Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder Part 2 - The Mode

About a month ago I posted a discussion topic on the NAPA (National Association for the Practice of Anthropology) forum on LinkedIn in which I asked,"If you are using simple descriptive statistics, which is your favorite?" The question formed the basis for the later post here in the Superorganic " Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder"

I received comments from Vicki Ina F. Gloer which lead me to think about the issue further in light of my reflections on Lewin's field theory. Vicki remarked:

 I was reminded of Whorf's 1941 publication of "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language" (written in 1939) in which he detailed observations he made while working in fire insurance of people's perceptions of risk versus actual risk - explaining (of course!) how the words we use to think about risk tend to determine our perception of risk. Insurance underwriters use both simple and complex statistical formulations to assign relative weights and dollar amounts to risk.

right on target. 
We are so accustomed to the use of the mean or average as the statistic used to compare things that we forget or ignore the other two measures of central tendency -- the median (the mid-point) and the mode (the most numerous) -- for measuring or describing a population. But as anthropologists we should know better. This is what Vicki was saying when she remembered the Whorf hypothesis. As observers, we may want to use the mean as the statistic to compare distribution within a population and/or a change in that population over time. But as participants, the mean is a useless statistic if we want to understand the sub-cultures and their impact on the status/role structure of an institution or society. 
Culture is defined by the process of storing and passing on experience, knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation. It is this generational linkage that distinguishes culture from a fad or fashion. To understand a culture or sub-culture statistically, we must look a population and identify these generational linkages -- that is the modes within the population.
When we discuss CULTURE we tend to think of it a singular phenomena, and on an Etic level I would agree. But in the real world in which we all live, "culture", is an Emic reality. Our "culture" is our universe composed of words and actions which have specific meanings and purpose and which we learn from our elders and our own experience and which we will pass on to the next generation.

Whorf and his teacher Sapir, pointed out that language is relative just as culture is relative. This, of course, was in response to the unilinear idea of linguistic evolution. Thus each language creates a conceptual universe for the speakers of that language. Where a specific language is the modal preferred means of communication, of a population or segment of a population it defines the or a cultural universe for the population. For example, the use of Latin in the Catholic Church at one time for example -- was the modal language of the priesthood and shaped the Roman Catholic church and its cultural version of Christianity despite the fact that the average member of the faith did not speak nor read Latin.

One of the theoretical threads of Culture and Personality, probably best expressed by Ruth Benedict, was the idea of a culture being defined in terms of a Modal Personality. Benedict and Mead expanded this concept during WWII and after with the development of the National Character approach.

The mode, that most forgotten and ignored statistic, is the important statistic for the anthropologist because it defines the cultural universe of a population of actors..

Monday, July 30, 2012

Climate Engineering in the Anthropocene

What is the Anthropocene?  This is an idea that has been coined and proposed for describing the new epoch that the planet Earth has entered as a result of the growing and dominant role Homo sapiens play in the dynamic of the planet. The video presented below features a lecture by Professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton published on Jun 22, 2012 by on the subject the Anthropocene.

Professor Hamilton  explores the far-reaching implications of the intentional, enduring, large-scale manipulation of the Earth's climate system that human technology has and is bring about for the planet and its inhabitants. He explores the contrasting philosophies of mankind's role in this process and the ethic questions these present for our human institutions and our species.

While looking at the problem from an engineering standpoint, this lecture also raises questions that we anthropologist have been and are asking about the impact of human activity and human technology. This a policy area where we should have a lot of practical information and experience to bring to the debate. Only in anthropology with its holistic four field approach do we have a conceptual model of humanity that comes close to the earth model Hamilton alludes to in his opening remarks.

In this 18 minute video questions are raised. Questions that call for policy answers based on the best recommendations that anthropological record of humanity can provide.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Something we should think about - Does our technology destroy our humanity?

In a recent article entitled The Moral Hazard of Drones  in the New York Times John Kaag and Sarah Kreps raise a very critical question about our relationship with our technology. They state, "

Monday, July 9, 2012

Re-branding Anthropology Part 2 -- Heart, Mind, and Pocket Book

The basic guidelines for American anthropology were laid down by Franz Boas and taught to his students and passed down as the American anthropological culture. These traditions are a powerful force within the discipline and its organization and create a set of contradictions that have plagued the profession for three quarters of a century. The conflict can be summarized as in four words: Heart, Mind and Pocket Book.

