Category Archives: Advice to a young consultant

how to think like an anthropologist

How_to_think_like_an_anthro_ii I came across this passage the other day.  It’s Ian Watt discussing Cervante’s Don Quixote.

Don Quixote’s adventures in his second expedition usually follow a pattern of action that in itself is very simple: a visual stimulus; a misinterpretation of the stimulus by Quixote in terms of his chivalric compulsions; a realistic correction by Sancho Panza, overridden by his master’s complacent imaginative expertise; a challenge; a battle and its result; and a conclusion, in the form of a highly entertaining discussion between Quixote and Sancho, that the reader gets into the habit of eagerly awaiting. 

What he means is:

In the  second expedition, Don Quixote’s adventures have a simple pattern: something happens, Quixote misinterprets it in his chivalric way, Sancho Panza corrects him, Quixote objects, a battle ensues, discussion follows, the reader is pleased.

Never mind.  It’s possible his editors at the Cambridge University Press insist that prose meet air pressure guidelines issued by the Press.  Or perhaps this sort of thing now comes from Brussels.

What I like about Watt’s remark is how effectively he takes us to the heart of Cervante’s enterprise.  He gives us the form behind the text, the hidden structure of the story.  This is precisely the sort of thing we do not see at first.  And we look to someone like Watt to see through the surface of the text to pattern from which it springs.  (Let me say Watt does this brilliant well and I hope he will forgive my impertinence.) 

This is what anthropologists are for.  They look at cultures, not at texts.  And when they make themselves useful, it is because they can "see into" the cultural thing (a movie, a celebrity, a brand, a trend, for instance) and say what makes it what it is.  They are looking for the essentials that define it.  For instance, they are trying to say as clearly as possible who John Cusack is as an actor, so that they can say, as clearly as possible, how he differs from, say, from any of the actors who starred in The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro).  Is this useful?  If you are casting a Hollywood movie, it is, I believe, very useful. Art depends upon it.  Commerce depends upon it. 

Now, you would think this would be a pretty simple statement of what anthropology is, but I must tell you that I am almost the only anthropologist who believes it anymore.  This is because most of the field has fallen under the dark spell of the continental philosophers, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and under this baleful influence they sleep.  Every so often they rouse themselves to write an act of moral, political or epistemological self recrimination, and persuaded that the old kind of anthropology is indeed unlawful and unclean, they return to their fitful, tortured slumber.

But wait, before they go, they will sometimes leave us prose like this:

It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar  perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism. (Stephen Tyler, ref. below, quote from The Bad Writing Contest, ref. below)

Not everyone is prepared to suffer the concussive effect of these grenades.  Denis Dutton held a bad writing contest in the 1990s.  (Tyler won 2nd place in 1997.)  And Professor Dutton had this to say about another winner:

Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading,  the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.” If readers are baffled by a phrase like “disclosing the absentation of actuality,” they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of  natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.       

Anthropologists, when they bought the continental lie, took up showing off in a big way. To be honest, there was much else  to do.  Anthropology was pretty much extinct.  Anthropologists could no longer make assertion about the world.   The long trek started by the likes of Morgan and Spencer in the 19th century was over.  The field was now just so many skateboarders working on their Ollie.  (And let me reassure Dr. Tyler that I mean this impertinence with near Victorian sincerity.)  As a result, anthropology is in a bit of a shambles and those who would borrow from anthropology must choose with care.  (Think of this as the last helicopter out.) 

Let’s say this as a minimum.  Anthropology looks for the core of the thing, it’s defining characteristics, it’s essence.  And this means usually a set of propositions that together make an argument which may then be judged as a whole and by its parts.  This sounds a little general, I’m sure.  Have a look, if you wouldn’t mind, at my post on the "artisanal trend" for a case in point.

No, it isn’t perfect.  Yes, I am sure it generalizing in a way that offends the delicate sensibilities of the postmodern anthropologist, but then it doesn’t pretend to be anything but a provisional way of looking at things, altogether risible where it not so very much better than nothing (and delirium).   This anthropological approach is rough and ready.  It intellectually opportunistic, slapping together concepts and insights like a Thor Heyerdahl hoping for landfall soon, because, let’s face it, this implausible floating machine isn’t floating very much longer.  But that is the point of the exercise.  We are not seeking perfection.  We are seeking to construct an idea just robust enough to get us from confusion to clarity.  Once we get there, it can gracefully decay on the beach for all we care, the object now of nothing more than touristic curiosity. "TThey got here on that?"  (I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog are themselves creatures who live by their wits, that they are people who are constantly being asked to come up with a provisional, "actionable" way of looking at things often by lunch time and more often right now.) 

