Aug. 18, 2020

How to Study Meaning at Scale: AI and Big Data Ethnography, Microcultures and the Future of Innovation w/ Ujwal Arkalgud

How to Study Meaning at Scale: AI and Big Data Ethnography, Microcultures and the Future of Innovation w/ Ujwal Arkalgud

Artificial Intelligence. Natural Language Processing. Machine Learning. Big Data. If you've studied Anthropology at all, you'll likely notice these terms don't often get use, unless you happen to be studying one of these areas, like doing an ethnography on artificial intelligence. Yet if these tools are used everyday across millions of applications and software lines of code to make our world run, how might they help us understand ourselves better? Big data often gets used to understand patterns people's behavior and thinking at a high level, and it is common to see people split into segments from this data.

So in the world of market and consumer research you may know that people are commonly categorized into segments or generations - you've likely seen people written about as Millennial or Baby Boomers (OK, Boomer). But what limitations to understanding people are present when putting them into segments and generations and only seeing them from a high level? That's often where ethnography comes in, and where anthropologists like to live with and get to know people on their terms. But there's a huge stretch between massive Big Data sets and individual ethnography, right?

What if there were a way to do ethnography with big data? That is, what if there were a way to be able to understand the nuances of cultural meaning people assign to things from big data sets? What this entails is, in essence quantifying ethnography. And turns out, the key has to do with focusing on meaning. That and some computer science wizardry.

I'm excited today to have on the show one of the pioneers in this field, Ujwal Arkalgud, CEO, cultural anthropologist, and co-founder of Motivbase, a global tech research firm that has cracked the cultural code and developed software and research tools that bring together the analytical power of anthropology and the wide reach of big data.

We’ll dig into

  • the concept of micro cultures, which are are a set of meanings that make up a market space,
  • the need to study of meaning and behavior in business, why don’t companies think about meaning as a primary mover?
  • why traditional market research doesn’t effectively get at meaning,
  • how the internet has changed the way we make culture and meaning and that betting on cultural homogenization is a trap

Checkout Movitbase here

Microcultures: Understanding the consumer forces that will shape the future of your business

Ujwal's Medium page

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Transcript

Microcultures and Why Business Needs to Understand Meaning w Ujwal Akarguld

Adam: [00:04:22] so Ujwal, thanks for joining me on This Anthro Life today. 

Ujwal: [00:04:24] Thank you for having me on the podcast. I'm a fan and I've definitely been listening to you for a while now, so it's cool to be invited to the podcast. 

Adam: [00:04:36] I'm really excited about the broader context of bringing cultural anthropology and sociological thinking and theories into the corporate world into business and business anthropology isn't new, but. when I started reading about your work, in the company that you run, it seems like you're taking a bit of a different and more innovative approach to bringing cultural anthropology, sociology into business and in their corporate environments, around the concept of meaning,  In a broad sense of what does it mean to, to bring meaning into conversations of innovation? So I wonder if you could kick us off by helping us think about, what's the deal with meaning, you know, why is it seem to be lacking so often in the corporate world and how can we bring it to life?

Ujwal: [00:05:21] First and foremost, I think what's interesting for me is just that the focus or the study of meaning, especially in the business context, is generally not talked about that much.

And it almost feels like in the world of, you know, applying cultural anthropology to the world of business, to solve problems in particularly in the field of innovation. It feels like the study of behavior is often talked about a lot, especially with various practices that circle around the design thinking process and in various versions of those methodologies and so on.

There's so much discourse around the study of behavior, but there's very little about the study of meaning. And that is something that always perplexes me because the thing that got me into anthropology was the study of meaning. What excited me was the realization when I was much younger living in India, you know, pursuing an engineering degree, like many men in India kind of end up in and realizing, this is not what I'm passionate about.

I remember being handed Ludwig Wittgenstein's book and I remember opening the pages and thinking, what in God's name is this thing, but once you start to get into it and you start to take a step back and think about what he was trying to say, it completely changes your mindset in your approach.

And I remember that was a moment in my own sort of personal and professional development that I'm always reminded of because it helped me really realize, you know, how important studying the structure of languages to understanding the structure of the world. And studying the structure of language is really nothing but the study of meaning and how we inadvertently as human beings give meaning to everything and anything that we surround ourselves in.

