Many people see anthropology as relatively unimportant. I mean who really cares about marriage rituals in some far flung place that you’re never going to get to. However, in her book Anthrovision, Tett explains how the lateral thinking practiced in anthropology can shed light on such vital topics as the world economy, the digital landscape, the sustainability movement, choosing a school, and dealing with a pandemic. (Contains spoilers.)
For those of you who don’t already know, anthropology is the study of society and culture. And its key skill is to approach groups as if a stranger looking at something for the first time, and apply a little lateral thinking rather than the more usual tunnel vision.
Tett makes this point time and again throughout the book in a range of different circumstances. And Tett argues that it’s the west that’s WEIRD, where WEIRD stands for Western, educated, individualistic, rich & democratic.
Here’s what Tett has to say about the global economy. Through the eyes of an anthropologist, economists have their own creation myth symbols. And the things that people are familiar with, they cease to see, which is why anthropologists can see what’s hidden in plain sight.
Economists and bankers may have been aware of the formulas that allowed banks to “safely” allow so many people to take out a mortgage. But no matter how good the math, the formula was not infallible and was subject to the pressures of society and culture. Economists don’t capture the value of ideas or other intangible data. Individual and group psychology matters.
The author warned people about the financial crisis she saw coming thanks to her lateral thinking when she worked for the Financial Times.
Tett also describes the digital landscape and how it has now become the digital Wild West, and “the only place where teenagers could explore, wander, congregate with friends and acquaintances in large groups—or do what teenagers had always done in the real world.”
She also talks about the famous Donald Trump / Cambridge Analytica campaign scandal, and how we are surrounded by all manner of exchanges that do not carry monetary tags. Cambridge Analytica bartered with Facebook users for their data, and used this data to target voters and promote Donald Trump’s team, and help him get elected to President.
In addition to these topics, Tett also talks about using anthropology in business, with specific examples, generation differences in choosing schools, the emergence of the sustainability movement, currently going strong, and the nature of any conflict between Muslim and Communist culture.
The author makes many valid points in her book, which are well set out and summarized in the final chapter. But my main take away was that “we must look at our own world with the lens of an outsider to see ourselves clearly”, without the dirt of bias on the lens. It’s hard
not to agree with the author when she says “Big Data alone cannot explain the world. There is a desperate need to combine social and data science” and “the world would benefit if there were more anthropologists who can blend their perspectives with other disciplines such as computing, medicine, finance, law, and much else.”
Tett makes her points very well, and explains things clearly, and the concluding chapter was particularly eloquent.
The only thing missing from the book, in my opinion was that it doesn’t do enough to explain exactly how to think like an Anthropologist. However, it has come to my attention that there is a book on this out written by someone else, which I will be consequently adding to my to-be-read list.