The great tragedy of anthropology: an interview with Gillian Tett

by Koray Caliskan December 7, 2022

How is it that anthropology, a discipline that has developed the most advanced tools of research and analysis, has become an academic field now dismissed all too easily in the public sphere? Anthropologists and sociologist have presented accurate theories and analyses of prices, markets, economic change, and organizational behavior. They flagged the impending subprime mortgage crises of 2008 as early as 2007. Yet, even when it comes to the topic of “culture,” other social scientists (such as economists) are listened to more often. What went wrong? And how to fix this problem?

One of the most influential anthropologists of our times is not really known as anthropologist. Serving as the Chair of the Editorial Board and Editor-at-Large of the Financial Times in the US, Gillian Tett is an award-winning journalist who writes about economies, finance, and business from an anthropologically informed perspective. Defending her dissertation titled “Ambiguous Alliances: Marriage and Identity in a Muslim Village in Soviet Tajikstan” in Cultural Anthropology at Cambridge University in 1996, Tett has been among the first academics to show that Islam’s flexibility allows for it to coexist with the communist and atheist public order of Soviets. This argument is about cultural economy at its heart. Muslim family ties centered around the household were instrumental in addressing economic problems, thus making the Soviet economic order look and work better on the ground. This was no economic contradiction but a cultural division of labor.

Tett did not pursue an academic job after graduation; instead, she turned to journalism when a part-time gig led to full-time employment with the Financial Times. She has also become a pioneer in financial journalism; not because of number-crunching but, she suggest, thanks instead to her training in anthropology. She was one of the first to flag the 2008 collapse of markets as early as 2007, and she did so in public, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. She was not taken too seriously until the world of formal economies crumbled in front of everyone’s eyes. After the flop, it was another story…

On behalf of the Journal of Cultural Economy, I met Tett in New York City to discuss her latest book, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life. The book proposes to use “anthropological intelligence” to make sense of economies, business, and markets. She thinks that the fascination with numbers and the resulting tunnel vision makes economic actors short-sighted. They fail to employ a lateral vision that renders visible the very context that allows for the creation of economies in the first place. She calls this “anthro-vision.” Over sparkling water in a midtown café, she explained the story of her book and what she tried to achieve with it.


Can you tell us a bit about the story of the book? Where did the idea come from?
The book has been in my mind ever since I joined the Financial Times. When I joined the FT with a PhD in anthropology in 1993, my education was not seen as an advantage at all. It was seen as quite an irrelevant subject then. In those days, the subjects that created credibility were the hard sciences. Yet, I have always been fascinated by the fact that, if you do anthropology, it will put a chip in your brain that helps you see better in the world. I have always looked at finance and economy slightly differently than my colleagues, contextualizing them in the cultural context. When the financial crisis happened in 2008, that was the moment when everybody in finance was forced to recognize that money is not just about numbers. It is about incentives and human behavior that take shape in a culturally specific context. Such a growing recognition of the importance of culture in the financial and business world made people feel the need to look at this thing called culture. There has been a growing confidence in looking at the world from the dynamic perspective of culture. That’s how I began to imagine this book for a general audience. And I wrote it to try to explain the key elements of anthropology and how they can be used in making sense of economies and businesses around us.

How do you explain the absence of “anthro-vision” in mainstream circles? How come people did not use it before, if it was so useful in the first place?
Partly because everyone is so busy and streamlined, and we had been worshiping efficiency at all costs. And the idea that you have to be very focused, efficient, and accountable all the time… We don’t build into most companies a system that invites people to think about the cultural context. Secondly, people who sit at the top of organizations do so because of their hyper-focus, and they become increasingly closeted in that corner of administration, surrounded by people like themselves. Ironically, having so many eyes like theirs around them can make them blind. If you are successful and being promoted repeatedly, you don’t feel the need to go out and look at the context of your business. You keep doing what made you successful at any cost. The third issue is really about education. All approaches in the twentieth century worshipped scientific approaches that can only be described in numbers. Anthropology presents things in words not easy to be used by these managers…

Margaret Mead changed how we understood the world. Sociological and anthropological approaches used to be more relevant half a century ago. But now anthropologists and sociologists are not heard. Why?
Well, partly because there are many other louder and noisier disciplines out there, such as computer science, economics, big data, law… Those are the parts of academia that shout louder. In particular, economics is very loud and noisy, and they have access to a lot of resources. They can control a lot of networks, too. Part of the problem is that anthropology and sociology are not heard in that noise. Secondly, many people who were trained in business and finance in the late twentieth century thought that anthropology was kind of soft and irrelevant in the modern world. When they think about Margaret Mead, they think about Polynesia or Papua New Guinea, or they think that anthropologists have nothing to do with the modern world as they see it. Thirdly, anthropologists are facing difficulty in getting their message out. Anthropologists tend to be very anti-establishment—quite maverick—and they are often suspicious of power, money, and capitalism. They are right to be suspicious. But because of this, it’s quite hard for them to work inside capitalist organizations. Fourthly, it’s also very hard for companies and governments to know how to reach out to anthropologists as well. Finally, to do anthropology and ethnography, you have to be very good to take yourself out of the picture and humbly observe other people. Having the humility to tamp down your own preconceptions and listen to others is key in our discipline. This is what anthropological fieldwork does to you. Anthropologists are very good in hiding in the bushes and observing others. They are quite tolerant about other peoples’ ideas. That’s wonderful, unless you need to go out and shout and hustle for your ideas. Because if you have to go out, shout, and hustle for your ideas, you need to take the stage and use the microphone and be very confident about your ideas. And most anthropologists are not like this.

