How to be a self-funding anthropologist

Rain_gear_shanghai This morning I got an email from a guy in Mumbai.  After an elegant summary of his professional circumstances, undergraduate education, MBA and present job in the world of advertising, he comes to the "big question:"

Should I head back to college and pursue a course in Anthropology which covers Ethnography as well as Research Methodology or should I look for a job and aim to learn while I work?

Here’s my reply:

Dear Sandeep, thanks for writing. 

I would choose Option B: learning while working.  The problem with Option A is that anthropology courses are bad preparation for studying contemporary culture and especially bad at preparing us for marketing research.  (I know this to be true of North American universities.  I am assuming it is true of South Asian ones.) 

Option B has challenges of its own.  The trick is to find the firm and researcher who can give you the best training.  And in this case I would look for people by reputation and by their willingness to include you in the proceedings.  You don’t want to end up in the mail room. Best case, you will end up working closely with someone smart, someone who shares the intellectual challenges and opportunities of a consulting career. 

But there is also Option C: teach yourself.  The field is not well developed.  Many of the methodological orthodoxies are slender and some of them are wrong.  There is really only one question here: what do marketers need to hear from the consumer to make them better at marketing.  The anthropological approach says, well, the closer you get, the more you know, the more deeply you understand the consumer, the richer your research will be.  Happily, this is consistent with a long tradition in consumer research that insists on treating the consumer as "king," on an approach called "consumer centricity."  The world of marketing churns with new methods, but there will never be anything more useful than sitting with a consumer in his or her home and listening very carefully. 

The best case is, I think, to combine Options B and C.  Option B can give you the knowledge of clients and presentations you need to make yourself useful to marketers.  Option C is really pretty exciting because it is entirely up to you.  As long as anthropologists absent themselves from the study of their own culture, and as long as this culture continues to reinvent itself ever more furiously, the task is urgent and interesting.  Here you may think of yourself as Malcolm Gladwell, traveling the library in search of the ideas that speak to you. 

I believe the success of Gladwell’s career, and the value he has created for people inside and outside the marketing community demonstrates that while disciplinary and professional training matter, there is no substitute for a very smart person traveling by his own lights, patiently asking of the idea he/she encounters, does this help me think about the world, or is it in some way obfuscating.  (My other exemplars are Victorian scholars.  Lewis Henry Morgan, for instance. This guy managed to found American anthropology in his spare time.  He was a lawyer by day.) 

If you choose to be a free standing anthropologist, there are two objectives: the culture below and the culture above.  The culture below is the long standing ideas and assumptions with which we make the world make sense, the instrastructure, if you will, of thought and feeling.  The culture above is the trends and innovations that pour through our world.  We want culture above and below because too often anthropology is reduced to a kind of cool hunting, a search for the latest thing and an investigation of culture above. Certainly, we need to know what social networking is, but if that’s all we know, all we can report to the client, we have removed ourselves from usefulness.

More to the point, we have sacrificed our disciplinary advantage.  Any undergraduate can pursue cool.  Only an anthropologist can observe the larger, richer cultural context from which cool springs and with which it must correspond if cool is to cool into something lasting.  Indeed I would argue that it is precisely when culture above resonates with the culture below that things "take," that innovation has a chance to transform us in substantial ways.  (And by this reckoning you could say that social networking is now finding its feet precisely because users have found a way to make it responsive to the logic of their social worlds.  This is not to say it will not change these social worlds, but first it must find a way to resonate with them.)

Your search for culture above is pretty well provided for.  There are lots of content aggregators and trend watchers that help us sort through what’s new.  They are not very good at pattern recognition but then they have their hands full just keeping the channel clear and running.  There are also the business presses, the publishing houses, all of these are in the pattern recognition game, and many of them create real value (while the rest of them create real noise). 

Your study of Culture below is another matter. This will take a Gladwellian search of your local library and the world on line. I have my own favorite texts, the ones that made the lights come on as I tried to think about American culture.  But of course they may or may not be interesting in a South Asian context.  I have posted my favorite titles in Shelfari.  My rule was to supply a list of "top 100" books.  The fact that I didn’t get to 100 is telling.  (Please consider preparing a Shelfari list for your study of the culture of Mumbai and India.)   

