Monday, December 26, 2011

Going Public or Sitting in the Opium Den?

The challenge many graduates of anthropology programs face, whether choosing an academic or non-academic career, is publication: The how, why, and wherefores of the process.

I find it interesting that both the AAA and SfAA make publication an ethical principle that they "impose" upon anthropologists. Yet, they set no specific standards for such publication beyond their own monopolistic journals. This has lead to a double standard in what is "anthropological" literature. Meanwhile, the organizations and their academic members attack you (if your lucky,but more often ignore you)for works prepared for a wider, more public, audience. They claim such works are unprofessional,unworthy of professional recognition, since they have not stood the test of an IRB or peer review process.

Recently, Dona Barry, a graduate student and a member of the American Anthropological Association LinkedIn site commented,
I have often wondered as a graduate student when I am done with college, what I would do or be legally obligated to do ethically (outside the AAA) where institutionally I am required to obtain IRB approvals.

Margaret Mead faced the same problem when she "went public." She and Rhoda Metraux wrote a column for Redbook magazine commenting of issues of the day from an anthropological perspective but in plain language. These were later collected and appear in their 1970 book, A Way of Seeing. These writings are not generally considered as part of their anthropological legacy. Yet, as Dr. Jeremy Sabloff discussed in his 2010 AAA Distinguished Lecture: "The Circulation of Ideas: Anthropology and Public Outreach", noted, Anthropology needs another Margaret Mead.

Academically inclined anthropologists love and hunger for the comfort of the academic press, or "the Opium Den of theoretical dreams and professional allusion." It seems to me that if we are to bringing about a change in this double standard toward publication, those of us who are dedicated to both the discipline of anthropology and to the application of the anthropological perspective to "real" public issues, can not rely on the opium den to change. We must take the lead.

To start, we must stop seeking the approval of the academic parent. They are like parents who punish the child by disowning them because they do not want to go, or can not fit, into the family business. These parents are trapped in a tradition and allusion of isolation of their own creation. They do not realize that there is a bigger world out here. It is a world with existential problems that cry out for solutions that anthropology could offer. It is up to us, the practitioners to make these solutions known to the world. We can do that by establishing our own publication standards directed toward solutions and take responsibility for them.

We, in the non-academic domain, need to take responsibility for our own destiny. And in the process, drag the academy out of its opium den and into the fresh air of the real world. Just as the second generation must bring the family business into today's market, we need to reach across generations and take the best of the past, combine it with the most exciting practical challenges of the present and create a new relevant anthropology.

This is critical for all of us, if we are to have a future. If the Scott Walkers of the world have their way, they would lock the doors to the metaphorical opium dens known as anthropology departments to "save tax payer" money for more practical purposes. Our academic colleagues may whine about the unfairness of it all when they find they have nowhere else to go to enjoy their theoretical dreams. But they will have no one to blame but themselves.

It will fall upon us, the practitioners, to justify the rationale for our anthropological training. Individually, by managing our own personal careers, we can profit from our training. We can do this by going public with our best anthropological insights and solutions to real problems wrapped in the language and media that the public understands. But institutionally, our own success will not necessarily benefit the profession if our academic institutions are not willing to recognize, accept and support our efforts.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Anthropology & Astronomy or, What do you do when there is only one universe?

For years when I have been asked " And , What do you do (for a living)?" I tell them I am a self employed anthropologist. To which I generally get an expression something like this.

Then I'm asked, "So what? You buy and sell bones?" To which I'll respond that bones and for that matter stones are part of archaeology which is one branch of anthropology. Then I say, "Anthropology is about the study of humanity and how it came to be the dominate species and life form on this planet." For you see, from my point of view, Anthropology is to the social sciences as Astronomy is to the physical science.

I started my college career with plans to be an astronomer and an astronaut (right after Sputnik). A run in with some higher level math pushed me into the social sciences as a major. Anthropology had just been introduced as a major (formally a minor in a soc/anthro department)at Brown. What struck me at the time and what has stayed with me is the similarity between the two fields.

