Data overload

How do we proceed to live in a world in which data overwhelms us? At every point we seem to be participating in capture schemes that reduce us to data sets. As consumers, and loyalty card holders, as citizens and voters, as students and subscribers, just scouring the net, or engaging in everyday civic activities, as well as so much more. And even if we unsubscribe, organisations don’t forget us. Our data is kept and a reminder may be sent, asking if we want to rekindle relationships again. If it’s insurmountable now, what’s it going to be like in future? 

It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have a digital footprint, that we weren’t known by systems in the way that we are now.  There was an anonymity to life, where you were mostly only locally known.  Now there are analytics of which I’m part of, indeed through this blog even seek to engage with.  “Life was simpler then” we lament. And it probably was, but that had its limitations as we know. With all pros come cons though.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in discussions with groups about data, about how to work with data, about how to analyse and interpret data, and about obligations to maintain, store and use data although this latter part comes solely from me.  We are all firm believers it seems in the romantic idea that data is everything, a resource, unharnessed, like energy that once harnessed will illuminate our lives and provide the means for the implementation of greater improvements overall, somehow. This must have been like discussion about what to do with electric light. Everyone was wanting it, everyone would be improved by it, the potential was limitless, and people probably didn’t know what they really had. Data is like that too.  And it probably affects our sleep patterns too.

The people  that I speak with are sometimes confused about data. After all, it’s a small word, it’s known and not ambiguous or difficult at all. It seems approachable, knowable and usable, both the word itself and the concept that it stands for.

But here’s the thing,  sometimes we do not know what constitutes its nature, we do not know the boundedness or plasticity of data, and believe that it’s somehow a thing that will serve us, somehow, if only they can figure out how exactly.   As anthropologists we recall our undergraduate lectures on the dangers of reification, of the abstract made somehow real.  

Data is the real made into the abstract.  Behind the data are the experiences, choices, options, measures, thoughts and actions of people.

And data is not unproblematic. It comes to us loaded with permissions, limitations, missing bits, mistakes, and unknown complexities. It may be old, useless, unusable, not relevant, partial, lost or not allowed to be reused. It may be in a form that can’t be used by other people, or inaccessible or locked up.

And what is data anyway? As an anthropologist I would always ask too, wells what isn’t data?   And that has broad implications for how we think about and ‘use’ data as well.

Is data only that information that exists in computer databases? Is data only on paper? Or on tape or in audio visual recordings? Is it only digital, or is this the latest format, on an as yet unknown, and unknowable future capture?  What about body parts? Cells, or blood or other body specimens?  What about sound recordings? What about the data that isn’t yet captured or recorded in these or similar ways – are we living as embodied data potentials? What about conversations? What about asides? What about lists that are meaningful or those that are meaningless?  And what about context?

Is data only data when it’s valued? What determines value? Sometimes it’s only time…  

And is there a morality of data collection, storage, analysis, reporting and usage that extends beyond the usual ethical considerations that accounts for the inherent greed associated with its volume, capture, storage and use?  Will the philosophy of data be subject to scrutiny by philosophers, scientists, social sciences and the humanities?  This already has begun.

Will data be the new money?

When I next meet with my data chat buddies I wonder what our conversations will be about? Will they honour me by sorting out these questions, or will we move straight into working with questions based on assumptions that we’re all just trying to figure out what to do with it all?  As if that task will ever end.

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On Meetings… 

Industrial practices have forged new and creative ways to waste people’s time. Within these practices however, meetings are the most excellent example that I can think of, in which anthropological insights about people and behaviour are especially pertinent. For those not in the know, here’s a breakdown for you:

Agendas

A document is circulated by email, sometimes early, sometimes late. For some, it’s a war cry, for others it causes a rush of panic as incomplete actions are called to account, and yet for others, it’s ‘highlight, drag into ‘Inbox 2017’ folder, dump it there, highlighted in bold as its never opened’. For me? The Agenda is the most exciting document to hit my ‘Inbox’ all day. I open it, hit the ‘Print’ button, ensuring I’m using double-sided copies on the B and W printer, just to make sure I’m being green. I race around to the photocopy room to pick up my freshly minted promise of focused interactions to come…

I LOVE agendas, it’s the only time people are frank and honest about their intentions at work. We should have agendas for dates, or family interactions too, maybe business could make better use of them in customer engagement …. At work the agenda theoretically sets the tone, the discussion points, the action plan, the tidy up of unfinished business, it’s a rally cry to get the right people together, at the right time, in the right room – sometimes virtually – to talk about really important stuff, the stuff that only THIS group of people are accountable for. It’s a material form, a document that sets out a future, anticipated history, an account of the intended interactions of this group.

So far, so good, but I hear you say, “What about hidden agendas?” Well, this comes after, usually at the meeting itself, but more on this later.

