Tag Archives: Marshall Sahlins

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

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 their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

Bosco and the memory of William Drenttel


A couple of days ago, I wrote about Bosco, the 8 year-old who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

I got precisely one response, a woman who said this was kind of problem she likes to solve.  And that was it.

I thought, “maybe if I develop the idea a little.”  My first idea was a kind of twinning project.  You know, the kind that cities have. ( New York is a sister city to Cairo.)

We would identify 6 kids across the US who would then become Bosco’s twins.  And we find away to capture what they are learning as they are learning it and we find some way to communicate this knowledge to Bosco.

Our objective is to make him cosmopolitan in the ways that they are cosmopolitan.  (And by “cosmopolitan,” I mean merely, “knowledgeable about the world outside one’s own.”)  My assumption: that there are many disadvantages to growing up in the home in which Bosco finds himself but one of the most debilitating  is a lack of knowledge/understanding/awareness.  (Call it “cultural capital.“) This lack of knowledge is, we could argue, more damaging than illiteracy or innumeracy.

Problem 1.  There is a “barrier to entry” problem here.  As meth cookers, there’s a good chance that Bosco’s parents have limited horizons (prima facie case, no?) and that they would not welcome the intrusion of a system that is designed to broaden the horizons of their son.

I don’t how to solve this problem.  I have a feeling that an anthropologist and an economist working together, with the levers of meaning and value, could come up with a solution, but more on this later.

Problem 2.  There is no question that this twinning process, if it worked, would transform Bosco and there’s not much doubt that it would estrange Bosco from his family.  This would make Bosco the captive of a hostile environment.  From the parental point of view, we have created a “little Lord Fountleroy,” someone who thinks himself (or is thought to think himself) better than his family.

I don’t know how to solve this problem either.  It’s worth pointing out that every immigrant and upwardly mobile family find themselves with kids who  are more cosmopolitan than their parents.  And these parents find a way to deal with it.

Mind you, these people have sought the condition they endure.  Our “meth” mom and dad accomplish that magical contradiction that allows them to refuse the idea that they are not cosmopolitan even as they resent those who are.

How do we reach them?  What do we say?  Could we construct a forgivable space, a status allowance, for Bosco in the home,  one that allows his parents to say, “Oh, don’t listen to him.  He’s our little Martian.  Always talking about the craziest stuff!”  (Yes, but of course, we could hope for something more than this but I think it’s wise ((and not particularly hostile)) to assume the worst.  We are not looking for perfection.  We just want an allowance.)

The trick is making it “our little Martian.”  We need to construct a status for Bosco in the home that gives him room to take on and give off cosmopolitan knowledge.  And this will depend on constructing a status that allows his parents to forgive, and perhaps even take credit for, their oddball son.

At this point, I need to address a tide of unhappiness that I know is rising in anthropological readers (and some others).  People will complain that I am “essentializing” Bosco’s parents and Bosco himself, that I am imputing characteristics in an act of class stereotyping and status diminishment, that this is an exercise of power.

Allow me to do an anthropology of the anthropologists (and engage in another act of classification).  Anthropologists are almost silent when it comes to the big problems of our day and that is because the field is largely preoccupied by acts of self criticism.   Hand to brow, with a show of their sensitivity, they ask, “Can we generalize?  What are the politics of generalizing?  What are the ethics of generalizing?” These are real questions.  But Anthropology is now effectively an amateur theatre company dedicated to a production of moral posturing and ethical declamation.

I am not saying these cautions do not matter.  They do.  But when they are the only thing you do, when they are the thing you do instead of helping a kid like Bosco, when they are the thing you do that prevents you from helping a kid like Bosco, I say this.  Bite me.  Get over yourself.  Snap out of it.  Start again.  Your trepidations matter less than Bosco’s future.  While you posture, pain and suffering flourish like the green bay tree.

Whew!  Sorry.  Anthropologists have to stop being too good for the world.   It’s the only way they can return to usefulness.

One way to address Problem 2 is to catalogue all the instances of families in which children are marked as different, where parents are called upon to explain and, we hope, make allowances.  Families with autistic kids, for instance, sometimes resort to calling them “little professors.”  There are other precedents.  What are they?  Are any of them usable here?  How would we adapt these?

Let’s say we solve Problems 1 and 2.  Let’s say we find a way to create a twinning system and relay information from Bosco’s twins to Bosco himself.  How would we do this?

This is where I thought of William Drenttel.  I gave a paper at Yale a couple of years ago and afterward he and I had a roaring, gliding conversation.  It was clear he was trying to recruit me for one of his grand schemes and to my discredit I failed to rise to the occasion.  (I was working on schemes of my own, which I now see were minor and ordinary by comparison.)

When I thought about how to get information, knowledge and understanding to Bosco, I thought of Bill.  He is one of those designers who strike me as the anti-anthropologist: citizens of several worlds, effortlessly mobile in passage between them.  Bill, I thought, would know how to think about this problem.  This is a design thinking problem because we are, in effect, being asked to design thinking.  

If we could find some way to represent the knowledge being accumulated by Bosco’s twins, this might help.   Let’s say Twin 1, the one in Philadelphia, is sitting with his family watching TV.  There’s a news story about LA and the family conversation that follows somehow puts LA on Twin 1’s “mattering map.”  (I have this term from Rebecca Goldstein).

The trick now is to make LA matter on Bosco’s mattering map.  The fact that we are talking about geographical knowledge helps a lot.  A map is itself a useful, perhaps the original, visualization.  But our job is to show how “LA” matters not just for its relative location (Bosco lives somewhere in the midwest) but also as the home to Hollywood,  dinosaur-rich tar pits, several sporting franchises, and a particular place in the American imaginary.  (We will have to fit that last one with new language.)  Our question: What does Bosco already know and how do we use this to help him grasp facts and fancies about LA.

Bill, I thought, will know how to take this problem on.  And today I discovered that William Drenttel passed away in December of last year.  (See this remarkable obituary by Julie Lasky.)  I think an honest, hard-earned  moment of self repudiation is called for here.  Why wasn’t I in touch with him?  Why didn’t I know about his illness or his passing?  Is there some good reason why I live like a small forest animal, posting out of a tree stump and otherwise out of touch with the world?  What is my excuse exactly?  And who am I kidding?  (Forgive a maudlin outburst.)

My thought originally was to make designers and anthropologists the intermediaries of the movement of knowledge between Bosco and his twins.  But in a more perfect world, and now with social media at our disposal, it might be possible to make Bosco and his twins a tiny community (Marshall Sahlins’s “mutuality of being“) that pools its knowledge and helps one another master it.  Can eight year-olds do this kind of thing?  I don’t know.  Maybe with some training.

Happy coincidence but this morning I saw a tweet by Sara Winge on the attempt by UNICEF to use Minecraft to show what a reconstructed Haiti might look like.


Could a band of eight year-olds build a model of their knowledge?  In Minecraft or some other medium?  Jerry Michalski has put some of his knowledge online.   Some 160,000 “thoughts” all  in categories and ready to hand.   Bosco and his friends might do the same with the right education and encouragement.

There is lots of work to do here.  Who’s interested?  If we get something up and running, I propose we call it the Drenttel project.  No, there are so many Drenttel projects running in the world, that would be wrong and clueless.  Let’s call it A Drenttel Project.


Thanks to Kevin Smith, William Drenttel and Architect’s Newspaper here for the image of Bill above.