Casting the reading net wide.  You will have to leave anthropology for the other social sciences, and the social sciences for the humanities and sciences.  You trick is to be Gladwellian: patient, calm, inquiring, and most of all peripatetic.  Go where you have to.  And for God’s sake be Baconian.  Be prepared to think whatever you need to think to make sense of the evidence you see before you, even when this means breaking from scholarly and marketing orthodoxy. 

Much of your study of culture below will depend upon your own research.  In my case, this means looking at how people create living rooms, car design of the 1950s, the preppie revolution of the 1980s, the alternative movement of the 1990s, the transformation regimes at work in our culture.  No one will pay you to do this research.  And you won’t have a research funding from a university.  You will fund it out of your own pocket, out of the proceeds of your commercial research. 

You will fund your study of culture below out of your free time, a weekend here, a Saturday afternoon there.  You will become the master of exploiting "found time," 2 hours in an airport, 15 minutes waiting for an interview begin.  The technology serves superbly.  A ThinkPad or an Airbook, and there is almost no place or time that cannot be turned to advantage.

Running two careers will wear you out.  And sometimes it will f*** you up.  Living out a suitcase will mean that you are estranged from friends and family. Neighbors will great you in the street with surprise and say, "Grant, what are you doing here!?!"   The world of consulting is punishing, and we have not thought hard enough about how to protect ourselves from its perils.  I believe that the untold story of Geoffrey Frost and his wife is something from which we can learn.  But God knows the world of marketing is littered with stories of excess, error and personal misadventure.  It isn’t anything like that silly show on American TV called Mad Men, but the sense of a certain reckless disregard for one’s personal safety is not entirely different.  Here too social networking can help.  Facebook updates keep me and my neighbors in touch. Now when they see me in the street, they say things like, "Oh, hey, how was China?  Loved that picture of the guys in the rain."  (as above)

Lots of unexpected, unbidden opportunities will come "over the transom."  You must say "yes" when you want to say "no," and "no" when you want to say "yes." 

When Oprah calls, you have to go.  When the Harvard Business School asks you to come teach,  you must say yes.  These are opportunities to see our culture from a point of view you cannot find any other way.   Forget your precious standards, your ornate scruples.  Your job is to collect the data.  Your job is to discover a culture.   

And when you find yourself running an Institute of Contemporary Culture, as I did, and it ceases to be an institute of contemporary culture in any way that interests you, you have to leave.  Even when your boss says, "you’ve got a good thing going here.  Don’t screw it up."  For his generation, there was so much commotion and peril that it made sense to cling feverishly to good fortune.  But your generation is I think a little like my (boomer) generation, so persuaded of its specialness that it cannot bear the idea of compromise.  I look back on the several times I said "no" to advantage and shake my head.  Thank god I was protected by my naivete.  Thank God I was so badly spoiled and self important. 

Stock pile your "nos" against the day that someone says, "listen, I will set you up in the corner of the agency and you just write what you want."  This sounds like a good idea, but I think we can take for granted that the moment the biggest account starts to go south, it’s all hands on deck.  Someone will also say, "listen, you don’t want to spend your life on a plane.  Why not hire a bunch of cadets and send them out to do your bidding."  This is the managerial consulting model, but I am not sure it works for anthropology.  It is a methodological commonplace that the person who analyzes the data should be the person who collects it.  It’s not clear what delegating looks like when it comes to ethnography.  Though I must say some people seem to make it work, and I may someday change my mind.  The point here is that your commercial opportunity is your opportunity to collect data and insight that will fuel your academic work.  This can’t happen if you are merely administering from a distance.  Managing someone’s else ethnography would no doubt tells a lot about human nature, but much less about contemporary culture.

Break out one or two of those "nos" and have them ready when your anthropological colleagues insist that no one can work for the corporation without consorting with the devil.  This is a book unto itself, but three points: 

1) nothing works as well as a corporation in getting work done in the world.  This is surely a table at which anthropology wants a seat.  To be excluded here is to be confined to barracks, aka, the ivory tower.  It is to be removed from usefulness.  And no one with the exception of several thousand academic anthropologists want that. 

2) corporations are getting smarter, more agile, more moral, more intellectual.  The moral and cultural trepidations of the post war period apply less and less.  That anthropology insists on the same accusations, well, it is itself a cultural thing.  This is such a precious cultural misapprehension, a potent piece of mythology, that almost no one inside the anthropological academy can bring themselves to part with it. 