Along with the Agenda come the ‘Minutes of the Last Meeting’. Just make sure you read them, whether you were there or not. Many times history is reconstructed by those who kept the records, and writing up the Minutes of Meetings is not different in any way at all.

Before Meetings

Once the Agenda has been sent out, as an anthropologist at work it’s time to get your walking shoes on. Slip off the heels and pull on the runners, it’s time to walk this agenda through its paces. Take your Agenda and scan the names on the ‘Attendees’ list. This is where the hard work starts. Before ANY meeting you have to have the Before Meeting, otherwise you’ll never figure out what the real agenda is, what the hidden agenda is, or what the alternative agenda for the meeting is. And I lie, it’s not a Before Meeting, but usually a series of Before Meetings, and they typically happen on the day of the meeting, usually in the morning with a coffee in hand, and typically in your own or other people’s offices, the tea room, corridors, or on your way to or from somewhere else. Be prepared!

Before Meetings are often strategic, and you have to work these both up and down the power hierarchy in your workplace. These meetings are war councils (counsels?) where you offer up strategic information to your coworkers in exchange for similarly strategic information from them. This is where you strengthen your alliances, forge tentative new ones, and discard any strategies that don’t work well for you anymore. It’s a lion’s den out there… Personally, I love the flurry of activity that constitutes a Before Meeting, the rush of shoe leather up and down corridors and the unusual sight of closed doors with catches of whispered conversations on the other side.

From my experience, many, many issues that are formal agenda items for a meeting are determined, staffed and finalised at these Before Meetings. The formal meeting itself is merely the record-keeping aspect of the group itself. There is nothing that comes up on an Agenda that hasn’t already been seriously worked up, thought about, strategised, budgeted, planned and blueprinted, unless it’s come up in ‘Other Business’, but I’ll get to that too…

The Meeting

The Meeting itself can be an anticlimax if your workplace has been effective at the Before Meetings. You probably already recognise that Meetings sometime have the sense of the theatrical about them, that people have not only learned their lines, but rehearsed them at length. From my experience, it doesn’t really matter where you sit either, as people will align themselves consciously or unconsciously with people either like themselves, or with those that they wish to be aligned with. It’s so obvious.

At the Meeting, ask yourself:

  • Is there enough fresh air in here?
  • When should I pour everyone a glass of water?
  • Who shall I sit opposite?
  • Is there anything new happening here that wasn’t anticipated before the meeting?
  • Has someone taken a different position to that expressed at the Before Meetings? Why?
  • Does someone need to show themselves puffing up their chest in front of the others?
  • Do you need to support them?
  • Are there any issues flagged by the Before Meetings that haven’t been addressed yet?
  • Is anyone in trouble? Do they need an ally now?
  • Is someone writing down any and all decisions made?

And as a model of excellent self-care, limit your involvement to less than an hour and then excuse yourself; you can set an alarm if you have to… You can also make the exclamation, “Oh look! We’ve only got x minutes left for our meeting/before lunch/before we go home/before the coffee cart comes/Armageddon”

Other Business

This is such a great meeting strategy, because if you think about it, meetings are very, very controlled but this little category here is the fireworks package isn’t it? After all, ANYTHING can come up here. And the beauty of the Other Business category is that, like much of real life, it’s unplanned for, unanticipated, a surprise and has to be dealt with now anyway. I love this category. I live for a meeting with Other Business and anticipate the call for “Has anyone got anything they’d like to raise that’s not been dealt with on the Agenda?”

My advice to anthropologists in business is to make use of this part of meetings as best you can. I’m not going to go through a formal process of how to do this, just to highlight the benefits of getting an item up for discussion at a formal meeting without being censored beforehand, and Other Business presents this opportunity to you to do just that. There are other added benefits of raising issues here:

  • There is less gate-keeping of new ideas presented here
  • It gets minuted and dealt with formally next time there’s a meeting
  • As it’s last minute, you’re not likely to get a well-considered oppositional force
  • You get to flag an issue without having to do a full presentation, but get the opportunity to think about, and work up an idea with consultation ready for the next meeting
  • If you can’t get an item on an Agenda, try to get a variation through here

Minutes

Just make sure that this is NOT your job. If you’re an Anthropologist, it’s impossible to keep Minutes because you’re far too into “He said…” “She said…”. Do yourself a favour and get someone else to take them. As a matter of policy, if you’re taking Minutes you’re usually strategically positioned outside the core business of meetings. So if you don’t want to be in that position, don’t offer! And remember, Minutes are NOT fieldnotes…

The After Meeting

If you’ve been paying attention to your fieldwork lectures, then you knew this was coming… This often starts even as you’re exiting the Meeting Room and walking back to your desk. It’s a bit like the debrief after the game in the change room, the rush of power after a well-delivered lecture (it’s a thing), everyone’s still hyped up from the Meeting (or desperate to get away, but that’s another thing)… there’s still chatter and this needs to be behind closed doors, often with the same people from the Before Meetings.

