Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life, by Gillian Tett

Jeremy MacClancy is broadly convinced by the argument that his discipline is finally coming in to its own

July 8, 2021
Stock traders illustrating review of ‘Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life’ By Gillian Tett
Source: Getty

The newness of business anthropology is one of its oldest tales. Attempts to apply its insights to the world of commerce started with the professionalisation of anthropology in the mid 19th century. It’s a cyclical story of false dawns and premature sunsets. But maybe, just maybe, in the past two decades an updated version of the subdiscipline has begun to establish itself and even prosper.

The key reason for this long-awaited development appears to be the failures of globalisation and all their commercial consequences. The rise of an integrated global market, enabled by IT, cheap transportation and the spread of neoliberal policies, was meant to bring super-fast flows of liquid capital, an explosion of trade and greater prosperity for more people. Instead it led to the banking crisis of 2008, the decline of almost all but the uber-rich and the accelerating destruction of our planet. Was it time for an anthropology to save the world from itself?

Gillian Tett did her Cambridge PhD on marriage rituals in Soviet Tajikistan, then moved sideways to the Financial Times. She made her name primarily by spotting the imminence of the banking crisis. She saw emerging credit markets, with their complex products and arcane vocabularies, as dangerously similar to inward-looking tribal enclaves. An ever-increasing share of international commerce was dedicated to very high-risk trades. But traders were not talking across markets, while the prospects of profits blinded their overseers. We know, and have paid for the outcome.

Since then, Tett has banged the anthropology drum hard in financial circles and gained deserved renown in the process. In her latest book, Anthro-Vision, she presents a systematic view of how anthropology can illuminate business practice for companies’ gain and rescue the discipline from corralling itself within the narrowing margins of academia.

Her five most general points might come close to platitudes, but they are as devastating as they are apparently simple. They are obvious fundamentals, usually hiding in front of our eyes.

First, we are all products of our environments, and these are as much cultural as ecological. Just because we are educated to be rational thinkers doesn’t mean our cognition is culture free. As I stress to my first-year students, we the Western-trained all come from the most individualised society ever known on Earth – we are the oddballs. A few take this on board.

Second, culture is all pervasive. It is not a factor to be used as a single item in a commercial equation. And cultures are not the same. Humans are a remarkably diverse lot.

Third, if diversity is universal, it’s the job of business anthropologists to help clients immerse themselves in the minds and lives of others, to learn to empathise. In other words, don’t think like the designer of your product, think like its consumers.

Fourth, don’t just train the lens on others; turn it back on yourself. Once you’ve mastered making the strange familiar by coming to understand others, make the familiar strange. In other words, take a step back and think: “If I were an anthropologist from Uranus, what might I see?”

Fifth, listen to the social silences. For each subculture, which are the assumptions so basic they are unstated? Give voice to the unvoiced, then it can be critically examined.

These points are easy to state, much harder to implement. Tett gives example after example of clients who have to be taught to listen. She tells us of the financiers who did not think it perilous to fill the high-status front office with trading desks and dedicate the distanced back office to executing trades. Among the prestigious front-room boys, the clubbable urge for an elite sociability was so strong it both masked and fuelled the risks they ran.

Every technology is a social technology; every programme has to accommodate to social process. Methodical IT designers couldn’t at first believe their products weren’t user-friendly to all, as though “user” were an unproblematic, universal kind of category. Engineer repairmen, tracked by anthropologists, knew every machine was meant to come out of the factory perfect, but developed its own biography through particular use and misuse. Moreover, the repair manual, however detailed, was not exhaustive. At lunchtime, therefore, Silicon Valley engineers met up in cheap eateries to chow and chew the cud. These meals acted as collective exercises in problem-solving, keeping their own informal expanded repair manuals up to date.

We all strive to make sense of the world. The trouble is, our models of life are not cameras of our activity but generators of it. Anthropologists who hung out among the higher echelons of the Bank of England spotted that though these professionals knew the predictive theories of the moment, they melded them with their own trained but still personal assessments, which they then developed in meetings. Their form of economics was more narrative than mathematical.

Marketeers are boastful of the benefits of IT; algorithmic analysis of big data generates common consumer profiles. But, Tett exclaims, we are more than our accumulated individual “likes”; much of our behaviour is shaped by our group identities. We can’t harvest critical insights exclusively from computer analysis. Correlation does not provide causation. The algorithm might give us the “who”; you need anthropology to give us the “why”.

The book paints a picture of a rosy future of anthropologists offering further insights about and for business. Tett’s examples of research are vivid, surprising and imaginative; their revelations are informative. Even if I weren’t an anthropologist already, I’d be convinced by her case. A few caveats, however, stubbornly remain.

A good anthropology PhD is trained to be unremittingly critical; the world is their limit, the open development of knowledge their ultimate aim. But a business anthropologist is beholden to a company, run on a commercial logic. The results they generate may be proprietary and used exclusively to maximise profits. In contrast, although governments may today push anthropologists to do funded work with consequences outside ivory towers, the findings are usually available to all. No wonder many anthropologists, though a declining number, are uneasy at rubbing shoulders with money men.

Anthropological skills can be very powerful. But their potential is often best realised when working with other professionals. Some of the best applied work today is carried out in interdisciplinary teams. The danger is perpetuating the outdated image of the solitary “anthropologist as hero”, “the intellectual in the bush”, transposed to a Western setting.

In her parade of success stories, Tett offers us an upbeat tale with nothing on the failures of business anthropology, the merely mediocre or uninsightful studies. One colleague told me of a project in which he played an unacknowledged role; the final report was so puzzling, the commissioning company paid him to translate it into something they could use. I was once shown the semiotic analysis in another report; it was so coded, I was as foxed as the client.

Tett’s book is lots of fun and could even create a few business converts to the anthropological cause. At this rate, my closing question has to be, how come she’s only got four honorary degrees and the President’s Medal of the British Academy?

Jeremy MacClancy is professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. He is also the editor of Exotic No More: Anthropology for the Contemporary World (2nd edition, 2019).


Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life
By Gillian Tett
Random House Business, 304pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781847942876
Published 8 June 2021


The author

Gillian Tett, editor-at-large of the Financial Times, was born in Essex but spent her early years in Australia before returning to the UK – something she suspects “may have fuelled my interest in cultural difference – when I later applied to study anthropology at Cambridge, I was told in my interview that many of the undergraduate students had moved across a border when they were young or were ethnically mixed”.

Cambridge proved “a wonderful place” for Tett, partly because “the tutorial system meant that a lot of the teaching was done in small groups with the presumption that you were responsible for carving out your own intellectual path”. Her doctorate, which drew on fieldwork in Tajikistan, also allowed her “a very high level of freedom and responsibility”.

One of key things she took from her anthropological training, Tett realised much later, was a devotion to “studying the parts of the world that almost no one talks about or which we ignore because they seem dull, taboo, boring, geeky, irrelevant or simply embarrassing – ie, ‘social silences’. Most of the really important things that affect society are hidden in plain sight, concealed not by any deliberate James Bond-style ‘plot’, but simply ignored through social silences.” Examples include “the rise of ad tech in politics before 2016, the threat of pandemics and the state of AI today”.

Adopting the anthropologist’s “insider-outsider perspective”, Tett goes on, also enables us to spot “the cultural patterns and practices we inherit that seem so familiar that we never notice them. If politicians embraced this idea, they would be more willing to learn lessons from elsewhere (say, what Asia did with Covid-19 and masks), and more willing to look at societal problems we are not talking about (climate change, until recently, or pensions today)…and be better placed to fight political polarisation.”

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Is anthropology on the money?

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