Anthropology is founded on two basic principles – its subject is the human species; and how the species adapts to the physical and cultural environmental challenges it faces. The question is how do anthropologists apply these principles in their role as a member of the human species, as a scientific and humanistic disciple, and as individuals with basic needs and self interests? That is, where do the anthropologist’s heart, mind, and pocket book interests lie?

Where is the anthropologist’s heart when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline? Where is the anthropologist’s mind when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline? And, where is the anthropologist’s pocket book when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline?  Three simple questions!

These questions, however, are not so easy to answer without admitting the basic contradictions that exist in the profession between the “emic” and “etic” perspective toward the behavior of the practitioners of anthropology whether they are academicians or social engineers.

The Anthropological Heart
In our “hearts”, I think and my experience suggests, most of us are philosophical liberal in our view of humankind. It would be hard not to be when a fundamental axiom of our discipline is based on the “psychic unity of humanity.” If we begin with the belief that we are all of the same species and that collectively we share a common biological heritage, then it is not a difficult step to a second basic axiom, “cultural relativity.”
The axiom of cultural relativity leads us to the conclusion that human behavior is “cultural behavior,” and arises from a common biological and mental base in response to diverse environmental challenges.  This does not discount minor variations between individuals or groups. But it does focus our attention on the behavior as the response to, rather than the motive for, cultural actions. Thus, when it comes to a “judgment” about the actions of others, we have a built-in bias to side with “the other”. This is where our hearts are, to suspend our judgment and seek to understand differences. 

The anthropological heart reveals itself in the causes we advocate for or oppose. It is revealed in the century of debate over professional ethics and our obligations to our subjects, the use of the data we collect, and the long running battle with University IRB and government sponsors over “informed consent,” just to mention a few. It can be summed up as an ethic that favors a role as the protector and interpreter of “our” people, i.e. the subjects of our research. For better or worse, it is the origin of our humanistic impulse.

The Anthropological Mind
In our “minds,” I think and my experience suggests, most of us try to be objective with our subject and subjects regardless of our practice as scholars, researchers, or applied practitioners. We try to operate and conduct ourselves based on another foundational axiom: “the holistic approach”.  To be holistic is to be open to and look for evidence from any quarter that may contribute to our understanding of the collective behavior of the individual within the group, and the group within its environment. The holistic axiom implies that we should adopt a systemic perspective toward the evidence that we collect and use to reach our conclusions.

The holistic axiom leads to another basic axiom: Human behavior is bimodal. That is, all human behavior consists of a balance between the individual’s emotional and/or physical (emic) response to an event or context and what we observe to be the group’s interpretation and meaning (etic) attached to the event or context.  This “emic”/”etic” perspective leads directly to our unique methodological response -- participant/observer. 

This methodological bias toward both an experiencing of the affect of the phenomena we study and the detached observation of its effect on the subject is most pronounced in the central organizational structure in our discipline – cultural anthropology.  Participant - observation is extended to the other sub-disciplines of anthropology through the role we give to culture as the “contextualizing” element in interpreting in recording events and structuring their context. This is where our professional mind is, understanding human behavior in context. It is the origin of our scientific impulse, for better or worse.

A corollary to “emic”/”etic” on an individual level is the “status”/”role” at supra-organic or societal level. This implies a structural-function approach to human behavior in a social context where status limits the legitimate range of individual behavior within the group and the role describes the individual’s performance in that status as it relates to the group.
As anthropologists, we are first human beings. We live our lives as individual human beings. Much of our life is oriented around the practical problems of living, i.e. pocket book issues. While the early founders of modern anthropology were amateurs, that is, individuals who pursued their anthropological interests as an avocation, most anthropologists today pursue their anthropological interests as a vocation. They make their living doing something called, “anthropology.” 

In 1879, John Wesley Powell, in his address as the first President of the Washington Society of Anthropology and as Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, called for a more scientific and professional approach to anthropological research. When Boas was hired to teach and head a new department of anthropology, in 1889, at Clark University, he brought with him an idea of how the professional anthropologist were to make his/her living. Boas set the standard for dealing with the pocket book issues when he proposed that the professional anthropologist pursue a tradition of employment in a research setting associated with a museum or university. Powell’s focus was on the government as the employer of anthropological researchers; Boas focused on the private university and museum as the vocational home for the research anthropologist.

