Monthly Archives: April 2008

Eating garbage

My flat-mate Hannibal is an avid ‘skralder’. That’s Danish for dumpster diver. So much so that a group of media students made a short film about Hannibal and his friends who go dumpster diving late at night. Though I didn’t partake in the hunting and gathering depicting in the film, I did help cooking the meal which resulted from it, since it took place in our commune. There’s even a glimpse of me near the very end of the film. The food was delicious, by the way.

One of the reasons for dumpster diving is to raise awareness about the surplus of food in our society. To do that, Hannibal and his friends have put up a web site offering tips on how to gather your own food for free. Similar information is available in English, as well.

Though these Danes don’t draw much ideology into their actions, they do sympathize with American dumpster divers who have termed their lifestyle as “Freegan.” As one anonymous freegan puts it in the freegan manifesto Why Freegan, “when you “vote with your dollars”, consumerism always wins, capitalism always wins”, so the best way to make a stand against consumerism and capitalism is to stop consuming. And if that means eating the garbage, so be it.

Black Book of Neo-liberalism

I just finished reading Naomi Klein‘s latest book, The Shock Doctrine. Klein is a celebrated critic of multi-national corporatism and neo-liberal economic policies, and the Shock Doctrine reads like a black book of neo-liberalism similar to the Black Book of Communism.

The Black Book of Communism sought to document the history of repressions in Communist states, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and man-made famines that the book argues resulted from communist policies. Similarly, the Shock Doctrine argues that similar political repression was necessary to implement the neo-liberal economic policies which came to dominate the global market in the past 30 years. Klein spends most of the book documenting this claim with a thorough history of the origins of the global free market and its close links to crises or shocks, which create a state of emergency necessary to implement unpopular economic reforms. The main argument of the book is summed up in this clever short film by Jonas CuarĂ³n:

Klein argues that the ideology of neo-liberalism, much lauded in economic policies in the 1980s and 1990s, bears responsibility for these crimes committed on its behalf – just as Marxist-Leninist ideology has been held accountable for the crimes of communism. This is the part that I find especially interesting, as it seeks to connect massive political and economic repression with the libertarian free market ideology expounded by Milton Friedman:

Unfortunately, Klein doesn’t talk very much about the details of Friedman’s ideology, which continues to hold such sway over so many economists and political ideologues. As John Gray notes in his review of the book in the Guardian:

But [Klein] says remarkably little about the illusions by which neo-liberal ideologues were themselves blinded. Milton Friedman and his disciples believed a western-style free market would spring up spontaneously in post-communist Russia. They were left gawping when central planning was followed by the criminalised free-for-all of the 90s, and were unprepared for the rise of Putin’s resource-based state capitalism. These ideologues were not the sinister, Dr Strangelove-like figures of the anti-capitalist imagination. They were comically deluded bien-pensants, who promoted their Utopian schemes with messianic fervour and have been left stranded by history, as the radiant future they confidently predicted has failed to arrive.

Seen in this light, Friedman’s neo-liberal ideology with its unfaltering belief in the economic rationality and self-interest of the individual as the driving force of democracy, personal freedom and economic growth does appear Utopian: Wealth and influence did not trickle down from the elite to the masses. Perhaps it would have done so if everybody acted in the same self-serving way that Friedman suggests, since that would force some sort of balance of interests, but probably not even that: Since the wealthy and the influential have proven very apt at maintaining their positions without giving up their privileges.

As a new movement of economists have argued, neo-liberal economics are autistic, since it is built on a close-minded, self-absorbed vision of economics as a perfect science based on economic rationality, which could be modelled mathematically. Like physics, which is founded on a set of laws, so should economics be founded on laws of the economic rationality and self-interest of the individual.

But this perfect, rational Homo Economicus doesn’t exist. Being free to choose doesn’t mean that you actually make the rational choices from which you would benefit the most – perhaps because they’re unethical, unreasonable or uncertain. Certainly, it is rational to save the environment to ensure the future of the human race, but what if corporate and political leaders find it more relevant to secure their own short-term economical and political success? It would certainly be in their own best interest, but would it make sense in the long run?

The failure of the neo-liberal ideology lies in its presumption that all people make rational, macro-economic and ethical decisions. This presumption may work well enough on an individual basis to legitimatize individual decisions and actions, but it fails when applied to masses of people.

And that is what the Shock Doctrine documents: When individuals are given a ideological carte blance to be self-serving, those in a position to take advantage of the system will serve themselves well, at the ethical, economic and political long-term cost of everybody else who aren’t as familiar with the workings of the system.

In this way, economic freedom advocated by neo-liberal ideology doesn’t breed political freedom, personal responsibility, and democracy as Friedman claims. Rather, it breeds and legitimatizes greed, repression and cronyism that borders the irrational. Thus, the fundamental question to ask of neo-liberal ideology is:

If people don’t make rational choices, is it rational to assume that they do?