And of course, I think what's even more fascinating is that, you know, people like  Wittgenstein and many others that came after him operated in a world where. I guess I could arguably say that the world was a lot less complex than it is now. You know, they didn't have the internet at their disposal.

Now we sit in a world where there's more complexity, there's more nuance, but there's also more ways to get at the nuance. Right? I think that's what excites me every single day is the ability to study meaning, but to study meaning in ways that can be agile, can be quick, can leverage big data and so on and so forth.

I remember we had this great moment with one of our first clients where they were doing a sensory test and they were studying the behavior of people eating dark chocolate.

And they were doing all of these sensory tests. And, you know, there were blind tests and they had amazing results for some of their formulations. And I remember asking the client, I remember asking him specifically, Do you know, what would happen if you actually told the person trying it, of what those ingredients were that went into it. And I remember his response was what difference would that make? And  I said well this is why you hired us, because what you're going to realize is that taste and convenience and all those things that you think make all this logical sense will get thrown out the window. Because the moment you tell this person, depending on who this person is of course, the moment you tell them what the ingredients are they will have a set of meanings. They hold around some of those ingredients and either that will help them buy whatever it is that you're selling or it'll help them never touch it again. It doesn't matter whether they love to taste or not. I think that's the part that's exciting to me and the value of the study of meaning that's often ignored.

Adam: [00:09:43], I think that's a really fascinating point. And so let's break that down a little bit because chocolate is a great example, a great way to think of all things, but if I'm taste testing a new flavor, there's some hazelnut in there or some pink sea salt or whatever, so a company is then I guess, working with, taste testers, which sounds like a pretty cool thing to do anyway, probably get paid 40 bucks to try to try chocolate or something,  but then, what I hear you saying is that when you actually, let's pause and contemplate and let the consumer know if it's certain kinds of sugar or if you have, you know, raw or refined cacao or, some kind of nut butter or something like what kind of ingredients are in it.

And that's going to ultimately affect more than the taste. If a consumer will actually continue to eat that, that chocolate or not. And that's a really fascinating point that on one level kind of blows my mind that the corporations or companies or organizations don't think about meaning as one of the primary movers.

And so think of two questions. One is like, why do you think that has been the case? But then the other, the other question is. So just thinking about what does it look like to infuse meaning into these kinds of questions? Right. 

Ujwal: [00:10:52] Maybe I'll start with your first question I guess the surprising part is why isn't it used often and, I think it is used, but it's used in a rather logical sense in terms of putting a bunch of consumers in a room and then asking them about what they think of,certain types of products and ingredients and so on. And, we started this session with, Wittgenstein and so I'll go back to that there was a great a quote from him and I can't remember the exact specifics so I'm paraphrasing, but it basically points to this notion that it's very hard for us as human beings to not deceive ourselves.

It's harder than we think it is. And we see in the corporate world, it's often ignored primarily because it's easy. It's easy to say person ABC thinks high fructose corn syrup is very unhealthy. And therefore, we must avoid high fructose corn syrup. And by the way, we have some taste tests where we prove that high fructose corn syrup products tasted just as well in the blind test as the cane sugar product.

So great. Let's go with the cane sugar product. That narrative is an easy one for researchers to manage up. And I think oftentimes it comes back down to, can I manage up with the outcomes? Can I make decisions fast enough? But, but of course, the challenge is that oftentimes the wrong decision gets made because the underlying meanings aren't entirely understood.

At best, you know, the product just goes nowhere at worst and blows up in people's faces, right. And becomes a PR issue, a PR nightmare. And that, you know, there's so many stories of that as well. But I think for us, the exciting part is to go into these environments and say, okay, I'm not saying don't do all those blind tests and sensory tests.

And I'm not saying don't observe people in their kitchens and watch them interact with their families, do all of that good stuff. But before you do that, understand what kinds of meanings you are walking into when you talk about certain things, because your words have implications. So let's understand both the implicit and explicit implications there, because if you can understand the implicit meanings, then.

