Transportation Futures

Project Investigators: Nik Bonovich

Project Sponsor: Jan English-lueck

During the summer I worked as an intern for SonicRim, a co-creation and research consultancy in San Francisco, with Uday Dandavate and Arvind Venkataramani. SonicRim has a long history with the Anthropology Department at San Jose State University and is a frequent partner. During my time at SonicRim I participated and contributed to projects around the future of transportation technology.

I participated in co-creation sessions with various stakeholders and performed ethnographic consumer research. Ethnography is a wonderful methodology to use in design research because it includes real-life observations and interviews that dive deep into understanding a culture. By observing and interviewing consumers as they interact with new products it creates a rich and deep story of everyday lives and experiences, which provides empathy and understanding to aide in the development of products. During the co-creation sessions we spoke with various stakeholders that were part of our client organization. Those targeted interviews elicited interesting perspectives from different employees in the organization, allowed us to dig deep to better understand the organization, and allowed them to tell us what was important for us to discover in our research. The interviews helped us better understand what connections or lack of connections existed within the organization, what their perspective was on the product they were creating and what needed to be addressed through consumer research. Through those co-creation sessions we had stakeholders participate in an exercise where they took pictures of objects in their home they could identify with and were important to them personally. The pictures were then shared with the group to help the client understand how individuals identify with important things and how they reflect on important activities. The activity was used so the client could understand how research is performed with consumers, to better understand personal identity, what is important and how someone could imagine future improvements. The consumer research included the recruitment of consumers who participated in a transportation activity. The recruitment was performed by an outside vendor. We provided the vendor with a screener to obtain the type of participants we needed. From there the chosen participants received guidance and instructions on how to perform a transportation activity, while filming themselves on their smart phone. Participants took rides in vehicles around town. Through a questionnaire and video, they documented the process of getting picked up, the experience in the ride, including features in the car, how the car operated on the streets and finally the experience reaching their destination. They provided feedback on their expectations, surprises, things they went well and things that did not.
After the first phase of research, we selected a subset of the participants to meet with us for inperson participatory design sessions. We designed a discussion guide in conjunction with the client for three, two-hour participatory design sessions during weekday evenings. I assisted SonicRim researchers with client logistics and as a videographer. These participatory design sessions allowed participants to introduce themselves, discuss their current transportation experiences and the future of transportation. During the participatory design sessions, we had a moderator who facilitated the discussion. Participants not only answered questions but participated in activities with paper to illustrate their activities using various forms of transportation.

The participatory design sessions also included a small simulation exercise where participants could play roles, act out planning a trip and participate in a trip with new transportation technology to better understand how their lives may change in the future. Following the participatory design sessions, I began the process of coding the transcripts and videos for relevant themes to present the client with recommendations and insights for the development of their product. I worked with SonicRim staff to develop a codebook that organized the participatory design sessions by both structure of the sessions and important themes. It was interesting digging through the data to understand some of the similarities and differences of participants. There were themes that popped up repeatedly, while others were more unique to individual participants. Some things were expected, while others were quite surprising The project was a very illuminating experience. I was able to work on a design research project that included steps of understanding the client, building a research plan, performing the research and analysis.

Applied Anthropologists Adapt to COVID-19 at SJSU

How has our San José State University applied anthropology community adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Practicum Research Team: Jan English-Lueck, Ann Warfield-Hooker, Abril Perez-Gonzaga, Milton Canas-Chinchilla, and Patrick Padneiros.

To document the anthropological response to COVID19, our team of graduate and undergraduate anthropologists conducted an oral history of our department’s experience of 2020-2021. Members of the anthropological community had to manage the usual academic activities—teaching, research, professional networking and publication—in new ways. Faculty, students, and alumni practitioners adapted by reflecting on those constraints and establishing collaborative partnerships. As a community of applied anthropologists, faculty, students, and practitioners from San José State, we developed research projects, collaborative teaching experiences, and community programs to investigate and adapt to the pandemic.

Capturing the Moment

We decided to collect oral histories of our activities as applied anthropologists in this historic moment.  We adapted our methods to follow physical distancing protocols and conducted remote from February to April 2021. We interviewed faculty, students, and alumni practitioners and collected short video. For our analysis, our team looked for patterns in how we changed our research, teaching and professional practices to capture changes wrought by Covid-19 within our SJSU applied anthropology communities. In an attempt to “capture the moment,” we discovered methodical research challenges. Academic and practitioner researchers needed to rethink how we contacted communities to recruit participants, adapted our toolkits and methods, and mobilized social and economic support for hidden populations. We found that the pandemic accentuated the underlying issues we were already investigating in our research agendas and community applications.

We found that applied anthropologists at San José State University used their analytical skills to identify and overcome the practical methodological obstacles.  Our community used the networking skills we so often investigate to create and intensify partnerships and collaborative relationships to get the work done.

As Dr. Melissa Beresford notes (pictured left) “ What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is it’s just put a giant magnifying glass on all of the existing inequalities that were already in our society, and it’s just kind of magnified, what those inequalities are, and exacerbated those inequalities for sure.”

