Let’s get to the meat of it, am I an anthropologist? (Part 3)

Of course I’m an anthropologist, and I’ve been doing what I do for a decade. I think I’m one of the fortunate people that since leaving graduate school I’ve never taken a job as anything but an anthropologist. The question is am I just an anthropologist and the answer is absolutely not. Frankly in my field we can’t employ people who are just experienced in anthropology, we require more areas of expertise than that.

Cover2.JPGI was lucky; I started out life as a happy-go-lucky computer nerd. I built my first computer in 1976 as a high school sophomore (seen stage right, a Southwest Technical Products Corporation System), due to an article in BYTE magazine. My high school days and evenings were spent hacking into anything with a modem from Florida Power to the School District. Don’t be so shocked. My high school grades were so bad that a bit of hacking sleight of hand was the only way some of us managed to graduate. In fact it wasn’t until 2005 that I purchased my first off-the-shelf computer, one that I didn’t build myself. I have had professional technical training as both an audio and video engineer, flying what was at the time state of the art 24 track recording studios. So when I decided to combine anthropology and technology I was something of a rare bird, I was a social scientist that could talk like an engineer.

So why all the self-serving chatter above? Because while I never intended it in the straggly curving path of my life, all those experiences set me up for what I do right now. If my only experience was, as most of my fellow graduate students had, grade school, high school, college, grad school, I would not be able to do what I do today. I noticed that it was the older grad students in my group that were doing the really interesting projects about homelessness, or migrant workers. It led me to the belief that no one should be allowed to attend graduate school until they reached the age of 30 and showed proficiency in at least one trade. Look, anthropology is about making sense and meaning of an often chaotic world. How much real insight can you expect from a 23 year old whose entire life experience has been the classroom?

Some time ago I wrote a chapter in a book that frankly I’m not proud of these days because the editing was so abysmal. My argument was the then novel idea of the value of multidisciplinary teams. What I’ve learned since then is that even multidisciplinary teams are not all that effective. The idea then (and I also believed this) was that if you put an engineer, designer, researcher, marketer alone in a room together, they would eventually work out the problem. (This theory has also been floated by suggesting an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters with equally dubious results.) In reality what you’ve done is put someone that speaks French, English, Spanish, Mandarin in a room together and are astonished when what comes out of it are bad feelings, paranoia, and pretty bad ideas. What you really need are multidisciplinary people, and that is exactly what we look for in my company: individuals that are skilled in one area and have both the aptitude and interest in two other areas. If someone shows up in our office that has a masters in anthropology, and a masters in business that’s almost a no-brainer. One of the folks here has a graduate degree in philosophy and a grad degree in engineering, and the exciting part is to watch him blend those two things. That’s the core of what’s valuable about someone who’s a multidisciplinary person with a multidisciplinary brain. It’s not enough to have different degrees or interest in different subjects. What makes it very powerful is the ability to blend those different ways of thinking into something more.

I’m one of those people that are making it much harder for people who are just ethnographers or anthropologist to make a living in my neck of the corporate world. I counsel my clients that if someone wants to give you data without insights, or insights without action, then you’re under no obligation to cut the check. At the end of the day insights and action are what my clients need. They are not in the business of anthropology or ethnography. What our clients seek is competitive advantage that arises through a unique understanding of the world that the other companies don’t have.

The question then for those asking if an anthropologist working in industry or the intelligence community are still anthropologists or not is frankly limited and naïve. I would suggest that in order to provide the best professional services and consul requires someone to take on additional expertise than simply anthropology. Over the years I’ve become conversant in business strategy, manufacturing, and technologies ranging from plastic resins to ATM machines. I’ve learned how to offer useful criticism in industrial design sessions, and all of this has taught me the humility to realize there are a lot more ways of getting insight about the world than just anthropology, and how woefully limited that worldview can be.

Most of the people I’ve met that want to be anthropologists are usually people that are lifelong students, the idea of learning something new every day is what excites them. So why is it in graduate school we insist on corralling people into this little tiny box, when there’s an entire world out there of humbling experiences? I was fortunate, I had a degree in anthropology which is gives me the ability to uncover insights for my clients. But it also has given me the opportunity to apprentice myself to experts in the other fields mentioned above. What better place for a life long learner than to be always shown that you still don’t know enough?

So I guess the moral of the story is, the question is not if individuals outside of academia are anthropologists, but are they satisfied with just being an anthropologist and should their clients also be satisfied with that? I don’t think anybody should be. Don’t get caught in the myth, grad school teaches us how to be an anthropologist, and that is valuable. I just think you can aspire to more whether that is in academia, business or the CIA.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.