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:
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:
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 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.”
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.
· 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…