“Anthropologists can have an enormous added value for industry and society”: Ellen Bal, PEOPLE team member


Ellen Bal (Photo: Yvonne Compier) senior lecturer and programme director of the MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is a PEOPLE team member. For the first issue of the PEOPLE project Newsletter, published in May 2017, we asked her to share her thoughts on the application of social sciences and the use of people-centered design and development approaches in the sustainable living and energy industry.

Download our Newsletter here for other inspiring articles about PEOPLE’s approach to people-centred design and development, innovation in energy efficiency and education, and experiences of design anthropologist Anna Kirah, member of PEOPLE’s Advisory Board!

“In industry, lots of products are being developed for a multitude of end-users, people with a diverse range of wants, needs and beliefs. These products need to fit these wants and needs, otherwise they’ll go unutilized. As social scientists, we can help to align these products with the needs and beliefs of their intended end-users by providing, what we call, the ‘social context’ and ‘cultural aspects’ of these products. In doing so, we pair up our body of knowledge and research methods with the knowledge and skills of the engineers and designers working in industry. Together we create sustainable products that could have a profound positive impact on people’s lives.

One of my former Anthropology students, after graduating, went to an employment office to get a job. He told the agency he would do ‘whatever they couldn’t find anybody else for’. They paired him with the largest convention center in the city where they were in need of someone to ‘do something about’ the very technically-driven signage throughout the buildings of the center. He went to work, as anthropologists often do, by talking to all people involved, creators of the signage as well as intended end-users. In the end, he managed to bridge the gap between the makers’ intent and the users’ interests and ‘translated’ all the technical terms into a language that was both accurate and effective.

I myself contribute to the application of social sciences by developing a curriculum for our students that will equip them for employment outside of academia. I think it’s imperative for us as teachers to facilitate our students’ practical skills development and help them apply the knowledge and research methods we provide them with. Anthropologists can have an enormous added value for industry and society when they learn to effectively engage and cooperate with professionals outside of academia. I therefore interact with such professionals to figure out what they know, what they don’t know and where we, as anthropologists, can be of added value according to their perspective. And that is what we at the VU subsequently incorporate in our new masters’ programme.

With regards to the PEOPLE project, I am really looking forward to working with our industry partner Alliander, a Dutch energy network company that provides energy transport and distribution to a large part of the Netherlands. I hope that we, in unison, will be able to create an inspiring example of the effective application of social sciences within industry as well as a set of hands-on tools for other universities and industry partners so that understanding people will indeed become an indispensable part of industrial development processes.”