Adaptation and Collaboration

Applied and public anthropologists at San José State systematically adapted our research and community work to:

  • Identify and overcome obstacles
  • Adapt research methods
  • Retool our analytical toolkits to better understand and communicate the impact of the pandemic

Dr. Beresford clarifies, “So recruitment is really challenging, based on the COVID -19 pandemic, especially recruitment for hidden populations. So what we did to get around that is, we partnered with CommUniverCity San Jose, since they have long standing ties within communities in San Jose, and devised a kind of a virtual recruitment survey.”

Publishing takes a long time, so it was important to get thoughts into the world quickly.  Drs. Marlovits and Gonzalez published an article in Anthropology Today early in the pandemic that framed the emerging experience for a broader audience. As Gonzalez comments,

We were both using the opportunity to try to give a sense of what we were feeling. But also trying to give an anthropological view on how the virus, how the pandemic, was really kind of breaking open these inequalities and these problems, these deep social problems that are often hidden in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area more generally.

Others, barred by circumstance from collecting new information, used the moment to reflect, write, and publish.  Dr. Meniketti comments, in reference to his work in historic archaeology:

So the research was conducted earlier, the pandemic simply enabled me to bring it to publication. I’m editing, I’m working. I’m working on an edited book right now with multiple authors. And essentially, they’ve all said to me, oh, they’ve got time. They can do a chapter for me because they can’t get in the field, they can’t do anything else. So, they’re more than happy to contribute a chapter… They’re just using this as an opportunity to publish that work.”

Our applied anthropological community created collaborative partnerships to amplify the efforts that any one of us could make alone.  We found that people could:

  • Use the moment to experiment with new directions and tools
  • Explore emerging phenomena
  • Collaborate within and across institutions and stakeholders
  • Build research opportunities between professors, professors and students, academia and communities of practice

Dr. Faas used his existing network in disaster anthropology to build a collective.  He comments,

We started thinking about what are the important questions to ask. Not, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before we have all the answers.’ It was based on our work in the past. What are the types of questions we have to ask? And then, I worked with my colleagues in this collective known as CADAN…, which is the Culture and Disasters Action Network… It’s a collective that has been funded multiple times by the National Science Foundation, to work with non-academic practitioners around disasters to develop research-based solutions to really abiding problems in the world of disasters.

Dr. Faas and Dr. Beresford collaborated on data collected by Dr. Faas’ students on pandemic experiences.  Faas and his students collected the data and Beresford and her students analyzed it.  Similar collaborations were taking place in seminars and classes throughout the Anthropology department.


Meanwhile, our alumni in applied anthropology were meeting the moment through their professional work.  Many were working in research, non-profit, or governmental organizations serving communities radically disrupted by the pandemic.  They found new strategies to:

  • Build community with common purposes
  • Seek opportunities to refine and redefine relationships
  • Create more inclusive approaches in their organizations

Maribel Martinez work (shown left being interviewed by Abril Perez- Gonzaga) shifted from her duties with Santa Clara County’s LGBTQ communities to engaging with Spanish-speaking people about the pandemic, drawing on her own Master’s work with SOMOS Mayfair.  She says,

“The other forms of engagement that the county has used have also been more intensified in terms of community outreach. We have partnered with community organizations, such as community health workers, and those who use the promotora model to make sure that our information is going out into the community.”

The experience of work has changed within the County. She adds,

A lot of the work before had been dependent on people being physically in an office or on the job site. Now, because we’ve been doing remote work for over a year, some departments, some of us still come in every day. But some departments have been staffed exclusively by remote work, that it’ll be something that is going to be ingrained into our organizational culture on having those virtual workspaces as well.

Mayra Cerda, (shown above) working with Sacred Heart, amplifies the challenge this poses in working with communities.  She reflects,

Like the Flintstones, we just did everything on paper, on the rocks. And we needed to implement something more advanced like the Jetsons. Right? —like the cartoons. Let’s find out a good software that we can use like Salesforce, in which the application can go through Salesforce, and we can calculate the amount that they will be getting, and to see if they’re qualified. So, everything was like going backwards, like moving fast. In a second. It was very crazy.

 Alumna Hannah Hart applies her anthropological skills as an instructional designer, working on ed tech UX.  She notes, “I think parents and teachers and districts have realized there is […] a limit to how much learning students can do online and we got to be creative in order to make things like that possible in the future.” Hannah also reflects, “But I think parents and teachers and districts have realized there is […] a limit to how much learning students can do online and we got to be creative in order to make things like that possible in the future.”

Students themselves have found connections to get them through jump into the digital learning environment.  Nick Marichione (shown left), an athlete and international undergraduate, is working with Drs. Faas and Beresford to understand the social support systems that students inhabit and create.  He reflects on the communities he has observed and suggests, “Some communities have thrived.” He goes on to add “it sort of made you understand who’s important in your life, and what aspects you need.”

Implications for the Future

The Covid-19 pandemic magnified existing social inequalities in our environment and the discipline of anthropology plays a crucial role in situating and addressing these challenges. Dr. William Reckmeyer, a systems scientist, and emeritus faculty member with a 40-year career in our department, provided us with some insight on how to address major challenges. During his interview, he explained to us the Law of Requisite variety.

