocery Store and Other Ways Your Business Could Use a Chief Anthropologist.

Watching a Grown Man Cry in a Grocery Store and Other Ways Your Business Could Use a Chief Anthropologist.

I’m Chief Anthropologist at idfive. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best and worst job title in marketing today.

When a potential client sees a job title like that in a proposal, I’m sure a white-hot light begins to flash in the part of their brain that processes budgets.

“How do I tell my boss that we’re considering working with a Chief Anthropologist?” they ask themselves while squeezing the life out of a stress ball and shoveling handfuls of antacids into their mouths.

At least, that’s how I imagine it goes.

Chief Anthropologist? More like “Chief of Waste of Time,” am I right?

It probably doesn’t help matters that I lead with stories of my time in Papua New Guinea studying cannibals.


“What does anthropology have to do with my business?”

I understand where clients are coming from. In business, we’re overrun with actionability metrics and whipped into a frenzy seeking more productive uses of our time. The notion of cultural anthropology in business reeks of intangibility — and money.

But when businesses open up to the idea of using anthropology to better understand how their consumers, their employees and their markets behave — they’re blown away by the possibilities.

Imagine a world where consumer feelings, motivations, obstacles, and preferences are measured by something other than a sterile metric on a spreadsheet.

Imagine a world where people’s behaviors are governed by their hearts and the cultural contexts they exist in — not rationality and analysis.

Anthropology offers us a chance to see the problems you are trying to solve unfold in real life and real time, not a table or index. Suddenly you find yourself face to face with the opportunity to create real change through a real understanding of why humans do what humans do.


Clean Up in Aisle 9

Consider the following from a recent project of mine.

I remember standing in a grocery store in Florida with clients and a participant in an ethnographic study. We were over by the cold cuts. We’d just had some everyday banter about bread, and milk and what not.

The participant stared blankly at the shelf then, suddenly, started crying . Something had shifted. Insight happened.  Apparently, he hadn’t always been able to just buy whatever he wanted without looking at prices. His tears reflected how happy he was with his family, himself and his life. 

In anthropological terms, the way his family now snacked was a symbolic representation and celebration of how far they had come. A seemingly mundane moment turned into a deep insight.

You can’t unsee moments like this. You can’t take that type of insight for granted. And you can’t not thread that meaning into your strategy or approach.  For example, what if this company had previously positioned their products solely on their health benefits? Now we are looking at potentially a whole new way that consumers see their products — a celebration of life and not just something that is “a good snacking option.” A moment like that could put us on a path to re-think brand, positioning, product attributes and more.

That’s where cultural anthropology can transform our thinning, and through that our businesses.


Cultural Anthropology, Action Hero

To me and to people who do this work, this is what we call “instant actionability.” After these anthropological studies, I’m confident our clients are able to make better products, provide better service, deliver more resonant advertising, create more relevant websites, and more.


Because they become the people they serve. Whether vicariously or literally, they’re transformed. They understand the true wants and needs of consumers and the limbic-driven thinking that often defies logic.

Anthro is instantly actionable. I’ve seen CEOs tell stories from our trips and motivate room after room full of employees.

And as a cultural anthropologist who has lived with both semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer-gardeners in the rainforest and bacon-eaters in the heartland of the USA, I know that ethnographic insights distilled from an anthropologist’s observations  transcend what we currently get from surveys and big data alone. People are blood and brains and hearts. Not demographic templates.

Right now, I may be one of a handful of Chief Anthropologists beating the drum to bring a more human approach to understanding humans and their relationship with businesses.   

But who knows: Years from now, the CA (Chief Anthropologist) may have a regular seat in the C-suite. Between you and me, I prefer the cannibals.



ANTHROVATION! A Rite of Passage Board Game

 Moving from the outer edges of your life's variables up to the "mountaintop." How do you successfully navigate a rite of passage?

Moving from the outer edges of your life's variables up to the "mountaintop." How do you successfully navigate a rite of passage?

There are 3 variables in your life that you need to balance -- personal, professional and organizational. To make this even simpler, it boils down to your self, your skills/knowledge, and your group(s). To take it one more level it is who you think you are, what you know and do, and how you get along with others. You can apply this logic from infancy to old age, from grade school to grad school, and of course through all your phases of work. To add one other dimension to it , you can think about the cultural, social and economic pressures on these three parts of your life and how they impact your decisions, behaviors and actions. 