As you can see, the reality of meetings exist in the Before Meetings, where agendas are set, positions are taken and alignments are made. The Meeting itself exists only to serve as the formal aspect, the playing out of the plan determined beforehand. And the After Meetings similarly are where key players touch base to ensure that the plan was executed appropriately, or if otherwise what to make of a new trajectory.

After Meetings are usually full of phrases like:

  • “Why are there never any cream biscuits?”
  • “That was awful/great/predictable/a surprise…”
  • “Why is s/he allowed to chair meetings?”
  • “Oh my God, s/he goes on and on…”
  • “Can you believe what s/he said about… ?”
  • “Well, that was new!”
  • “There was nothing new!”
  • “How are we going to … ?”
  • “This is going to be hard/terrifying/not likely/great…”
  • “How are we going to find the time/fund/staff/produce/deliver/just substitute x, where x = the impossible… ?”
  • “Who knew?”
  • “Where did they get that idea from…?”
  • “Do they have any idea about what’s needed at the coalface?”
  • “That’s it, I’m checking the job ads right now…”

In this brief blog I haven’t dealt with other aspects of meetings, some of which I did promise to address. Don’t forget to pay attention to daydreaming and paying attention when it really counts; observations of other people, especially who’s looking at who and the exchange of non-verbal signals; group dynamics: see if you can identify and analyse these; power plays and lastly, pay attention to making the invisible visible: unspoken agendas – see if you can identify these. As anthropologists we’re full of people skills, you just need to be reminded how to apply these outside of traditional anthropological field sites.

Now, where are those Attachments?

Image credit: Pixabay

On voting

Following the US election result, many people are asking just how all the pollsters got it wrong. Not just wrong, but so very wrong in anticipating the victory of Trump. Media outlets and those who gauge popular opinion will offer a range of authoritative opinions on this, but I want to offer another point of view, one more to do with the fractured nature of news and views and how it is difficult now to predict popular opinion from a starting point that is fractured and partial anyway.    

As anthropologists who’ve done fieldwork know, opinions are not always given up front, may be hidden to save face, and sometimes people just tell outright lies for very valid cultural, social and personal reasons. These reasons reside within the social worlds of relationships between actors who have a vested interest in maintaining their status, role, safety, position, face etc. in situations in which where, and who you cast your vote for is a comment on alignment with power, authority, prestige, protection or future material rewards or service provision.

Votes count, can be counted on, and definitely count for something. So it’s worth exploring these themes in a broad sense to think more critically around what happens when people are asked about which way they will vote in an election as well as what influences this. And what is said in the fallout. 

In these postmodern times we have seen the fracturing and localisation of many perspectives including increasingly diverse access to news sources. Flicking through posts on social media by large institutionalised media outlets, you see not support for commentary but challenges to the legitimacy of the media to provide coverage, or at least an opinion, most especially if this opinion challenges Trump’s victory, or points to the shortsightedness of polling organisations. “You’ve got it wrong!” they shout. “You’re partial!” they rail. “You shouldn’t challenge the expressed will of the American people!” they write. “We don’t have to be held hostage by your views!” they decry. And so on.   

The influence of traditional media outlets has declined and this is a self evident truth, even as I write and you read this blog. So why do people bother to continue reading traditional spreadsheets, why not just Google all your news and views, or get your news off Facebook? Why do people bother even replying to the The Independent, the Guardian, the New York Times and other major global newspaper social media sites?   

The relationship between voter behaviour and online comments have similarities that can’t be ignored. Both can be private, unseen by others; both can be an expression of values; both posit an opinion; both can be seen to be a form of alignment, and both can also potentially be the opposite expression of one’s everyday professed and public point of view. Online posting, like the ballot box can be pretty anonymous, it can also be anonymous but not pretty. While donkey votes may be predictable, hate mail, or flaming and the polarising nature of online commentary is not.  

There seems little point in involving Andy Warhol’s, ‘everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame’ dictum, as little could he foresee the extent of the opportunities for self expression, publication, and even just self-projection of oneself and one’s views in today’s hyper-real experience of the www. However his idea is closer to the truth, but individually we are exceeding our fifteen minutes by a long shot. The short answer is, everyone has an opinion, we collectively value the voice of consumers today, and there are exponentially huge opportunities for the expression of one’s individual views. And expressing ourselves in these ways is increasingly becoming normative, more so for the digitally aligned, and digitally literate and definitely pointing to the era that will follow the Anthropocene, the new new geological age of the Expressionocene, the Opinionocene, the Commentocene, or just the Blogocene. Our opinions will surely shape and change the crust of the earth just as our views carve out the landscapes of how we will live, how we will live with each other, and all the conditions that attach to this.  