Anthropology of business

Last Wednesday, I went to a discussion seminar on Business Anthropology arranged by the Danish Association of Anthropologists. With Business Anthropology, the organizers actually meant the anthropology of business – as in the ethnographic study of corporate culture and leadership, which became clear as the two presenting researchers gave their talks to initiate the debate.

The two were Jakob Krause-Jensen, assistant professor at the Danish Pedagogical University, and Karen Lisa Salamon, until recently an associate professor at the Danish Design School – a position she quit at the beginning of 2008 as a protest of the terms on which she was expected to do research. More about that later.

Both researchers are anthropologists and did their Ph.D fieldwork in corporate environments. Krause-Jensen among workers at Bang & Olufsen studying how culture concepts are used in management practices; Salamon among leading designers and design managers studying new age tendencies in management. And these studies proved to be their point of departure to discuss “How is anthropology in business different from the typical Human Resources work that is now an integral part of any corporate organization?

In his talk, Krause-Jensen sought to answer that question by first comparing the differences between the two disciplines, before presenting “an idiosyncratic canon of the anthropological profession.” Firstly, he pointed out that what he and Salamon had done was anthropology in organisations rather than organizational anthropology. As he sees it, all anthropology is in some way the study of how people organize themselves, so the phrase organizational anthropology is merely a tautology.

The main difference, Krause-Jensen argued, between the Human Resources approach and the Anthropological approach, is the differing end goals of each discipline, and the questions they ask to get there. Salamon likened the differnece to that between a pharmacist and a biochemist. One is an instrumentalist, the other a scientist.
Human Resources ask: “How can we make the system more efficient?” A good example of this approach is Edgar Schein‘s idea of organizational culture, which was a big hit in 1980s management theories. Schein defines culture thusly:

The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

As Krause-Jensen argued, this definition of culture draws upon the old structural functionalist theories of anthropology where culture is seen as a normative consensus through which the organizational functions of a group appear. This is the instrumentalist approach, or, as Krause-Jensen puts it, “the colonial administrator approach” where only the functions of culture are relevant for study. “That’s what we’re up against”, Krause-Jensen remarked.

The anthropological approach, on the other hand, seeks to answer the ever-widening question “why do people do what they do?” And it is the manner in which anthropologists go about answering that question which fundamentally differs from the HR approach. And that was the real core of the discussion: What is anthropological quality? And in which can we as anthropologists use it to set ourselves apart from other practitioners?

To get the discussion rolling, Krause-Jensen presented their own home-rolled canon consisting of 9 tenets of anthropological quality:

1. Descriptive involvement
What Clifford Geertz calls “Being there” – not just observing the field but taking the time and effort to sense the field through smell, touch and taste. To “offer an impression of the people you’ve studied.” To convey the field with thick description.

2. Analytical distance and perspective
Use the anthropological “theories and notions which offer distance and perspective to the field.” When having left the field, it is necessary to use a theoretical perspective to gain distance to the field. Krause-Jensen made the analogy to the stereogram, where it is possible to see new depths and images in an image. Similarly, the anthropologist should seek to see the new in the familiar through the general theories of the discipline.

3. Wonder
It is essential that the anthropologist takes wonder as a point of departure when in the field. This is often expressed in the way anthropologists ask ‘questions of curiosity’ (goal: Understanding) rather than ‘questions of evaluation’ (goal: find solutions to already defined problems) often asked by HR researchers.

4. Contextualization
It is central to analyze the difference between between what people say, and what they do, as the relations and connections between the two. A central challenge in this is to contextualize this both thematically and regionally as needed. Salamon gave one example of this from her fieldwork among design managers and designers where she sought to compare the values which the two groups consider important for designers. Design managers considered responsibility and efficiency to be vital, whereas designers thought that freedom and the ability to do the unexpected was the essence of design. Her analysis of the context of this say/do gap was central to her dissertation.

5. Empirical particularity
Anthropologists focus on offering perspectives rather than generalizations. Krause-Jensen gave an example of one of his students studying Danish ergo-therapists. She was planning to travel across Denmark, spending two days in each of three different cities to study lots of different therapists in order to be able to say something general about all Danish ergo-therapists. Krause-Jensen suggested that rather than spending her time in many different cities, getting to know lots of therapists, that she would stay where she was and study the local therapists, delving into their lives for a longer period of time. Thus offering her a deeper perspective to better understand what it means to be an ergo-therapist. And though it is not generally applicable, the deeper perspective may reveal notions and practices which may also prove useful to other therapists in other cities.

6. Reflexivity = ‘objectivity’
As anthropologists are their own tools for collecting data, all the data is subjective to some degree. Being conscious of your position as anthropologist and your relationship to your informants and communicating that subjectivity in your analysis is as close to any form of objectivity possible within the discipline. It is vital to embrace that fact.