You know, not only how to ask certain questions, but how to ask the right questions. And you also understand the innate relationships that certain things will hold when you bring them to market. Exactly like the example you use, we may learn and through the study of meaning that fair trade must go hand in hand with cane sugar.

I mean, it kind of sounds obvious now, but there is a relationship between the two of them and that relationship comes because. People who hold certain values and certain beliefs dear to their heart and the two link together. And in that case, it might be a link between healthfulness and a link between ethics. There might be other such links that exist for us to understand the broader sort of frame of that linkage, but also the specific components, you know, the, what the ingredients, or what the specific type of packaging or what a particular type of, product design shape says about the world and about the world that your consumer lives in. And that's really, really important to understand.

Adam: [00:14:28] Yeah. And so it's interesting too. Cause then it's not just about getting someone to say I'd like this or dislike that, or even that I want fair trade or don't want fair trade but it's really hard for us not to deceive ourselves, which suggests that as much as we may think we know ourselves, there's a lot of things that we don't that kind of, happen under the surface, not to say that humans are dumb, but right.

We have a lot of implicit associations with, with all kinds of, with everything, right. I mean, it's almost like the other Clifford Geertz quote that culture is just these web of meanings that we spin for ourselves, live it, right. Everything is part of this web.

And it's interesting to think we're taking that on one level, that we're just helping bring it more explicitly into the business context. And you raised an interesting point too, that there is kind of a challenge of managing up in this case because unless you have a, perhaps a chief research officer or something in the C suite or that executive leadership, oftentimes it's a research team that is working below that.

Right. And then they have to sort of go upwards saying, Hey, we're trying to, look at this, the sense of, meanings. One thing that's interesting too, that. you've got a really great book called microcultures that talks a lot about this process and I want to talk a bit about, that helps break down some of these processes.

And one of the chapters in the book that feels pertinent to this is this idea that. Traditional market research, segmentation and demographics don't actually get at the kinds of meanings that we're talking about here. Right. And that they ultimately fall short because they're, either putting people in boxes or missing some of the points.

We're kind of missing some of the points, I suppose. Could you tell us a bit about why traditional market resources doesn't do well at getting at meaning.

Ujwal: [00:16:00] Yeah, absolutely. I mean the first part of the narrative we've sort of touched upon already, and I love that quote, you mentioned as well, you know, Traditional market research relies on asking consumers and that's pretty common practice. And there are things you can ask. And there are things you can't ask.

I mean, you can give people two slices of bread and ask them which one they prefer. That's an easy question to answer, you can't ask them a complex question of how they choose or how they decide what type of bread to buy. Don't ask that question there. You're never going to get a real answer. And again, to your point, it's not because consumers are actively trying to deceive us.

It's because as human beings, it's just difficult. Our brains don't, I mean, it's biology. Our brains just don't work that way. Most of the time, the decision is already made by our so-called reptilian brain. And by the time we actually figure out how to articulate that with our modern brain it's already a diluted, somehow turned into logic, argument that we make.

Right? And I think it's hard to argue against that, but let's leave that aside for a second. Here's the part that, and we wrote a couple of chapters on this. Here's the part that gets me both riled up and very, very passionate about  why cultural anthropology and the study of meaning is so important to the world of business.

And I'll give you a classic example. The study of millennials, my God, every time I hear that M word, I, they just, you know, there's something that  happens in my brain every time I hear that M word. And by the way, a lot of anthropologists, a lot of social scientists, sociologists are also guilty of following this bandwagon.

And you know, I'm not calling them out. I'm just reminding them that it's our job, our collective responsibility to push people who don't have the knowledge that we get to accumulate. To push them out of their comfort zone and it takes time.

It takes energy and effort and it's not easy. But let me talk about a couple of the reasons why I think it's so important. There's a history of betting on this notion of cultural homogenization and this history isn't modern, I'm referring to a hundred years back and obviously we're talking about cultural anthropology.

You look at the work of people like Boas and Mead, Sapir and others. It all follows in this pathway, the type of homogenization that back in the day, that the powers that be wanted and desired was not humanly possible.

But, you know, we can't assume that, you know, I was born in India. So I'll use that as an easy example. We can't assume that everybody who's an Indian descent who comes into the United States is somehow quote unquote barbaric in their practices because they eat with their hands and that's not, that that's not sophisticated, that's not the right set of meanings. Those kinds of assumptions are what I mean by this bet on cultural homogenization.

