Scared of my own voice

I publish under a pseudonym, that of the ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’. This suits me as it’s like donning a mask and going to a party. You get to attend, participate, enjoy yourself, express a different side of yourself, be a little bit risky but not compromise your real self, because after all, you were wearing a mask. You’re putting on or trying out another personality perhaps, one that is less accountable because all the threads can’t be drawn together as in real life. Real life is contextual, we add all the pieces of information that we know about a person together to form a picture, a view, and get a sense of a person. But that doesn’t happen when you wear a mask, unless you are exposed and we get to see who you ‘really are’. But wearing a mask too allows us to show who we really are as we participate in the truth telling of the bus stop syndrome. So it’s this paradox of both being able to shield oneself yet at the same time be more fully exposed in the display of oneself that I wish to explore in this essay blog.

Anonymity, like donning a mask, is protective because it allows you to express yourself through a voice that is uncensored, unafraid and keen to tell the truth. You get to explore truths in a way that is unfettered. You don’t worry about what people might make of what you say, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve suffered. You get to spare yourself the judgement. Even if you the reader judge, it is an anonymous judgement of an anonymously expressed piece of writing.

There is a history attached to anonymous writing but the common theme is that of wanting expression and not being able to, or not seeking to publish under one’s own name. People have had very real reasons for doing so, often political, related to gender or to the expression of truth that is hard to bear.

This form of communication also has its downside. By distancing myself from my own, my real voice, I’m also distancing myself from the experiences, feelings and situations that I relate here on the page. I don’t own them, they don’t come from me. That is both liberating, yet suffocating. I’m free to perform, to narrate and to share. But at the same time I’m more stifled, less, understood, less comprehended because I am not known and therefore not attached to those experiences.

And worse than that by writing in this way it is a tacit acknowledgement, indeed an agreement between myself and the reader – you – who are also party to this process through your acceptance of this writing regime, in your approval through your participation in the act of reading. Of what? Of conspiring with me in my attempt at stifling my real voice.

So this begs the question: what am I afraid of? Why have I been complicit in silencing myself all these years? In the old days I kept a private diary where I worked things out on the page. Even if I didn’t work it out, I certainly got it out. But blogging is different. Blogging includes an audience wider than one. Blogging means that there is an audience who will participate, who will imagine through my writing, who will visualise and ponder what I say, and how I’ve said it and most importantly ponder that which I’ve left out of my writing on the page.

So what am I afraid of? Am I frightened of the truth? By stating it in my own voice, with my own name attached to it, I give it an authenticity, a reality that my truth deserves. Through authoring this privately/publicly through an anonymous pen, I don’t really have to own this truth. It’s like little kids when they tell, that’s when they get upset, that’s when it hits them, that’s when they feel the emotion and that’s when they cry. Because that’s when it’s dawned on them and their truth has become REAL.

That is the issue: writing anonymously is like writing naked. You have a shawl wrapped tightly around you, and that shawl is made up of fabric, texture, materials, shades and colours that are reflective of you, that constitute your personality, your self, your personhood, known, accepted and acknowledged by others. You have it wrapped very tightly around your naked self, it holds you together, it holds you in, it keeps you bound and consistent in your interactions with the world. But for this bright, or sombre, thick or thin, expensive or cheap, mass produced or handmade garment that binds you, you would be NAKED, exposed and vulnerable.

And when we write anonymously we drop the shawl, drop the self that binds us and write freely in an unencumbered way. Our self is not limited to the materials and textures of our ordinary lives: you don’t need to know that I am the engineer, that I work in a factory or that I write science text books for a living. At this moment when the shawl has dropped I am just another human being with a story to tell. Tasteful or distasteful – that remains to be seen – but it is an experience with which you seek to participate because of the promise of the representation of an authentic, free and unencumbered voice.

But in our naked, exposed and vulnerable writing through donning a mask, a pseudonym, or just dropping the veneer of our selves, paradoxically there is greater freedom. It’s a risk to write, and it’s a greater risk to divulge truths about oneself. Once they’re said, well, they’re out there, whatever they may be.

There is such a cult of personality and even as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’ I too will be prone to this as I continue to write, continue to share my truths. Will you continue to read me if I become known? Will I want to write if my ‘real’ self wraps herself up in the shawl that details her name, her ego, her persona, at least the one that she shares with the wider world? So many industries require the success of a name, you have to be a flagrant self-promoter to get by, to move forward in so many creative industries. It is essential in academia. No mousing around not promoting yourself or attracting dollars and prestige to yourself and your department. I can’t do this, that’s why I’m not there. Wrong side of 40 anyway.

Personalities have a voice, have a history, are very present and imagine the future with themselves squarely in it. If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma these can be the very things that are compromised, stolen, even attacked in your life. This is especially true of the last part, that of imagining a secure and successful future with yourself squarely in the picture. But if you don’t like the one that’s written, an anonymous voice helps you give voice to this so that you don’t have to keep hiding from yourself. Your story, your history, your life is validated through telling. Hence the importance of processes such as bearing witness. Bearing witness allows the truth to be told, to be honoured, and to take it’s place in people’s personal histories lived against the larger histories in which all our biographies take place.

I mentioned the bus stop syndrome. It’s not a real syndrome, but it serves the same purpose as donning a mask or anonymising yourself. You get to share something of yourself in a context in which you are not really known, have no common history with people and are not likely to have them in your life again. So you’re less encumbered, more spontaneous and able to relate more freely. You’ve dropped your shawl and are expressing your reality in a way that is unaffected by the person you normally present to the world.

