Category Archives: How to be an anthropologist (for hire)

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

What you can fund with your consulting work

Wordle_for_last_essay_in_anthropolo [This will be the last essay and conclusion to the blog compendium How To Be An Anthropologist (for hire).]

Being an anthropologist for hire should prove remunerative  If all goes well, you should be able to use your consulting income to fund…something else. 

It could be being a really great mom.  It could be working on that career in stand-up comedy.  It could be making yourself the world’s expert in Bolivian tin mining, 1920-1932. 

My hope is that you will be an anthropologist here too.  I hope you will study American culture for clients and then study it again for yourself.  It’s a pretty straight forward proposition.  And God knows there is plenty of work to do.  The academic anthropologists have pretty much forsaken the study of their own culture.  If you don’t do it, who’s going to?

The good thing about an anthropologist who does not depend on tenure and promotion committees or government grants is that we can go our own way.  The academic anthropologist is thoroughly shaped by his or her community…and, dude, does it show.  There is a consensus at work in their world that has shut down all but the most approved discourse.  Indeed, the only community that conforms to Foucault’s nutty idea is the academic one that embraced it as an account of the rest of us. 

The advantage of being an anthropologist by day and by night is that the two halves of your career can work together.  When you are collected data for commercial purposes, you will see things that serve your academic interests.  And vice versa.  Indeed, I like to think that my clients are paying for one day, but they are actually getting two.  All my academic work is there at their disposal when I am "on the job."

But I should warn you.  Doing both sides of the proposition did not come easily to me and it may not come easily to you..  In fact, it was like riding uneven circus ponies for much of the time.  It was sometimes miserable.  It cost me my first marriage and it induced in my a reckless disregard for my self interest.  Oh, poor me.  Forgive the self pity.  But I am obliged to tell you what you’re getting in to. 

The upside is pretty interesting.  You are you’re own man or woman.  You can chose your own questions.  You can go your own way. A culture awaits you.

Culture capture

Wordle_for_culture_capture This will be Section 4 of the blog compendium How to be an anthropologist (for hire).   

Culture is the anthropologist’s stock in trade, the thing that makes us useful.

So naturally we want to be alert to what is happening in the culture around us.  There are plenty of opportunities.  Things will emerge while we are doing interviews, watching TV, wandering around in the mall or on mainstream, or listening to your spouse or your kids.  There’s data everywhere. 

1. How to spot a trend

As an anthropologist, you will be on the lookout for new cultural developments.  This post identifies the two rules that aid in our search.  See the post here.

2. Two and A Half Men: birth of a new male?

One of the engines of innovations in our culture is gender.  Our ideas of how to define maleness and femaleness are changing constantly.  In this post, I look at the rise of the unapologetic male.  I am using the best kind of data: a very successful prime time comedy from CBS.  See the post here

3. Beauty and the death of zero sum

What is beauty?  Every culture has it’s own take.  (We insist on "thin," some cultures prefer "thick.") As usual our idea of beauty is in transition.    One of the parties sensing and responding to this change is the Unilever brand called Dove.  See the post here.

4. Celebrity culture

Thanks to PSFK, I got to attend a forum on celebrity.   I got to hear Jessica Coen of Gawker and Janice Min of US Weekly, among others.  This provokes an anthropological response.  See the post here.

5. Pets are people too

We are a wacky culture in many ways.  One of our recent stunts is confering personhood on our companion animals.  See the post here.

6. The artisanal trend

Artisanal bread?  In the culture that created Wonder Bread?  Chocolate that used to come industrially from Mars or Nestle’s is now fashioned by skilled workers in closed shops under glass.  Even some brands of beer are being called artisanal.  This is very clear cultural trend.  Here’s my effort to give it the anthropological treatment.  See the post here.

7. Just enough

If you have ever been to Vegas or even a local Sunday buffet, you know how good our culture is at excess.  But even this may be shifting.  See the post here.

8. Not kinship, kidship

How people are related, this is one of the key interests on anthropology.  In this post, it seems to me that in our culture there is something interesting happening here.  See the post here.