We want people to come to, for example, North America, to Canada, to the United States, we want them to come and we want them to become like the so-called European elite. Right?  And we want them to become like that because. that's supposed to be the right way to live, whereas all the other cultures are supposed to be the wrong way to live.

We don't even realize it, but we are doing the same thing by saying all millennials behave the same way we're doing exactly the same thing. We're saying, oh, everybody between this age, some arbitrarily defined age, by the way, everybody between this age and this age must all behave the same way. All millennials are lazy, right?

It's the classic narrative. It's the same thing and the same thing also applies to, you know, Oh, I'm studying African-Americans, I'm studying Hispanics. our job as anthropologists, when it comes to work with our clients, to help them move away from those models to teach them that. Let's not, if you, okay, fair enough.

You want to study the African American community. Great. Let's do that. But please do not assume that all African American hold the same belief system, same value systems behave the same way and therefore are different from the rest of the population. And I think, even though these things are not set out loud, they're assumed and they're baked into the assumptions.

And those assumptions make their way into research practices. Like let's study millennials, let's study African-Americans, let's study Asian Americans and so on. As an organization, at least for my organization, we're really trying to fight that narrative because the proof is out there.

Right? Every time you do a genuine anthropological study of people, we see the meanings and we see how those meanings are held by  all sorts of people. Yes. Certain meanings may have skews,but it's never truly just about one group of people. And so that's really what we've been talking about, about applying the lens of anthropology. In the book we talk about helping organizations think like anthropologists, because when you start to think like anthropologists, you realize there's meaning underlying everything.

And when you think through the lens of meanings, that's in essence what we mean by microcultures micro-cultures to us. Are nothing but sets of meanings that make up a marketplace. And when you think through the lens of meanings, you start to realize, Oh, interesting. It's actually not age cohorts or, you know, generational cohorts or racial cohorts that compete with one another for power, prestige, authority in a given space.

It's actually these meaning based cohorts. And that's what we call microcultures. Going back to the chocolate example there might be a microculture that really believes in ethics that sits in kind of tension with a microculture that just cares about the sweetest tasting cheapest chocolate.

And so then when you look at the macro culture of chocolate and you explore all these micro-cultures the question becomes which micro-cultures can we tackle as an organization that we are best positioned to handle.

And then when we can make that decision then we understand who the audience really, truly is going to be or who they are. And I think that that's what we're trying to get to and that's the part that excites us.

Adam: [00:22:32] That's really interesting too. Cause It's almost like pulling away from some of the exact characteristics that you tend to see in traditional research, right? Like demographics or generations. It's funny it makes your blood boil. I kind of agree with you too.

Whenever I read market studies just like Gen Z does this it's like, yeah. That's a large swath of people you know? They had the same age but they happen to be across the globe. So it's assuming they would be the same it's almost a form of insanity it feels like. Right? But the idea is if this study of microculture, if I'm understanding right, is about getting around meaning and that's, that's a really fascinating way of basically seeing how people's actions and what they say they may not say, or what their actions say about themselves is kind of a way of identifying them.

And so that's cool cause it actually seems like it's, it's the opposite of what you hear in most common market research. Right? How businesses try to identify with  consumers. All right. They try to ID like we're trying to get this hipster market and it's like well okay.

But not all hipsters are the same. Right. We have our, what our metro-sexual into lumbersexuals into our friends with tattoos, you know? 

Ujwal: [00:23:41] I just thought I'd build on one point you made, which is imagine a world where all we care about are these sets of meanings and meanings are different in different contexts. And the reason why I say imagine a world is that now I'm going to say we actually exist in that world.

We just don't realize it because the same person who swears by buying ethical chocolate. We'll turn around and buy skin care products that are tested on animals and not think twice. Right? Why is that the case? Are they being untruthful? Are they being inauthentic? No, nobody is actively going. Oh yeah. I'm going to cheat myself today. That's not how human beings work. Right. It's just that there are different meanings that hold more value in a given context than other meanings and I use this example like maybe it's more important to me as a human being, to sit around a dinner table and boast about how all the food I buy is from local  butchers and local farms rather than grocery stores. 