Were my account more learned, elegant, sophisticated, it would look exactly the classic liberal arts notion of the "argument."  And it is I think just entirely astonishing that anyone should now be called upon to describe what an "argument" is.  I mean, really.  To walk away from the intellectual machinery (if you will) that brought us the magnificent ideas that make us possible, it’s really, well, just bizarre.  I picture Watson and Crick sitting at the Double Eagle pub in Cambridge.  One of them reaches into the envelope that contains the grainy X-ray and our first glimpse of DNA.  The other say, "so what do we have?"  The reply, "Oh, geez, I can’t tell.  You know….  Couldn’t be.  F*ck it.  How about another pint."  For all of its vaunted philosophy, the postmodernists’ repudiation of clarity was every bit as cavalier as this."  (Impertinence to Watson and Crick devoutly regretted.)

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a student at McGill.  I was a guest lecturer in her class, and after I finished speaking, she asked a question.  Well, no, not a question, really.  She raised a number of issues in a manner so, well, allusive that it wasn’t clear what the issues were.  And there were lots of issues, it turned out, and after awhile….I didn’t know what to think.  You can imagine me with my swiss-army-knife practicality, this was frustrating and I asked, please would she clarify?’  She took this as clearance to do another couple of laps around the airfield.  And a barrel roll or two.  But no, no question.  My patience (to say nothing of Dutton’s  "natural humility") began to wear a little and I said, "I’m sorry, what is the question?"  As she set out on another lonely journey, it became clear that for this student of the new liberal arts, illumination came from many remarks heaped upon a rhetorical bonfire out of which sparks must eventually fly penetrating and illuminating the mind of the listener.  But not me.  Not my mind.  No, the only spark coming my way was a dismal one: she was actually incapable of asking a question, that she was a captive of the sleeping kingdom. 

The point of every formal intellectual exercise is to decide what the question is, to survey the answer "options," to refine or reform the questions where necessary, to work out our propositions and refine and reform those too.  This is what Western thinkers are so very good at.  This is precisely why Western thought managed, in the notion of Levi-Strauss, to escape circularities and insularities of "wild thought" and find its way to ideas that were ever more transparent to a reality.   And this of course is the first principle of post modernism, that there is no real real, everything is constructed, idea is everything.  To think that this "discourse" is largely composed on a computer which is if nothing else, a demonstration of the ability of  IBM labs to make electrical charges dance with unfailing precision on the head of a pin, well, it’s sad and strange.  And it does make you wonder about issues of "fitness for office."  This creatures of the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, should we not take the university away from them?  Pay them off if need be.  But for God’s sake, send them home. They have wrecked the liberal arts.  They have made it near impossible to study contemporary culture.  This is to say they have imposed opacity at two of the places we hope for light.

Oh, but there’s me on my hobby horse again.  Sorry.  Grant, dude.  (And I know you inner ear supplied this, but popular culture species this particular vocalization of "dude" as an extenuated, falling U, the entreaty U, let’s call it.)   All I mean to say here is that for our purposes anthropology operates like a glass bottom boat.   (I know.  I know.  Enough with all  the helicopters, airfields, kingdoms and now, geez, glass bottom boats!  Dude!  I am hoping you issued your own "mixed metaphor advisory" a couple of hundred words ago.  Apply and use snow chains for remaining paragraphs.) 

But in the spirit of intellectual opportunism, glass bottom boat is apt.  Before the act of anthropological analysis, the object of our interest is obscured by a shifting surfaces and refracting light.  After our analysis, it is evident, there, clear to the eye.  Sure, there may be something illusory about this clarity, but anything is better than an English professor showing off.  (Because finally he knows what the pragmatist lives by, nothing comes of nothing.) 

There I go again.  Sorry.  Here’s what I want to say.  To think like an anthropologist, it is necessary to observe the world as carefully as you can.  (Use "noticing" as a key work on this blog for more on this step.) And then it is to decide what we might say about what we think we see.  And it is then to proceed with the construction of several propositions as a kind of scaffolding of the most general, powerful and clear things we think we can say about the topic at hand. 

The argument is propositional and segmental.  It is made up of working parts any one of which may be scrutinized and in the popular phrase "swapped out."  There is always a calculation being performed as the argument is being worked and reworked.  Does this particular intellectual intervention succeed in fixing the part only to ruin the whole.  At some point, we may have to decide the thing is a mess.  "Put the argument down and walk away." 

