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A New Way to See in Business and Life

Gillian Tett

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eBook - ePub


A New Way to See in Business and Life

Gillian Tett

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About This Book

While today's business world is dominated by technology and data analysis, award-winning financial journalist and anthropology PhD Gillian Tett advocates thinking like an anthropologist to better understand consumer behavior, markets, and organizations to address some of society's most urgent challenges. Amid severe digital disruption, economic upheaval, and political flux, how can we make sense of the world? Leaders today typically look for answers in economic models, Big Data, or artificial intelligence platforms. Gillian Tett points to anthropology—the study of human culture. Anthropologists learn to get inside the minds of other people, helping them not only to understand other cultures but also to appraise their own environment with fresh perspective as an insider-outsider, gaining lateral vision.Today, anthropologists are more likely to study Amazon warehouses than remote Amazon tribes; they have done research into institutions and companies such as General Motors, Nestlé, Intel, and more, shedding light on practical questions such as how internet users really define themselves; why corporate projects fail; why bank traders miscalculate losses; how companies sell products like pet food and pensions; why pandemic policies succeed (or not). Anthropology makes the familiar seem unfamiliar and vice versa, giving us badly needed three-dimensional perspective in a world where many executives are plagued by tunnel vision, especially in fields like finance and technology."Fascinating and surprising" (Fareed Zararia, CNN), Anthro-Vision offers a revolutionary new way for understanding the behavior of organizations, individuals, and markets in today's ever-evolving world.

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The gist: When Donald Trump decried Haiti and African countries as “shitholes” in 2018, the comment sparked widespread criticism. Rightly so. But his offensive language revealed an uncomfortable truth that haunts us all: humans instinctively shy away from and scorn cultures that seem strange. One lesson that anthropology offers, however, is that it pays to embrace “strange” and culture shock. Anthropology has developed a suite of tools to do this, called participant observation (or “ethnography”). But these tools do not always need to be used in an immersive academic sense: the principles can be borrowed in business and policy contexts too, and should be embraced by any investor, financier, executive, and policy maker (or citizen) who hopes to thrive and survive in a globalized world.