In everyone's life you go through very specific rites of passage (e.g. adolescence, marriage, first job, etc). During these times, the tension between these three areas of your life are very front and center. But in reality we are constantly balancing these variables everyday and, you might even say, in low level rites of passage at all times.

Why call it a rite of passage? Or draw attention to these moments as rites of passage? Because the interplay of these three variables define your identity, who you are, and literally map your destiny! And to leave this process up to chance seems like a wasted opportunity to have intentionality and control over your life course. 

For all of these reasons, I have created Anthrovation -- a rite of passage game, to give people a chance, a structured moment, in a playful format, to openly evaluate these three variables in people's lives. In so doing you get to assess and evaluate how you are doing, decide on any changes you might want to make, and most importantly where to start/begin a path forward. 

Because many people feel the most pressure in their career, profession, workplace, and work/life balance, Anthrovation is clearly useful for this phase of people's lives.

In addition, Anthrovation can be used within organizations to focus on individual and team growth as well as departmental issues.

Businesses can also use Anthrovation to focus on the three variables and how they play out for the success of the business and its relationships with its customers.

But Anthrovation can also be used at any life/situational stage. High schoolers making college decisions, stay at home moms entering the work force, career shifting, and other life events both positive and potentially traumatic are well suited to the Anthrovation process. 

I came to Anthrovation because I am a cultural anthropologist with 25 years working in business and academia. As cultural anthropologists, we know that our lives are a series of constructions that we either consciously or subconsciously link to one another. By helping companies and students "innovate" (or Anthrovate!) I have seen the value of intentionally focusing on these life variables and rites of passage -- and how this process positively impacts people and businesses.

If you are interested in more information about Anthrovation -- a rite of passage game, and how it might work for you and/or your organization/team, please contact me at

You can learn more about me -- Robbie Blinkoff, and my business -- Context-Based Research Group, at



R.O.R. (return on relationships)

 Robbie getting some ROR after his Keynote Speech on Culture of Presence... 

Robbie getting some ROR after his Keynote Speech on Culture of Presence... 

When we hit the pearly gates, there is only one metric: did you make a lot of friends? Our ROR is the most important metric in life. And so it is in business and marketing. As a cultural anthropologist, I can assure you of this fact. Make ROR your key driver and you will have a great business and get a great life thrown in as a bonus (or vice versa!)

Must Have Slide on Global Economics ("the elephant")

the elephant_graph copy 2.png

You know how you keep hearing the world is better off as a whole, but you keep feeling not so better off? And you wonder why? And you wonder what that means if it is true? Well here you go! "The Elephant" graphic. What you see in this slide is how the poorest and rising economies in the world are feeling and having massive economic growth. While the developed middle class is in massive decline. And the trunk of the elephant? Well the richest of the rich are doing really really well too. It's not a slide that will give you answers or next steps. But it will help you understand why people, especially the middle class in the west, are feeling the way we do and consider what that means for the future -- for us and the globe

Throwback Thursday: Jimmy Carter's Crisis of Confidence Speech (1979)

It's a really good idea to go back for perspective to help us make sense of today's world. In 1979, Jimmy Carter (quite the populist himself) gave his famous "Crisis of Confidence" speech. Carter went out and spoke with "the people" and among other insights found that for all the crises out there (the gasoline shortage among them), what was most troubling had to do with our culture of consumerism. Rather than just show the speech, this video is a motion capture experiment to juxtapose Carter's speech with images from today's world. Culturally, certain trends that impact our worldview and behavior never go away -- and I think you will see that Carter's words are as powerful today as they were 38 years ago. 


Next Big Thing? BOOKS! (seriously!)

I heard a person in publishing say, in all seriousness, that books are the next big thing! Yes, books! Book sales are actually up (read here). And book publishing is looking like it is about to rise too! The reason this is important to me and why I bring it up? Because as a researcher, anthropologist, and consultant the increase in BOOKS suggests a shift toward this "culture and economy of presence" I have been talking about. People wanting a clear signal through the digital noise. To focus, to breathe. Sometimes the next big thing is the old thing, huh? That's cool!

