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

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