“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.”
—Margaret Mead1
I stood on the threshold of a mud-brick house on a sunny autumn day. I could see a stunning vista behind the building: a steep rocky gorge, studded with golden foliage and green meadows, ascending to snowy peaks and a blue sky. It resembled the wild Afghan mountain scenes that I had occasionally seen on television screens in the late 1970s in Britain, when a Soviet invasion put Afghanistan in the news. But I was actually standing a hundred miles farther north, in Soviet Tajikistan in 1990, in a village I refer to as “Obi-Safed” in the “Kalon” Valley.I
A-salaam! Chi khel shumo? Naghz-e? Tinj-e? Soz-e? Khub-e?” a middle-aged woman standing with me shouted out in Tajik. She was named Aziza Karimova, and worked as an academic in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe; she had traveled with me in a packed minibus on a bumpy road for three hours to Obi-Safed, to introduce me to the residents. She wore clothing typical of the area: tunic and trousers, designed with a distinctive bright pattern known as atlas, and a headscarf. I wore it too, but my headscarf kept slipping down, since I did not know how to tie it properly.
A crowd appeared from behind the mud walls: the women wore the same atlas tunics and headscarves as I did; the men were sporting skull caps, shirts, and trousers. A babble of conversation exploded that I did not understand. They waved me into the house. As I crossed the threshold, I noticed that the inside walls were painted half-blue and half-white. Why? I wondered. A towering pile of embroidered, brightly colored cushions stood against the wall. What’s that for? A television played loud Tajik music. More shouting erupted. The crowd threw cushions on the floor to act as “seats” and placed a cloth on the ground as a “table,” then covered this with orange-and-white teapots, bowls, piles of sweets, and flat golden discs of bread; they heaped the latter with peculiar care, I noted.
A young woman materialized, poured green tea into a white bowl, tipped it back into the orange pot, and poured it in and out again three times. Why? Children scampered around the room. A baby screeched from underneath a rug. What is a baby doing under a rug? Then a formidable old woman with long white plaits shouted at me. Who is she? I felt as if I was on a fairground ride: the sights and sounds swirled in such a disorientating way I could hardly process them.
“What’s happening?” I asked Karimova. I spoke to her in Russian, which I knew well; my knowledge of Tajik was more basic.
“They are asking who you are and what you are doing,” she replied.
I wondered what she might say. There was a short answer to this question: I had arrived in Tajikistan in 1990—in what would later turn out to be the closing year of the Soviet Union, but nobody guessed that then—to do a PhD in anthropology, under an inaugural exchange program between Cambridge University in England and Dushanbe. Karimova had taken me to the Kalon Valley so I could conduct a study of marriage practices, which I hoped would answer a key question: Was there a “clash” between Islam and Communism in Tajikistan? But there was a much longer potential explanation too to my presence there. What had driven me into anthropology was a passionate desire to explore the world, and question of what it meant to be human. My training had taught me that one way to do this was to immerse myself in the lives of others, to understand a different viewpoint, with “ethnography.” It had sounded like a neat—and noble—concept when I sat in a distant Cambridge University library. Not so, hunched on cushions in that blue-and-white room. Is this completely mad?
I asked Karimova what she had told the villagers. “I said you are doing research with me and asked them to help you. They said they would.”
I took a deep breath and smiled at the crowd. “A-salaam!” (“Hello!”) I said. Then I pointed to myself and said in Russian, “Ya studyentka” (“I am a student”), then in Tajik: “Taleban-am.”II
I later realized I had used the wrong word in Russian, which caused confusion. But at the time, I was just relieved to see smiles. I caught the eye of the young dark-haired woman who had been pouring the tea; she had a thin, intelligent face, with two small children clinging to her atlas tunic. She pointed to herself. “I-D-I-G-U-L,” she said, speaking slowly and loudly, enunciating each letter, as if addressing a deaf idiot. One of the little girls copied her: “M-I-T-C-H-I-G-O-N-A.” She pointed to her sister—“G-A-M-J-I-N-A”—and then waved at the rug that was emitting a baby’s screech: “Z-E-B-I.” Then she pointed to objects in the room: “Mesa!” (“Table!”), “Choi!” (“Tea!”), “Non!” (“Bread!”), “Dastarkhan!” (the word for the floor cloth that acted as a table).III I gratefully mimicked her, like a game. If I act like a kid maybe I can learn how to do this! I thought.
It was an instinct, as much as anything else. But it also illustrates a key point of this book, and one lesson of anthro-vision: the value of sometimes gazing on the world like a child. We live in an age when so many of the intellectual tools we use encourage us to solve problems in a pre-directed, top-down, and bounded manner. The method of scientific, empirical inquiry that emerged in seventeenth-century Europe champions the principle of observation but typically starts by defining the issue to be studied or problem to be solved, and then develops ways to test any conclusion (ideally, in a repeatable manner). Anthropology, however, takes a different tack. It also starts with observation. But instead of embracing rigid prior judgments about what is important or normal, or how topics should be subdivided, it tries to listen and learn with almost childlike wonder. This does not mean that anthropologists only use open-ended observation; they also frame what they see with theory and hunt for patterns. They sometimes use empirical methods too. But they aim to begin with an open mind and broad lens. This approach can be irritating for scientists, who typically seek data that can be tested and/or replicated on a large scale.2 Anthropology is about interpretation and sense-making; it typically looks at the micro-level and tries to draw big conclusions. But since humans are not like chemicals in a test tube, or even data in an AI program, this deep, open-ended observation and interpretation can be valuable; particularly if we keep an open mind about what we might find.IV
It is often hard in practice to live up to those ideals. I know: I had arrived in Obi-Safed flouting them myself. My research plan had been drawn up in Cambridge with a set of ideas and prejudices about Islam and Communism that were popular among Western policy circles, and which turned out to be wrong. But the whole point of anthropology is to make yourself open to colliding with the unexpected, widening your lens, and learning to rethink what you know. Which begs a question: what first inspired this cult of compulsive curiosity?