I met a woman on the bus the other night as I travelled into the city for a night out with a group of women from work. The woman sat next to me and we commented at the number of Greek women getting on the bus at each stop who seemed to know each other, greeted each other and sat together. As I marvelled at this synchronicity, the woman next to me explained that they had arranged to meet on this bus and that they were travelling to church together for the pre-Easter services. We talked about the women’s’ black garb and the woman sitting next to me commented that it must be freeing to wear black. I explained that it was a marker for the community, that it represented an announcement that this woman had been married, was now a widow and had left society and all the roles that had been formerly ascribed to her in her married life. The woman next to me liked this idea and thought that at the very least it would simplify one’s wardrobe. She confided that she’d lost her husband two years ago and that since then she only ever hung out with women in all the activities she undertook these days. I told her that I too had lost someone two years ago, my mother who had suffered recently from cancer but for fifty years had had schizophrenia. I felt like I’d really lost my mum years ago, or even that I’d never really had a mother in the sense that everyone else understood a mother. Therein lies part of the truth of my own and of course her suffering.

Will I find my voice? I’m on the way, but how will I ever own it?
Reprinted from The Word Clown

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Taking up Space

Nine years ago when I started my doctoral studies not only was I in a fertile intellectual endeavour undertaking fieldwork, reading theory, stretching my brain and writing, I was also at my peak fertility having babies while I did all the above. I was stretched in more ways than one.   

At that time we lived in a small house, as you do when you first start out and one of the things that I had to make space for was, well me. That was me as a student, me doing my PhD, me needing a computer and a small space to work in. Where could I find that in a house that was basically four rooms, with a partner, a baby and a toddler? We had a study set up, basic, but serviceable. As is the case it was always at the back of the house, near the kitchen and laundry, cold and draughty and not anything like the sort of space you might imagine doing your best work, your thinking and writing in.

I was in this space early in the morning before babies interrupted your thoughts with cries of need for milk, bananas and entertainment for an hour or so in the morning. I was in this space late at night as well, when everyone else had gone to bed after a nice night watching a movie or playing a game or reading a book, and was snug, while I sat in the cold, dark, poorly ventilated space next to the laundry trying to put some semblance of academic thinking against my fieldwork experiences. That I was translating and transcribing and trying to keep up with the bourgeoning literature at the same time as managing leaky breasts and playgroups says something about the spaces in which I travelled at that time.

Well the study space in the end just didn’t do it for me. I dragged the family to IKEA looking for something small in a desk that I could prop up somewhere away from people. I found a desk and a chair and we dragged power boards and strung cords all through the house and then ta dah, I finally had a space up the hallway somewhere near the front door, away from the TV and the kids, where I could work.

At least that was the theory. In practice, there was no door to separate me from the noise, the hubbub, the neediness, the wants, the cuddles, the play, the cleanup so, the baby change table and well, life basically.   

So I had to rethink the desk, chair and computer scenario again.

This time I moved them into my bedroom which was right up the front of the house. At least this way I had a door to close, which meant entry and exit rituals that I could control.

I was sick and tired of the functionality of the IKEA desk and chair and so I persuaded the family (7 minutes to get the kids into the car seats each time we stopped) to take a drive to the part of the city that had ‘interesting’ furniture and I found what in the end turned out to be a hall table with a couple of drawers that suited me just fine. It was narrow enough not to take up too much space (unlike me) and attractive as well as functional. Well, my knees knocked on it a bit when I crossed my legs, but hey I wasn’t complaining.

I set it up in front of the curtains facing the street. It was a busy street too, a secondary road that connected far flung suburbs. And it was a major intersection to boot. And one of the feeder roads to the intersection took the big trucks that transported goods around the country from the inland port just down the road. That meant a few hundred thousand big rigs shining their lights right into my bedroom as they waited to go around that corner. And go around that corner they did every time, usually in about six gear changes. I know, I used to count every single one of them.

These rigs, their lights, their gear changes, their acceleration and their brakes were my companions as I translated, transcribed and created sensible sentences to please my doctoral dissertation readers. I did OK. I passed in the end.

But the space: sitting their looking at the curtains, looking at the lights all those years ago. I thought I’d passed that stage but no. Here I am again. This time I’m facing teenagers and a partner who’s studying too. We live not in the little four room house anymore, but a couple of suburbs away in comparative luxury and splendour. We have a house with more than the minimum number of rooms, it’s open plan and has a purpose built study. What a joke. Did I just write those words: ‘purpose built study’? I should post the photo from the company that sold the build to us. It looks perfect but the photo, like my part of the study is not inhabited by any real people at all.

Here I am nine years later again facing the curtains in the bedroom. Again I’m sitting at a make shift desk, but this time it’s a reused telephone table, and I have a little bit more room for my knees, but not much. Instead of the laptop I’ve gone cordless with the IPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. And it’s carpeted..

When I look out now I don’t have to hide behind muslin curtains to shield myself from anonymous drivers. Now I look out at a panoply of suburbia. There are five houses, these are my neighbours and I get to watch the comings and goings of my street, of my neighbourhood. I see the dads come home with the kids. I see the mums dragging home groceries and pulling them out of the boot. I see the older kids smartly walk home, their school uniforms dishevelled. And the punks with their hotted up cars that they like to double park on the suburban streets, just to show how cool they are and how they can break the rules. That nobody but me and my neighbours sees, doesn’t seem to faze them. We all look to challenge the boundary spaces in life in lots of little ways, and this is their way.

I get to see the unfamiliar too: the surveyor who pulls out his equipment and takes his measures. Who’s moving I wonder? What’s the council up to, I muse? I see the bald man with the walking stick cross the road outside my house, walk along the path on the other side of my low hedge with his walking stick. He avoids my gaze and heads to the path near my house and walks to the park and onwards to somewhere that I don’t see. Perhaps to the park? Perhaps to the suburb next door? Perhaps, like some of my neighbours to the nearby club for a drink with friends for the afternoon? I don’t know.   

And I’m studying again. This time a Masters level course. So much more practical than a PhD. And fun too. I’m loving being engaged with mature students who’ve already overcome the hurdles and challenges of early career negotiations. But I need to find a space to write and that’s what this blog was about: how do you find space for yourself in a busy house, a busy place, a hectic world, a noisy monstrosity of a family that still demands something of you?

