Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life

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a book review by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners


Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life
Gillian Tett
2021, 304 pp, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster

Join Simon Roberts in conversation with Gillian Tett on June 10—register here!


book cover: Anthro-Vision, How Anthropology can Explain Business & Life, by Gillian TettUlf Hannerz once proposed that “common sense is cultural ‘business as usual’; standard operating procedure, one’s perspective at rest” (127). Gillian Tett’s journalism unsettles perspectives at rest. If there’s one simple message for the general reader in her new book Anthro-Vision it is this: the promise and value of anthropology lies in making visible that which is close to hand but ignored. It offers a means to see the world differently.

There’s also a message for those whose work involves the application of anthropological thinking or ethnography: we should revisit our own assumptions about how we conceive of and communicate our value. The book is a resounding call to arms in a world beset by a ‘tunnel vision’.

What is the basis for Tett’s faith and what’s her message to the faithful?

Russian writer Viktor Schklkovsky suggested that one role of art “is to make the ‘unseen’ properly ‘seen’ and promote ‘defamiliarization’, to see what we normally miss” (223). Tett sees the genius of anthropology in a similar way: it is a cultural lens that challenges our assumptions, giving us new visibility into everything from eating breakfast to complex derivatives. Anthro-Vision is an invitation to a wider audience to adopt the distinctive perspectives of anthropology to make sense of the world. By showcasing the exemplary work of experts (including many EPIC members) who ply their anthropological trade to a wide range of business and social problems, Tett makes a powerful case to readers who are new to this field.

For seasoned practitioners, Anthro-Vision offers language and frameworks that bridge corporate, nonprofit, public and academic research spaces. Tett’s book invites anthropological experts to see our own work as both familiar and strange, examine our own blind spots, and refresh our ideas about the value we create in collaboration with others. Anthro-Vision reminds us that the task of communicating what we do, and the value this brings, is far from complete.

video stills of Gilliant Tett in the media
Tett argues tech stocks are overvalued on Wall Street Week, where she is a regular contributor (left); a Financial Times explainer on ESG—Environmental, Social & Corporate Governance (center); at Davos discussing the evolution of trust since the financial crisis (right).

Tett is the doyenne of public facing anthropology. Over a long career at the Financial Times she has parlayed her training in anthropology into a position at the center of the worlds of finance and journalism. By challenging the taken-for-granted, Tett has been able to see around corners and give voice to spaces characterised by social silence. She consistently credits her anthropological training, at Cambridge and in the field in early 1990s Tajikistan, for this valuable and differentiated perspective.

Tett’s field sites at FT have often been arcane and overlooked areas in high finance. Rightly lauded for spotting the impending cataclysm that unbridled financial innovation would create in 2007/2008, Tett is entertaining and honest in recounting the long period of fieldwork that helped her see what others were missing, and the struggles she initially faced in getting her message across. She’s characteristically generous too in her treatment of other scholars, such as Daniel Beunza, Patricia Ensworth and Karen Ho, who have trodden similar paths to create a clearing in the thickets of Wall Street. This story is more fully told in Tett's book Fool’s Gold (2009), probably the definitive account of the run up to the global financial crisis, but in Anthro-Vision the narrative is one of plugging away at a complex space in which financial and cultural practices were hidden under a veneer of arcane terminology and quasi-deliberate obfuscation. As Tett often reminds the reader, this is really not so different from trying to make sense of Tajik marriage practices. It’s about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

The virtues of patient sense-making and the careful adoption of an insider-outsider perspective are evident. Tett has the good fortune of access to the hallowed gatherings of the world’s business and financial elite, be those convocations at the World Bank or a Swiss mountain village. (Not many anthropologists get asked by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, to recommend ethnographic monographs). Yet her craft is familiar (and familiarly laborious) to those of us who practice it; tireless research, patiently joining the dots in order to see the fuller picture, using an anthropological lens to make sense of what she sees, and carefully and strategically communicating her findings.

And, in the best traditions of engaged anthropology, she speaks truth to power. Her message about the impending dangers of the below-the-waterline financial world were largely denounced when she raised them at Davos in 2007. But she persisted. The rest is, unfortunately, history.

