Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Anthropology in the Financial Times

Office culture by Gillian Tett

"Is it valid for anthropologists to use their skills to serve giant corporations and governments? And can a discipline better known for examining the culture of exotic tribes really have anything relevant to say about the modern world of companies?"

An interesting introduction to issues faced by anthropologists working in government and industry today - from the perspective of those who do it. Combining a brief history of the discipline with its increasing presence in the public and private sectors, the article asks what happens when academic research is no longer a valid pursuit in and of itself.

I was a bit put off by the author's dismissive tone when discussing the objections or concerns of other anthropologists, but it does seem that critique sometimes comes off as moral righteousness and I've yet to see anyone react well to that. Leaving aside the obvious observations about editorial style and audience demographics, just a couple of quick thoughts:

Simon Roberts : "As a discipline, anthropology suffers from being far too introspective... it has to get involved in the outside world if it is to have an impact."

I don't think anthropology is too introspective, but I do think that change happens when we engage the world. It seems absurd to say there are places where anthropologists shouldn't work, but things we should and should not do is another matter.

Ken Anderson : "When I was at grad school my supervisor did not want me to do anything applied - that was not considered the right track. The key point to realise is that a consumer can always say no to anything that a corporation comes up with, so what we are doing is not like colonialism."

I don't think that the consumer can always say no, and I do think that corporate anthropology shares certain traits with colonialism. That doesn't make consumers sheep, or make anthropologists colonial.

Anyway, worth a read. It's supportive of anthropological research in technology design and development. It sees the value. It's looking in the right direction. The key is to not stop asking questions.

(Thanks Simon!)

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