And you know, the chocolate I buy is fair trade and the coffee bean side buy is fair trade single origin and blah, blah, blah. Maybe that's more important to me than it is to say hey, by the way, I don't buy XYZ skincare products because they're all tested on animals. And they use certain types of ingredients that are horrible. I think what's interesting is understanding how those meanings change from one context to the next.

And instead of worrying about the one person we worry about the meanings in a context, because that's the context within which a product is placed or a brand is placed or a company is placed. And I think that's what we're trying to get at through the methodology and the process.

Adam: [00:25:42] That's super edifying to think with and it helps very clearly see this as why it's not so much about the people themselves, because as you clearly point with chocolate or something like vegan leather is another example that comes to mind, right? Uh, that you may have a belt you bought on Amazon that's leather, but then you then want to go out and purchase a vegan leather satchel. I'm curious, I think about, as you develop as a business practice and as a way of  helping clients and businesses understand how to think more with meaning some of the other pieces that come into play here. It seems, I know you mentioned some of these in micro-cultures too, as we've mentioned Boas and Mead here, but then also there's folks like Pierre Bourdieu, and his notion of taste, right?

Or the idea of how do we come to kind of form the meanings that make differences to us. And so the idea of focusing on meanings, again, not as a generational thing or as a demographic thing but since these meanings will change based on context that has to do a lot with this concept of social capital. Right?

So I'd love to kind of break down a little bit and get your perspective on the idea of social capital. Or how we compete with that around meanings as one of the theoretical frameworks right now, I don't mean to get into a theory debate but partially the point of my question here is to show folks that theory actually does have an important implication for how we can understand and work in the real world. Right?

Ujwal: [00:27:00] Yeah. I mean it's interesting people are often surprised by how much the work of academics and sort of broadly speaking social sciences theory has played a role in the development of our technology. What Bordieu did really well was take the notion of meaning and translated into the notion of capital.

And I think he realized that certain meanings give you this intangible currency and this intangible currency you trade. And obviously the most common example, especially in the American circumstance would be an Ivy league education, right? Classic example or to use a more, I guess a more blatant example. It would be the type of car or the brand of car you drive, how big your home is, which neighborhood you live in. And then, you know, a combination of those things. And, you know, Bordieu talks a lot about that in his book Distinction, and also talks about that in a couple of other pieces of his work.

And that really inspired us because it helped us realize that yes, we're studying meaning, but the study of meaning is almost meaningless without realizing why we're doing it. And the reason we're doing it is we have to teach our clients about the forms of symbolic capital that are developing within their cultural markets.

And I say cultural markets because, you know, a marketplace as a consumer thing because of it as not as, you know, an industry defines it as, and so within that cultural marketplace, we have to figure out what are the forms of symbolic capital developing and which forms of symbolic capital are somehow.

More prominent than others, which forms of symbolic capital are maybe growing faster than others. In our book we use the example of that video that exposed the treatment of cows and baby calves in a farm that was owned by Fairlife. And I remember seeing that new story and doing a series of projects in relation to that because we do work with a lot of companies that operate in the dairy space and I remember watching a few months after that video came out know until that video came out the microculture of animal welfare was there, but there was no the most significant growth in it. It was kind of as if the meanings around that were important to a small niche group of consumers, it wasn't really growing. And then that thing came about and it gained steam. It got energized and that form of symbolic capital became stronger than some other forms of symbolic capital that were owning the dairy and milk landscape until then.

Meanings of Symbolic Capital

And now that is slowly transforming what dairy is and will mean to American consumers in the next little while. But those kinds of cultural moments we can look back on in history and say those are seminal moments because they add fuel to whatever form of symbolic capital that was dormant, they add fuel to the fire and they give strengths.   And that's what's interesting to us. And what we have done with our technology is actually modeled this kind of thinking so that we can actually build a model with which we can understand meanings, the forms of symbolic capital. How many people, these meanings they're relevant to and how that's changing over time. So that's in essence we do as a company, but it's all born out of the work of all these incredible academics.