Can you tell us a little bit about shouting? Shouting is an analogy; economists do not shout but use effective concepts. What kind of concepts do you propose anthropologists and sociologists could design and use to be heard better?
Anthropologists need to recognize that there is a receptive audience to listen to perspectives about culture, so they need to say upfront that they are talking about cultural issues that other approaches ignore. They need to find ways to show what they are looking at, which is also relevant to the modern world. Anthropologists do not talk only about tribes in the jungle. I always tell people how anthropology is relevant in both the Amazon warehouse and the Amazon jungle. It’s really important for anthropologists to explain how anthropology is relevant in understanding and addressing contemporary issues around us. They have to be talking in short and sharp, easy-to-understand phrases with no jargon. They have to be communicating well with stories in front of audiences. The second thing I’d like to mention is the Domino Theory of Communication. I don’t mean dominoes falling onto each other, but a domino game in which you have a plastic piece with matching parts. The parts that are next to each other should have the same sign on them. Yet, the other part can be completely different. As an anthropologist, if you’re communicating with people who do not know much about anthropology, you can’t come in and start talking about the world in your own vocabulary only. Anthropologists have to start from a connection point between them and others who listen to them or read their writing. So, what I quite often do is that I start off by talking to people, like businesspeople, from what they assume anthropology does. I say things such as: “OK, you think that anthropology is all about the Amazon jungle.” Then I talk about my first research in anthropology in a traditional setting, followed by telling them how I also studied contemporary investment banking…

One of my favorite sentences in the book is the following: “An investment bank meeting is like a Tajik wedding.”
Yes, exactly. One can play around with stereotypes and turn them on their head and try to be very clever with that. One of the other problems that anthropology faces is that anthropologists are trained to look at life in shades of gray. Because life is not black-and-white anyway that’s a very accurate way of looking at life. It’s also very hard to communicate this complexity quickly. Yet, on the other hand, we live in a culture where everyone communicates in black-and-white. Anthropologists very rarely explain to governments and businesses the cost of not considering culture. If you don’t look at the culture, you’re going to misunderstand many things. If you do look at the culture, you might get more inspiration and innovation in your practice.

In the book, you write that economies are necessarily cultural. What is really cultural about economies?
The root of the word “credit” comes from Latin – it’s credere. It means to believe. You can’t have any kind of financial system, or any system of exchange without an element of trust. So, looking at trust, which is a social and cultural encounter, is critical in understanding how an economy works. Understanding how one creates social cohesion in an economy requires us to look at trust between people. Adam Smith’s first important book, The Wealth of Nations, was on the power of market competition that drives innovation. It was also a justification of free markets. I believe that competition does drive innovation. However, competition doesn’t work without a shared framework of trust. His second book, however, was precisely about this shared framework itself: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. That’s, again, very cultural. I think the other issue is that Jane Austen can talk about home economics, meaning not cooking, but managing a household, and oikonomía in Greek means stewardship or management. If this is so, why should we only look at numbers instead of looking at the totality of the economy? The last thing I want to say is that, ironically, the explosion of the digital age or the ways in which we began to value things in new ways makes it more important for us to incorporate culture in our understanding of the economy. Think about barter. Now, it is a very central economic relationship. Barter is happening between data and exchange of services. It is very difficult to capture this relationship of barter if you do not incorporate an understanding of culture. Because our understanding of value is culturally contextualized, we cannot understand how things and services are valued in digital economies without incorporating culture in our analysis. Money is also a cultural thing. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin showed that financial exchanges work in a variety of ways that can only be understood with reference to culture.

Can you talk about your book and “anthro-vision” anthropologically?
I think about the great tragedy of anthropology often. I passionately believe that the ideas of anthropology are very valuable. I passionately also believe that anyone who has studied anthropology will receive a chip in his or her mind to understand and see the world better. People should know what anthropologists do to figure out in the world. What anthropologists do is immensely valuable. It is a tragedy that these ideas do not get out there, to the mainstream. And the other tragedy of anthropology is that, despite the fact that anthropologists examine and analyze tribes, they quite often stay only in their own tribe and are very reluctant to reach out to other academics, other tribes in other disciplines. This is not true for all anthropologists, of course, and there are also fantastic anthropologists who reach out to others. Yet, this is often not the case for a great majority of anthropologists.

Is your book making it more possible for capitalists to use anthropology to make more money? Or does it help people who try to understand and make economies use anthropology better so that our economies get better?
I know that a lot of people may be seeing me as a sell-out because in their mind I work for capitalists. They may be thinking that I may be sensationalizing anthropology. Unfortunately, there’s a trade-off. You can’t communicate what you really think about the world without some kind of a compromise with it.

Koray Caliskan is an economic sociologist teaching at Parsons, The New School. He is an associate editor of Journal of Cultural Economy. His most recent book, “Data Money: Inside Cryptocurrencies, Their Communities, Markets, and Blockchains” is coming out from Columbia University in July 2023 and drew on his fieldwork among global crypto communities and in global crypto markets. This research was selected as a Winner of the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year in Social Sciences and Humanities by the Falling Walls Foundation, Berlin. Currently, on an ESRC grant, he is carrying out research with Donald MacKenzie on the economic sociology of online advertisements.

Gillian Tett is the chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large of the Financial Times, US. She writes weekly columns, covering a range of economic, financial, political and social issues and co-founded Moral Money, the FT sustainability newsletter. She has been named Columnist of the Year (2014), Journalist of the Year (2009) and Business Journalist of the Year (2008) in the British Press Awards, and received three awards from America’s Society of Business and Economic Writers Awards. She is a best-selling author and received the Royal Anthropological Institute Marsh Award and the American Anthropological Association President Medal for her work in social science. Her most recent book is “Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life” that came out in 2021 from Avid Reader Press.