7. Focus on power and difference
Anthropology has a long tradition for paying attention to those whose voices are heard rather than others’ – and how. Analyzing hierarchies and power relations is a fundamental part of the discipline.

8. Focus on language
The anthropologist needs to be well aware of the power of language, and reflect upon how he uses his terms in the field. The distinction between emic and etic terms are another vital consideration.

9. Good language: Well written analysis
The ethnographic text isn’t art, but it should be close. Presenting the personal experiences in the field and shaping them into a coherent analysis based on anthropological theory and insight is a textual challenge that should not be taken lightly.

As Krause-Jensen summed up his presentation, the slide on the screen behind displayed a quote by Marcel Proust:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.

That, he argued, is the essence of anthropology: The Aha! moment. The epiphanic moment where you have exotized yourself from the familiar and see it anew. Where you are able to wonder about the things that we usually take for granted: the understanding, the notions of our everyday lives. This allows us to perceive what happens as part of a certain cosmology. Thus, Krause-Jensen concluded, anthropology is not a hammer to be wielded. Rather, it is a pair of glasses: A new perspective, which allows us to describe and analyze the world anew – with wonder.

Following this impassioned plea for anthropological quality, Karen Lisa Salamon discussed how anthropology is actually used in businesses today. The managers hiring anthropologists expect “user studies”, which typically consists of two parts:

One is the the hammer approach to anthropology, where the qualitative methods of the discipline is seen as function to be applied to achieve certain results. It is pure method and often very little reflection.

The other is what she called “helicopter ethnography” – a sort of ethnographic administration where the anthropologist designs and plans qualitative projects for others to undertake, only to do random quality checking and analysis of the material of others. This is typcially the case in big organizations with short deadlines where much of the core ethnographic work is done by students rather than the actual ethnographers, who in this way miss the actual experience in the field and the sense of “being there”.

Neither of these approaches allow for much the anthropological quality stated above. And in Salamon’s view, this ‘hammer approach’ is now entering academia as well. This is what has infuriated Salamon so as to quit her job:

We need only to do ethnographic work if we are allowed to say: This field is in motion: This is a social reality which never stops moving. Nothing stays fixed and certain. (…) The world isn’t made of functionality and economic rationality. We are facing a new, stronger, even more reductionistic positivism. We need to oppose it.

Salamon argued quite determinedly that this new positivism is inspired by the corporate environment and its focus on function and efficiency. “We need to be allowed to study that which isn’t functional,” she proclaimed, offering the example of a tea cup: A central function of the tea cup is the handle – that is the obvious, planned way through which people are supposed to interact with the cup. But some people bold the cup rather than the handle. If we only study the function of the cup as it was intended to be, through questions of evaluation rather than questions of curiosity, we won’t see that. “We need to remain true to the fact that anthropology is a complex science.”

Salamon underlined that this was not to say that all anthropological analyses have to live up to all 9 tenets of the canon. And she fully recognized the challenge of reducing anthropological complexity to useful information in a business context. But she argued that it is vital to stay true to the anthropological discipline: “We don’t have to show all the difficult intermediate steps, but it is still important to make them. Besides, it is also the part that we enjoy as anthropologists.”

She concluded that it is vital that the proper anthropology graduates take these tenets to heart. Especially since there is no anthropological Hippocratic oath to ensure this anthropological quality, which means that any fool can call himself anthropologist – and many people in the industry do without having any knowledge of anthropological theory or quality.

A brief but intense discussion followed, with my recent co-worker Jens Pedersen noting that in the whole discussion, capitalism had been sitting like the proverbial elephant in the corner, and that basically ethnographers working in business have to come to terms with the fact that creating ethnographic knowledge for clients is a different, slightly more reductionist proposition. He then raised the obvious criticism that the whole presentation was basically integrating anthropology inwards while policing its boundaries outwards, and that though the reductionist tendency shouldn’t be taken lightly, he couldn’t see how presenting such lofty ideals would help much.

With that, the time ran out and the seminar ended with confused clouds of discussion dissipating slowly within the auditorium. But a a number of interesting questions remained:

  • Where are the boundaries between doing anthropology of business, doing anthropology for business and doing anthropology with business? This was discussed at a recent design anthropological network meeting, but that’s another discussion…
  • How do corporate managers managing ethnographers and the ethnographers themselves perceive the central qualities of their work? What differences are there in their perception of ethnographic work?
  • How can anthropologists rethink their discipline as a practice which they no longer define on their own? How can anthropologists retain the core qualities of the discipline without simply retreating into an ivory tower of arrogant complacency?
  • I think a great part of these problems stem from the fact that anthropologists aren’t used to collaborating actively with other professions. Indeed, if anthropologists see any sort of compromise with other professions as a loss of quality, then there it doesn’t seem like there is much room for positive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Exactly that has been the main challenge of emerging discipline of design anthropology: Learning how to make necessary compromises with our ideals in order to have an impact, while making the positive pedagogical effort to change the quantitative positivist tendency of modern management.