So you know, if there's ever a PhD out there that's thinking, Oh,  I'm publishing another  journal article, what impact will this have? Well, it has impacts, right? It just depends, I guess, on who reads it and when sometimes the impact may occur a hundred years later but nonetheless.

Adam: [00:31:12] So the message or the moral of the story is that there is hope for anthropologists that are trying to have an impact out there. And I appreciate that kind of rendition right in the Fairlife dairy example is really poignant because it was this dairy company that was really up and coming and had begun to corner the market by having no fat, less sugar.

So it's interesting. There's already some association that milk was too sugary, right? Or a little bit less fat or something. Right? So they're making quote unquote healthier milk. But then this video went viral online on youtube and overnight they're symbolic capital plummeted but then also there was an economic implication too definitely. Right? And so it's realized there is this deep connection that meaning is intimately also tied to economics, right?

And that people's purchasing choices and what they'll choose to support or boycott in this case are ultimately tied up or this. So the idea that employees being bad to animals then cost the company millions of dollars. And that's a really fascinating and important voice for businesses if they don't know this already like to pay attention to right?

That symbolic capital may be a term that they may not use often, but they should. And it's a way to contemplate how might economic decisions get made by consumers. And so sure it's bad PR to have this video out there, but really on top of losing a lot of money that people don't trust your brand anymore. And recovering that trust is, you know, PR fire's way harder to put out, than to kind of build a new idea.

Ujwal: [00:32:37] And, and if I can just build on that, what's interesting for us is that these kinds of incidents happen often in different industries for various reasons, pharmaceuticals, a great example of stuff that happens in the industry. But I think what's interesting is when you look at an issue like this through the lens of symbolic capital, you might actually realize that certain issues are. There's a big deal made in the media about the issue but to the consumer it's not that important. Or when the consumer translates that into currency, it doesn't give them that much money. Right? Whereas there are other issues that sometimes the media doesn't make a big enough deal of but it actually makes a big difference in the capital and what kind of status, power, prestige that will diminish for the consumer who is now seen as using that product, or advocating for that brand. So that's, what's interesting to us is to add that perspective. And that analysis we can do very quickly with agility, but being able to do that gives people a perspective that they otherwise wouldn't have. And this goes back to let's teach you to think like an anthropologist. This is a classic example of that, right? Where let's understand what the underlying meanings are before we decide what we're going to do with it.

Adam: [00:34:01] Interesting, that makes perfect sense. But teaching a business to think like an anthropologist is just having this understanding that what are the meanings that a consumer or a group of people will have around a product or an idea. That's a great point that viral video won't necessarily affect the economics if consumers don't care about it. Right? There's a mechanism in here that I think is super important to talk about in that is this little thing called the internet that has really changed the way that people can communicate like both the speed at which information can travel but also kind of to speak to one of your points you made earlier that part of the business model that you guys are working towards is to get people away from the idea that we're moving towards some kind of cultural homogenization. Right? And so it's interesting because just because we have more global communication does not mean that we're becoming the same culture. And then on top of that, one of the arguments that you guys put out that I think is really important with this too is that we are entering this interesting era of much more market fragmentation, right?

Culture is not being homogenized by the Internet

And so, because of that there's more kinds of products and services to offer. You can bring ideas. I mean, one of the examples I'm thinking of too, is the idea of the razor, the shaving club. Yeah, they do have men's grooming in general. Right? But a razor is a simple case of I think it was Gillette for over a century was the dominant company that was producing shaving goods and then we have dollar shave club or Harry's, these kinds of subscription-based razor companies that do the same thing. They sell a razor but they have built different meanings around it in terms of why it is good to save money and to groom but they were able to put these companies together with much less capital because they're able to even get manufacturing deals or something from across the globe. And that totally, quote unquote disrupted the shaving industry. But at the same time it goes to show that like Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath, right?

This is no longer about having just these mega corporations, but that so many other kinds of businesses, small groups, organizations, startups can enter into the space and totally disrupt something. If they get the right meaning. And so the internet did not become this machine that we're all swirling and becoming the same culture but it became a one level like this leveler of how people could enter the market and to make products and services, and also the information flow. Right? And that's, I think partially too, a lot of the models that you guys were built and worked on, this is basically we have this access to so much information, right?  And that's kind of where this big data piece I think is super important too. 

