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


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.


The jacket

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…


How does an Anthropologist add value in the workplace?

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



Imploding Families

Arriving at work today I was met by my coworker who wanted to talk. We’ve worked together for about three years and I see her when she comes in once weekly for a project that we work on together. Aside from the project sometimes we need to be present for each other as fellow sufferers as the circumstances of misfortune and illness that accompany our everyday lives make themselves felt.

As I entered the office and before I’d even put down my bags I could see that she was already at work going through her emails but she looked up expectantly when she saw me.

After very brief “Hi, how are you’s” I asked the queston, “How’s it all going with your father?”

Her elderly father who lives in another city, in another state recently suffered from an acute illness that led to heart failure, and he was hospitalised and treated for over three weeks before being sent home. My coworker had been up to visit and stay, to oversee his treatment, to meet with family, to cook, to clean and run around, to plan, to discuss, to pray, to jolly along, to look at scenarios, to argue, to investigate, to look at residences and to confront and manage the familial interactions that accompany a parents sudden illness.  But living a distance away means ones  authority is weakened as you strive to assert your knowledge of the medical system in an unfamiliar setting and this was true for her.

There’s not much laughing at these familial get-togethers though, and at the end of the day families forced together to deal with sudden illness or trauma often implode as differences and problems tolerated throughout life, and as adults fortunately from a distance, suddenly come to a head and force family members into positions that are often polarised, full of pain, are heated and have long term consequences.

I still recall standing outside a nurses station in a private hospital holding the ear piece of the nurses telephone about thirty centimetres from my ear as a relative hurled abuse, horrible abuse down the receiver at me. The nurses were non plussed and I bemusedly thought to myself that they were probably accustomed to this appalling scene.  This behaviour too was the results of parental illness, surgery, ongoing care needs and everything had come to the boil and the anger spilled out, it just spat out of everyone as decisions were made.

My family relationships fell apart too, but that is a story for later.

My coworker is a health professional.  But as a daughter, with an ill parent she – and they – revert as many of us do to the primal relationships that characterised our early lives. She and her siblings are like satellites around their father, living one to twelve hours drive from him. In early retirement as mums and dads sell up the family home and move to the coast to live the kind of life they’ve always dreamed about, this situation seems perfect. It gives parents a bit of space from their grown up children and at the same time offers family an opportunity to have a destination as they clamber in a tightly packed vehicles with scooters, sleeping bags and DVDs on board as they head north to see their parents and grandparents.

While it sounds grand, it may not always be so, but these are the good days. Remember this.

But, like their stellar counterparts, satellites can collide causing the destruction and demise of worlds, in this case our familial worlds of sociality, support and meaning.

As parents’ health deteriorates, as with my coworker’s family, one parent becomes ill and dies.  Her mother died a year ago; it was the one year anniversary yesterday. He and she had planned a cruise around Australia, but in the end it was my coworker who took the cruise with her father. But the dream was still sound and the family recovered and readjusted to the new reality as they now dealt with one parent in retirement.

Now, as dad is ill, the adult children are all fighting. There are some who aren’t talking to each other, planning on how to avoid seeing each other, warning of the approach of each other and rummaging through each other’s and their fathers things when the opportunity arises, seeking knowledge to gain some advantage.

One wonders about the parental bank account, another about the option of an enduring power of attorney and suddenly guardianship becomes a meaningful term. There are allegations of parental abuse, of favouritism, of money going astray and the resurgence of past, unresolved hurts, of longtime simmering wounds.

There are medical conversations that have to be had, conversations that only some family will understand.  Suddenly everyone’s trying to become conversant with the technical aspects of medical specialties that take years to master. We all want to be knowing and knowledgeable about drugs, body systems, body physiology and the effects and interactions of complex chemicals, both natural and artificial. We live in an age of access to and understanding information outside of our own realms, but this is normal.

Suddenly one sibling is putting in plans to council for an extension on their house to accomodate their aged and now dependent parent, something the other siblings strongly disagree with. There are disagreements and fights about where dad will go after hospital. As he can barely breathe and stand at the same time, it does seem as though he’ll need some support services after he leaves hospital but one sibling has refused, wanting to do all this himself with his wife, an unlikely and improbable situation according to my coworker.

