Re: Great debates, work & research

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Mon, 12 Feb 1996 01:26:12 -0500

Jim Martin writes that working a day job tends to compromise anthropological
research done after-hours. The energy for research may not be there later;
access to resources is circumscribed; part-timers on the margins tend to lose
their ear for details. As a result, quality drops off.

There is a lot of truth to this. It's hard to perform two jobs equally well.
But as John McCreery notes in reply Lewis Henry Morgan and Benjamin Lee
Whorf both made major contributions to anthropology while making their
livings in other fields -- in law and in insurance, respectively.

In fact, Whorf's linguistic anthropology was actually enriched by what he
learned as an insurance claims adjuster. In "The relation of habitual
thought and behavior to language" (In _Language, Thought, and Reality_.
Cambridge: M.I.T. Press [1939] 1971), Whorf writes that he discovered that
the name of a situation affects behavior " the course of my professional
work for a fire insurance company, in which I undertook the task of analyzing
many hundreds of reports of circumstances surrounding the start of fires, and
in some cases, of explosions.... Thus, around a storage of what are called
"gasoline drums," behavior will tend to be a certain type, that is, great
care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called "empty
gasoline drums," it will tend to be different -- careless, with little
repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the "empty"
drums are perhaps more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor." (p.

I would go further. To really understand many organizational cultures, for
example, the anthropologist needs insider experience. Organizational
cultures tend to be encrusted with official histories and organizational
charts that often obscure more about the outfit than they reveal. It may
take someone with inside experience to see beyond these accretions to the
informal networks where power really resides. Performance reports,
memoranda, and the narrative portion of budgets make heavy use of the passive
voice to obscure human agency. Euphemisms are employed to soften the impact
of drastic or painful actions. When anthropologists read that their state's
"new welfare benefit structure has been reduced" by a quarter, they should
immediately ask "who decided on these cuts to family income and why, and what
will be their effect on children?" When budget documents try to refocus
attention by arguing that reductions will "foster self-sufficiency,"
researchers need to ask how families are to become self-sufficient if there
are insufficient jobs in the job market.

Organizational cultures may in fact be very good at hiding powderkegs that
blow up only later, as Mike Salovesh has already noted for downsizing
academic institutions. Remember the hidden costs of retirement buy outs?

My hope is that anthropologists will increasingly study the cultures that
they live in, organizational and otherwise. Soon we may even consider
budgets to be what they really are: critical cultural documents. Happily,
NAPA has just recently published a bulletin entitled _Insider Anthropology_
(16: 1995). The idea being that anthropology is not just something we do
among "others." It is a way of knowing more about our everyday lives.

Mike Cahill