Well, you just set yourself up somewhere in a corner, or by a window and preferably, have the capacity to shut the door….

Photo credit: https://www.polesandblinds.com/blog/5-ways-to-create-a-home-office/

PS: This is so not my own window, desk, chair and curtains…. 

If I was going to be interviewed about blogging by The Geek Anthropologist: 15 questions

 

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(… this is very informal…)

Why do I blog?

When you work outside academia and you’re not actively researching you still want to write, you still want to talk to anthropologists and share something of yourself, your experiences and your insights.  I like blogging because I can write about everyday practices, ‘fun’ blogging and also comment seriously on what’s happening in my workplace.  Of late I like writing about how I fit into an interdisciplinary space.

 

How does my blogging contribute to the production and dissemination of anthropological knowledge?

Well, in writing about everyday issues I bring an anthropological perspective to new audiences, especially when I write about buying second hand clothes, or women in the workplace, or participating in Enjo parties.  I like to think broadly and around everyday practices and I also like to see what they look like from an anthropological perspective.  In saying that though, I still hope to appeal to an anthropological audience, an audience who understand and appreciate the take that I have on viewing and participating in the world.  So that’s how I see how my blogging adds to the body of anthropological work.  It’s a bit like seed funding, so let’s see what it looks like and then decide whether we can grow it.

 

Does my blogging about anthropology affect anthropological practice?

Well, that’s hard to say and hard to know about.  Anthropological practice has some core praxes but these occur in such diverse contexts it’s sometimes really hard to have an anthropological sensibility about it all.  We’re so spread out among sub-disciplinary knowledge and praxis, among geographical, specialty – even virtual areas – and even spread between the arts and sciences, so who really knows?  If blogging is about sharing an anthropologically inspired viewpoint on an issue, on a practice, on something that involves people who are working on some project together, then yes, I do think that what I write about affects our practice.  I can show people both outside of and within the academy something about how I think and work, and hey, if you’re getting more than 10,000 hits for a blog, you must be making people think about something that they’re doing…

 

Who reads my anthropology blog?

Well, I really hope that anthropologists read it.  And those interested in anthropology.  But WordPress lets you tag your posts so you can use this to reach broader audiences, which is really important if you’re wanting to show that you’re ‘thinking outside the box’, and this is important for some audiences, not necessarily anthropologists, but other audiences who are looking to break with standard practices, standard ways of thinking about how people work together, how they provide services and how they move materials, services, people and objects around the globe.  But the analytics that come with the host site don’t necessarily tell you exactly where people come from, only what city and country.  You really have to guess at the rest.

 

Who is my target audience?

Well, if I had my preference I would want to write for an anthropological audience firstly, and because I have an interest in interdisciplinarity I also try to write for a broader, educated audience.  I can’t be too specific about my exact area of expertise and enterprise because I’d probably get the sack from work if they figured out that I was writing about work, work practices and work issues without official permission.  But that said, my target audience is both anthros and non-anthros.  It really depends on the post, on the topic and the issues though.  These change and this affects the audience.  One of the most pleasant experiences that I had recently was when other anthro blog sites picked up my posts, shared links and commented on them.  That’s blogging peer review as far as I’m concerned!

 

How do I separate out the personal from the professional?

Well, my first response to this question would be: do you have to?  If we write from a situated standpoint, a situated space and perspective, then the line between personal and professional becomes blurred doesn’t it?  Look at what’s happened since Writing Culture; we’re in every page we write, aren’t we?  And in the blogosphere, we aren’t restricted so much by the rules around writing that exist in publishing, in academic texts, in conference presentations and colloquia, are we?  This is a freer form that is still becoming, that isn’t set in concrete yet and never can be simply by definition.  So I don’t need to separate myself out from my work, from my perspective, from my comments and insights.  However, I don’t blog about my homelife, my family or my friends (if I can help it).

 

How do I know when I’ve been successful in blogging? 

This is hard to know about too.  If you pay attention to the bloggers, the big bloggers then you’re always going to feel like a failure.  They have hits in the millions.  Me?  I’m lucky to get into five figures occasionally.  I know that there are emerging rock star anthropologists and I believe that they serve a role in getting the anthropological message out there.  We need all sorts of writers, all sorts of anthropological practitioners, all sorts of social analysis going on so I’m not going to criticise anyone for their success outside of the academy.  If anything, I’m all for it.  We all get dragged up this way, all get caught in the upflow.

 

Does success matter?

Well, we all write for an audience so success is relative.  If you develop a readership, then you’re successful.  If no one reads what you write, you’re writing garbage.  I have garbage posts that hardly anyone has read.  I should dump these now.  If they’ve been sitting on the website for nearly a year and no one’s read them, then they’re not successful.  So it does matter.  Having said that, there are some excellent cooperative, academic anthropological blogs that mimic the production of texts in standard publishing, but are available on the web.  Peer review, calls for papers, high end production – and then you have the single bloggers like me, who are sometimes hard pressed to keep coming up with content.  This is a production issue for anyone publishing anything.  It’s not new here.

 

Is it all about the stats? 

Well, we naturally tend towards wanting to find out how much, how many, how often and then to doing some number crunching to make ‘sense’ out the data…. Even if you’re not particularly inclined towards number crunching, the medium – like much of social media – really lends itself to number crunching, so you can’t help yourself.  There are sites that can help you though…

 

But there aren’t always a lot of likes or comments, so how do I know if my blog is having any effect anywhere?

This is true.  While some blogs may have thousands of hits which translate as reads/downloads/views, you don’t always get a translation into discourse, into comments, or even into likes.  Occasionally people will comment, or even like a post, but that’s not often the case.  And I’ve noticed this with larger anthropological blogging sites too.  The issue for me here is: what do people really make of what’s written here?  How do they read/consume what’s said?  Who do they talk to about the content?  Who do they pass the blogs on to?  I find that you get people wanting to comment who are typically mildly upset about what’s said, or seeking further clarification, evidence, or research into assertions that may be made.  But overall, there’s little interaction, which is a shame.

