The Technical and the Vernacular

Session Overview

Date and Time: Tuesday, August 20, 2 – 3:30pm

Location: Broad Theater, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles

Livestream: Free for EPIC Members

Technologies and expert systems are generally discussed in opposition to cultural and vernacular ones, a binary approach that can disempower people and communities. Presentations in this session challenge that classification and share frameworks for LLMs, healthcare, and policy that elevate and integrate vernacular knowledge.


Quit Playing Language Games with My Heart; or, Conversational AI and Knowledge Sharing


Larry S. McGrath, Senior Researcher, Independent Scholar

Learning a language, as philosophers and anthropologists have shown, is akin to playing games. Observing users of AI-powered language learning apps such as Duolingo, I show how ethnographers play an instrumental role, more generally, in making conversational AI platforms learn from natural conversation and remain open to new forms of dialogue between humans and computers.

Larry S. McGrath works across business ethnography and the history and anthropology of science. His writing is published in Aeon, History of Psychology, Human-Computer Interaction, and Journal of the History of Ideas. In his first book, Making Spirit Matter (2020), Larry traces the brain sciences’ evolution through European society, politics, and medicine. He is currently completing an edited volume with Routledge titled, The Anthropology of AI.

Decolonizing LLMs: An Ethnographic Framework for AI in African Contexts


Olivia Nercy Lucas, UX Researcher, Mantaray Africa

Lindsey DeWitt Prat, Senior UX Researcher, Bold Insight

Christopher Golias, Senior UX Researcher, Google

Mia Lewis, Research Analyst, Accenture

We examine LLM deployment through African lenses, utilizing and reflecting on ethnographic methods to engage with the continent’s unique sociotechnical landscapes. Drawing from primary research in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, we consider how LLMs are integrated and upheld within local contexts. We unearth instances where LLMs could perpetuate digital colonialism or exacerbate existing sociopolitical tensions, as well as how they are contested and adapted. We emphasize the imperative for ethnographic insights in LLM research, providing a detailed framework both to counteract oversimplification and the misinterpretation of complex interactions and to support culturally informed deployments that enhance local agency.

Olivia Nercy Lucas is a user experience researcher specializing in the African cultural sphere. A driven and creative researcher with a keen eye for detail and complexity, her recent research focuses on how we can create responsible AI for Africa. She holds a degree from Monash South Africa focused on communication, media and global studies, and leverages her past immersion in various African countries as a Mozambican to amplify her research curiosities.

Lindsey DeWitt Prat is a Senior UX Researcher at Bold Insight, based in Paris. A humanities-trained ethnographer and compassionate human, she has conducted user research focused on localization and cultural insights in over 20 countries. Her published work explores gender exclusion, cultural heritage, and religion in Japan through a combined ethnographic and historical approach. Lindsey holds a PhD in Asian Languages & Cultures from UCLA and an MA in International Studies and Comparative Religion from the University of Washington.

Christopher Golias, Ph.D., is a technology anthropologist, currently with Google, who has conducted applied anthropological research across various areas including retail, healthcare, indigenous rights, substance use, ecommerce, governance, machine learning, localization and information technology. He holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mia Lewis, PhD is a user experience researcher at Accenture. She has worked on human-centered research across nearly twenty countries, delivering insights that are linguistically and culturally attuned to the needs of subjects. Her recent professional research has focused on the intersection of language, LLMs, and users’ mental models. Her published research focuses on modes of communication and gender(ed) representation in Japanese media. Mia holds a PhD in Japanese from Stanford University.

Mother Tongue: The Role of Vernacular Knowledge in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Healthcare


Juliana Saldarriaga, Project Manager, A Piece of Pie

This case study advocates in favor of vernacular knowledge in healthcare, often displayed by non-medical actors such as patients, caregivers, and patient advocacy groups (PAGs). We will describe a two-part study on neurodegenerative diseases in Colombia, and focus on three key findings that show how caretakers’ and PAGs’ knowhow can be understood as a “peripheral” or “non-institutional” knowledge that is challenging well-established foundations in Western medicine. We end our case study arguing ethnography should advocate in favor of this vernacular knowledge instead of just describing how it challenges foundations, and even more so in the Global South.

Juliana Saldarriaga is a Colombian anthropologist with experience in business consulting, with emphasis in healthcare consulting. She has a growing interest in medical anthropology, health inequalities, and digital transformation in healthcare. As project manager at A Piece of Pie, she enjoys applying ethnographic methods, as well as anthropological and feminist frameworks, to the pharmaceutical industry and its internal and external stakeholders.

Collaborative Generation: Making Sense of Today's Stories to Catalyze a Thriving Tomorrow for All


Jenny Flinders, Research Project Manager, University of Kansas

Jacqueline Counts, Director, University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships & Research

Our Tomorrows is a community-centered method that was used to share power and establish the foundational understanding of the early childhood ecosystem in Kansas. The story collection framework gathered 10,000 stories via a web-based collection tool to discover unknown unknowns in social services that support children and families. Through sensemaking sessions and action labs with community members and providers, safe-to-fail experiments generated more positive stories and stop/prevent negative stories.

Jenny Flinders, MSEd, leads research projects at the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research that center community voice in the policymaking process by leveraging complex sensemaking processes. She also leads indigenous community partnerships that seek to strengthen intergenerational wellbeing. She is a PhD candidate in Education Policy, currently researching how family choice discourse is leveraged for control across the education system.

Jacqueline Counts, MSW, PhD., is the Director of the Center for Public Partnerships and Research at the University of Kansas. She leads a multi-disciplinary team of social workers, social scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and other creative staff to come together to create a better world. She has been the principal investigator on over 50 grants. She uses a complexity lens to understand wicked social problems and applies futures and foresight methods to transform systems.