Anthro-Vision is not a memoir, though it has an evident biographical arc. Ulf Hannerz observed that happenstance often plays a major role in how an anthropologist’s lifework unfolds, and this has been true for Tett. She also shares with Hannerz a commitment to multi-sited anthropology, an increasingly vital approach in a world characterised by cultural and informational flows enabled by technology, social media, and the movement of capital and people. The unbounded nature of contemporary cultures, Tett suggests, makes our enterprise more urgent, and calls for inventiveness in how we pursue our work.

Tett frequently draws on her own work, but she is generously ecumenical in featuring a wide group of practitioners across the last century. Many are familiar names in the EPIC community, whose annual conference Tett regularly attends and which, I think, represents a judicious choice of field site! The book contains a necessarily partial roll call of EPIC names and the case studies which have captured Tett’s inquisitive attention.

EPIC Conference presenters Meg Kinney, ken anderson, and Rebekah Park
Among the EPIC research presentations highlighted in Anthro-Vision are Meg Kinney (left) and Hal Phillips, Educating the Educators; ken anderson (center) et al, AI among Us; Rebekah Park (right) et al, Fighting Conspiracy Theories Online at Scale.

Although her intention is not to write a history of the development of anthropology in business, something that would have made Anthro-Vision a more parochial affair, it is possible to see the folds of the discipline’s evolution in business across the pages. Her account represents a grand tour of the key sites, and less well known back alleys, of anthropology in business across the twentieth century: Hawthorne, the worlds of advertising and CPG marketing, Silicon Valley technology firms, the pivotal work of Lucy Suchman and Julian Orr at Xerox PARC and the discipline’s engagement with big data and AI. Along the way there are compelling accounts of ethnographic inquiry at General Motors and anthropologists shaping understanding of the Ebola outbreak. Across the book Tett paints a picture of diverse applications and engagements. There’s a story of growth and maturation here, but it’s not dewy-eyed.

Intel features strongly in her account. However, she takes pains to note that this story has a sting in its tail. Intel has gone from poster child of anthropology in industry, with senior executive sponsorship, hiring sprees and budgets that supported ambitious, long-term exploratory work, to a more fragmented community with more partial influence on the business. This is not to point fingers but to recognise, as she does, that progress can be reversed. Ethnographic work takes time, resources and organisational willingness, and often executive largesse.

Though journalists are (generally) not social scientists and the professions and practices are distinct, there is common ground, and unfortunately common struggle: “The best journalism is done when reporters have space, time, training, and incentives to ask questions like ‘What am I not seeing in these headlines?’…But it is hard enough for us to pose such questions when resources are abundant. It is doubly hard when there are scant resources” (151).

Leaning on Pierre Bourdieu – as she does throughout the book – Tett reminds us that “the most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words, and ask no more than complicitous silence”. That’s a message that fires up the EPIC community. On some level, opportunities for work under the banner of ethnography and anthropology seem to be growing, for example in fields like UX and design research. But advocating for ethnography—for the rigor, time, money, and organizational commitment to do it well – is as vital as ever. Supine resignation in the face of attempts to undermine our value won’t cut it.

Happily, in Gillian Tett we have an advocate who gives us a wealth of examples of impact and success and hope. And there is hope aplenty, for this is a book that makes a compelling case for the value of anthropology in business and far beyond. For those who feel they struggle to articulate their value I have one simple recommendation: buy a copy for yourself, and get one for your boss or client too.

If there’s one refrain in Anthro-Vision it is about the wide applicability and the evolutionary fitness of anthropology. As Tett traverses the work of anthropologists (and those who adopt their tools and theories) across time and a wide range of contexts, she reminds us of the discipline’s distinctiveness and flexibility, and the tenacity of practitioners in uncovering new field sites, phenomena and collaborations. So while the Intel story is dis-spiriting, it’s also worth celebrating. The emergence of ambitious new ventures, such as the founding of a 3a Institute in the School of Cybernetics at ANU led by Intel alumni Genevieve Bell and Alex Zarigoflu, initiatives like Data and Society, and the thriving EPIC community are nothing if not ambitious expressions of a discipline open to rebirth, experimentation and sleeves-rolled-up engagement with the contemporary issues that matter.