Both are descriptive sciences, not experimental. Both are holistic (you can't get much bigger than the universe and all of the time the universe has existed. In anthropology we are interested in the whole of the history and development of the human species, its distribution, its origin, and its complexities. Both focus on a single entity: the universe as we know vs the planet as we know it. Neither, at the moment has anything to really compare it against.

Astronomy has an evolutionary perspective in its theoretical sister, Cosmology, Cosmology integrates the observations of the observational astronomer with the conclusions and observations of the other physical sciences (chemistry, physics). It looks to these science for clues to explain the observation and it provides a testing ground for their questions.

Anthropology performs a similar role for the human sciences (biology, psychology, and the sociological sciences). We have amassed the greatest collection of observations of human experience in our ethnographies, ethnohistories, and archaeological observations. We have the evolutionary perspective that enables us to expand the boundaries of inquiry back in time as we discover new links and connection between our species and life itself.

We draw upon the discoveries of other social, psychological and life sciences to help explain our observations and these sciences become integrated in a unique way the same as the physical sciences are integrated into Astronomy.

We both have a central concept which helps to explain the order and dynamics of the structures we observe.

For Astronomy it is Gravity.

For Anthropology it is Culture

Finally, for Astronomy the ultimate question is captured in the concept of the BIG BANG and the emergence of the universe. For Anthropology, our Big Bang is the concept of Life and the emergence of Homo sapien.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Ethnography vs Ethnology

Ethnographic observation is a skill set that requires introspection, a keen sensitivity to detail and nuance, empathy and clarity in the linguistic subtleties of the group under study/observation. Some of these skills can be taught in the classroom, others come only after participating in a cross cultural environment.

Some would say, "No one can better describe a youth gang than a gang member or a tribe than a tribal member ..." I would counter that the gang or tribal member can do so only as an informant at a particular time and in a particular sociological place within the gang and the gang's environment. It is the ethnographer who gives cultural and sociological context and meaning to what the gang member experiences.

When the native becomes the ethnographer he/she must be able to step back from his/her own culture and look upon it as an object first and subject second. That is,they must, as ethnographers, learn to become the "Other" critically observing and recording the "What" and the "How" of the events being studied. The gang member must step out of his member role and must break with the gang psychology if he is to become the ethnographer.

As the "ethnologist," a different skill set is required, that of critical thinking and analysis based on a core set of techniques of cultural classification, functional analysis of organizational roles, status, and structures, and a systems analysis approach to the networks of shared behaviors and symbols. All of this is done from a cross-cultural comparative perspective. The ethnologist role calls for a scientific objectivity which runs counter to the empathy called for as the ethnographer. It is an objectivity that comes from the experience of dealing with many cultures, or many cases of a specific cultural problem, observed and analyzed in many different cultural contexts.

Anthropology as a discipline, verses anthropology as a profession, rests on the principles of the comparative method, participant/observation (ethnography), physical context (archaeology), and historical (ethno-history) context. Anthropology as a discipline draws on the scientific and scholarly methodologies that best address it problems and is not constrained by any particular theory, as these change with our increased knowledge and professional fads and fashions. Anthropology is more natural history than laboratory/experimental science. It is a descriptive science, not a predictive one.

Anthropology, as a profession, is a combination of science and the humanities because of this duality between the field worker (ethnographer) and library worker (ethnologist) roles. Anthropologists focus their present research problem on identifying how a product (trait/behavior) of the past cultural success is acted out in the present to produce reliable future consequences. As a profession, anthropology is academic when its problem choices are self directed and it is applied when the problem choices are driven by the public concern and/or need.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

“where is the theory in applied anthropology?”

The question, “where is the theory in applied anthropology?” is an old one. It is one I have dealt with for the past 40 years and this is what I have learned.