3) if you must, craft your career that serves Christ and Casear.  Play the pilot fish. Feed with the shark while the shark feeds itself.  In other words, think what you will about your paymaster and the project in hand, but do your duty to the client to the best of your ability.  I frankly think this third approach is needlessly scrupulous.  In my experience, most corporations are benign in the work they do and punctiliously moral in the way they do it.  You would be, will be, amazed at how little most current corporations resemble the "red of tooth and claw" model that anthropology insists upon.  The fact of the matter is the people for whom I work in the corporation are the most honorable people I know. 

The downside of your career will be that you always suffer a time shortage, that you are always in a state of relative sleep and tranquility deprivation, you will also be stealing from Peter to pay Paul.  But, hey, this is everyone’s condition these days, and as long as you stay out of Geoffrey Frost territory, you should be fine.  (The trick here is to identify the signs of burnout and to act of them.  We just need to get better at this.) 

The upside of all of this is that you will get pretty good at pattern recognition and speedy reporting.  Treating a different project every 3 weeks will make you better at seeing the forest and describing it succinctly.  And this will make you better at your Gladwellian mission.  You will be a better anthropologist for your commercial work, and you will outproduce many of the colleagues who insist in remaining house bound.  This says the conventional wisdom is wrong.  Commercial work does not corrupt your academic skills, it improves them. 

Downside again.  No academic anthropologist will thank you for making them look bad.  By mid career you will be producing more academic work in your spare time than they can produce from the sumptuous, well funded circumstances of a tenured post.  They will already resend you for having broking the embargo against taking contemporary culture seriously, so now they’re really mad.  Expect people to say nasty things on those few occasions you attend sherry hour.  Expect people to break off conversation and walk away from you, when they learn you once taught at the Harvard Business School.  You will find your own way to respond to this.  I use the motto of the order of the garter (to which I secretly appointed myself many years ago): honi soit qui mal y pense.  Roughly: dishonor to those who impute dishonor. 

Upside again.  You will spend so much time turning observations into ideas and ideas into words and words into recommendations, that it won’t be long before you feel like one of those teletype machines that chatter away in old movies.  It’s not quite the same as taking dictation from celestial voices.  But you will at least work with pace and dispatch.  Once you’ve worked at it, you will no longer have to work at it.  The ideas were pour out of you as fast as you can drive the black plastic keys on your slipper-like ThinkPad. 

So we are assuming that you are spending roughly half the year on your own research.  And that you are publishing same.  Finding a publisher is not easy.  Finding an agent is, in my experience, impossible.  I recently submitted a proposal for a book on branding, and one of the readers said that generally he thought the book was fine but could I please find a way to write the book without using the word "branding."  And it wasn’t a question.  This fellow hews tightly to the embargo.  He insists on the snobbery.  Surely this prohibition cannot last forever, but as long as it does, you will be rewarded for your efforts with a certain obscurity.  This could change if you would only write a popular book.  But the last time I tried, the would-be editor attempted a "hostile takeover" that would astonish even a takeover tough guy like Carl Icahn.  After years of working in close quarters with smart clients, you are now accustomed to collaboration.  Watch out for the imperial pretensions of some publishing houses.  (And not to worry, it won’t be long before these houses are disintermediated too. )

We are also assuming that you will treating your life and your career as an experiment and that you will report back on the blog you try to write everyday.  By which I mean, for God’s sake, phone home.  Let us know how it’s going.  You can’t share everything to be sure.  But there will always be a bee or two in your bonnet.  I’m pretty sure that that’s what the "b" stands in blogging.

Here’s a peculiar difficult that I will treat as a last note.  Working for corporations means that you will cultivate a feeling for enterprise.  And knowing something about contemporary culture you will see opportunity everywhere. Every week or so you will have a good idea for a business.  Don’t go there.  Your job is to study and capture contemporary culture.  It is not to bury yourself in a little corner of the economy and practice the mouth to mouth resuscitation required to keep a start-up alive.   

Thanks again for the question.  Good luck and please keep me posted.

More resources:

1) have a look through this blog using "consultant" as your key word.

2) see the deck that I did for the Canadian government.  Everything else is proprietary.  This I can share.  Find it on Slideshare here

3) have a look at my list of favorite books on American culture on Shelfari here.   

4) if you will forgive a moment’s self promotion, have a look at the work I did in my spare time. ( I just know you can do better. )

Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meanings and brand management on Amazon, click here.

Flock and Flow: Predicting and managing change in a dynamic marketplace on Amazon, here.