9. Lil Wayne, Prince of the gift economy

The economy as imagined by Adam Smith, the one that sees value move between exchanging parties is short, clear, delimited bursts is now being joined by an economy that sees new kinds of value (especially social and cultural capital) moving in long arcs through collections of strangers.  In this post, I am nominating the rapper Lil Wayne as the gift economy’s patron saint.   See the post here

Culture is our export

This will be section 3 of the compendium of posts forthcoming on this blog. The compendium will be called "How to be an anthropologist (for hire)."

1. Culture Matters I

In this post, I try to show that and how culture matters by calling it the software of contemporary life.  I offer my "Annapok experiment," in which we contemplate the experience of an Inuit man called Annapok who must go to Manhattan without the right software.  (See the post here.)

2. Culture Matters II

As the software of contemporary life, culture is essential to marketers.  Here we look at branding work by  Acura, Disney, Rache Ray, Volvo, and department stores.  (See the post here.)

3. Culture Matters III

Culture is essential for marketing and marketers but in fact it is routinely dismissed or derided by many experts.  In this post,I Iook at Clayton Christensen, Clotaire Rapaille and trend hunters.  (See the post here.)

4. The Devil Wears Durkheim

Culture does not descend to us from on high.  It is often the outcome of commercial forces.  (This is one of the reasons it is so various and so responsive.)  In this post, I look at how the fashion industry helps shape our culture.  My talking point is a key scene from the movie the Devil Wears Prada.  (See the post here.)

5. Prefab culture

Culture  created by the fashion world, by the movies, by marketing, by fiction and theatre, sometimes delivers itself straight into the details of everyday life.  This post looks at the phrases liked "what’s up!" or "Oh, behave" that start as commerce and end up as culture.   (I take this as a demonstration of how often commercial forces create our culture and in the process us.)  (See the post here.)

6. How to be a self-funding anthropologist

This is my career advice to a young man who wrote me from Mumbai to ask about how to learn about culture.  Please note my distinction between culture above and culture below.  There are two parts to our export, short term trends and deeper, longer continuities.  It is our attention to the last that distinguishes the anthropologist from many people who are also interested in culture.  (See the post here.)

7. Anthropology, the business model

This is my effort to treat the more general, and perhaps the most important, project an anthropologist can undertake to make him or herself useful to serve the world.  This post is about watching things change in our culture, detecting new patterns, and proposing a new architecture.  here.)


Anthropologists and others

Anthropologists_and_others_wordle This essay will be part of the blog compendium called How To Be An Anthropologist (for hire), coming to this blog soon.

Anthropologists are not the only ones trying to make sense of markets and meanings.  There are several parties with which it competes and collaborates.  In this section, I am in a competitive frame of mind.  I look at how engineers, economists, managers, CEOs and university presidents ignore the cultural part of the equation.   

1. Culture and engineers I

In this essay, I talk about one way to present culture to engineers.  (See the post here.) 

2. Culture and engineers II

When people started using social technologies like Twitter and Facebook to tell their friends things like "I just fed the cat," engineers threw up their hands.  We give the world this new way of communicating and what do they do with it?  Engineers went so far as to call these messages "exhaust data."  This was another way of saying it was message without content, data without significance. 

But there’s a better, anthropological way to look at these data, I think.  It is to see it as "phatic communication."  (See the post here.)

3. Culture and economists I

This post is my reply to Steven Levitt.  I think there is a better, more cultural explanation for the urban issues he has been examining.  I think we are called upon to look at the social context, the rise of hip hop and the transformation of popular culture.  These are almost always the things excluded from consideration by the economist.  So of course I was going to reply.  (See the post here.) 

4. Culture and economists II

This is my reply to behavioral economists.  I argue that the notion of rationality must be defined broadly enough to capture cultural knowledge and not just the calculation of benefit.  (See the post here.)

5. Culture and managers

Scott Berkun was kind enough to interview me for his blog at Harvard Publishing.  I found myself attempting to define the value of culture for managers.  See what you think.  (See the post here.)

