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 fazed 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.
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