 

Why don’t I use references? 

I have a crisis of legitimacy occasionally and insert references, even though other bloggers tell me I don’t need them.  You don’t need them in this format, but it depends on the blog post and the audience.  If you anticipate that your work may be taken up and translated (this has happened), or posted on a Learning Management System for a course (this too has happened), or disseminated on other anthropological websites that have an academic turn, then, as is the custom and the norm, we too as anthropological bloggers follow this norm.  If I’m not quoting anything knowingly, I won’t bother using references and my preference is for opinion pieces that don’t necessarily rely on the interpretation and translation of bodies of knowledge.  I save that kind of writing for academic discourse within the pages of academic journals.  To my way of thinking, you write for a specific audience, and in blogging I don’t think that everyone’s looking for reference materials.  By all means publish your essays online, and these will include references.  And after all, why demonise references?  References are an acknowledgement of your joining in conversations that have already occurred as you position your own views against these voices.  Always better to acknowledge them and join in.

 

Am I just writing for other anthropology bloggers, and even if I am, is that such a bad thing?

I write for anyone that happens to land on my blog from a search engine, or has happily signed up to receive updates from my website.  If its other bloggers, then that’s great too.  I read their blogs with great interest as bloggers often get opinion pieces out there long before academic articles have even hit peer review.  I support both old forms of writing in academic presses, especially when I manage to get an article in print, as well as new forms of publication through weblogs.  The evolving medium, it’s growing acceptance and the democratisation that blogging allows I watch with relish and interest.  Like all processes, the wheat will be sorted from the chaff…

 

Why am I hiding my identity behind a pseudonym? 

A workplace Code of Conduct prevents me from revealing my identity.  Writing behind a pseudonym is an old and valued practice that has allowed voices that would not otherwise be heard a platform to publish their views.  I see that writing as the Anxious Anthropologist allows me to participate in the same freedoms, paradoxically because of restrictions to publicising my voice, that my writerly ancestors had to contend with.  Elsewhere I use my name and identify myself as coming from a particular space and place, a discipline, a specialty, even a sub-speciality.  But there is a challenge in writing like this that takes you out of your comfort zone, out of the familiar terminology, the same arguments and the usual webs of significance that you weave around your worlds.  And this is fun.

 

Wouldn’t it be better to blog honestly? 

I would love to write under my own name, but as with many things to do so means that you have to be brave, knowledgeable and up to the personal critique that attaches to so many in the blogosphere.  It’s sometimes easier, and more freeing to write as I do.  And that doesn’t mean that I write dishonestly.  Anthropological endeavours can sometimes have the tendency of reporting back, reporting on and reporting about that shares something with the tools of the subterfuge.  Who hasn’t left the tape recorder run on sometimes without consent?  I’ve heard that this happens…

 

Where do I see blogs and blogging in future? 

I see that anthropological blogging, like blogging in many professional endeavours will become the norm, rather than the unusual.  Progressing through courses, moving into postgraduate studies and then into research and/or work will in future include the production of knowledge within spaces not evident now, in group blogs, personal blogs and workplace blogs.  We will all curate our knowledges in this way and make them available to anyone interested in our views, our analyses and our growing bodies of knowledge and practice.  I can’t imagine what blogs will look like, but it is such an accessible, powerful medium for communicating and sharing, I just know that it’s not if we should, but when we will.

Acknowledgements (and respect to): https://thegeekanthropologist.com/

Photo credit: http://vayzo.com/images/stories/designer-glass-frames-for-women-.jpg

 

For anthropologists, is interdisciplinarity ever truly a meeting of equals?

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I recently read a Twitter post which asserted that interdisciplinarity was never a meeting of equals. As an anthropologist working outside of an academic department I met this statement with some unease. Currently, my working relationships are built on a premise of difference, of working with others from bounded, clearly demarcated professions and of thinking critically about if not directly challenging the taken for granted world views in the industry in which I work. I have written elsewhere about the role, function and value of anthropologists in workplaces, but in doing so I wrote from the basis of anthropologists as different but equal.

However, thinking more critically about this has led me to problematize this idea. I don’t believe I’ve adequately taken into account the importance of boundaries, of professions and their knowledges, and the challenges that anthropological thinking may represent for work practices. This is especially true for working in business contexts when we bring anthropological understandings of persons in the world and our armoury of social and culturally based research skills that recognise, situate and give voice to difference into business contexts. Can work environments which may value and seek unifying concepts and ideas tolerate diversity in conceptualisation, in approaches, in performance, in views and at the end of the day, in business practices themselves?

In working across traditional disciplines, we hope to inform and build something greater than the sum of parts. While this is a hackneyed expression, it’s true in my work where my current project challenges and reinvents our products and services, situating what we would be seen to do traditionally in a postmodern context.

I can’t tell my workmates that we are intimately informed by post colonialism in formulating our practices, or that we’re in the process of radically deconstructing our beliefs in reconfiguring power relationships, or that our project is partially informed by cultural theory, whiteness studies or the centrality of thinking about the authority of the first world within globalisation in determining how our business will proceed and upon which specific decisions will be made. But this is in fact, what we are currently doing. And I do try to tell them.

How have we created a space where these practices are okay, more than okay in business? Is this the armoury that partly informs the anthropologist at work outside of the academy? Or am I on my own here??? And how does this and other knowledge affect the decisions made in my workplace? I still ask myself: what does it mean to work with professionals in bounded disciplines?

While we hope that it isn’t so, in fact what I have termed ‘hierarchies of relevance’ do exist when working across disciplines. And this is part of the reflection on power that demarcates one professional group from another. By this I mean that each professional group maintains the boundaries of its knowledge base, its practices, its rules for conduct and less overtly protects the prestige and culture surrounding its existence within the community. Professionals also maintain control over entry, exit and rule breaking within the profession as well as maintaining controls over the education and transmission of the education that helps to create professionals. In this, professional groups control the knowledge base, language, practice and boundaries that form the basis of their professional identity. As anthropologists, we do this too.

