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Anthropology!

University of Toronto Anthropology folder

Anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations; and the anthropologist may become aware of it within himself before ever he has been taught it.
(Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1961)

It is a notable curiosity that many anthropologists who made foundational contributions to the discipline were originally trained outside of it. Boas was a psychologist and geographer, Malinowski an economist, Frazer studied Classics, Lévi-Strauss philosophy and law (with a view to becoming a high school teacher). Lévi-Strauss’ famous quote above suggests that it is a calling of sorts, a calling one might follow regardless of what one has been taught to date.

I’m delighted to report that I have been recommended for admission to the Master of Arts in Anthropology program at the University of Toronto, starting in September 2014.1 I will be pursuing the degree part-time. This will allow me to continue my consulting work at the same time.

I’m interested in anthropology for two connected reasons. The first is as a personal intellectual pursuit—a continuation of previous academic work, work which I always felt at home in. The second is an awareness I’ve had for a number of years of anthropology’s growing promise outside of academia. This is nothing new: for two or three decades, forward-looking private-sector organizations have employed anthropologists to perform ethnographic research to better understand their customers, and their customers’ needs and desires. We have seen this primarily in the worlds of design and information technology,2 where research methods based on anthropological fieldwork are regularly employed to produce such insights. But I think that anthropology’s promise outside academia remains largely unexplored, and that these rather utilitarian applications to date raise various ethical questions.3

Most of the consulting work I do nowadays is aimed at understanding and acting upon highly complex situations. Often, my clients don’t have a very good handle on what their problem is, precisely—they just know they have one. Complexity in organizations is on the rise. The vocabulary of management—of numeric measurement, performance management, organizational development, change management, etc.—is mostly not up to the task of developing nuanced insights into complex situations. Business ‘methodologies’ more often than not turn out to be something the manager has done (or seen) before, somewhere else. When these kinds of approaches (‘best practices’) turn out to be non-transferable between situations which at the surface seem so similar, disappointment sets in and change loses momentum or stops altogether.

One of the key features of anthropology’s main method of engagement—ethnographic fieldwork—is that it is reconfigured for each research site or assemblage4 to account for the specifics of the situation and research interest. It does, however, adhere to certain key principles regardless of context, such as the importance of engaging non-central informants, and offers a variety of defenses against the kinds of challenges researchers encounter, such as deception. In general, and as a matter of course, ethnography now makes its method transparent and reflects on its shortcomings—something that most management writing (to its detriment) never does.

Ultimately, my interests will most likely focus on an area called ‘organizational anthropology,’ although I am keenly and broadly interested in the huge variety of knowledge cultural anthropology produces. I am keen to explore further what connections can be established, and I was interested to note that Anthropology at the University of Toronto does not at present have collaborative programs with the Rotman School of Management, one of North America’s most renowned business schools. I wonder what opportunities may lie ahead.

And of course I’m also honoured to have been accepted into Canada’s top-ranked university (“#20 in the world” according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, as my welcome package proudly notes), a place whose late 19th/early 20th century architectural charm I have so far mostly admired from afar. Reflecting on how this mid-career return to academia will be different to previous times in higher education, I think what’s changed most notably for me is that today, I am completely certain about why I am doing this. I have known for years that despite my moderate success in the world of business, I am not cut out to pursue an executive MBA, which would have been the ‘obvious’ choice. This, on the other hand, is exactly right.

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Below is the full text of my Statement of Research Interest, which I submitted as part of my application.

Statement of Research Interest

I am interested in exploring the ethics of applying ethnography to present-day situations in order to better understand them and influence change. My career is in information technology and management consulting. In my work, I am often struck by how difficult it is to analyze highly complex situations using the typical linear analytical vocabulary of the management or business worlds. Many complex situations call out for positive transformation (for example: global warming and environmental policy; organizational problems caused by, and inherent in, global capitalism; dysfunction and lack of individual agency in government organizations, etc.), but the analytical tools available in these situations seem to be limited and ineffective more often than not. Worse, acting on premature or incomplete assumptions about complex situations often actually exacerbates them.

I am aiming to apply ethnography as a “dialogical encounter” (Westbrook 2008:41), to orchestrate multi-sited, open-ended conversations, to focus on non-central figures and to observe carefully—not only to understand and articulate an assemblage but to open up the possibility of acting on the articulated knowledge in such a way as to encourage transformation. The ethnographer’s status as an outsider with limited authority is a key factor, affording the possibility of gathering and expressing insights that those inside the situation cannot.

