Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"I believe" thoughts of Margaret Mead

What do anthropologists believe?

I don't know if we all believe the same things especially when it comes to details. But, I think this recording of a 1951 statement on NPR's This I believe by Margaret Mead encapsulates the essence of the optimism that makes anthropology so appealing to many of us. The recording, "Our Awareness controls our destiny," was rebroadcast on NPR's Weekend Edition on Saturday back in February 8, 2009. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Business needs to know from the Applied Ethnographer

Recently the American Anthropological Association republished an essay by Ashkuff, entitled What Anthropologists Do, and What They Do Wrong in Business in which the author argues that a major problem between anthropologists and businesses is the method of communication. The problem extends not just to business, she concludes, but to almost all communications that take place between anthropology and the outside world.

The heart of Ashkuff’s argument is the contrast between the "needs" of two actors-- the applied ethnographer and the business client -- in the business context. The operand word here is "need" and how each actor defines their need. This is a real issue and conundrum for the applied ethnographer to which I can attest from personal experience.

Applied ethnographers tend to be influenced by their training to write for an academic audience. The whole question of academic writing in anthropology has been brought into question by one of the modern demi-gods of anthropology, Clifford Geertz. Geertz and his followers attack the traditional ethnography using an analysis based on a post-modernist theory of literary criticism. They argue that it is the TEXT rather than the subject which should be the key to the analysis. They point out that the text, written by the ethnographer, creates a bias in our understanding of the subject being written about.

While I don't subscribe to literary criticism as a core anthropological theory or method, I do accept that it calls attention to, and addresses a larger issue in modern science. That issue is uncertainty. The uncertainty arises from the fact that the writer’s conclusions are drawn from an analysis of a particular unique set of observations bounded by time and space carried out by a single observer.

The applied ethnographer is often reflective and cautious. S/he is as concerned about how his/her work might be viewed by academic colleagues as s/he is about not wanting to mislead a business client with "incomplete" data. The result is the temptation to write lengthy and detailed reports. The effect may be good academic ethnography but poor applied ethnography. It can become little more than an exercise in CYA.

For the business person, the need is accurate and timely information. That is, the basic input needed to develop a strategy, create a policy, make a decision, or evaluate an outcome. The business person is action oriented. S/he is aware that things change and it is precisely because of this that s/he looks to internal and external consultants and technician to collect, analyze and interpret the complex data that are generated and required to operate in today's economy. S/he wants the bottom line

The "bottom line" is an accounting term which has a more general meaning in the real world business context. It means simply "what is the meaning and consequence of the situation for our business?"

For the applied ethnographer then, the lengthy report is only the first step in the delivery of the contracted research. It is the interpretation and condensing of that data into a simple set of action statements that answer the business client's question and address her needs in an uncertain context.

The uncertainty that exist in the situation is real and it will result in errors in interpretation and mistakes in any actions arising from it. It is the responsibility of the expert to absorb and reduce the uncertainty. The client needs that information in order to to proceed. And, more important, the circumstances are that the client will proceed with or without the report if he has to.

From the Geertzian perspective, this calls for a TEXT that communicates what the client needs to know to do and what he needs to do. This is a TEXT that presents the applied ethnographer’s "best guess" answer to the business client’s basic question.

This places a burden on the applied ethnographer. She must translate the ethnography from a descriptive to a proscriptive state. Further, she gives up control of the research project. She must design the project to conform to the client’s timeline. This often calls for mini- or micro-ethnography. Mini-ethnography is a totally different art form from the traditional 1 year in the field and 3 years to analyze and write it up the data academic format.

Finally, there is the applied ethnographic format. The applied ethnography does not follow the traditional literary arch in the business context. Instead it begins with the ending -- the executive summary which contains the recommendations and two to three critical points to justify each. Then, comes the back-story, which we would consider as the meat of the ethnography. This back story is read by staff advisers, may contribute to their recommendations and may be used for future reference to defend the client’s decision and actions. Then there are appendices. This is where the mini-ethnography detail will appear. The appendices consist of documentation to support the report and recommendations e.g.the various detailed reports, analysis and budgets etc.

Ashkuff's advise is something that any ethnographer, hoping to work in the real world of business, should take to heart. The applied ethnographer’s most important role is his/er role as a cross cultural communicator who understands the business client’s needs and language, and can produce a product that improves the client’s decision making success.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How old is "applied anthropology"?

Applied anthropology -- the application of anthropological concepts to the solution of human and institutional problems -- is, despite the biases of the academic community,seen today as the road to the profession's salvation. Applied anthropology is really no different from the academic sub-species. It just occupies a different ecological niche in today's world. Rather than the exploiter of the intellectual property of their subjects, the applied anthropologist is the translator and communicator of intellectual property of others to their clients.

As pointed out earlier in this blog What does it mean to be a career anthropologist these are somewhat different skill sets but part of the same intellectual species. We might say that "anthropology" or the "anthropological" meme emerged in the west in Classical Greece and the writings of Herodotus. The "anthropological meme" took the form of history and eventually transformed into a social science in the 19th century scientific revolution. But what about the "applied anthropology" meme?

When did the "applied anthropology" sub-species emerge?

Interesting enough, this question was addressed in an editorial that appeared in Human Organization in the Spring of 1958 entitled: Applied Anthropology in 601 A.D.. The article quotes a letter from Pope Gregory VII to his priests who were attempting to convert the "heathen" Britons to Christianity. In the letter he proposes a policy to overcome local resistance.