So what happens when professional groups collide? I’m not master (or mistress) of the theories behind interdisciplinary thinking, but I do work within an interdisciplinary context and so am familiar with its practices, if not the theories that underpin it.

So in discussions, working on projects, working both internally and externally the issue of relevance often raises its head. If as the anthropologist I am identified as not having the ‘relevant’ expert knowledge, then my contributions are marginalised, often identified as contributing knowledge in some other, exotic way that runs counter to the usual core practices of knowledge acquisition within the business itself. My contributions are ‘interesting’, ‘quirky’, ‘outside the box’ and, paradoxically sometimes also ‘right on target’. In this way I am relevant, but not as relevant as those practitioners who are seen to belong to the core groups, our consultants, experts and the ultimate targets: the consumers of our products and services. Sometimes, I just feel so not-relevant, it’s just not funny.

As an outsider I will never automatically gain entry into the professional groups with which I work. However, if I hang around long enough maybe they’ll give me an honourary membership after toiling away looking at, investigating, updating, improving, teaching on and training people within their disciplines for so long. As an anthropologist I maintain that little bit of professional paranoia that harks back to Anthropology 101 and studies of ritual, sacrifice, demonization and scapegoating, which not so surprisingly still exist and speak to modern day work practices and contexts quite succinctly, especially for those anthropologists working outside of research in business settings where it’s all too easy to take on the identity of the Other.

It would be so much easier to talk frankly about exactly what I do and where I work, but unfortunately that’s not a luxury that I’m allowed right now, due to an array of policies that police my behaviour both publicly and in private, so suffice to say this is the best that I can do. This form of writing however forces me to think ‘bigger’ about what I do, and so while not completely honest is not dishonest and offers food for thought for many anthropologists (I hope) who work outside the academy as I do.

So are we different but equal? Or just different? As the project I’m currently working on gains pace, I find myself central to the think tanks at work, consulted over and beyond my current job title specifications and have access and input into arenas of work that I wouldn’t ordinarily warrant based on my position alone. I went from fear about this project and its implications, to neutrality, to feeling positive, to being involved by responding to requests for inputs, to embracing and now championing this project.

Now, whenever I’m asked I always come to the party and by that I mean that I complete tasks and contribute over and above whatever’s asked. If I’m asked for an opinion, I give it. If a project needs appraisal, I take time to read, review, comment and advise on it. If a vox pop is required to test the feeling and views of staff on an issue pertaining to the change, I’m already all over it (by nature a chatterbox and also keen to find out how my co-workers are going with things generally). Through my silences and non-attendance, I also make clear my views on some work practices, which in less industrialised and unionised times it is difficult for workers to address directly.

Informally I’ve identified myself not so much as a manager in the workplace – my anthropological training and background would definitely preclude this I think – but definitely as a leader. As there are about a thousand theories on leadership, there’s one that fits the kind of work that I undertake in the workplace, that I inspire and the work that I envision as well. And none of this is on my job description per se, but is alluded to as a potentiality, much the same as the potential or capability of any number of workers with contemporary CVs.

So mostly I find that I’m different but equal and have given my peers, co-workers and management a taste of what the social sciences and anthropology specifically can offer to contemporary work settings, both private and public sector organisations. I still believe that the greatest benefit of having an anthropological background lies not so much in trying to attain a position within the academy, positions which are few and far between and not so easily available to women over forty, but in taking up the challenge of flexibly applying our body of knowledge in diverse contexts, of making the theories, theorists, knowledge and practices real.

Do we lose our specialness, our anthropological know-how, our unique identity as globe trotters seeking to document the life of the Other when we’re not surrounded by like-minded, similarly trained professionals like ourselves? Is our knowledge base and are our practices corrupted and diluted because of our work in interdisciplinary settings? I don’t think so. In contrast I believe that we are strengthened by our ability to work across boundaries as anthropologists continue to fight for relevance in contemporary work place settings. We can only make ourselves relevant by, well being relevant. And this is the challenge that I rise to meet when I go to work every day, carrying the identity of the ‘anthropologist’ through all that I do.

And as I’m always blathering on about anthropology I like to think that I’m also educating people who may still think that my satchel secretly holds a pith helmet, notebook and safari suit. But please see my last post for an update on what to wear to work as an anthropologist.

Photo credit: https://www.newton.ac.uk/files/covers/968387_0.jpg

The jacket

business-suit-women

I’m trying a new strategy at work to raise my oomph and improve my legit appeal. I’m no slouch when it comes to sparring about ideas, concepts and ways of working – in fact I count myself among the innovators and strategists at work. However, my latest theory is that if you’re partnered up at work with a manager who is always – and I mean always wearing suits, including a tie and jacket that never comes off – then as a woman you’re at a disadvantage when you’re not similarly attired. This is probably true for more casually attired men as well, although because of the gendered inflection at work I don’t think so. Not wearing a suit – and I speak here more of the jacket which holds the greatest symbolic value – creates an inequality, a space that is instantly calculated in black and white terms through our cultural understanding of what it means to be influential, respected and in command at work. And if you’re not wearing a jacket, if you’re not suited up you run the risk of being calculated out.

I’ve taken to jacketing up, especially at meetings and workshops where I’m on show and so too are my opinions, perspectives, assertions, theories, explanations, innovations, insights and recommendations. I’m packaging these all up and wrapping them to be presented by what I imagine my audience seeks, or at least seeks to be reassured of: a confident, authoritative, thought leader who will inspire and transform the meeting or workshop in a way that won’t happen (can’t happen) in my very conservative industry if I was in a T shirt and jeans.