So how did the pollsters get it wrong and who were they speaking to anyway? Everyone is commenting this morning. And it seems that it’s partial. And like a lot of the problem itself, it depends on who you ask, on who you read, on who was surveyed, in what manner, when and how. Is it merely a methodological problem? If this was a research project, surely it wouldn’t be funded. 

Commenters argue for a disconnect, that the election was the worlds largest reality TV show, that it’s “game over,” and most hilariously observe that Canada’s immigration website has crashed. And more informally, YouTubers following the US election argued that Trump had it won from the outset. I’m not going to argue for any particular methodology attached to polling, but will simply reiterate the point that it depends on who you ask, how you ask, when and where you ask.   

And herein lays my critique of cultural studies as well. You can ask people about themselves, about their habits, preferences, daily life and they will tell you something. It may be the truth, it may be an idealised version of themselves that they project wistfully into the future. It may be a lie. It may be stated for any number of reasons. But the difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do lies in fieldwork, in participant observation and in the firming of relations between the informants and the field researcher, built up over time and through participation in everyday worlds.   

Anthropologists spend a lot of time building relations firmly based in the messy behaviours of everyday life. As a fieldworker you get to hear and see what people do, and with enough local cultural knowledge on board, you can tease out the meanings attached to how people act in their social worlds. And these worlds may well be our own worlds too. Our social, commenting, opinionated, supportive, antagonistic, loving, hateful or otherwise worlds. While we may wish it were different, it’s this diversity in all it’s complexity that shows us yet again who we are.   

Photo credit: https://goo.gl/images/J8pLCw 

On the responsibilities of panelists


So you can tell what’s coming here.  The short version is: should panelists provide for a good show (topical, interesting, cutting edge, the presentation of new research, ideas, or think pieces only), or should panelists ensure that only correct knowledge is promoted for presentation and discussion at panels that deal with specialised knowledges?  And what responsibilities (if any) do professional conferences have for the promotion of ideas?  Is it the responsibility of panelists to advise presenters about the acceptability of their reported work, effectively arguing that it should come with a proviso, a trigger warning or some sort of message effectively stating that this paper represents the views of the presenter but is not necessarily endorsed by the panel or the conference?  

Has it come to that already?  Already implying the potential and anticipated inevitability of such a stance for professional anthropological conferences?

In my area of anthropological specialisation there are some ‘out there’ ideas and thinking around topics to do with how people live in the world, with each other and the thinking and practices that they undertake, create and participate in.  This is essential and I’m a firm believer in the idea that change frequently comes from the periphery of disciplines as individual practitioners reach out and extend our discipline in new ways thorough their (our) extended reach in thinking, reading, fieldwork and anthropological practices that interpret and make sense of these more generally.  

You just have to go out and act anthropologically in the world, whatever your specialty.  After that, come and tell us about it.

So what happens when papers challenge orthodoxy?  Is it the right of panelists to act as censors, as gatekeepers and defacto peer reviewers of new thinking and practices?  Many would argue that this is indeed the very role of conference panelists to act in academically responsible ways, and that advice should be given to individual presenters to modify their work, think about their conclusions, advise that this is their personal viewpoint, or similar.  

For a discipline that’s only 200 years old , we seem to be a bit too worried about challenging orthodoxy.  It strikes me that academic and professional conferences are the very place where new ideas should be presented by practitioners to their peers for question and debate.  Isn’t this the premise for invitations to plenary speakers?

At a recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) in Sydney, some ideas were clearly too dangerous for discussion and speakers were pulled from the program.  Heated public debates argued for the merit of this, and there was a social media frenzy both about  the content of the proposed discussion, the speaker, the politics around the presentation and title of the proposed talk and its pulling from the festival. And the inevitable meaning of this for the festival, and what it meant to challenge moral boundaries in thinking and discussion within society more broadly.  Not to mention the commercial aspects … But does this happen at professional, academic forums?  Could it?  Should it? 

So back to the anthropological panel and its processes: while the thinking and decisions around presentation are well intended, there are inflexibilities attached to the structure and organisation of conferences that mitigate decision making around inclusions and exclusions. 

Nevertheless, feel free to put forward all your ideas, thinking, critiques, comments and practices and bring them along for scrutiny and interrogation by your peers.  After all, that’s what professional conferences are for.  They, like many parts of anthropological practice itself provide a moment, a meeting point, a location much like the village water well, as a space for talking, listening and making sense of each other’s symbolic worlds, their practices and meanings.  And talking about it  between people of the same status as you.

Photo credit: Conference Panel

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

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…. 

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