Early on, the objective of a career as a professional anthropologist has been defined as basic research with an emphasis on non-literate, small scale socio-cultural systems as the subject of study. Teaching, lecturing and writing would be part of the job description following the tradition of other sciences and scholarly careers. While this career model was supposed to protect the scientist/scholar from outside influence by providing an environment that is based on the sacred principles of “academic freedom” and “freedom of scientific inquiry,” it has produced a mind-set filled with cognitive dissonance that echos through the profession and discipline today.

Anthropologists, as employees of the academy, government, non-profit sector, corporation, are staff personnel. They are hired to perform a specific set of tasks for the organization that has hired them. We are essentially bureaucrats. Despite were our heart and mind are, we consciously and unconsciously, are conservative and risk avoidant in the way we build our careers. In an earlier day, when going into the field to do our field work leading to our PhD, we might have been seen as risk takers, and even considered ourselves to be risk takers. But this has always been a risk based on the belief that some benefactor, sponsor, or employer would be there to pay the bills. 

Foundation and government grants have, as Patterson has pointed out, had as much influence on the development of anthropology in general, and in the USA in particular, as the professional development of the discipline. While today we still rebel against certain claims of control over anthropological research made by the granting sources, and we protest the use of anthropologists in such activities as human terrain analysis, basically we are bureaucrats and happy to collect our paychecks from our employers.

The overproduction of graduates at all levels is critical to ongoing sustainability of anthropology departments in museums and universities. But employing these graduates is a real problem facing the profession organizationally and philosophically. Applied anthropology, defined as the application of anthropological and other social science principles to the solution of practical problems faced by human institutions, is the solution to the employment issue in one sense and a threat to it in another. 

Re-branding Anthropology
Re-branding anthropology means identifying anthropology as a practical discipline, instead of the egghead eccentric hunter of rock and bones, the comic Indiana Jones, or the overly rationale and emotionally distant  forensic anthropologist. Anthropology, as a practical discipline, can lead students to become more critical in their thinking and their approach solving everyday problems. It can help them to adapt these critical thinking skills to whatever career they chose. To re-brand anthropology we must recognize the three dimensions in the life of an anthropologist – heart, mind and pocket book.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Where is the theory in applied anthropology?

People ask “How does academic anthropological theory, and  training in ethnography have so little use to the applied anthropologist?" The question this raises is, “Where is the theory in applied anthropology?" This is an old question and one that I have dealt with for the past 40 years. Here is what I have learned.

First, the simple answer. It not the job of academic anthropologist to do so. Academic anthropology is based on the university’s paradigm of professionalism and not that of the external world of the applied anthropologist.

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 promote the search for truth by limiting the questions to be addressed to those arising from the dominate paradigm(s) of the discipline at the time — regardless of the policy questions facing society or its members.

The applied anthropologist's world is very different. The applied anthropologist's role is that of a technician who works in the real world outside of the academic department. He/she is hired by a client to provide answers (not to ask academic questions) that will help the client to make a “practical” decision that serves the client’s self interest.

The applied anthropologist must understand the client and the purpose they have in mind when they hire the anthropologist as a consultant or adviser. He or she is asked to play the role of an expert who applies ethnographic knowledge to get practical answers, not as the collector of academic data and to prepare a pragmatic report.

The client is expecting the “bullet points” in the executive summary. They will judge the value of the information based on its applicability to their problem and its solution. Even if the anthropologist writes a detailed report, the client will not read it, her staff might. The details only serve later to justify the consultant's conclusions after the fact, especially in the event that the decision is questioned.

Another question often asked, is, “How can academics create theories that speaks to the applied fields and industry?” This is the wrong question. The theory already exists in the broad sweep of behavioral and social sciences.

The real question is “How do you package the proven theory into a user friendly mode that will be meaningful to the client?” The academic community should not be asking, "What theoretical training do we our students need to pursue an applied career?" Rather, they should be asking, "What skills does take to prepare an anthropological trained student to compete in the real world of solving social problems?"

One of the most important skill areas is communications. The academic writes for other academics. The applied anthropologist is a culture broker who write for a non academic audience. They bridge the academic and real world cultures of their particular “people" by learning their language and using it. To bridge this gap and, before they are hired, to teach and prepare students for an applied career, the academic applied anthropologist should have had a real applied experience as an anthropologists.

