Why Anthropologists Don’t Whisper Well

CEOs should hire anthropologists. After all, these CEOS speak to a complex set of stakeholders. How useful to have someone, an expert, whispering in their ear.

But it turns out that anthropologists are bad at whispering. Why?

It’s a distinguished art, this whispering is. Early modern courtiers and counsellors made a fine art of it. For a scholarship boy, for whom status and power always belonged to someone else, whispering was a way to rise in the world. Get the ear of the monarch, or someone close to her. Direct the hand that directs the state. Make the monarch your agent, perhaps even your puppet. Hey presto, you could be a monarch in disguise.

This is standard stuff, documented and disseminated by that proto-anthropologist Baldassare Castiglione. Call it ‘whispering for power and profit.’ Good for the counsellor and good for the monarch so “puppetfied.” Good in any case for the state. (Anything’s better, usually, than a monarch left to her own devices.)

The art of whispering flourishes in the present day. Every diplomat has someone whispering in her ear. Thus does precious knowledge come to her just in time. Who is the person who stands before her? Friend or foe? Should she must charm, hoodwink, and/or mystify? The counsellor can tell you.

Anthropologists should be good at whispering. After all, their academic specialty is seeing into the head and heart of the other. And these days, the manager is surrounded by a lot of others. Increasingly otherish others, in point of fact. Stakeholders have many dubious, difficult and fleeting ideas. They are hard to read. The anthropologist can. Pity the manager who must speak not just to one but many, diverse, stakeholders, sometimes with a single message. The anthropologist can.

Anthropologists can master most of the languages and logics of the stakeholder. They can craft statements that people will find not just acceptable but agreeable, not merely indubitable but illuminating. The anthropologist can help the manager craft a semiotic miracle, a cultural artifact so fiendishly complicated it makes even difficult computer programing look…well, not that difficult.

Trouble is they don’t. On the whole, anthropologists don’t get invited to the party. The ones who make it to whisperer status is probably fewer than 10. This out of the 299,000 people who have a degree in Anthropology. The “whisperer ratio” is 1 in 30,000. This is bad. That a field so rich in intellectual gifts should have contributed so little…it’s very bad.

Academic anthropologists are quick to wail it’s not their fault. “Oh, they don’t understand us. We get culture. They are philistines.”

Well, yes. When managers do think about anthropology, they are likely to think about Margaret Mead and exotic cultures. And in any case, culture is the dark matter of American management. People know it’s out there, but no one is quite sure what to do about it.

But no. Anthropologist have in some cases actively disqualified themselves from c-suite service. First, the field has moved from studying the world to studying itself. Many acts of curiosity are snuffed out by a torrent of anxieties, moral, political, and epistemological. Anthropologists have decided, on the whole, that they shouldn’t or mustn’t or can’t engage in an anthropology that looks at the world. They have stopped contemplating the other. So they’re not much good when it comes to helping others.

There is one “other” anthropologists are pretty sure about, and that’s enterprise. For many academic anthropologist, this is the devil. These anthropologists don’t know this from their own experience, generally speaking. But they have seen the Hollywood view of capitalism, which generally prefers to treat profit-seekers as the villain of the piece. This too limits the anthropologists’ usefulness. You can’t give useful advice to party you fundamentally misunderstand.

Third, anthropologists don’t know about a lot of things in the contemporary world. If I may quote myself:

“Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about.”

But there is a broader problem. Our individualism leaves us with a “tender” selfhood. We don’t like giving advice to certain parties for fear we’ll be swamped by said parties. We don’t like whispering because it feels too much like an act of deference or moral eclipse. The scholarship boy was eager to whisper. It was his path to power. For many people in the contemporary world, it feels like an act of self diminishment.

The National Portrait Gallery, the one in London, tells the story. In the early modern period, the artist is a servant to the sitter. His or her job is to render the image, the pretensions, the self regard of the sitter. Editorial comment is unthinkable. The artists’ ideas do not matter. He or she is a medium that brings the sitter to public viewing, the more transparently the better. But as we move away from the early modern period, artists become more active in their “constructions” of the sitter. Editorial comment is allowed and finally obligatory. Finally, the portrait is as much a reckoning of the artist as the painter. The sitter takes her chances, because anyone with real talent will refuse to subordinate his or her selfhood to that of the sitter.

I believe anthropologists feel this sensitivity keenly. They fear being used. They fear being made a handmaiden of power. (There is an unhappy history here.) It doesn’t help that the anthropologist doesn’t know who the senior manager is or what she does. It doesn’t help that she suspects the corporation must necessarily be a dangerous creature. It doesn’t help that the anthropologist knows so little about the contemporary world that she can’t distinguish advice that is benign from advice that is in fact antithetical to the general good. It’s a tender individualism because the agents and the boundaries are unclear, so moral and political considerations are hard to calculate, and when these are your chief considerations, the things that make up most up of your education in anthropology, whispering feels fraught with peril.