Margaret Mead Journalism

At some point during election night, Brian Williams on MSNBC said something about the need for Margaret Mead Journalism. His point? The numbers had "lied." A bigger story existed outside the data. Everybody, even the conservative pollsters, had it wrong. People hid behind the "objective" numbers when they felt they were getting too personal or subjective. But the problem? The "objective" numbers (garbage) going in were created by the "subjective" people!  Shockingly the they ended up spinning a false narrative. The postmortem?  We need not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so the solution is to 1) ensure the right numbers are getting into our data sets and 2) a little bit of small data vis a vis the cultural anthropological approach of immersion and observation goes a long way. Thank-you Margaret Mead.

Social Design Projects are Culture Change Projects

As a cultural anthropologist I’ve always felt design thinking and social design resonated deeply with me.  I believe I figured out why, or at least figured it out for me. Social design projects (design think projects focused on social change -- or service design projects focused on consumer change) are culture change projects. To me, not approaching projects with this in mind is like getting a birthday gift with no gift wrap (or perhaps a wrapped birthday gift with no actual gift inside?). Re-designing society (or service), especially for disruption and innovation, means changing norms, behaviors, values and beliefs -- in other words you are changing culture. Whether these projects are about changing behavior for social innovation (such as women’s reproductive health) or for consumer innovation (such as automating grocery delivery) the challenge is bigger than just adding a great new road tested product or service. As a cultural anthropologist working in business, I have 110% confidence my clients can create products and services that can change the world. But success and failure will have much more to do with people’s ability to change their cultural behavior than the quality of the product or service. And there's the rub. 

Cultural Breakdown (?)

I'm a college professor for 20 year olds. Apparently this "re-cession generation" is hard to figure out. Some might say they're experiencing a cultural "breakdown." Or that our society is experiencing a cultural "breakdown." As a cultural anthropologist, one who studies culture, I find the way the word "cultural" is used as problematic and misunderstood (not just in this case but all the time). I also find the use of the word breakdown as problematic. A student in my class said, "isn't culture kind of always breaking down, not fixed, static and fluid?" Exactly. And I also think that the use of the word breakdown is definitely meant in a negative sense. Why can't breaking down be a good thing -- like a cultural renaissance or resurgence or opportunity? Certainly my students see it that way. But then they don't have much power in determining which "cultural" path is right. People need to know that culture is a verb. Culture is about the way we learn things, and how that knowledge is shared, and the symbols and objects that reflect that shared knowledge. Yes, that stuff is currently breaking down. But something is emerging. And it's like water flowing through stone, it will change things. But better to think and act as if it is an opportunity than a "breakdown" from which we see little hope.

Work at Gates Foundation

A former research director at Context landed a position at the Gates Foundation and I was lucky enough to get out there and work on a project with them. The experience was transformational for me. The "social innovation" movement is in full swing and it was my chance to see it in action. In short, the same processes for business and tech innovation are at work in places like Gates to create "social innovations." The Foundation is committed to creating technological solutions to improve people's lives around the world. The people you find working at Gates could seamlessly switch to jobs in the world's leading tech companies. It's great to see and be part, if only a small one, in this work. I certainly hope I get a chance to do more work in this "category."  A quick note on the picture above. Bill and Melinda gates clearly are managed for best optics on their global trips. But the two of them seem visibly engaged and fully immersed in these experiences. Empathy.

Small Scale Fishing in Panama

panama fishing.JPG

 I started my career as a cultural anthropologist by studying fishing communities -- in particular, small-scale family based commercial fishing communities. When we were in Panama last summer we came across a family setting a fishing net off the beach. I was thrilled. That's me in the back of the picture with our good friend Katherine who is helping translate my English to Spanish to ask questions. I could say a lot about that morning, but one little story is about what I am doing in the picture. I asked the older man if I could help him bring in the rope. He motioned that would be fine. What I quickly found out is that the work was much harder than it seemed. Pulling yards and yards of rope on a sandy beach in the Panamanian heat and humidity is a chore. And there I was, learning by doing, embodying the work, feeling what it felt like (at least a little bit) to live and work as a small scale commercial fisher on the beaches of Panama.