Power <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 9 Mar 1996 09:17:38 +0900

Tom Kavanaugh writes,

" I think the rarity of anthro focus on influence per se, is due that
(1) it is individual--or perhaps 'personal' would be a better word--
and anthros tend not to deal on such levels; and (2) it is often
covert, or at least more often felt by the particpants than

I can also think of other, more practical, reasons. I can say for
myself that when I was doing fieldwork in Taiwan my Taiwanese
got good enough to get around and ask questions about things
that stood still (a temple, an ancestor tablet, offerings on an altar,
for example). I was often in a position to overhear my Taoist
master negotiating with clients, but usually found it difficult to
follow what he and they were saying. Foreign anthropologists
who had worked in Taiwan before the McCreerys had typically
studied Mandarin and wound up working with interpreters in
the field. (Others, Gary Seaman for example, have since learned
Taiwanese much better than I did. For those who don't know,
the fabled Chinese "dialects" are languages in everything but
political name. Knowing Mandarin but working in Taiwan was,
perhaps, roughly analogous to knowing French and working in
Portugal. Yes, the languages are similar, but...)

Besides language, there are also the issues of access and
necessary background that have to be dealt with.
Hakuhodo, the Japanese ad agency where I have worked for the
past 12 years, is a big organization, with 3,500 employees. Nobody
knows everything that's going on and, of course, many
negotiations are private or confidential Then, too, as Kavanaugh
mentions, there are personalities. Some of my colleagues are
very smooth and skillful at getting people to do things. Many
others are klutzes. It is no accident, I now realize, why business
magazines in Japan as well as elsewhere are filled with people
stories. Having even a little sense of how key decision makers are
likely to react is precious to people who have to do business with

To me all this points back to another thread, on the virtues of
long-term research. There are many useful things to be learned
in a first year or two in the field. But knowing enough to get
beyond the surface is, I suspect, a lifetime project wherever
people work. Returning, then, to our current discussion. If I am
right in assuming (1) that power is normally exercised more
through influence than authority and (2) that learning enough
about languages, people, etc., to be able to track influence takes a
long, long time, where does that leave us? We can, of course, talk
about theories of power. Theory is easy. But when we get down to
cases, how many of us know enough to make credible statements
about what was, perhaps, but only perhaps, going on? What
evidence will we require before we cease to chuckle or sneer and
start to listen seriously? That's epistemology.

John McCreery
March 9, 1996