Tag Archives: Gillian Tett

Business anthropology: some thoughts

Screen Shot 2019-06-21 at 9.54.07 145AM

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as were Caitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)

Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)

After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.

Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.

1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.

2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?

3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.

4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.

5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.

5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).

5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).

5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.

5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.

6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look.  Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.

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