Deciphering Culture

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Softwired for Empathy — the human condition (talk by Jeremy Rifkin)

leave a comment » just posted a talk (with animation by RSA ANIMATE) by social theorist & economist Jeremy Rifkin from a few months ago on recent neurological research that indicates that humans are softwired for empathy and that the PRIMARY HUMAN DRIVE IS TO BELONG (not to compete, conquer…).  Rifkin uses this research as a jumping off point to discuss the evolution of human empathy and possibilities for saving the world it has created. Rifkin’s omissions raise many questions but there is some meat here and it’s always interesting when heterodox voices come out of mainstream sources (Rivkin has advised numerous CEOs of major corporations as well as European governments). Lots of implications for those of us doing “cultural” research (in any sense).

For an expanded version, go to Rifkin’s 2010 The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis. It’s only fair to note that Rifkin is only one of many people exploring empathy — for a primatologist’s perspective see The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal, for a business perspective see Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and there’s a lot more work out there.

Note: Rifkin doesn’t hold  himself back from some wild rhetorical flourishes (i.e., the Adam & Eve reference in this talk) and he  has been a ligahtening rod for criticism from some well-respected sources. From Wikipedia:

Rifkin’s work has also been controversial, and opponents have attacked the scientific rigor of his claims as well as some of the tactics he uses to promote his views. A 1989 article about Rifkin in Time bore the title, “The Most Hated Man in Science”.[9]Stephen Jay Gould characterised Rifkin’s 1983 book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship”.[10] Stewart Brand wrote in 2009: “Among scientists who have read his work, Rifkin is regarded as America’s leading nitwit.”[11]

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

Dancing Guy as a lesson in leadership (

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The “dancing guy video has become viral — over 3 million hits for the original. And it’s making its way into business presentations. I saw Gentry Underwood of IDEO use it to illustrate the herd aspect of human behavior in a talk on ethnography and design at PARC in Palo Alto. And below is a link to an article by music business strategist Derek Silvers on whaa we can learn about leadership from Dancing Guy (the video gives a capsule version — the text is available on Silver’s blog, a new find I’m bookmarking today).

Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

Also worth checking out is Silvers’ entry on the human need for drama:

Kurt Vonnegut explains drama

I was at a Kurt Vonnegut talk in New York a few years ago. Talking about writing, life, and everything. He explained why people have such a need for drama in their life. He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.” (read more…)

And I’d recommend checking out Underwood’s Social Software: The Other ‘Design for Social Impact,’ by Gentry Underwood which extends his presentation at PARC.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

Thinking about research — Short Takes (1)

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Two reposts of interesting blog posts I’ve read lately on research (from the design sector).

In case you’re curious or have a memory lapse (like I did), here’s a short “definition” of verstehen from Wikipedia (where else):

Verstehen is a German word which does not directly translate into English but is loosely synonymous with “understanding” or “interpretation”. In the social sciences it refers to a kind of non-empirical, empathic, or participatory examination of social phenomena. The term is particularly associated with the German sociologist, Max Weber, whose antipositivism established an alternative to prior sociological positivism and economic determinism, rooted in the analysis of social action. In anthropology, verstehen holds parallels with cultural relativism and has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture attempts to relate to subcultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point-of-view.

(1) From the online magazine Interactions:

Adding By Leaving Out: The Power of the Pause
Liz Danzico

We tend to think of the pause as awkward. In speech, pregnant pauses connote uncomfortable silence; we veil silence with fillers. As professional communicators, we’re trained to deliver smooth speech, censoring out “um” and “ah.” Public-speaking groups, such as the well-known Toastmasters, fine every member who utters an “uh” or “um” during a speech. This distaste for the pause – and the inverse, seeking an always-on state – is a battle we face at school, at work, and in industry at large.

I propose that we’re too impatient with the pause, and as a result, we’re missing out on a great deal. What would happen if, as communicators and designers, we became more comfortable with the pause? Because it turns out we can add by leaving out. The pause has power. (hit link @ title for the rest)

(2) From Copernicus Consulting (a Toronto design research and strategy firm):

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

by Sam Ladner on October 15, 2009

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out. (hit link @ title for the rest)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 24, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Posted in Methodology, Research

Tagged with ,

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