I’m finding that jacketing up lends me the kind of authority – and yes, I’ll say it: power – that paradoxically I have challenged in men, as they embodied a workplace subjectivity of which I was not a part, but am finding that I need to borrow and appropriate through this code of dress in order to exert that same legitimacy and authority. After all, I’m not the one judging and evaluating my performance: others are. We all exist within cultural worlds, and I too have to respond to the cues, norms and expectations of workplace cultures as well. And, as I’ve said before, don’t let anyone fool you by saying, “Oh this is informal, don’t worry too much about your speech/PowerPoint/presentation/evaluation” because you’re always being evaluated in the workplace and this is true of how you present yourself in your manner, attitudes and presentation as well as through the products and efforts of your work. It’s not left to the time of year alone when you drag out the PDR form at your workstation to complete for your manager …

We like to imagine that we live and work in enlightened times, but this is simply not true. Articles and blogs appear on social media and in the press with monotonous regularity with the central theme of how the hell are women supposed to manage in the workplace: the glass ceiling, problems for women within business cultures, managing work/life balance, the impossibility of a career structure and managing fertility, then advice aimed at mums on school lunches, childcare and parenting. This is not part of our overt work cultures, their policies, corporate logos or identities but certainly exist in the everyday practices that are inscribed within our everyday work worlds. Just check out who wipes down sinks at work, cleans fridges and organises catering…

Not all these problems will be resolved by simply donning a jacket and I’m certainly not arguing for that. I’m just painting a picture here….

I’m starting to pay attention to the advice on covering your shoulders, suiting up, opting for plain and not patterned office wear and basically wearing the business uniform. Shirts, (mostly) sensible shoes and even pantihose. I can’t come at flesh coloured hose because that’s just too much of a lie: at least black or smoke coloured hose make a statement. But I’m not sure what I’m trying to do here, and will admit that the motivations that may still be inspiring me may not emanate from ‘How To’ women in business handbooks, or the latest thinking on creative leadership, but may exist in the realms of my unconscious, in which case I don’t really know what’s motivating me and may be using this blog piece to explore these themes. Am I trying to make myself invisible? Am I defeminising myself? Have I failed to remake the workplace in a way that I could own by stamping it with my own style? Am I trying to turn into my male counterparts?

This got me thinking: what are uniforms all about? Clearly they are about conformity. But they’re also about letting the work shine through irrespective of the package that produced it. So the thinking goes. This is the line we push at schools here in Australia when we’re arguing with children about hemlines and not subverting the principle of uniformity when they’re trying to wear Doc Martens instead of approved footwear. “It balances out differences!” we argue. “Everyone’s equal!” we rail. “No one’s at a disadvantage!” we spruik.

Uniformity has its advantages: it’s cheaper than buying a huge wardrobe. It’s easier to mix and match. You tend to buy some things that are better quality and hence less affordable, but probably last longer that your usual top and bottom ensembles. Unless you work in the fashion industry or somewhere in the arts (I wish), or outdoors, if you want to be taken seriously you have to dress the part. I should qualify that by asserting that you have to dress the part whatever that means in your industry. Uniformity promotes a teamwork approach and a sense of belonging (I’m told). We’re all wearing the ‘company logo’ or the ‘badge’ by suiting up. At least you signify that you belong in the business world with a suit anyway.

Uniforms mean that you belong in a place because you don’t stand out like a peacock. You also fade into obscurity a bit, which can have its advantages in providing a bit of a level playing field in the gendered sphere of the workplace. You’re heading towards being asexual. Let’s face it, you’re less likely to be taken seriously in that cute floral number with the red and green pattern teemed with a matching cardigan and high heeled black Bo peep shoes… Having said that, I have worked with CEO’s on projects who were indeed dressed like that. As the CEO, there is the opportunity to be the peacock and let’s see anyone tell her otherwise…

Conversely, uniforms do not necessarily mean uniformity. There are issues of gender, class and ethnicity that inflect business wear, its meanings, intentions and embodiment. Not all suits are the same and if you’ve got money you can wear them well. Probably lots of them. I don’t own many suits, but do have a variety of well-fitting jackets and trouser-style pants to match. As I’m not at the high-spending end I have less to invest but the most to lose if I get it wrong. And considering everything I wear to work (almost everything) is second-hand, from Op Shops, Charity Stores, Bargain Basement Sales and NGOs, I certainly face some challenges in getting it together for work. This is a choice that I have made BTW.

Uniformity also dulls individuality, but like many things, if you have enough money to throw at it, I’m sure your individuality will shine through. Me? I make do with a scarf in Winter, but Summer is challenging as the desire to turn up in less, for example thongs (the flip flop kind, not the G String), a short skirt and a singlet top is really strong most mornings. I have come to accept that much like the mask and the role studied extensively in undergraduate anthropology, the insights about the loss of the subject while putting on masks or fulfilling roles still pertain as we as adults morph into the workforce and attempt to fit in, making use of and attempting to fit into whatever the jacket signifies within your particular industry.

Uniforms are also like wearing armour. I can invoke a whole range of metaphors that invoke the compliance required and symbolised by uniforms and uniformity in military settings, and can admit that this too forms part of the reluctance – and paradoxically the desire – to wear the jacket and join my one force with the many to produce something greater, and be part of the victorious, not losing team at work. Amour is made of precious materials, much too like the fine fibres of a well-fitting, tailor-made suit, increasing the magnetism and appeal of that signified by joining the forces and symbolically shedding my individuality to comply with the command structures and personnel in my workgroup, my battalion.

Like all rules, uniformity in attire is merely an external mirroring of the uniformity required elsewhere both in our schools and in the workforce. It is this symbolic statement that I make by donning the jacket at work as I wordlessly tell my colleagues, my managers and directors and clients that I too am knowledgeable of, can understand and interpret and clearly follow the rules. Bodily adornment is a way in which social codes are embodied and enacted. Think pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Bodily adornment too is also a way of challenging authority, but inscriptions on the body must usually be hidden, because once seen, like the knowledge attained through the biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, cannot be unseen or unknown ever again, marking the individual for symbolic banishment for, like Eve and Adam, their loss of purity in breaking the rules.

