AnthroVision; How Anthropology can Explain Business and Life by Gillian Tett (2022) Assessment 9 out of 10

I enjoyed & learnt from Anthrovision.

 It explains anthropology and its relevance. You listen and watch, until you go, “Oh like that”.  The oddity of western views is highlighted. The WEIRD, western, educated, individualistic, rich & democratic approach, is the exception not the rule. Oddly we think of ourselves based on what we do, not how we are related to others.

 The importance of ritual is stressed, the value of becoming “embodied” in somebody else’s world to gain empathy, the importance of what people are not talking about.

Anthropology is less a vocation & more a mind-set, but this means anthropologists haven’t pushed themselves forward & have had less influence than economists, historians & psychologists.  If this is right, Gillian Tett is an unusual anthropologist. She is a senior journalist with the FT and seems to have had a stellar career.

  • She was present at the breakup of the Soviet Union from the unusual position of Tajikistan where she was researching marriage. Tajik culture was compartmentalised comprising a public Communist male space and a private Moslem female space, reflecting the French sociologist, Bourdieu’s, habitus, mental maps. This alleviated any clash between Islam & Communism. So Tajikistan was not one of the first to rebel against the Soviet Union but the last. The Tajik civil war was not between Marxists & Islamists. Both factions were Muslims operating with the same public/private split, the opposition from one group of valleys, government from another.
  • She apparently forecast the 2007/8 financial collapse.
  • She has now set up the FT’s “Moral Money” page to cover ESG/stakeholder/ sustainability thinking in companies.  She suggests it is at a similar stage to derivatives before the 2007 crash E(nvironmental), S(ocial) & G(overnance) policies she describes as a bit like medieval sales of indulgencies to offset sins. She notes that in 2019 the CEOs of the 200 largest US companies signed up to a stakeholder approach to business.  That they did it, generally without board agreement, suggests it wasn’t being taken seriously. However that 2/3rds were doing this not because of government regulations but because of pressure of customers, staff & investors and the appointment of CSOs (Chief Sustainable Officers) suggests it was.
  • She has an interesting insight on Trump & Trumpism. Trump invested in World Wrestling Entertainment. He transposed the performance in wrestling to the political arena. The educated took him (& Brexit) literally, but not seriously, their supporters seriously, but not literally. (Yes, but didn’t some of them take Trump literally as well as seriously, in storming the House of Congress.
  • She met Cambridge Analytics, ahead of Trump’s election. Data is from dare Latin to give. Cambridge Analytics in exchange for services received data, which it then provided to the Trump campaign leading to social media manipulation for political ends. Gift giving is endemic in societies, creating obligations to give, receive & reciprocate, and debt obligations. Barter generally falls within the scope of gift giving. Economic exchange was recognised before barter was analysed as economic exchange without money (which it isn’t.) Tett suggests the apparent fall in the increase in productivity in the West was because of omitting barter transactions covering social media etc. This also explains the sky high values of some tech companies. The Beck principle states that without excess prices paid by consumers, there is no monopoly, but how when consumers aren’t paying, as they don’t for Facebook etc? She argues that regulation needs to be expanded to cover such barter.
  • She notes that in Germany consumers would accept the use of AI in devices for elderly home care, but not if the data was shared outside the house. The researchers assumed this was a folk memory of past government surveillance. In the US there was less focus on this, but more about whether consumers had agency over a machine. In the US using footage from residential cameras in face recognition was accepted while government camera footage was not. She describes that as a mystery to researchers & police. Really? In China facial recognition software is everywhere & accepted.  The overwhelming presumption is that the government exists to keep people safe.  There was so little trust in bureaucrats, inter alia after the Cultural Revolution, that machines were preferred as they weren’t capricious or demanded bribes. There was so little recognition of the individual that having face recognition provided individualism.

I felt it disappointing that she seems to accept the mask wearing orthodoxy. I hope she revises this view. Despite this and a couple of other quibbles, an impressive book by an impressive woman.

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