The word “anthropology” hails from the Greek anthropos, meaning “the study of man.” That is no accident. Arguably the first “anthropologist” in history who described culture in a systemic way was the Greek writer Herodotus, who wrote an account of the Greco-Persian Wars in the fifth century BC that details the ethnic backgrounds of different armies and their merits as fighters.3 Subsequently the Roman historian Tacitus described the traits of Celtic and Germanic peoples on the margins of the Roman Empire; Pliny the Elder, another Roman writer, authored a Natural History describing races like a society of dog-headed people who reportedly practiced cannibalism; the Persian polymath Abu Rayhan al-Biruni detailed ethnic diversity in the tenth century; the sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne penned an essay, “Of Cannibals,” which described three Tupinamba Indians from Brazil, who were brought to Europe by early booty hunters. Early anthropologists were often obsessed with cannibals, since they provided a counterpoint to define “civilization” against.
However, it was not until the nineteenth century that the idea of studying “culture”—and “others”—emerged as a proper intellectual discipline, born from the collision of several historical developments. The eighteenth century had been a time of revolution in Europe, when there was “a sustained effort to find the intellectual grounds for democratic overthrow of an Old Regime on its last legs,” by studying “what everyone had in common, their human nature,” as Keith Hart, an anthropologist, observes.4 Then in the nineteenth century Charles Darwin developed the idea of biological evolution, which prompted interest in how humans had developed over time in not just a physical sense, but the social dimension too. The other impetus was imperialism. The Victorian Empire contained a plethora of cultures that seemed alien to the British rulers, and those elites needed information on how to conquer, tax, control, trade with, or convert these “strange” groups. So did the French, Spanish, and Dutch elites, and the emerging American elite, who were confronting native populations.
In 1863 a motley collection of adventurers and financiers created a “learned society”—a type of debating club popular in Victorian England—to study human nature. They christened it the “Cannibal Club” and hung a skeleton in a window of their headquarters, a white-stucco building at 4 St. Martins Place London, near Trafalgar Square. Christian missionaries next door begged them to remove the bones, but they refused.5 The group’s leadership included men such as British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, a former employee of the East India Company. Others were linked to the London Stock Exchange. By the 1860s Victorian England was in the grip of the type of mania later profiled by Anthony Trollope in his novel The Way We Live Now.6 Investors were thus scrambling to buy railways bonds and other infrastructure projects in the “colonies” and needed information to assess risk. “The same individuals who puffed explorations of Africa or the promotion of mines and railways in Central or Latin America also puffed anthropology,” notes the historian Marc Flandreau.7 However, Burton and his ilk also had a distinctive philosophy: they believed that science showed that Europeans and Americans were biologically, mentally, and socially superior to others. “The savage is morally and mentally an unfit instrument for the spread of civilization except when, like the higher mammalia, he is reduced to a state of slavery,” wrote August Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, a British army colony and Cannibal Club member.8
These self-styled anthropologists backed away from this racist stance—a touch—after the American Civil War, when the Cannibal Club merged with another group of self-styled “ethnologists” run by Quakers (who had been campaigning against slavery) to create the Royal Anthropological Society. But the Victorian academics remained wedded to an evolutionary frame. So too in America: in 1877 Lewis Henry Morgan, a businessman and part-time scholar from Rochester, New York, published Ancient Society, which argued that “all societies run through the same stages in their evolution… from simpler forms of organization—families, brotherhoods, tribes—to modern, complex nation states.”9 One of Morgan’s acolytes, John Wesley Powell—a former American soldier who’d fought in the Civil War on the Union side—persuaded the government in Washington to create a “Bureau of Ethnology” to map native American peoples. “There are stages of human culture,” Powell declared in a speech in 1886. “The age of savagery is the age of stone. The age of barbarism is the age of clay. The age of civilization is the age of iron.” It was considered so evident that American Indians, African-Americans, and Inuit were “primitive” that their artifacts were displayed next to animals in New York’s Museum of Natural History (where they remained, largely unquestioned, until the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement).V
In the twentieth century an intellectual revolution took place, however, that not only laid the foundations of modern anthropology, but also underpins crucial twenty-first-century debates around civic values in company boardrooms, parliaments, schools, media, and the courts (even though few participants in these arenas know anything about anthropology). It started in the unlikely location of Baffin Island in Newfoundland, home to the Inuit. In the early 1880s an intense young German academic named Franz Boas earned a degree in natural sciences from Kiel University in Germany and then sailed to the Arctic. He hoped to study how animals interacted with snow and ice. But when bad weather hit, he was stranded in a whaling community for months, surrounded by the local Inuit population. Trapped and bored, he passed the time by learning the local language and collecting Inuit stories. That revealed something he did not expect: the Inuit were not just a collection of physical molecules, but humans who had feelings, ideas, beliefs, and passions—just like him. “I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages,’ ” he wrote in a letter from Newfoundland to an Austrian-American woman named Marie, who would later become his wife. “The more I see of their customs, I find that we really have no right to look down upon them contemptuously… since we ‘highly educated’ people are relatively much worse.”10
Boas subsequently went to America, where he published a book in 1911 called The Mind of Primitive Man. This argued that the only reason why Americans and Europeans felt superior to other cultures was that “we participate in this civilization” and “it has been controlling all our actions since the time of our birth.”11 Other cultures could be equally valuable and worthy, if only we opened our eyes, he declared. In the New York intellectual circles of the day—at the start of the twentieth century—this was akin to a Copernican revolution of the social sciences.12 Boas’s ideas were considered so heretical that he struggled to find a proper academic job. He eventually wriggled into Columbia University, where he attracted like-minded students, such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gregory Bateson. From the 1920s on these academics fanned out across the world, to places ranging from Samoa to the American pueblos, to study far-flung cultures, aping Boas’s intellectual frame.
A similar intellectual revolution also started on the other side of the Atlantic. One pioneer was Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, an English intellectual who decided in the early twentieth century that he “wanted to do something to reform the world—to get rid of poverty and war,” and traveled to the Andaman Islands and Australia to see how the customs and rituals there made their societies work. Another, even more influential figure, was a Polish immigrant named Bronisław Malinowski, who enrolle...

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