Finally, when I've been asked the question, I often draw an analogy to the legal profession. There are law school professors who research, write and teach about jurisprudence. There are others who have had experience in private practice and teach students how to practice their craft in the real world. These law professors train their students to apply their legal training to help clients avoid problems; or as trial lawyers to help their clients defend or advocate their interests.

 Applied anthropology lives in this real world. The student applied anthropologist needs the training and support from his/her profession in the proven theory and skills to apply that theory to real problems that enable her to survive and prosper there. This will be good for the student and a real contribution to the discipline.

Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder - an Auto-ethnography

In a recent posting entitled “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” in the Hunting Dynasty Blog, Oliver Payne reminds us of the insights of Kurt Lewin and his field theory. Further, he draws our attention to the implication of Lewin’s theory has had on advertising and marketing. He specifically refers to the perception of US drinking-drivers reported by Charles K Atkin in ‘Mass Communication Effects on Drinking and Driving’ as an example of how Lewin’s theory has become a common principle in today’s advertising and marketing. We don’t hear too much about field theory now-a-days in anthropology.

Payne, however, reminded me of how important Lewin’s theory was for me in understanding the real issues in one of my first research projects as an applied anthropologist. Some years ago I was asked to complete a study of the impact of a proposed change to decriminalize the public inebriation laws in Arizona. I inherited the data from the study, so had no control over the original design but was asked to analyze the data. I had to "create" a design for analyzing totally different data sets. 

The question was, “Would it be more effective (humane) if public drunks were taken to a local alcoholism reception center (LARC) for evaluation and detoxification then to have them arrested and sent to the county jail?”  The original research designed called for the police to record all cases of public drunkenness that they had contact with, the location and the disposition of the case over the trial period. These were only contacts with no personal identification. Meanwhile, the client records at the LARC for cases recorded during the same period were sampled in terms of number of encounters, source of referral, and disposition.

Based on the police data, most referrals made to the LARC came from an area within a two to three mile radius of the center in a city of 90 square miles. And many of these appeared to be repeat offenders. The police saw the experiment as a waste of time and resources. This hypothesis was reflected in the fact that the further away from the LARC, the fewer number of contacts and referrals. Since public drunkenness was no longer to be treated as a crime, enforcement dropped off as a function of the time it took to transport the drunk to the LARC and thereby taking the car out of its patrol zone..

From the LARC data it appeared that referrals came from several sources with the police being only one. Others included friends and family, health and mental health agencies, self referral, and others.

A brief description of the LARC program is in order here. The program consisted of a 3-day residential detoxification, which allowed the "client" to sober up and for the staff to evaluate the clients 'physical and mental condition. At the end of three days, the client was legally allowed to leave. Based on the evaluation results, the staff would provide counseling and referral into the health care system if advisable or desired by the client. The LARC officials felt confident that the program was having an impact. However, they couldn't prove it to the police.

To accommodate the fact that I was looking at apples and orange I decided to use a very basic statistical tool, a frequency distribution table. Taking the number of individuals in the sample, and the number of contacts in the sample, I constructed a simple table classifying individuals into a groups based on their number of contacts with the LARC. And, I constructed a second table classifying the contacts by the number of individuals making up the group. The idea was that the former table represented the modal LARC perspective, the latter the modal police perspective. We found that the data plotted two different Pareto charts. Both the police and the LARC were correct in their initial conclusions about the problem.

The police saw the LARC as a revolving door, every three or more days  they were picking up the same people, along with others. From the LARC perspective, 57% of all 209 clients, recorded for the period, did not return after their first encounter and accounted for only 19% of all the 644 contacts recorded during the period. Meanwhile, 4 individuals or 2% of the clients accounted for 158 or 23% of all the contact.

While the facts demonstrated that the program was having an effect. The perceptions based on experience were quite different. The police saw only the worse cases and saw them repeatedly, while the LARC staff saw the full range of referrals and the successes of decriminalization as a means for the early intervention in most cases.

Several years later, I found myself discovering a similar situation while studying the drinking behavior of the rural elderly in Arizona. We found through a household survey that 6% of the elderly reported a drinking problem in the household, while the average state-wide for the general population was approximately 12%. Meanwhile, the emergency rooms were reporting a 20% rate for elderly admitted for alcohol related problems during the same period.

Lewin’s field theory helps to explain a lot about the partisanship that exists in society and why advertising can be especially powerful in distorting or clarifying the public’s perception of a partisan reality.