In suiting up, I am implicitly making a statement that while I may come from a different background, may have different methods and approaches, use different theoretical perspectives and offer ‘out of the box’ thinking, I can acknowledge my place in the hierarchy, in the workforce, in the culture of both my own workplace and the industry in which I work at large through my allegiance, through my donning of the jacket and all the associations that form a line through history that have informed and modulated modern business sensibilities in the culmination of my putting it on in the morning.  And I wear it well. Sometimes with accessories…

One day I will dump the jacket.  That day will come when I find myself in a workplace culture where the work is paramount, not so much the appearance of the person.  The kind of work culture that I inhabit now can force your compliance in many unspoken ways, of which subtly policing dress codes is one.  However this doesn’t account for everyone, for other people’s responses to me.  While appearances are still so important at work I will continue to show my proficiency in self-presentation through my allegiance to the code.

Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…

Photo Credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qlHIhjpAv44/Uaz4yFIPSTI/AAAAAAAAAJY/-M7jcBYKTSQ/s1600/business-suit-women.jpg

How does an Anthropologist add value in the workplace?

diversity_problemsolving

At work I’m not employed as an anthropologist. Not directly anyway; my skills in research and higher education certainly helped me gain my position, but it was mostly the fact that I had a higher education degree that mattered, not that it was in anthropology. But I’ve used my anthropology doctorate to value-add anthropological knowledge and practices within my current work and this has had benefits for me, for the projects in which I’m involved and for the organisation that I work for. It’s sad that this is indirect, not formally acknowledged and certainly not paid as such. And this has not been due to any lack of my constantly pointing out to my managers the benefits of an anthropological perspective and having an anthropologist on tap within the mix of staff.

I’d like to make a claim for a new position at work taking into account how I add worth over and above my job description and to do so I need to put together some sort of business case. In reference to my recent post on how anthropologists are needed in your workplace which you can access here, I think that in the current climate where we’re talking about the contributions of anthropology in applied domains that it’s timely to highlight what I see as the significance of my own contributions to that end in the work that I do.  In this I’m totally partial, but this is a blog and not a research paper.

The following comments allude to my sociocultural training, and while my education was in a specific (and major) sub-disciplinary area of anthropology I feel that there are commonalities within the sociocultural field that apply to anthropological work irrespective of your sub-disciplinary training (let’s not get too separated here). Here’s what I see that I do:

I contribute a cultural perspective to all my work

At work my contribution lies in not discussing culture per se, but taking a cultural approach to understandings of people, including but not limited to ethnicity, work, work practices, perspectives and approaches. The word ‘culture’ often gets people anxious, getting them bogged down in unclear definitions, fears and concerns that they may or may not be getting it right. So ‘cultural’ offers a more dynamic approach to understanding culture, especially when its coupled with ‘belief’, ‘practice’ ‘perspective’ or whatever. I take the approach of embedding culture within everyday praxis, and this seems to reduce the misunderstandings around what culture means and returns ownership of the word back to anthropologists when we embed it within people’s beliefs and behaviours. This can be useful when strategizing over missions, values and sorting out core business plans.

I take the ‘big view’ providing context and a broader perspective to projects

Evans-Pritchard (1950) reminds us that we cannot understand culture without the perspective of history. Along with many of my contemporaries I would go further and bring to the fore the contextual arguments of situating work praxis within social, economic and political contexts as well. I’m fond of saying that all our workplace behaviour has broader, often unacknowledged contexts and have acculturated my workmates to begin to think more broadly about positioning themselves and what they do against the backdrop of a larger canvass. We all need to think critically about what we do at work in the context of larger movements and this helps to make our work more relevant.

I often ask the dumb questions

Maintaining the naiveté of the new fieldworker to ensure that everyone is on the ‘same page’, that we’re all working from the same understanding is an important contribution. This is not new, and has been written about before extensively, especially in anthropological fieldwork ‘how to’s’.  This is done consciously too as a way of asserting for those at work not comfortable with appearing ‘dumb’ (I don’t mind this at all and instead see this as a position of strength, not weakness).

I encourage a critical approach

… even if that means incorporating opposing or contentious views into projects even to just show that my organisation acknowledges these and has taken the perspective into account. This is important to counteract opposition but mostly to show that staff have accounted for the totality of an issue to the best of our knowledge and that nothing is hidden. Critical approaches teach the utility of validating knowledge, of learning to not take at face value everything that is presented to you but to ensure that people are skilled in undertaking quality review or whatever the language in your industry is that represents this skill.

I love to problematize issues

It’s important to get people to think critically about tensions inherent in our work and ways towards resolving or improving our work with this in mind. Let’s turn everything into a problem, or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. This is done with the purpose of open scrutiny, of providing frank appraisal of an issue from every which way, leaving nothing unturned or unexamined.

I raise questions constantly

I’m often aware that I cannot and have no hope at all of providing all the answers, as anthropologists have pointed out that our discipline is known to be fond of creating more questions than it answers. This is an essential part of, and constitutive of our skill as anthropologists in identifying the cultural worlds that we inhabit – and we need to find out about all of them.

I check taken-for-grantedness

The questioning of taken-for-granted knowledge is a given for anthropologists as these understandings form the basis of the obvious, assumed, common sense that binds people within and forms culture. But people can get very upset when you do this as you really sound like you’re off your rocker if you start questioning the contents of the cultural vault that they’ve spent a lifetime learning and getting right – until they’ve learned why. I ask people to take a fresh approach through questioning their taken-for-granted assumptions about individuals, groups of people, stereotypes, accepted ways of thinking, perspectives, use of products or services and other ways that people are engaged with culture.

Anthropologists provide an independent point of view

I’m professionally ‘free’ to talk across disciplinary boundaries, without being stymied by the boundary tensions that can stall or limit consideration of some issues – important in planning and conceptualising projects within industries where your disciplinary alliance and allegiance is extremely important. When you’re positioned outside these structures you can be more open in providing a fresh perspective to old problems. I have ‘free’ in inverted commas because as with language barriers in traditional fieldwork, you may not be as free as you’d like to be in applied contexts in workplaces for reasons just as important as not having the right language to communicate, or some other barrier.