There is always also Kuhnian grounds for starting again.  Because there may be something in our "problem set" that that doesn’t quite make sense, an anomaly that resists our explanatory scheme.  And if we stop and honor it, that is to say, if we stop and think the things that make it clear instead of anamolous, this can reconfigure the explanation altogether.  And often of course this comes all of sudden, as if done by elves while we sleep.  Suddenly, we get it.  (See Kuhn’s wonderfully clear idea of paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolution.)

But it’s not only anomalies that must be honored.  The ordinary, run of the mill, data at hand must be honored too.  We must resist the temptation to haul out our favorite explanation because, in that wonderful phrase, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.  But not to us.  No, we intend to find the hammer assumed by these nails.  Or invent it, if it does not exist. 

But we are responsible not just to the data, anomalous or standard issue.  We are also in possession of a set of things we think about the world.  These are assumptions but because we have used them over and over and tested them over and over, they have a better-than-assumption status.  Of all the ideas we have ever thought and used, these are our favorite, the ones with the greatest wattage.  But of course, any given project will serve as an opportunity to rework even these.   

Then comes a bit for clarity.  We go back and remove everything the reader doesn’t need to know or hear.  This is a "signal to noise" issue.  The more content we can take out of the signal, the clearer we make it.  This notion of parsimony was long ago abandoned by English professors because otherwise ollies are out of the question.  And in a more perfect world, more sincere world, I would go back and clear up this text, and give it clarity and bullet points and all the things our clients demand of us. I would particularly remove all the taunting of the postmodernists, because, really, who cares?  I know I don’t.


Dutton, Denis.  The Bad Writing Contest. here

Tyler, Stephen.  1986.  Post-modern ethnography: from document of the occult to occult document. in Writing Culture,   edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus.  University of California Press.

Watt, Ian.  1996.   Myths of Modern Individualism.  New York: Cambridge University Press.   


For more on the English Professor’s Ollie, see the Wikipedia entry here


Thanks to Jonathan Feinberg and his fine program Wordle at for the opening image. 

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

The perfect black bag

Tumi The young consultant lives or dies by the "all but only" rule.  He or she wants to travel with everything needed to survive life on the road, and not one thing, one ounce or one feature more.

Further to my occasional series, "advice to a young consultant," here are some thoughts on the perfect black bag.  (We are talking briefcases here.  I will leave the perfect suitcase to a later post; the consultant’s world is a two bag world.) 

I welcome the comments and advice of other travellers.  This account does not pretend to be definitive or exhaustive.

The perfect black bag

The bag itself should be cloth, expandable, study and probably by Tumi. The bag cannot have hard sides.  It is going to have to expand in some moments and collapse down in others.  (Consultants should be able to do the same.)  Hard sides make this impossible.  The bag cannot be made of leather. This dries out and looks bad in the long term.  In the short term, it will be seen as a "rookie mistake" by your fellow travellers. The Tumi brand has also become a "secret signal" for the sophisticated traveller.  Don’t buy something like a Hartmann or anything showy.   You want to keep a lowish profile in those moments you find yourself in the company of thieves.

Contents of the perfect black bag:


To protect yourself from the punishments of life on the road, you must have noise cancelling earphones.  They work well on the plane and reduce the fatique of air travel substantially.  And they mean that you can actually hear the dialogue of the movies you are watching.  (Travel outside the US turns out to be a great way of catching up with popular culture inside the US.  Those trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trips allow you to watch 3 or 4 movies at a go.  You can also wear the headphones when the airport or traffic gets noisy, and here they are life savers.  Finally, headphones are good when you find yourself seated by a kucklehead or a bore.  Nothing says "don’t bother me" like a headset.  (I did actually sit beside someone who suffered "pressure of speech" so enormously that they kept talking to me even after I put my headphones on.)

The insider’s choice at the moment is the Bose headset, but recently, having lost my Bose to misadventure on the road, I purchased a set of Sony MDR-NC50 and I think they’re better. They cover the entire ear, which is essential, and they can operate as a headset without a battery inserted.  I think this is key.  Who wants a battery held against one’s skull for an 8 hour flight?  The price might give you pause, but believe me $200-300 is the single best investment you will make as a traveller. 


If you want to be an ethnographic consultant, you are going to want to take lots of photos.   I am still looking for the right camera.  I have a Nikon Coolpix 3700.  The perfect camera would turn on, focus, and refresh instanteously.  Lots of cameras lag in one or all of these areas.  Much of your photography will be shot from the open window of a speeding taxi.  Any kind of lag is intolerable.  Also the camera needs to be really little so that it can accompany you in a jacket pocket.  It should have some telephoto capacity.  I would love to hear suggestions here.