Ujwal: [00:36:31] Yeah, I know it's a really important point. And you know, what we are finding is that. Let's take Reddit as an example. You can pretty much find a subreddit for those of you who are not familiar with sub-community within reddit.com. You can pretty much find a subreddit edit on anything you can think of.

And that subreddit will have people from all over the world. There'll be somebody from France, somebody from China, somebody from India, from the United States. So on, so forth. And all of these people are, they are not because they share a similar passion, they're there because they also share a similar set of values, belief systems, and they're also trading and engaging with a similar set of meanings.

And that's what plops them into a small subreddit sub-community. And there are hundreds of thousands of them. So what the internet has enabled well,  it's allowed us to be our type of weird, right. And find other people who are my type of weird, I guess, from around the globe. But because of that, it's actually created and enabled more fragmentation in culture, then it has homogenization. So in essence, culture is actually fragmenting more. And I don't see this in a bad way. It's actually a really good thing. Culture is becoming more complex. There are more meanings that exist in culture than they ever existed before. And so I think that's the interesting part here that, I think a lot of organizations and leaders need to understand that the internet has actually enabled fragmentation. And I always correct people when they say markets are fragmenting. I remind them. No, no, no culture is fragmenting. Markets are a result of fragmenting culture.

Markets are born because culture fragments and people go, I want something different and somebody creates it. Markets don't create culture, culture creates markets. And I think that's,  something that people often I'd have to be reminded of. And I think that's, that's really the interesting thing that's so you're right.

It's a really important point to talk about because the internet is not enabling homogenization, which means, coming to your second point. Modern tools and techniques. So I'm not saying ours is some sort of Holy grail, but this is how we choose to do it. We use artificial intelligence, big data and natural language processing and all the modern tools available to us in order to study the meanings behind what people talk about in any given context.

So we use all these tools to study, meaning to study the structure of language and get to meanings and then quantify those meanings. I'm sure there are many other ways that the same thing can be achieved, but the point I'm getting to is that I think what's powerful now is that even though culture is fragmenting, we have more powerful tools and techniques that can help us understand these fragmentations and these sets of meanings in an extremely agile and quick manner.

So for example, we do studies, our technology can decode meaning around a topic in seven seconds. one of our anthropologists, if they're doing an ethnographic analysis for a client, they might use the tool and do a more in depth analysis over three years, five days, and get to the kind of detail that we would get in months and months of research.

But just that is progress to us and it's progress in the modern context, because it helps us use modern tools in the context that is appropriate, you know, to understand the modern fragmented context, we have to use modern tools to do that. And I think that's the point I'm trying to get at is that that's the benefit of the internet.

And for me, the biggest joy is when we talk to a new company, they're interested in working with us when they don't ask this question. I'm the happiest person on planet earth. And the question is the following. You're studying people on the internet. How do I know about real people? Right.

Adam: [00:40:51] Yeah,

Ujwal: [00:40:52] That question is now sort of less and less common, which is, I'm so thankful for that.

Adam: [00:40:58] That's great. Yeah.

Ujwal: [00:41:01] Right? And, but that's, you know, the reason why less and less people are asking this question is because we are all increasingly realizing that culture is culture. It doesn't matter how you get at it, but the point is in the modern context, there are certain ways to get at it in a faster and more efficient manner. And that's what we're trying to do.

Adam: [00:41:19] Yes. I really appreciate that idea of thinking about one, that the study of meaning is the study of meaning, right. It's kinda like, love is love people there's not a fake version of it. But, the other idea is that it's about using the tools at hand.

I think that it's a really neat way to contemplate using artificial intelligence and machine learning and big data as the tools of the trade. Right. As we have access to these collections of information of things like reviews on websites that people would voluntarily leave, or customer reviews for a product or,  if you share an article on a news website  so it's interesting that we online have this collection of data that's out there that's freely available. And then we have like a nice calculator, a really nice calculator, right?

