Square Inch Anthropology

I just had lunch with a young professional called Gloria who wanted to talk about what might be involved if she were to prepare herself for a career as a Chief Culture Officer.

We had a good conversation and at some point in the proceedings, I found myself encouraging her to work on her "square inch anthropology."

I had never actually heard of square inch anthropology before.  It just sort of thing you find yourself saying.  

Here’s what I think I meant.  To do the study of contemporary American culture, we are obliged to break it down into square inches.

A case in point.  I was telling the young professional about a project Mark Earls, Andrew Barnett, Ana Domb, and I did last year when we were commissioned to study "cocktail culture" in the Northeast.  "Cocktail culture" makes up one square inch of my map of American culture.

We interviewed hundreds of people by the end of the Cocktail Culture project, and Gloria and I ended up talking, for some reason, about two of them, a couple of women in a bar in Brooklyn who were "dolled up" and entirely glamorous in a not too assuming way.  Gloria has some interesting thoughts on these women and we christened their style "Betty Page."  This is a square inch too.

Square inch anthropology says, in effect, "look, we don’t claim to know everything about this culture, but we do have relative confidence in one or two things within it.  In this case: Cocktail culture and the Betty Page style."  We may now make claims to knowledge without pretending any overarching knowledge or competence.

Why proceed by square inches?  Here are 5 reasons.

1) American culture is vast, endlessly various and changing all the time.  We can’t know it top to bottom.  We can’t map it end to end.  The best we can hope for is to establish small pieces or pockets of clarity.

2) We can’t be entirely certain we have something.  We are always on the look out for more data and we are perfectly happy to discover that "cocktail culture" or "Betty Page" femaleness actually isn’t anything after all, or that it isn’t the something we thought it was. Our square inches are posted as possibilities.

3) As we begin to accumulate square inches we are in a position to begin to assemble them into patterns.  If the squares are provisional, so are the patterns.  We are constantly reassembling, looking for a better configuration.  And the good thing about the squares is that they prove to be ever so slightly magnetized, which means that they will often "suggest" connections, and when we made them proximate they will come together with that wonderful magnety "snap."  

4) Square are an excellent way of getting starting, of baby-stepping your way to an understanding of American culture.  We are not claiming to know everything about this culture.  We are merely claiming to know, if a tentative, provisional way, about this square inch.

5) Square inches are an excellent medium of exchange.  As it turned out, I had a clue about cocktail culture.  Gloria in turn had some useful things to say about the Betty Page thing. Swapping square inches in this way is really fun.  And it’s generative, very gift economy. Gifting Gloria with my square inch did not diminish it.  Taking possession of her Betty Page square inch left her none the poorer.

In a perfect world, we would turn www.squareinchanthropology.com into a place to post things we think we know about American culture.  (Perhaps not surprising it’s available. I checked.)  Please will someone give this a go!

Acknowledgments (and thanks)

To James Michael Starr, the artist responsible for the image used in this blog.  John Wong created the image.  For more details, click here.

6 thoughts on “Square Inch Anthropology”

  1. There already is (http://www.squarefootgardening.com) — New Method (Easy to understand; User Friendly – Great for beginners; Locate Anywhere – Close to your house; Economical – Reduces everything 5 to 1; Efficient – 100% of the crop in 20% of the space; Easy to Protect – From pests and weather; Earth Friendly – Reduce Reuse Recycle; Very Productive – Just as much as you need). But the Zuni Indians had waffle gardens (http://tinyurl.com/3afq8n6). So there is nothing new under the sun, perhaps.

    One still has to adapt to the universe and laws of physics, and bring principles to something local, and then, take the local and make it unique and economical and worthwhile to self and others: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=33162207&l=fa3050add0&id=15502705

    I think culture (and anthropology) is sometimes the same way, like intensive gardening: Each square with its own chemistry and texture, and outside and local influences, and solar aspect; some squares related directly, some not; the large aggregate result unknown, but knowable; the space is re-usable and enduring if cared for properly.

    posted by G. McCracken on Brian’s behalf

  2. This reminds me of the anecdote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Pirsig has a student with writer’s block who can’t figure out anything to say about the town where they live. He eventually tells her “Write about the town hall. Just the front of it. In fact, start with the top left brick.” and by focusing her so intently on such a tight area, she writes 5000 words.

    Something like that is at work here – culture is so big that it feels like there’s no way in. Starting with a square inch approach gives us a way to make progress, inch by inch, until we find we have a better understanding of culture than we would if we waited around because culture was too big to tackle.

    1. Cutesy but no cigarillo. in by in? mm by mm? ounce by ounce? these won’t actually work because the arbitrary boundaries cut off connectivities with other cultural teacups. It’s like looking out the window and seeking a row of spots and not seeing the whole giraffe.

  3. Fascinating. But wait, doesn’t academia already do this? (Narrow specialization into one small square for most, and a minority who bravely link up the squares.)

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