There is no substitute for the ThinkPad by Lenovo.  It is incredibly light, incredibly dependable, and it has the best keyboard, the point of interface that matters most.  The new models have dramatically better battery life and hard drive capacity.  (They also have that new, special "explodo" battery made by Sony, but I understand that’s being fixed. )

Cell phone service

If you are doing lots of international travel, you will want to have a phone capable of taking a SIM card and GSM/GPRS service, and this means Cingular and T-Mobile.  The former give me good service and reception in Russia and China. 

Food stuffs

This is a special concern for me because I have subject to anaphylaxis.  But the thing about travel and consulting is that schedules are hectic and its easy to miss a meal. Miss a couple in a row and you are light headed and miserable. My fall back are granola bars from Kellogg’s . 

A book

You only have room for one so you have to chose it carefully.  This is going to be your companion when things get really unpleasant, so it has to be written with perfectly clarity.  Last trip I took The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado, but it is laboriously written.  This is one of the "desert island disks" question, so beloved by the English, and it makes an interesting exercise.  What is the single best literary companion.  You might say Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but often you will be reading while exhausted, groggy, jet lagged and distracted.  I don’t know about you but if find I actually have to pay attention while reading the Sonnets.  Maybe the latest volume of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series.  It’s swashbuckling without being too boy’s own.  Pound for pound, word for word, what is the best literate pal to have along for the ride?

iPod or Zen

I think a well appointed laptop should serve as a substitute for these devices, but there will be times when you want to protect your laptop battery or travel without encumbrance.  The iPod is everyone’s favorite.  Ideally, we want one capable of music and movies.  I welcome recommendations here.

A sweater

I know this sounds dorky but if you take a sweater, you can get them to hang up your suit jacket and the less "suited up" you feel while flying the more pleasant it will be.  Travel is a process that wears away at you.  Anything you can do to "give yourself a little space" is to be recommended. 


adapter laptop for plane
business cards
charge cords for phone and laptop and iPod
extra battery for laptop
plugs and adapters for Europe and Asia
SD card for capturing images on camera and transferring them to labtop
thumbdrive for backup
transparent envelope for itinary
transparent envelope for project reading
transparent envelope for receipts
(remember to charge everything the night before you go)

Redundant systems

It’s up to you to decide which of these systems is so essential you should take a backup.  Strictly speaking, I guess, this should be your laptop.  But if you are transitioning out of the Microsoft world to the Google one, more and more of your essentials end up on line.  Don’t hesitate to email yourself that Powerpoint presentation, for a backup you will be able to access anywhere even in the effect of a cataclysmic lose of your perfect black bag.

Hard card

This sounds dopy, too. but it’s essential.  What you have decided on "all but only" the contents of your perfect black bag, you will want to type these in a list on a piece of paper, take the piece of paper to Kinko’s, and have them cover the piece of paper with something transparent.  Your bag is now a little universe of some 30 heterogeneous objects waiting to go astray.  Hard cards make it easier to keep track. 

Bon voyage.


For more on the Patrick O’Brian series, see the W.W. Norton website here.

Why I just bought a nightlight

Night_light As you read this, I am winging my way to China.  Yesterday, I had to decide what to take with me.  I decided on a night light.  (Not the one pictured.  That’s a file photo.  I got a rabbit.)   

For me, the toughest part of the travelling to new time zones is sleep management.  In Russia, my body refused to adjust and I largely went without.  Sitting in a 100 degree Kruschov kitchen, trying to conduct an interview, with a skeptical client and a bewildered respondent, in the teeth of near absolute jet lag, this will not stand as my happiest memory of the ethnographic experience. 

This time I am hoping my sleep cycles will be more cooperative.  But here’s the problem.  If I get off cycle, it’s very hard to stay asleep once I fall asleep. Especially if I need to get up in the middle of the night.  Chances are, I won’t remember where the bathroom is, and chances are I will have to turn on a light to find my way…and, forgive me, my aim.  This is bad.  Dosing  yourself with light is a good way to return to wakefulness. Now all hope of sleep is gone. 

Thank god for illuminated rabbits.

As to posting, I will if I can.  Please forgive periodic shortages of copy and taste. 


McCracken, Grant.  2006.  Advice to a young consultant.  This blogs sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  June 20, 2006.  here.