That can then do these big crunches and pattern recognition of that in a way that just helps us understand meaning , on a bigger scale. And so I think that's really interesting too, because what, what your work does is it mixes together the quantitative trust that we have in numbers for better, for worse and then the big data, and then the qualitative richness of the ethnography, right? That we can still understand the contextual meaning behind things. It isn't simply that 35 people said they like chocolate and 37 say they like vanilla, but it's what are people talking about around these flavors right?

Ujwal: [00:42:36] Yeah. I often tell clients that just because we desire thick data, it doesn't mean that thick data can't also be big and so we use the term big thick data to describe our focus because they're not mutually exclusive and you can very much get that richness without giving up the scale.

And that's exciting, right? The other part, since I'm on your podcast, I want to mention is that we are actively hiring. We're looking for PhDs that are interested in doing this kind of work. I think you captured the essence of it, beautifully there a minute ago. For us, the exciting part is we get to do almost what is deeply academic work, but we get to do it in a modern corporate context. And the impact is palpable. 

Culture is Progressing in a Positive Direction

You know,  as a mantra for us as an organization, we don't wake up in the morning to drive social change, but we end up driving social change because our job as cultural anthropologists is to use the technology to study meanings and to report on the evolution of those meetings and thankfully culture, even though I know daily on a day to day basis, it may not seem that that way culture is actually progressing in a positive direction.  Humanity is progressing in a positive direction, we can see that. And our job then becomes to quantify that change so that organizations can feel more confident in making social impact because oftentimes organizations don't make social change because they don't know if the positive impact of it will outweigh the negative impact.

And when we see that we can report on it and it pushes people to do more with their dollars and with their privilege that these big corporations have. So even though we don't wake up to do that, we inadvertently drive social change, whether it's, you know, the creation of a brand that cares about size inclusivity and body positivity.

Or it's certain policies in terms of how they think about gender, and sexuality. There's so many things that have an impact on employees, on customers, on, you know, culture at large. And then in the context of the current, pandemic, as well as the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.

There's so many things that we get to learn and teach our clients about. That impacts not just where the money goes, but also where the energy goes within the organization. You know, I kind of jokingly say, if you can show companies where there's money in social impact, they will do it  because ultimately everybody has to make money.

And so in many ways, yeah, we're able to do that through the work we do. And that excites me because, you know, we get to do that at a scale that we only dreamed of five years ago when we started this company.

Adam: [00:45:32] Yeah, that’s incredible too. And I think that what you just said will be very inspiring to many of our listeners too. And that's just understanding that it's possible, probable and highly likely that you will drive social change doing anthropological work at scale, you know?

And so certainly that Motivbase, your company, that's, a place to do that. As a reminder, I’ll say this again; You guys are actively hiring. So if you're an anthropologist or a social scientist, trained person, PhD, even a master's with some training, reach out.

This is super exciting. And also to me, just a very positive note that things are looking up for anthropology too, as a discipline, as, as a way of seeing the world that, it's.

You know, increasingly we've seen it kind of enter, industry quote unquote through user experience and like, that's, that's fine. That's interesting to see it go there but talking with you and learning more about Motivbase. This is a company that to me is uniquely positioned in anthropology that I've never seen before.

I think that's incredibly powerful and exciting as an indication that anthro is on the up and up and that there's good folks like yourself, that it does make it possible. So thank you for putting this together. This is exciting. And this has been a great conversation with you. Are there any places that people want to get in contact with you? Are there any best ways to do that?

Ujwal: [00:46:45] First of all, I just wanted to thank you for having me on and for your kind words, obviously we sometimes do feel alone in the fight because a lot of our competitors are typical analytics companies nothing wrong with that again, but I'm just thinking about it through the lens of being an anthropologist, having all this passion for this field, wanting organizations to think this way.

So sometimes we do feel isolated and alone and when we make progress with bringing on incredible clientele, That's when we see the power of this and it energizes us every day and of course, conversations like these energize us as well. So thank you for that. In terms of parting words, if people are interested in learning more about us they can visit our website motivbase.com, but it's motive without an E.

So m o t i v b a s e.com. They can also check out our book  Micro-cultures, it's available on Barnes and Amazon and all the usual places and otherwise keep listening to Adam and, This Anthro Life.

Adam: [00:47:56] Good advertisement. Thanks. Yeah. Cheers.

Ujwal: [00:48:01] Thank you.