Transformations: Identity Construction in contemporary culture
on Amazon, here

14 thoughts on “How to be a self-funding anthropologist

  1. Eric Nehrlich

    Man. Now I want to drop everything and go become an anthropologist myself. I do need to read more – embarrassingly, I’ve only read 7 out of the 67 books on the shelf, and 2 of those are yours (although I think you are too modest – Transformations was spectacular). I also need to post more often and hone my skill at noticing, as observation is where it all starts. Ah, so many things to work on – I need to prioritize more effectively.

  2. peter spear

    Lovely. culture above and culture below is perfect and helpful. you’re making generosity of thought a practice and that is admirable. i’m thankful.

  3. B

    “Social networking is now finding its feet precisely because users have found a way to make it responsive to the logic of their social worlds.”

    Well said, and I have found this to be true in the case of my own reseach.

  4. Andres B

    “Living out a suitcase will mean that you are estranged from friends and family.”

    Upside: But if you take some time out, you’ll have drinks with some random dude on a funny-smelling country 🙂

    Grant, great advice.

    Even though most of your topics go well over my head, I learn a lot with every post you publish. You’re my intellectual hero.

  5. Michael

    Thanks for this post. This is the thing, to be sure. It’s funny, because I was thinking about similar problems just the day before yesterday when I received the recent edition of the American Anthropologist. In it, there is an article by E Paul Durrenberger & Dimitra Doukas where they do fine enough ethnographic work on working-class people in America, but only for the purpose of somehow proving that these people are “resisting” contemporary consumerism, which they call “the gospel of wealth.” The reference escaped me and there was almost no description of this, except to point to a late 19th century text by Andrew Carnegie. Could you imagine any other social/economic trend described by a social scientist in such a hopelessly outdated manner? I wish the problem was truly shocking to me, but unfortunately it’s par for the academic anthropology course.

    But what’s really insightful about this post is that you’re pointing out all the little things that can go wrong on the other side of things, the corporate world, too.

    In the end, I agree that this in-between space is really a fascinating world to exist in…I just hope I can find the time to write about it more, like you do. Maybe I should start a blog, too.

  6. peter spear


    enjoyed your comment – is it possible to track down that article?

    and to your final point – it seems that all the interesting things are in between these days,

  7. Michael

    Gospel of Wealth, Gospel of Work: Counterhegemony in the U.S. Working Class
    American Anthropologist Jun 2008, Vol. 110, No. 2: 214–224.

  8. peter

    “Why not hire a bunch of cadets and send them out to do your bidding.”
    This is the managerial consulting model, but I am not sure it works for
    anthropology. It is a methodological commonplace that the person who
    analyzes the data should be the person who collects it. It’s not clear what
    delegating looks like when it comes to ethnography.”

    It is interesting that the world’s leading quantitative sample survey statisticians — eg, the folks running the US Bureau of Census and their equivalents in other western countries — usually insist on the statisticians themselves undertaking some actual field-data collection in the surveys they are involved with. This is because statisticians want to understand how actual data collection is done on sample surveys they design and analyze, and this is not possible without actual involvement in the process itself. This is just like McDonalds’ corporate managers each spending one day a month behind a store counter serving customers. In other words, even quant research benefits from (some would say, requires) on-the-ground experience by the researchers and managers running the project.

  9. Marc Tyrrell

    Wonderful piece! It certainly rings true with my own experience of teaching, consulting, and trying to finance my own research!

    “Casting the reading net wide. You will have to leave anthropology for the other social sciences, and the social sciences for the humanities and sciences.” This really resonated. A lot of the consulting work I do is in tourism marketing, and that means staying current in so many different areas it’s almost ridiculous! As a slight note, however, it’s not so much that you have to “leave anthropology” as it is you have to leave the modern definition of anthropology and go back to Wilson’s late 19th century definition of it as the Science of Man (de facto subtitled as and anything we pesky humans do…).

  10. jerng

    Great stuff, boss. I appointed myself a self-funded anthropologist in Malaysia when I was in the 10th grade, eschewed the punctilious trappings of coursework in anthropology at my four-year liberal arts college in the North-east United States, returned to Malaysia for some commercial dumpster diving, and have never looked back. Unfortunately, I have not also been able to persuade myself that publishing is worth my time. One day perhaps I will transfer my energies from the acquisition to the dessemination of knowledge regarding my fellows. It is good to know that some of you have already gone before me.

Comments are closed.