I first encountered certain key texts of cultural anthropology more than 20 years ago during my undergraduate studies, but the importance of cultural anthropology to my own intellectual endeavours has only revealed itself much more recently. Historically, its broad ambitions and integrative approach make it the first truly multi-disciplinary field of inquiry. Its methodologies are designed to cast a wide ‘net,’ encompassing culture, society, relationships and beliefs as broadly as possible. The fact that research approach and methods are recombined for each project (Westbrook:73) in a unique configuration make ethnographic fieldwork structurally similar to many aspects of the consulting work I have carried out. I am drawn to cultural anthropology’s offer of a comprehensive way of attempting to gain an understanding of the significance of things we observe, to capture, articulate and express it.

Anthropology’s journey—its emergence from ethnology and inherent historic complicity in the colonial subjugation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to today’s ethical thrust to explore and assert the fundamental humanity of its subjects while acknowledging and celebrating the specificity of their lived experience—positions it (perhaps uniquely among the social sciences) as sympathetic and open to (creating) change.

At the same time, I am keenly aware that any application of anthropological methodologies to real-world situations in order to effect change is open to criticism. In the present-day context, such utilitarian  applications of ethnography in particular have begun to play a role in certain aspects of the creation of desires, as part of business processes culminating in the development of more desirable consumer products and services. Private (and even public) sector organizations have learned that ‘customer observation’ and ‘home visits’ can result in outcomes that minimize problems of positioning and adoption. It is reasonable to feel skeptical about adding to or supporting the goals of global capitalism in this way, particularly in light of cultural anthropology’s important role in articulating the impact of global capitalism in the first place. However, I believe that non-conflicted delineations of this nature are fundamentally impossible given the nature of the discipline’s position as part of the institution of the university and the anthropologist’s role as an outsider (whose outsider status is often determined by belonging to a privileged culture in one way or another). I am curious about exploring these ethical dynamics more fully as part of my academic trajectory in the program.

From a practical perspective, I have a keen interest in acquiring a more thorough academic background in ethnographic fieldwork and qualitative research in general. While my academic experience to date (for details, please see overleaf) has exposed me to significant aspects of critical theory and equipped me to analyze and interpret texts as cultural artifacts, my work experience in the private sector often highlights my methodological ‘gaps’ for the kind of work I am increasingly called upon to perform. I would like to deepen my practice in gaining access to research subjects, building rapport and become more routinely aware of perspective, position and bias.

I am drawn to ethnography in part because a specific and practical engagement with research subjects is required for each research project—one of my reservations about my previous graduate studies in comparative literature (literary theory) was the lack of scope for engaging the ‘real world.’ I have come to appreciate that valuable, unique and possibly transformative insights do not emerge from theory alone. Instead, the act of looking and listening closely, of attempting an objective or equitable perspective, and the work of seeing the patterns and articulating the resulting insights thoroughly are what interest me now.

Reference

Westbrook, David A.

2008 Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


  1. I should clarify that this is a program in cultural and social anthropology, which is my primary interest. Many North American universities offer the classic ‘four fields’ approach, which also comprises archaeology, linguistic anthropology and physical/biological anthropology. 

  2. I wonder why this is. My theory is that anthropologists do not naturally feel ‘at home’ in the worlds of business or government, and that they seek out non-academic employment situations that provide similarities to their academic environment: in design, it may be the proximity to the world of art or the relative ‘freedom’ of ideation; in information technology, it is research-driven companies such as IBM and Microsoft that employ the largest numbers of anthropologists, often creating separate quasi-academic settings such as Microsoft Research or IBM Research, environments that look and feel more like a university department than a corporate office—albeit a very well funded university department. 

  3. At a variety of levels, including: Should a discipline that made such an important contribution to our understanding of the worldwide impact of global capitalism willingly also make a contribution to the expansion of capitalism? Is helping companies understand consumers so that they can make more desirable smartphones a legitimate thing to do? Conversely, what are the moral obligations for those in the academic ‘ivory tower’ to employ their knowledge towards making change in a world that so clearly calls out for it? 

  4. A term used now that ethnographic work can no longer reasonably be assumed to be single-sited anymore. By way of illustration, fieldwork about investment bankers investigates a particular ‘slice’ of the present and may well range across a number of different banking offices, possibly in different cities or countries, all of which share the unique ‘culture’ of investment banking. In contrast, traditional fieldwork typically focuses on a particular location limited by geography or other more specific constraints, such as the population of a village. 

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