I promote the Laura Nader effect

Anthropologists can work ‘up’ and ‘down’ engaging in authentic interactions at all levels of an organisation. As participant-observers within societies we are less phased by and can speak truth to the power relations that constitute workspaces. However, as an employee reliant on a pay cheque I might not be able to do anything much about some issues, but that doesn’t stop me from working with this perspective about the benefits of understanding the spaces of power and who inhabits these and how they interact and and exert influence within the workplace. In reality, following my original extensive and confronting fieldwork many years ago, I now find it impossible not to work towards holistic understanding of cultural beliefs and practices – including relations of power – especially in workplaces.

I seek unity in diversity                                                                                                                                                    At work I’m all for looking to strengthen areas of commonality and mutual interest.  There are often multiple areas of difference that exist on a range of measures but as an anthropologist I’m interested in identifying workplace culture and shared aspects and strengthening areas of mutuality.  This makes us all feel more connected in what we do and how we do it.  This doesn’t always work as intended but can have unintended unifying consequences in the longer term.

While all of the above sounds rosy and, at times just too good to be true there is also (always) a downside to working across and outside of your discipline with other professionals. Much as I love collaborative efforts and interdisciplinary energies, the position of the anthropologist as different, as a disciplinary outsider and often as a newbie means that anthropologists are often targets and can be scapegoated when there are problems within organisations. There can exist a slight air of suspicion around you and your work, especially if your foundations and methodology stemming from the social sciences falls outside the business practices in which your work is situated.

This is not dissimilar to fieldwork experiences that abound in the literature in which the lone anthropologist is an easy target for vilification, demonization and all manner of bone pointing and eventual expulsion from field sites. It’s easy to blame outsiders and this is a risk that we run in taking on the role of the inquisitive, critical thinker who loves to point out cultural truths.

We have to remember: like court jesters we too can be replaced.  But at least court jesters were authentic in working in their enterprise.

 

References:

E.E. Evans-Prichard (1950) Anthropology and History, The Marett Lecture

Laura Nader (1972) Up the anthropologist: perspectives gained from studying up.

The Anxious Anthropologist blog on WordPress (2015) Why You Need an Anthropologist in Your Organisation

 

Photo credit:

http://undsci.berkeley.edu/images/us101/diversity_problemsolving.gif

Deputy leader of the Liberal National Party Barnaby Joyce arrives for a party room meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015.  (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

An open letter to Prime Minister Turnbull: What would research and work look like if I was in charge?

Dear Mr Turnbull, 
If I was in charge of research I would always include children on the research team. Instead of talking about fresh perspectives, I would build this in to the brief. I would always have the unfettered, hopeful perspective of young people in any activity that involved innovation and future planning for the knowledge, products and services needed for the coming ages.

I would also staff my research team with at least two retired, ‘older’ or aged persons as active members of the team. We need the long view, the depth perception, the historical strength that is provided by people with a long experience of living, especially of living through different eras of challenge as well as innovation and change.

I would ALWAYS have a representative of the group, for whom the research or work is intended in the team. This would occur at the dangerous time right at the start before all the creative work was done and awaiting a comment or ‘input’ from the target persons. If it’s going to work in the real world, it has to be created by people in and from that world.

I would build in the non eight hour day as a standard for creative, innovative work. While this does to work for everyone, the alternative of hard slog for eight hours in a row certainly doesn’t work either. We have busy time, mindless time, thinking time, creative spikes and nothing time. This can be followed by periods of intensely focussed, highly productive work, and this is not necessarily recognised by current work place practices.

I would gather like-minded people to work together in organic ways. Sometimes the most productive ideas and new ways of working are generated through unscheduled meetings, through conversations that lead off in new directions between people not necessarily professionally aligned, or who may even be opposed in some way, yet who can work together to generate new solutions to the petrified thinking that prevents true innovation.

Research structures need a shakeup in a way that the social sciences can offer. New ways of thinking are needed to inject fresh perspectives into age old dilemmas, problems and situations. I would bring together new teams of people to work together and not just in tokenistic ways but in a meaningful manner that worked with the best that disciplinary knowledge has to offer.

I would head up my team with non traditional leaders who often quietly have a vision for change, a vision for the future that has not been accessed or brought to life because of stigma, insecurity and the self doubt that comes from an inability to sell oneself and one’s ideas in the way that is taken for granted by others who seem to always effortlessly succeed.

I would take a standpoint perspective and include extra women at all levels of research to redress the imbalance of productive work based inputs that women have been traditionally able to provide because of the demands of biology in bearing and raising children. There never seems to be a right time to have children as a working woman, unless you have an army of unpaid service providers to assist you or lots of money.

If I was in charge I would ensure that social scientists always had access to any institutions that house people. I would also shake our thinking up even further for example through the inclusion of poets, artists and philosophers in engineering, science and medical research. The centre often only changes because of the activities on the periphery, by the people whose work is literally edgy. That is how change comes to the centre, how the offbeat activity of twenty years ago becomes mainstream practice now. It is from the edge where new ideas are generated.

Traditional ways of working and research need to change, we have to incorporate the schisms, the criticisms and make newer, better research and work practices. What will work even look like in fifty years from now? 

I have more ideas up my sleeve, but I want to give you a taster of my thinking ‘outside the box’ to show you how a really new talent pool can potentially offer truly new and fruitful ways of thinking. We can’t live in a world where it’s just jobs for the (same old) boys. Just by reading this you’ve already opened up your eyes to new ways of thinking about how to do things. And much of what I’ve said is probably not even new.

Please let me know where to send my brief.

Sincerely yours,

The Anxious Anthropologist 

Image credit and story: https://theconversation.com/turnbull-to-spend-more-than-1-billion-to-promote-an-innovative-australia-51866