“Why is academic anthropological theory and sometimes training of so little use to researchers using ethnography as a research technique?”

The simple answer is that it not the job of academic anthropologist to do so. Academic anthropology is based on the university’s paradigm of professionalism. This paradigm (using Kuhn’s definition) is part of the larger institutional culture of free and open dialogue and sharing of information directed toward finding “Truth.” The research subsystems of scholarship and science promotes the search for truth by limiting the questions to be addressed to those arising from the dominate paradigm of the discipline at the time — regardless of the policy questions facing society or its members.

The applied anthropologist is a technician in the real world outside of the academic department. He/she is hired to provide answers (not questions) for a client seeking to make a “practical” decision related to the client’s self interest.

The applied anthropologist is asked to play the role of expert, not seeker, for applying ethnographic knowledge. The client expects the “bullet points” in the executive summary so that they can judge the value of the information and apply it to their problem. Even if you write a detailed report, the client will not read it. The detail only serves to justify a decision based on your conclusion after the fact, especially in the event that the decision is questioned.

As an applied anthropologist you must understand your client and the purpose they have in mind when they hire you.

I am also asked, “How can academics create theory that speaks to applied fields and industry?”

This is the wrong question. The theory already exists in the broad sweep of behavioral and social science.

The question is “How do you package the theory in an user friendly mode that will be meaningful to the client?”

Academics write for academics. Applied anthropologist are culture brokers who bridge the academic and real world cultures of their particular “people.” They write for non academic.

The theory that academic anthropologist should apply to communicating to the applied fields and industry are the basic ethnographic principles of “participant-observation,” and learning the native language and rituals.

What do applied anthropologists need, not what do we want them to know?

If the applied anthropologist’s client wanted to be an anthropologist, she/he would study anthropology and not do what they are doing. But they don’t, and you can’t blame them for that short coming. Otherwise, there is no need for the applied anthropologist as a profession if every client can do it themselves.

I use the analogy to the legal profession. There are law school professors who research and write about jurisprudence, and then there are attorneys who practice their craft in the real world. Here they apply their legal training to help clients avoid problems; or they are trial lawyers who help their clients defend/advocate their interests. Applied anthropology lives in this real world. The applied anthropologist needs the added communication skill set to survive and prosper here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Salvage Ethnography never ends

One of the chief motivators for the development of ethnography, in the American experience, has been the desire to record the histories of non-literate societies before those societies and their cultures became extinct. In the 19th century, this concern was due to the incursions of western civilization and the affects of acculturation on these societies. Today, such a noble enterprise is seen as passe, especially in the light of globalization. Besides, except for New Guinea and the Amazon Basin, where are we going to find a "primitive” tribe to study?

But are we missing the point of our scientific purpose?

I live in Rhode Island, the home of industrialization in the United States where, in the 19th century, the power of the Blackstone river

provided the energy to build fortunes, and transform an agriculturally based local economy into a national and international powerhouse of manufacturing. And with this this development came its concomitant impact on the socio-economic-cultural life in the northeast United States.

The first influx of labor to staff the textile mills came from the farms changing the social structure of the country side. Later they came from French Canada, England, and Ireland. Craftsmen from Italy, and southern Europe came to man the emerging jewelery factories and related industrial complex. Germans and eastern Europeans immigrated drawn by the jobs in the machine tool industry. Each has left its mark on the landscape, yet their stories go largely untold.

Today I am surrounded by the artifacts and architectural remains of that era. In my life time, I have witnessed the decline of such great industrial giants as Brown & Shape Manufacturing, Nicolson File, Gorham Silver as well as the many smaller firms that fed, and fed off these companies and industries. Today many of these businesses no longer exist as Rhode Island's economy, like many other states, has been transformed into a largely service economy as manufacturing moved south and then off shore.