We must refrain from destroying the temples of the idols. I t is necessary only to destroy the idols, and to sprinkle holy water in these same temples, to build ourselves altars and place holy relics therein. If the construction of these temples is solid, good, and useful, they will pass from the cult of demons to the service of the true God; because it will come to pass that the nation, seeing the continued existence of its old places of devotion, will be disposed, by a sort of habit, to go there to adore the true God.
It is said that the men of this nation are accustomed to sacrificing; oxen. I t is necessary that this custom be converted into a Christian rite. On the day of the dedication of the temples thus changed into churches, and similarly for the festivals of the saints, whose relics will be placed there, you should allow them, as in the past,to build structures of foliage around these same churches.
They shall bring to the churches their animals, and kill them, no longer as offerings to the devil, but for Christian banquets in name and honor of God, to whom, after satiating themselves, they will give thanks. Only thus, by preserving for men some of the worldly joys, will you lead them more easily to relish the joys of the spirit

We can see today that Gregory's advice established a policy that was to serve the Church well. This was especially true when a 1000 years later it ventured into the New World. It is also an example of what today would be considered a sound applied anthropological based policy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What is reality if there is no evidence?

As the Superorganic continues to emerge as the reality of the 21st century on the planet Earth, how are we to know it exists as a force in our lives? Primitive humans lacked the understanding and experience with many of nature's potentials and possibilities. For early humans, these were mysteries. They were mysteries that required explanation that the immediate experience could not answer. The human mind developed a method for coping with these events. It was through the invention of magic and religion that humanity attempted to gain control over nature.

Magic evolved into craft and then into scientific engineering while religion evolved into philosophy and then into science. While the roots of modern engineering and science lay in magic and religion, they have not totally replaced them as a source of explanation for the unexplainable.

In the 21st century, engineers and scientist are entering the realm of magic and religion through a backdoor. It is a backdoor that was first proposed millennium ago by religion -- the presence of invisible spirits that can manipulate and confound events in the visible world.

The world of human imagination has long contemplated the presence of spirits. Science fiction writers have toyed with the idea in various forms. Human art forms have relied on these ideas to create a universe of imaginary creatures and story telling techniques. The reality of these creatures has relied on the psychological nature of the individual and the cultural roles that influence it. We have evolved to discriminate between the imaginary, fictional, world and the physical events of the real world. As technology has become more and more "realistic" the challenge of distinguishing between the virtual world and the physical world becomes greater.

Today we are on the verge of making spirit technology a reality.

But what will be the social and cultural impact of such technology on the evolution of human psychology and the Superorganic's ability to control humanity?

  A recent article on Wired.com," Pentagon Scientists Use ‘Time Hole’ to Make Events Disappear" raises the question What is reality if there is no evidence?

 Tthe question could provide anthropologists with an opportunity to observe how a socio/cultural system adapts its definition of reality to a technology that challenges the basis of visual evidence. What happens when the essence of experience, based on the electo-magnetic spectrum, is manipulated technologically by light bending? By creating a black hole out of which the forces of the superorganic emerge?

Will it become the new magic or just a new problem solving technique to entertain or control the individual and society? Check out the story.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What do YOU mean by "employment as an anthropologist?"

What do YOU mean by "employment as an anthropologist?" This is an important question that we are discussing in the Career Anthropologist group in LinkedIn.

Before you commit your time and resources to pursuing additional training at the MA or PhD level,and definitely before you go rushing off with your newly minted MA or PhD, ask yourself this question, "What do YOU mean by being employed as an anthropologist?"

So many students trained in anthropology, especially at the graduate level, assume or desire that to be an anthropologist, is to be labelled by others as an anthropologists. The reality, however, when they enter the job market is often quite different.

If you want to be recognized and labelled as an "anthropologist", then the only place to look is the university, the museum, and some government jobs where there is an official job title and description for an anthropologist. If you want a career as an "anthropologist." This is route you will have to travel.

Others, I include myself in this, are trained in anthropology and have adopted a self definition as an anthropologist which is independent of any job description or need to be recognized by coworkers, clients, or employers as "an anthropologist." For us, to be an anthropologist is a way of looking and responding to world that is based on the "anthropological ethos" or to borrow from C Wright Miles, "The anthropological imagination."

Many non-traditional, career anthropologists have found the business sector to be both interesting and promising. This is where the opportunity is for someone trained as an anthropologist has real potential. However, it will require additional training (formal or self study) in the language and culture of business. The most important is some basic accounting and finance language and skills. This is really learning the culture of those with whom you will be working.

One needs to be aware of the status structure in the industry one enters. In the business world, the MBA and similar Masters level degrees are considered to be the professional degree. In the more technical staff positions, a PhD may be required in order to have the appropriate status within the organization. For example, to become the CEO of a company a BA and/or MA degree,the right experience and connection are what count. But to be head of the Research Department, a PhD may be an absolute requirement.

As for the jobs side of it, it depends on what your "anthropological" interests are which can help you to establish your "expertise. This includes your interests and experience in the particular cultures and societies. What might be called your area studies. Another skill set is your linguistic skills. These can be another selling point. Also the specific problem area you find most interesting and where you can demonstrate your competency.

Some examples of job areas are: Marketing which draws upon cross cultural communication skills; Management which draws draws upon people and organizational skills; Staff positions which draw upon technical skills such as applied research, teaching (training), etc.; or Consulting which draws upon training, teaching, mentoring skills in a specific domain of human activity where you can claim expertise.

So the questions are: Do you want to be defined by others as an anthropologist, or do you define yourself as an anthropologist? Who do you want to impress? Where do you think you can make the greatest contribution to anthropology? And, Do you want to show the world why anthropology has made you are the best person for the job you want to do?

It is in your hands and up to you to decide! Good luck!