While the actors in all these dramas are different the circumstances, pressures and outcomes are not dissimilar to other families. Flying allegations, differences of opinion, threats to the way things have been, fear of the unknown and the ultimate unknowable all point to the fear that we all hold about death, and the demise of a parent moves us all a bit closer to the edge of the perch, and with the generation before us no longer taking up space on the perch, is it any wonder that families come to loggerheads at times of intense fear, change and stress?

The telling of my coworkers tale of woe takes some time and strongly resonates  with others’ familial tales as people drift in and bear witness to the new, current, updated version of familial illness, suffering and power struggles but we all stay to hear, to share, to offer sympathy and advice wondering at the back of our minds how we too will fare when we face this crossroad, and what form our own stories will take.


Why you need an Anthropologist in your organisation

Anthropologists are the new black in organisations, everyone wants one and wants to show off that they have one. Big companies are now hiring and here’s just one of many articles that discusses the reasons why: At the basis of this article – and many others like it – lies the assumption that anthropologists are in touch with what people really think, with what they really do, with reading how people are likely to act (we’re fortune tellers!) and offering explanations based in culture as to WHY.

Anthropologists offer an authenticity that is often lacking in current business approaches that seem to focus too much on creating people simply as customers instead of having a holistic approach to understanding their wants, needs and desires. This includes employees of organisations as well as the consumers for whom organisations provide products and services.

Anthropologists can tap in to what people think by asking them, as well as being in a position to observe what people do in order to provide real information. Not only do we do this, we provide insights about human behaviour that other social scientists or those in human resources simply cannot do. This is invaluable in business and companies seem to be slowly agreeing and changing the way that they gain information about people. There are a whole lot of reasons why this is so and I want to talk up why you need one too.

We observe everything.

We observe the environment and that includes who populates your work world as well as the built environment and how people work within this. Culture is OUR WORD and we are experts in observing and interpreting cultures. Workplaces are not just home to one culture, but a multitude of interacting cultures that produce your organisational culture. We don’t just talk to people we also pay attention to what your workplace looks like, and how people work there. This includes for example taking into account all of those taken-for-granted posters that you think are motivating your employees to change. I have bad news for you: they’re not. Once you’ve seen them and noted the message you fail to see them for what they mean ever again. It’s all just wallpaper. This is true of checklists that form part of work practices too. You really need to shake things up a bit in this department…

We can take the pulse of an organisation.

In Chinese Medicine there are a number of descriptors for a wide variety of finely attuned pulse types and anthropologists are similarly able to identify not only the pulse, but the infestisimal variations of these different types of pulses and who has their finger on them and what those beating hearts represent for the people in your organisation or the people you’re hoping to do business with. You may think that you have issues to sort out at your workplace, but an anthropologist will provide rich contextualisation of those issues which offer a more nuanced and meaningful pathway for change, if that’s what you’re seeking. We can provide you with a rich snapshot of your organisation, much richer than anything that you can get from static surveys that count the instances of a thing without providing any meaningful analysis.

People like us

Anthropology uses participant-observation as its methodology. This is our contribution to information gathering and in order to do that in the corporate world we come into an organisation and work within it in order to identify what’s going on. As a participant we too are part of the organisation and its culture and we develop relationships with people and work alongside other workers and people like us (some don’t too). The relationships that we develop with people are real (loved and hated) and can sometimes last much longer than the original job that we were hired to do. We are not management but position ourselves as informed outsiders who can ask all the dumb questions as if we’re always the new kid on the block. We’re allowed to do this and this is an endearing feature of anthropological work.

We pay attention to everything

Not only do we find out what people are saying, we also observe what people are doing and this provides more in-depth information about what’s going on in a workplace. We observe what’s going on and put information together in new and unique ways as patterns emerge that aren’t usually seen from top-down approaches or from anonymised or even identified surveys. Not only does this approach work within organisations, we can also do this by hanging out with your clients. This is a novel approach that doesn’t rely on a ‘Customer Relations Officer’ or other go-betweens, but uses the authenticity of enquiry to find out up front from a social scientist who uses accepted yet novel methodological tools to identify issues of concern, patterns of consumption and other behaviours of interest.