Much of this transformation has taken place over the past 40 years. Today there are many older workers and retirees who participated in that manufacturing culture. But like the survivors and veterans of WWII, these workers are dying off. And with them an insight into this important period in American culture history is being lost. Except for a few business historians, no one to my knowledge, especially ethnographers, is systematically engaged in salvaging this great period in American cultural evolution.

In my applied ethnography career as a consultant and business coach I have often found myself engaged in a process of salvage ethnography. Much of the history of small firms, and especially family owned firms, is not documented. I found that I had to first document the business traditions in order to get a handle on the client's socio-cultural dynamic before we can address the client's immediate concern.

As any good consultant knows, the client's presenting problem is rarely their real problem. Instead, it is just the final step in a process that has been going for some time. Getting a handle on the real problem is a process of uncovering the past and how it has created their present.

Over the past twenty some odd years as part of my consulting assignment, I have collected data from my business firm and non-profit clients. In many cases, I have written up a mini-ethnography or ethno-history for them as part of the final report. Many of these studies document the changing socio-cultural environment to which they have had to adapt to over their life time.

As I am approaching the end of my career, I wonder what will happen to these materials and the living and extinct institutions they represent. I have not seen any anthropological interest in these dying institutions nor their cultures. Neither have I found an appropriate outlet for publishing, disseminating, or archiving this type of material.

In our rapidly changing global economy with its impact on business firms, local communities, and industries, I feel that it is imperative for anthropologist to recognize the importance of conducting salvage ethnographic research. In order to document this phase of our culture history before its become lost to some future archaeologist's trowel, we need to collect the undocumented oral histories of these dying institutions before it is lost forever.

My question is: Has any anthropologist/ethnographer looked into this fruitful area of research? Are there others out there who feel the same about salvaging these dying institutions?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Family Business: A natural subject for the business anthopologist

"Generation to Generation: Life Cycles of the Family Business" is, in my opinion, a major contribution to the study and understanding of the complex nature of this most basic of human occupations - the family business.

As a business anthropologist, I found the life-cycle model applied to the study of the family business eye opening from both an academic and practical perspective.

There is a saying among family business owners and consultants that expresses the folk wisdom of about the family business as an institution and enterprise. It goes something like this , "The first generation creates, the second builds, and the third consumes the family business."

A business is an institution and organization created to perform the function of making money, i.e. producing an income, for the owner(s) by producing a good or service to meet a public need. The business can be as simple as the one person/owner/operator start-up shoe shine stand at the airport to the $7.5 billion a year 5th generation conglomerate, S.C. Johnson & Sons.

Although each is uniquely different, yet each will face, now face or has faced, the same challenges and crisis to its survival outlined in this model.

Gersick, Davis, Hampton and Lansberg develop a life cycle model for the family business that explains in clear, objective and sound social science terms why there is so much truth to this folk wisdom. The authors define the three key domains in which the family business exists and in which it must survive. Each of these domains has its own dynamic and its own life cycle. Each responds to different and sometimes conflicting demands from its environment.

These domains are the business enterprise, the ownership, and the family. In order to understand and effectively manage a family business, the founder and his/her successors must understand how these three domains are operating at any particular time to create opportunities and threats for the business.

The life cycle model draws upon the principles of business ownership models as established in corporate law, the dynamic theory of organizational life cycles and management structures, and the theories of human and family development found in psychology, sociology and anthropology. This comprehensive, integrated model focuses on the business enterprise as a institution and is explained using examples from real family businesses and corporations. It addresses the basic survival problem all family businesses face -- succession. But more than that the authors clearly outline the issues and alternatives at each phase of the life-cycle for the enterprise and the key actors in the family and the enterprise.

As a consultant/business coach to family businesses, I find the insights here validating of the observations I have made and experienced in my practice with clients. I also find it reassuring to see how the holistic approach, which takes all three domains into account, can produce an outcome that will satisfy the personal and business objectives of all the interests involved -- the business, the owners and the family.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who owns, operates, is part of, or interested in family business. "