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CENTRE FOR SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS (CSS)

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A centre of excellence in applied
ethnographic approaches
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OBJECTIVES
1. Demonstrate the immediate value of the humanities to business, government and
students
2. Build a crucial body of knowledge, namely that of carrying out human centred research
with a practical orientation towards sustainability, in a rapidly changing world.

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The rationale for building towards a Centre for Sustainable Solutions

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A Centre for Sustainable Solutions (CSS) would ultimately aim to combine rapid
ethnographic work with a design thinking approach to both business cases and policy, with
a Sustainability lens as its guiding principles. 
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However it would start life as an academic position oriented to applied ethnographic
approaches drawn from the business and policy worlds, but rooted in a rigorous
anthropological tradition of understanding the theories, and diverse epistemologies and
ontologies, relevant to social and environmental change.
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Ethnography provides the simplifying power of understanding how people are actually able
to change their behaviour. Design provides the wherewithal to take these insights and
goals , and work through to practical solutions. So this initial focus on applied ethnographic
approaches could be combined with expertise on design thinking, as well as expertise on
sustainability and environmental Anthropology, to build a centre of excellence for problem-
solving research.
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Given the strategic trend of a rapidly changing environment, and rapidly changing economy,
driving rapid social change, particularly in South Asia, such a centre is likely to find enduring
relevance in the decades ahead.
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Overview of Outputs
The operational idea is to use rapid ethnographic research techniques and design thinking
to arrive at solutions to pressing business and social problems within a reasonable time-
scale, but leveraging the expertise of the University.
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At the same time, these rapid ethnographic and design engagements will yield new insights
into contemporary social and business problems that will provide a platform for
original writing and publishing within academia and also within business and policy
publications. The originality would come from bridging ethnographic approaches with
CENTER FOR SOCIALLY SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS

pressing social concerns, in timescales that allow interventions to flow from this. In this
manner the unit would be able to straddle the worlds of business, academia and policy, and
provide key innovative inputs into public policy discussions.

Why it is desirable to have such a unit from a long-term perspective


As rapid social and environmental change becomes more of a norm, the requirement to
solve immediate social problems, to prevent changes from turning into disasters, is going to
mount. Engaging with the problem solving processes of industry and policy-making, within
an overall framework of sustainability serves as preparation for these emerging times. 
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It is through this kind of research that the existing body of academic research and
knowledge will find relevance. Indeed these emerging conditions are likely to mean that far
greater levels of engagement are going to be required to demonstrate from Universities. It
will be increasingly important to demonstrate the relevance of the university, and of the
humanities, to society at large, as well as to students and research funders.
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Why it is immediately viable

Very much in demand from the business community, Applied Ethnography is an approach
that will demonstrate the relevance of the humanities to the highly aspirational segments
that make up the student bodies of private universities in India. Training people in these
disciplines is also likely to facilitate partnerships with the private sector.
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What is more, collaboration on real world solutions, particularly to questions such as social
business approaches, design for sustainability, and in particular in a South Asian setting will
be perceived as ripe for collaborative research projects with a range of institutions in the UK,
Europe and America. For instance UK academic institutions are often encouraged by
funding bodies to seek research partnerships with Universities overseas, particularly those
with a strong practical or fieldwork focus. 
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Example Course Concept: Theory and methods in Applied
Anthropology
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The idea of this course is to teach applied ethnographic approaches against an unpacking
of various theories of objects. The motivation for this approach is that it allows a reconciling
of natural scientific and anthropological approaches through a careful analysis of how
objects of study are framed and understood, and the ontological implications of this (in
terms of what effectively are various visions of the world at large, or nature).
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This is a pre-requisite to being able to synthesise the many existing, design and technical
problem solving approaches (which are most often grounded in the philosophy of the
natural sciences) with ethnographic approaches that will allow the elucidation of the social
contexts that also drive solutions.
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1) Theories of and Approaches to Objects of Enquiry

- What is an object of enquiry?