Communication is our thing, whether that’s formal or smoking in the car park with the CEO

We look at communication flows at work and can talk about informal pathways that don’t necessarily appear on an organisational flowchart, yet can have far reaching consequences for the sharing of news and information. For anthropologists, there’s no difference between formal and informal communications; to us EVERYTHING is communication, however you label it. That’s why we also pay attention to everything that’s said. For example, most people would attend meetings in the workplace as a part of workplace communication, information sharing, strategy planning, presentations etc etc etc. For most people, the meeting is the THING. But for anthropologists, we pay attention not only to the meeting and what’s said and done there (and not said and not done), we also pay attention to the before meeting and the after meeting. These are critical junctures that tell you a lot about intentions, performance and what’s important to reflect and act upon. We study gossip seriously.  We understand individuals and groups of individuals as actors with intentions and consequences for what’s said and done.

Why are anthropologists coming of age? The post postmodern times that we live in are fractured. The ideologies and big isms that used to define us have been challenged. There is not one set of rules, one set of practices or even one set of beliefs that fits everything and explains everything anymore. Increasingly we are seeing the need for multiple sets of policies and practices to accommodate the needs of individuals. This is much more than what used to occur, where once upon a time if you didn’t fit in with the policy or practice (as a student, as a consumer, as a customer, as an employee, as a client, as a product user… ) then you were not identified as the recipient of core business. Nowadays, much has changed as institutions both governmental, corporate and civil attempt to provide a multitude of products, services and experiences that are geared more closely to the specific needs of individuals. Much like a design-your-own-pizza: no more pre-determined Supremes for me!

Anthropologists have been studying culture for a long time. No other discipline can lay claim to the knowledge and practices that define anthropology. There is a lot of borrowing that goes on and human resources folk will talk of culture, but it’s not an informed perspective based on long-term studies and immersions within cultural worlds. This is what anthropologists do in order to become known as anthropologists. It’s a long, slow and sometimes very painful process. Any ethnographic account will attest to this. It’s not easy and it’s not quick to develop authentic relationships with people, with those who will inform you about culture, your informants, but this essentially what must occur in order to develop insights and find out about what a culture is like: you have to move slowly and you have to do this from the perspective of an insider, even if that’s only a borrowed skin that you’re inhabiting for a while.

This is the problem with anthropology too. Much of the modern scientific and humanities endeavours in research demand more timely production of knowledge. “What do you mean? You need a year?” And that’s just the fieldwork component. Then there’s the analysis and the production of a text that makes sense of the whole experience which balances the literature, your ideas or questions and the experiences of those whom you’ve interviewed and observed.

If you’re cutting edge you’ll want to think about the applications of what I’m talking about here. Imagine your organisation not being cut off from and wondering about customer preferences. It’s not enough anymore to say, “We’ve always done it this way…” Imagine anthropologists let loose in clinical settings – this already occurs, but is straitjacketed by red tape. What gets done to people in hospitals really needs to be looked at in novel ways to make the whole experience much better, and dare I say less clinical? Think about new inputs from the consumer movement which have meant that consumers now have a place on boards, employment panels and advisors from peak bodies. These are another example of having the authentic voice represented and not just presented.

Hanging out in people’s homes, giving people cameras to make visual diaries, creating documentaries that present authentic people’s experiences are part of the production of knowledge that has been informed by anthropological practice. There are companies now who promote the anthropological method as informing their business practice, some of whom can be found here:
Further to this there are academic conferences that inquire into the nature of this phenomenon as well and he’s a conference abstract from a panel at the RAI in the UK from 2012 on this theme that includes speakers from ReD Associates as presenters:

This raises the issue of whether or not this is generally a ‘good thing’ or not. Should the voice of the anthropologist be coopted in this way? Are we acting morally? Is this an ethical endeavour? Should we have a more critical view of the tools of the trade within the discipline being utilised in this fashion? What can be said of relationships that develop through the anthropological endeavour that are subject to the intentions of business? Do we become less authentic researchers by including ourselves in the corporate sphere? Are we less trusted if we’re employed by large mining or tech companies than if we were treading the path and tailing the villager on their way to collect water? Is objectivity thwarted by the nature and location of the endeavour in which we’re involved?

Or will there be an unintended, added positive benefit on the corporate sector of having anthropologists involved in workplaces? Will our presence affect work cultures in new ways that extend beyond the tired turn of phrase that human resource folk use when referring to the workplace culture?

We can only hope.