I've done a couple of talks recently about my work as an anthropologist since finishing my PhD. Both have essentially been 'career path' type talks in which some brow-beaten PhD students, progressing through what can often be the drudgery of "writing up", get to hear the somewhat exuberant ramblings of someone who declare, at the outset that: "a. He likes what he does; b. He's okay at what he does and c. He gets paid for it. He's got a dream job".
In early May I spoke at STAR – Scottish Training for Anthropological Research. It's run by Jonathan Spencer, my PhD supervisor at the University of Edinburgh. It a great thing. All of Scotland's anthropology PhD students get to go to nice hotel for a week – this year on Kinloch Rannoch – to be met by exceeding erudite and world renowned academic anthropologists (Michael Jackson – Harvard; John Borneman – Princeton etc etc ), people who work in academic publishing and people like me who have taken a slightly different career turn. I was joined this year by a contemporary from my post-grad days who is now working at in The Scottish Government as a research officer. The days (alas, I was there for a short day and short night) are filled with walks up mountains, inspiring fireside lectures and debates and the odd PowerPoint grenade from passing 'commercial anthropologists'. As a post-STAR email from the organiser put – reviewing a batch of photographs of the week, Marx was right: "[Under communism] I may hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic". Marx The German Ideology
The event is a wonderful idea – not exactly TED – but a great break from the drudgery of that black cloud that can be the PhD.
A few weeks later, I flew to the University of Cork to present a similar sort of talk to Arts, Humanities and Social Science post-graduates. Wanting to escape PowerPoint, and being a little disorganised I left myself the time it takes to drink a coffee and fly to Cork from Dublin to prepare my talk. Looking for a device to hang a few disparate points off I asked myself what it is people like me in companies like mine actually do. Once I'd scribbled a quick list of words, and arranged the first letters of each of these words in a circle as if trying to solve an anagram, I realised I could spell the word CRITIC. Job done (?).
Consult – talk up and down the organisation to understand what is known, what is not, and what your research needs to do and under what conditions, organisationally.
Research – yes, the fun bit is that you still get to do fieldwork or, failing that commission smart and fun people to do it for you and enjoy the vicarious pleasure of other's fieldwork,
Tell Stories – telling stories, or rather flexing your story for different audiences and changing it as your understanding of how each telling is received is vital. Making ethnographic work in organisations stick requires one to remember that despite the email and the PowerPoint organisations are still dominated by 'oral tradition'. Good stories travel, and inform and influence.
Inform and Influence – this is the coin of the realm for anthropologists in large organisations. Being able to demonstrate the ways in which your research makes an impact is vital. The way you tell stories is vital so consult at the outset so that you understand your environment (and how it thinks or thinks it thinks).
Contextualise – make sense of your work within the organisation but also within the spirit and material conditions in which it is operating. Know your policy, economic and political frameworks. Know your material well and know who might know that which you might not know yourself.
Critic? Well, all of this needs to be done in a spirit of critical engagement and with the perspective of a critic – someone who is willing to take on established ways of thinking, to reframe the question and challenge dominant narratives about how things work. The key is not to be the critic throwing stones for throwing stones sake. Remember – you're often in a glass house, or a house guest. Be critical but be constructive. Deconstruct but don't pull apart or dismantle. (At least not initially).