6. Culture and CEOs

It’s my conviction that virtually every CEO has a great big hole in his or her knowledge.  What they are missing in an understanding of what culture is and how culture works.  More to the point for some, what is missing is a nuanced and thorough knowledge of what is happening in culture now.  Here is a post on Michael Eisner, a guy who apparently believes that just living in our culture gives us a sufficient knowledge of our culture.  (See the post here.)

7. Culture and university presidents

I believe that the man who was the President of Harvard might have survived controversy and remained in office had he had a deeper understanding of the culture (and cultures) that flourish at his university.  This post was my advice to him, a kind of open letter.  (See the post here.) 

how anthropologists make a living

How_to_be_an_anthropologist_for_hir I am preparing to mount another blog compendium.  See the first one of these, eyes right, called Branding Now.  This second compendium will be called How to be an anthropologist (for hire) and it will draw together posts from this blog that treat the theme. 

What do anthropologists do to make a living?

1) Pit bulls in Chicago

The most common thing that anthropologist do is to serve as "eyes and ears" for someone.  The client (often but not always a corporation) needs to get in touch with the people who buy its products and services.  They have many ways of doing this.  One way to hire an anthropologist to talk directly to the consumer.  These are called "ethnographic" interviews

In the case of this post, I was in Chicago talking to people on behalf of a financial services company.  Normally, ethnographic interviews are done in undistracted circumstances, someone’s home, perhaps an office.  But in this case, we were talking about money.  And many Americans would rather talk about their sex lives then their financial circumstances.  (This is an interesting cultural puzzle all on its own.)  So it made sense to interview respondents in public.  This is where I met the pit bull.  (See the post here.)

In any case, this ethnographic interview is the standard thing an anthropologist does for a living.

2) How Fieldwork works

Here I am toughing it out in the field.  This post will also give you a sense of the mechanics of the ethnographic interview.  I have quite a few posts on this blog on ethnography, and I hope to create a compendium called Ethnography: how to do it.  In the meantime, treat this post as your introduction to what ethnography looks like.  (See the post here.) 

3) Decoding culture

A second way to serve the client is to x-ray a new development in the marketplace.  Quiznos might hire you to tell them about the artisanal trend in bread and chocolate.  Detroit might ask you to find out about the new trend in customizing autos.  The USA Network may ask you to figure out why Rachel Ray is such a big hit.  These questions have anthropological answers.  And in this case we supply them not be talking to consumers, but by examining culture.   (See the post here.) 

4) Building Brands

A third way to serve clients is to help them build the public image, the public face, the public meaning they present to the world.  I do not have a particular post here.  No, I have 40 posts here.  You will find them organized as a blog compendium at  Looking for the book covered with the title Branding Now.  This is the anthropologist’s view of what a brand is, how this is changing and now an anthropologist can help. 

5) Preventing the blind side hit

The corporation lives increasingly in a dynamic, unpredictable world.  In order to protect itself from the "blind side hit," it will sometimes hire an anthropologist.  His or her job is to figure out the points of vulnerability.  This exist where the corporation makes a Here’s another way for the anthropologist to serve.  Sometimes, the corporation won’t use him or her to talk to consumer but to identify risks or to solve problems.  In the case of assumption hunting, the anthropologist is hired to find out where the corporation is most vulnerable to disruptive change.  (See the post here.)

6) Ferret Mode

Sometimes, the corporation knows it has a problem but it can’t quite tell what the problem is.  This is the time to send the anthropologist in in "ferret mode."  The corporation says, "Have a look.  Let us know.  Tell us the best way to define and approach this problem."  This puts a premium on the anthropologist’s powers of pattern recognition.  (See the post here.)

7) Anthropology’s broadest responsibility?

This post is a very general treatment of what anthropology "brings to the party."  I think of this as a statement of the anthropologist’s biggest intellectual responsibilities: helping our culture and our commerce think see the new fluidity of the contemporary world, and helping to propose new ways for us to think about culture and commerce now that fluidity is upon us.  (See the post here.)