- Various Approaches to objects - systems theories, hyper-objects, objects and
commodification in Marxism, practice theories, critiques of scientism, approaches in
Science and Technical Studies, the ontological turn in Anthropology.
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Key terms and objects:
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- The Field
- How is it defined, socially geographically, academically? How does this affect relations
of power in terms of who gets to write what about whom? How is this disrupted by
contemporary forms of digital communication
- Culture
- in what ways can it be seen as an object? What holds it together - various theories -
webs of meaning, habits, power / poetics, material and functional requirements,
mythology etc…
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- Community
- What does it mean for a group of people to be a community? How has this been
approached and understood by Anthropologists, and how have various social
groupings themselves been able to describe themselves as communities? How has
this been connected to ideas of kinship, clan, caste etc? What are the relationships
and tensions between various ideas of belonging and stratification?
- Power and Conflict
- How have cultures been studied in terms of power and conflict, what are the various
approaches? How do cultures and subcultures themselves make sense of power
and conflict?
- Practice
- How can we understand subjectivity, agency and materiality in relation to cultural
“objects”?
- Text
- To what extent can we read cultures and practices as coherent systems of meaning?
- Material Cultures, Still and moving images
- How are systems of non verbal representation implicated with generating coherence
in cultures and meanings?
- Unearthing Relevant Histories
- How do social histories, mythologies and oral histories play their part in generating
coherence in systems of meaning and culture?
- Change
- How is social change to be understood? How is environmental change to be
understood? How does this call into question the status of various objects and
systems of meaning that we take for granted?
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2) Methodologies for Applied Anthropology

Participant Observation
- Structured and Un-structured approaches - various modes of guiding discussion
- Participation vs observation, from Ethnomethodology to Fly on the Wall approaches
Interviewing Techniques - Experts, Depth Interviews, Dyads and Small Group Interviews
Using Focus Groups in Ethnographic Work
Multi-Sited Ethnographies - Ways to trace connections
Media Ethnography 1) Decoding Media
Media Ethnography 2) Using Media in Research
Digital Ethnography - Approaches and techniques for researching Social Media and other
online sites ethnographically
Evaluation Research and Ethnography
Design Research and Ethnography
Marketing and Ethnography
Policy Research and Ethnography

Example Research Project: Understanding the existing solution


spaces in Indian Environmental Business, Policy and Activism.
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The project would focus on a rapid ethnographic survey of existing approaches to the
environment across the private sector, policy organisations and civil society / NGOs as well
as more activist organisations. The focus would be on investigating the sorts of solutions
and ways forward being advocated and suggested, but doing so beyond the usual technical
and political frameworks that tend to apply.
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Instead the approach would be to look at:
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1) The specific proposals and solutions being put forward.
2) How these proposals and solutions look in practice, from up close ethnographic work
3) The rationale behind these approaches, from expert interviews with those involved in
setting up and implementing the approaches, a well as stakeholders affected by the
projects
4) Contextualisation of each approach in terms of the landscape of solutions and
approaches to environmental problems found in India, keying into traditions such as
community led neo-gandhian approaches, intermediate technology, conservation
approaches, resource struggle approaches, Hindu -inspired visions of the environment
(from liberal to conservative) and so on.
5) Relating these solution spaces and landscapes of environmental organisations and
approaches to international debates, to bring out what is distinctive about Indian
approaches to environmental issues.
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This research could lead to a deeper understanding of the Indian environmental scene, and
allow a sense of the types of solutions that are being explored, and possibly which types of
solutions are tending to get overlooked in which areas and why.
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The idea is that by taking a practical and practice based approach to various solutions to
environmental issues, and then mapping them to a wider landscape of approaches to the
environment, there will be a way of avoiding two major traps:
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1) The trap of the political: The belief what mainly needs to happen is an overall ideological
reorientation, and that struggle towards that is the ultimate solution to these issues.
2) The trap of the technical: That all that counts is the very up close details of the
implementation of solutions, and that other factors are largely irrelevant.
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The ethnographic perspectives will will navigate between these dangers by keeping the
focus on what happens in terms of solutions understood as social practices, and how these
practices are grounded in broader social histories which shape them.