In The Silo Effect (2015), Tett warned of the pitfalls of siloed thinking and practice, so it is unsurprising that she uses Anthro-Vision to advocate for what might be called combinational anthropology. Linear, “neat – bounded – models are poor navigation guides in this world; we need lateral – not tunnel – vision” (231). Anthropology, she argues, has a role to play supplementing and interrogating other perspectives and working with other disciplines. As a consequence, “anthropologists need to get more collaborative, ambitious, flexible and imaginative” (234). If they do, they will be able to contribute ever more meaningfully in a world characterised by VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).

So what, exactly, does Tett believe that anthropology and ethnographic practice bring to what John Seely Brown calls a ‘white water world’? She states this so simply and succinctly that it’s worth quoting in full:

  1. We cultivate a mindset of empathy for strangers and value diversity
  2. Listening to someone else’s view, however, “strange,” does not just teach empathy for others; it also makes it easier to see yourself
  3. Embracing this strange-familiar concept enables us to see blind spots in others and ourselves (xiii and xiv)

Academic purists might think this recitation too simple or even simplistic. This is not, of course, an academic book. That said, there is a message for purists: those who insist on rejecting Tett’s formula on the basis of simplicity are defaulting to the long running disciplinary divide between what Paul Stirling characterised as ‘Mandarins and Missionaries’. With her belief that anthropology has a message for everyone – if it can articulate what that is and to what effect it can be applied – Tett is without doubt a missionary. There’s a hint of exasperation with the Mandarin tendency to take refuge in abstraction, obfuscation or disciplinary “boundary maintenance”. Often we’re simply not our own best advocates. If, as I think Tett believes, we tend to hide our light under a bushel, it’s time for this to stop.

In that respect Tett’s message comes through loud and clear. Face out. Embrace the plentiful challenges confronting the world. Collaborate widely. Show how our unique perspective can make a difference. That means doing more of the same and doing some things differently. It requires further deepening our appetite for collaboration, and adding our perspective to other disciplines’ often dominant viewpoints.

That the problems exist for us to engage with is clear. If we can help societies see what they tend to ignore there is, as she puts it herself, a reason for hope.

References

anderson, ken, Maria Bezaitis, Carl DiSalvo & Susan Faulkner. 2019. "A.I. Among Us: Agency in a World of Cameras and Recognition Systems," 2019 EPIC Proceedings, pp 38–64, https://www.epicpeople.org/ai-among-us-agency-cameras-recognition-systems.

Hannerz, U. 1992. Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. Columbia University Press.

Mills, D. 2011. Have We Ever Taught Anthropology? A Hidden History of Disciplinary Pedagogy. Teaching Anthropology, Vol. 1 No. 1, DOI: https://doi.org/10.22582/ta.v1i1.252

Kinney, Meg & Hal Phillips. 2019. "Educating the Educators: An Entire Franchise Preschool System Embraces Ethnographic Insights to Improve Brand Experience and Drive Growth," 2019 EPIC Proceedings, pp 500–512, https://www.epicpeople.org/educating-educators-franchise-preschool-system-embraces-ethnographic-insights.

Park, Rebekah, David Zax & Beth Goldberg. 2020. "Fighting Conspiracy Theories Online at Scale," 2020 EPIC Proceedings, https://www.epicpeople.org/fighting-conspiracy-theories-online-scale.

Tett, G. 2009. Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe. Hachette.

Tett, G. 2015. The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. Simon and Schuster.

Tett, G. 2021. Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life. Random House Business.

Simon Roberts is Co-founder and Partner at Stripe Partners and President of the EPIC Board. His twenty-year career as a business anthropologist has included founding the UK’s first dedicated ethnographic research company, running an innovation lab at Intel, and being ethnographer-in-residence at technology think tank, iSociety. Simon’s work has been covered by Bloomberg, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC Radio 4 and Quartz. His book on embodied knowledge, The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them, was published by Bonnier in 2020. Simon holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Edinburgh. Read Simon's EPIC articles on human and artificial intelligence, ethnography and embodied strategy, and the value of visceral knowledge.

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