    Maybe it is time consider alternatives to the current ideal of the anthropologist as the lone stranger writing his clever analyses for the meager audience of other anthropologists. And to rethink anthropology as a profession, which not only describes and analyzes the problems of the world, but which also can collaborate with others to effect real change. But that, too, is another discussion…

    A Nice Cup of Tea

    Having begun working in corporate settings, I’ve found coffee to be a central social tool. Coffee is the beverage of choice in the corporate environment. Not just because it helps tired workers stay awake and busy, also because it’s so quick and easy: You just need to turn the machine on, and it’ll keep the coffee hot and drinkable all day. You can refill your cup and go about your busy work. It’s easy to offer a guest or a co-worker a cup of coffee since it just involves filling another cup along with your own. In this way, you can help co-workers even more since they don’t even have to get up from their work. It’s an easy way to have shared social moment, however short, in the office space.

    I’ve noticed this mostly because I don’t drink coffee.

    Being half-British, I drink tea. Preferably strong black tea with a bit of milk, as is the English way. But tea is difficult. You need to make it when you want to drink it, otherwise it’ll turn bitter, stale, and lukewarm. Making tea takes time, and since time is in short supply in the corporate setting, it is rarely considered an option. You always end rummaging through the remaining tea-bags in a half-empty box and invariably have to choose between some horrible fruit tea or green tea. Tea is not appreciated as a worthy alternative: It’s slow, messy and inefficient.

    But really, that just reaffirms my staunch position as a tea drinker. I take pleasure in taking my time with my tea. So imagine my joy when I came across this short piece by George Orwell on how to make a Nice Cup of Tea. It sums up my sentiments exactly.

    Making an impact

    Last Friday, I finished a 2 month freelance project for Copenhagen Living Lab, a small Danish innovation consulting firm. The project was an ethnographic exploration and mapping of the business development and production practices of Danish computer game companies in order to identify central challenges shared by such companies and suggest ways in which such issues could be solved.

    This has been my first proper experience with business ethnography, and I have learned a lot. Just presenting the findings to the customer (a business development consulting and services firm) was a very different experience. Preparing the presentation felt very much like preparing for another exam. But the process had been very different since the sole result of the project was the presentation and the slides. All the data I had gathered and processed, and all the analysis that I had developed (both on my own and with the good people at Copenhagen Living Lab), all of it was to be transformed into an hour’s worth of presentation and power point slides.

    Indeed, the analysis had better fit the format, or else it wouldn’t really get across. It was very much a question of learning the language spoken among consultants. The language of bullet points, of findings, of matrices and “Next Steps”, of challenges and possibilities. It was a matter of learning that presenting ethnography in a business context really revolves around understanding how your findings might be interesting to your customer, and not (just) to your informants, since these are rarely the same.

    And generally, your customer wants to receive their data filtered, chewed, handled and prepared so that the only tricky complexities present are those which they need to make decisions on. It is a matter of preparing your analysis in such a way to allow them to decide what they want to do next. It’s difficult to get the hang of, but I received good help from the other consultants.

    And then, upon having presented my findings for the customers, something I hadn’t really expected happened: Not only did the customers find the presentation relevant in relation to their work, but they couldn’t wait to start discussing how these findings might impact the way they did their work. Unlike the other presentations and exams that I’ve done before, which always marked the end point of a given project, perhaps with a good grade and a pat on the back, presenting this project seemed more like the starting point than the end point: “Now we know all these relevant details, what is the next step? Where do we want to go from here?”

    Nobody had ever asked me that at an exam. The gathering of information had always been an exercise for its own sake. But here I had delivered the information and the analysis that these people needed, and which allowed them to go further in their own work. I felt like I had actually made an impact. That I’ve helped clarify the challenges and opportunities present for Danish computer game developers. For a lot of creative people who are passionate about their craft, and hopefully, my work will help our customer to be able to support these creative people to allow them to succeed.

    And it brought me to the realization that this prolonged feeling of achievement, of building something useful, something which allows others to build on top of it, is a feeling that is very rare in academia. And I expect that that is why so many students feel unsatisfied with their work, because they write something which very few people will bother to read or use or build upon.

    Up until last Friday, I had toyed with the idea of applying for a Ph.D. To delve deep into some topic for its own sake. But now, I have lost some of that drive. For now, I want to work with problems that the people involved with them perceive to be important themselves, and which will help them make decisions relevant to their work and lives. And hopefully, that way I can help make an impact..