That’s the thing about counsellors and courtiers. Serving as they did at the pleasure of a difficult monarch (and all monarchs are) and in the midst of competing factions, they got good at reading the complexities of the world. They could figure out what belonged to the Cesare of the moment and the Christ of their own inclinations. They could advise the monarch without giving away their autonomy or compromising their morality. (To be sure, this can’t always have been true. I have allowed a presentist individualism into this discussion.)  They could make themselves useful without forgetting themselves or their personal missions. They could whisper with obscuring the whisperer.

We’ve lost that now.

For its own reasons, the occupants of academic anthropology have decided that any truck or barter with the real world must be refused. But there is a vicious circularity here. When we refuse all participation in the world, we impoverish our knowledge of that world. Now we can’t begin to grasp the boundaries or the realities they must be finessed. And when this knowledge is missing, we really do have to refuse all contact. Every thing is “too close for comfort.” Every CEO looks the same. Every corporation (even the not-for-profit one) look identical. The manager’s opportunities and dangers are invisible, and, gasp, when not invisible, indistinguishable. The anthropological whisperer has made himself good for nothing.

7 thoughts on “Why Anthropologists Don’t Whisper Well”

  1. You should come and visit my team at Salesforce. I hired 3 PhDs — one anthropologist, one sociologist, and a psychologist. And I also have a PhD in anthropology myself. We are not just whispering to CEOs about culture, we are moving into the c-suite and positions of power ourselves, while consciously crafting change as we get there.
    Drop me a line…we should catch up…

  2. I’ll also point out that anthropology, when seen as a practice and not an academic discipline, has a much wider impact than you are giving it credit for. What is design thinking but incorporating anthropology practices into the product design process? And there are people like myself who have read you and other anthropologists and are taking those learnings into the corporate world and applying them. Don’t forget that anthropology is much more than university departments.

    1. Eric, Thanks for reading. Great to hear your voice. I am talking mostly about academic anthropology, and yes, there are many anthropologists, like Taty (see her comment above) and me, practicing outside the academy. Should I be more discriminating? Probably. On the other hand, it remains true that academic anthropology refuses to acknowledges people like Taty and me. Generally, people like us are treated by academic anthropologists as a roque, illegitimate, morally dubious part of the field. I recently had lunch with a free lance anthropologist like me and we discovered that despite the many years we have been consulting, we haven’t been asked to talk at a department of anthropology, not once. This, despite the fact that we are one of the few options that promise a future for their graduates. This amounts to an embargo. I wrote this piece and a related one for Medium in an effort, unofficially, to put the field on notice, to let them know that somewhere on the public record someone is noting how utterly they have walled the world out of the field. I don’t suppose this will make a difference. After all I’m the apostate. But at some point, someone will say, “oh, there is another way to think about our ‘purity.'” Thanks again, Grant

  3. Yes, CEOs should hire Anthropologists. Or people whose practice is about how the world thinks and does, repeats and remembers. But as with any fieldwork, one needs indulge less in fancy letters, whether of entry or after a name, than in the art of engagement. Just talking will do. Sometimes even speaking up. Less about whisper than listening, says this one, who took to Geertz’s ‘just write’ and symbols dictum as much as so many.

  4. Your whisperer argument is fair enough, but it is incomplete. You deal persuasively with the supply side (us), but insufficiently with the demand side: the executive suite. Even with all the press anthropology/ethnography has received since the 1980’s, much of it covered in Wilner’s comprehensive Handbook chapter, not to mention awareness building books like yours, Ho’s, and by kin like Madsbjerg and Rasmussen, and even Underhill and Rapaille, too few corporate executives see the value of what we do. The purposeful decoupling of ethnography from anthropology among some practitioners, which I experienced during an EPIC seminar Allen Batteau and I moderated (https://www.epicpeople.org/standards-of-practice-for-ethnography/), and the cost efficient trend towards self-ethnography, haven’t helped our cause. Numerous advertising agencies and strategic consulting firms embrace anthropology and make it part of their selling proposition, and many of them seem to be doing well, even though some of their staffers aren’t trained anthropologists (Olson and ReD excepted). Maybe we should follow Seth Godin’s suggestion about contemporary tribal leadership (even he has co-opted one of our long discarded concepts) to spread the word to our target buyers (https://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_the_tribes_we_lead?language=en). So, yes, we should do a better job as whisperers, but we also need a 21st century initiative that increases the volume, reach and frequency of our message to corporate executives who would demand that anthropologists be hired.

  5. Spot on post and thread. Clearly there is a lot more anthro perspective filtering through firms but one might take confort from the fact that it is primariy those disciplines which are little more than mouthpieces of what Sahlins recognized as bourgeois deology – economics and psychology – that are privlleged counselors. I like the point about the willfull disavowal by anthro departments. Rick Wilk and I have been chuckling over this for years re the University of Arizona, which just celebrated a big anniversary without input from those who have trod a different path.

Comments are closed.