One of the things we know from systems science is that if you’re engaging in any kind of complex challenge, you need to have more variety. It’s called the law of requisite variety …it basically says… if you’re not capable of exhibiting as much variety as whatever’s challenging you, you can’t overcome it.

Two basic strategies to overcome complex problems are to dampen external variety or amplify our own. While Covid-19 has brought a magnifying glass to issues and inequalities, it has also highlighted our ability and need to collaborate and communicate with one another. From our departmental community’s oral history, we found that our students, faculty, and practitioners adapted in a variety of innovative ways. Applied anthropologists from San Jose State University collaborated and cultivated a variety of perspectives to meet the challenge.


Gen Z + Y and COVID-19: How Are Growing?

Project Investigators: Shelbie Taylor, Chiara Cecchini, Andoeni Ruezga, Virginia Cipollina

Project Sponsor: Dr. Jan English-Lueck

This project was done in partnership with Future Food Institute, an Italian and global-minded non-profit organization concerned with food sustainability and innovation. In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, this project was proposed to investigate how Gen Z and Millennials’ food purchasing habit might be impacted. This study involved interviewing a wide variety of participants across Europe and the United States, including SJSU graduate and undergraduate students about their “new normal.” Participants shared their stories about how COVID-19 has impacted their daily lives – including how lockdown measures affect their mental, physical, and emotional health, financial well-being, and their relationships and community ties. The researchers and participants also discussed how their eating and food acquisition habits have changed over the course of quarantine. These shifts in food habits can provide the Future Food Network with insights for improved sustainability practices for food providers and initiatives to reduce food waste on a global scale.

Freeways and Farms: Veggielution at Emma Prusch and Taylor Street Urban Farms Study

Project Investigators: Dr. Joshua Baur and Ashley Estrada

Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Jan English- Lueck

The scope of our project examines how nearby roadways impact the perspectives of the users and producers of urban farms. Two urban farms in San Jose, California were focal points of our research: Veggielution at the Emma Prusch Farm Park and Taylor Street Farm. The Mineta Transportation Institute provided the funding for our project, with Dr. Joshua Baur as Primary Investigator and me as a Co-Investigator.

As a Co- Investigator to the project, I had the flexibility to focus my research as an applied anthropologist, utilizing Anthropological themes such as place attachment and the social production of space. The question that I was seeking to answer was “how do the components of the roadways, whether the natural or built environment of the street, play into the physical and emotional construction of these farms?

As a research team, Dr. Joshua Baur and I conducted fourteen semi- structured interviews with the volunteers and farm staff at the farm sites during the summer of 2019. In addition to our interviews, I also conducted structured and participant observations during volunteer gardening events held as each farm site. The flexibility of our project allowed Dr. Baur and I to conduct our own analysis centered around our focus of research.

As an applied anthropologist, I shaped my theoretical framework around place attachment and the social production of space. Through my analysis of these themes, I was able to forecast three core results:

  1. Participants adapted to the roadway noise through noise replication.
  2. The location of the farm sites was accessible due to surrounding roadways.
  3. Participants constructed their space as a platform for meaning that can be produced in other urban places.

These three core findings represent implications for future research in the field of applied anthropology. By focusing on the intersection of place attachment and the social production of space, I was able to determine that the obvious constraints of roadways, such as busy traffic and noises were not relevant. The social connection and the connection to land that volunteers and farm staff experience holds relevance. The place is not as significant as the activity that motivates volunteers and farm staff to visit the space. Such places can be replicated in other urban spaces by highlighting motivating factors such as educational opportunities and community interaction. An applied anthropologist can provide an ethnographic lens to the construction and building of these future spaces.


Response Begins with Preparedness: The Impacts of the 2017 Coyote Creek Flood in San Jose

Principle Investigator: Gabbie Fall

Faculty Sponsor:
A.J. Faas

In this study, Gabbie examined how aid and recovery were handled after the 2017 Coyote Creek flood in San Jose. To learn about this, she conducted interviews with people impacted by the flood, analyzed media cover-age from the time of the flood and since, and interviewed workers from relevant city offices and non-profits to see how relief and recovery efforts were perceived as well as how they were intended. This articulates with the anthropology of disasters by providing another view of what it means to be prepared; not only prepared to reduce the effects of disasters but also prepared to provide comprehensive aid immediately after the fact, regardless of whether or not the effects of the disaster were reduced in the first place. She found that people were largely dissatisfied, to say the least, because the damage was not mitigated due to the late evacuation and the subsequent relief efforts did not meet the needs of those living in a city with such an expensive cost of living. This shows how diverse needs cannot be met with generic solutions and can be used to avoid the repetition of certain missteps in the future.
Gabbie presented her work in a poster session as part of the SJSU Celebration of Research event on April 23, 2019, and delivered a paper on this study at the Annual Conference of the Southwestern Anthropological Association on April 19, 2019, where she won third place in the student paper competition. She also gave an Ignite Talk on this study as part of SJSU’s Department of Anthropology AnthROX! event on April 26.