Shamans, wonks, and working by the book

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 11 May 1996 08:22:42 +0900

Heavy day again today, so I'll have to combine answers to several different
sets of posts. There is, however, a common theme--the encounter of simple
mindsets with messy realities.

John Pastore and Clyde Davenport regal us with propositions about an
essentialized, archetypal shaman. Pastore even leads off by saying, "Jay
Kottliar and John McCreery are writing of Shaman." What they have in common
is the habit of seeking definition instead of trying to sort the muddle of
various realities to which a word of Siberian origin has, historically,
come to point, more or less obliquely, from a good many different
directions. My Taiwanese examples were intended to amplify the point that
searching for a single definition of Shaman was likely to be a pointless
exercise. The far more interesting and real problem is the one I sketched
at the end. In any of the complex societies I know there is a broad range
of practitioners who claim special knowledge and powers of a more or less
mystical nature. Besides the types I have already mentioned, Taiwan these
days also has doctors, lawyers,management consultants, policy wonks and
people who work in advertising.The list could easily be extended. It would
be very interesting, indeed, to know what categories and principles are
used by Taiwanese (in their aboriginal, Hokkien, Hakka, mainlander, poor,
rich, peasant, Ph.D, etc. varieties) to organize this mess and, then, to
examine if the ways they do it are similar or different to the way that,
say, the Songhay or Maya do it. Besides, for those content with
stereotyping, one need only point to the ramblings of Mircea Eliade or
Joseph Campbell, which are far more nicely written than the average e-mail

Turning now to Holly Swyers who does, I think, a marvelous job of
describing the predicament of so many of us these days:

"Part of my paralysis came from the realization that there is not really a
single culture at work in the U.S. - or if there is, it's beyond my grasp
right now. How do you impose policy across cultures (especially bearing in
mind a relativist stance)?"

There is a fine, old piece of folk wisdom that says, "Don't bite off more
than you can chew." But don't forget to eat, either. Along with a
willingness to set goals and work to achieve them, policy making requires a
willingness to act in the absence of perfect information--which never,
ever, exists. Management guru Tom Peters talks about successful companies
as "informed opportunists." There are, he says, companies that spend so
much time trying to acquire more information that they miss their windows
of opportunity. There are others that leap at every chance and typically
fail by leaping before they look to see what's going on. The winners are
companies that never stop learning but are also ready to act when an
opportunity appears. He's talking about companies, but what he says seems
to me to apply very well to the successful people I've known both in and
outside academia.

As to how you impose policy, there are lots of ways. At the crude end of
the spectrum there's raw force. At the other there's having an idea so
great that lots of people leap on board. In between there is endless
negotiation, give and take, swapping favors, all that ugly nitty-gritty
that in my naive youth I went to graduate school to avoid, mistaking the
ivory tower for a little bit of heaven where everyone did her own thing.

Finally, then, Judith Pine,

"First, how often is the existance of the "book" simply a way to
discriminate "green horns" from "old hands", such that the new folks will
attempt to follow the book, earning contempt and ridicule from those who
know how things "really" work. There seems to be a fairly complex
relationship here, and I'm not certain how to sort it out."

While it is, unfortunately, true that failure to grasp the informal as well
as formal bits of organization through which work gets done can get a
newcomer labeled a greenhorn, isn't it a bit too paranoid to assume that
the gap between the book and the practice is there to give the oldtimers an
edge? There is a form of labor action called "working to rule." Its intent
(and effect) is to paralyze the organization in which it is practiced. The
Catholic Church has, for a good many centuries now, had the good sense to
distinguish between theology and casuistry,where the latter is the study of
how to apply first principles to the messy stuff of real lives. It is not
by accident that lawyers and MBAs learn their trades by studying cases. But
I hope by now you see the point.Assuming that the book (or books) will tell
you all of what you need to do is naive in the extreme. Greenhorn behavior

Here endeth the rant. There are ugly decisions to be made.

John McCreery
May 11, 1996

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo