Take a walk with anthropologist and consultant Grant McCracken and host Adam Gamwell, as they discuss Grant's new book The New Honor Code: A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good Names and dig into Grant's uncanny ability to excavate and weave together (American) culture, media, and storytelling, and pull out provocative insights like the need to get more anthropologists and cultural experts into the C-Suite, how we might re-invent honor in the contemporary world, and how setting anthropology free from the academy can reshape it and make the field better for it.
In The New Honor Code, Grant draws together ideas from Elizabethan England, insights found while hanging out in people's living rooms interviewing them about their television watching habits for Netflix, the rise of celebrity culture as the closest thing we have to honor today - and why that's a problem - and the seemingly uncrossable gap between American boomers and millennials/GenZ. In mixing all these ideas together, he asks what is honor, why did it seem to disappear from our culture and what would it look like to create a system of honor in contemporary United States that would dissuade people from acting badly with impunity.
We dig into all these topics in this episode and Grant has some great advice for any social scientist looking to go into consulting or business or if you're in business, how we can be more savvy and practical about infusing anthropological mindsets and thinking into organizations without hitting people over the head with it, especially if they find the idea of culture confusing.
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Adam Gamwell: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to This Anthro Life. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. Some of my favorite topics of conversation on this podcast are around business anthropology and using the anthropological toolkit to help the world solve problems. And as I was getting to know this world of anthropologists who work out in the business world, Grant McCracken's name was one of the first, when I found his book, Chief Culture Officer, I was transfixed. Not only with the idea of crusading to get more anthropologists in executive positions. But more generally with how interesting and important it is to take the time, to understand and turn my anthropological lens to my own cultural worlds, not just those of others.
Grant's books have helped me realize that if we want to have a hand in shaping the world, we need to get to work on our own culture. So I can say it's been more than a treat to get to talk with Grant about how his approach to American anthropology and career in the corporate and consulting world has brought about a number of provocative ideas, such as his new book, The New Honor Code. In The New Honor Code Grant draws together ideas from Elizabethan, England in his own PhD research, insights found while hanging out in people's living rooms, interviewing them about their television watching habits for a client you might've heard of called Netflix. The rise of celebrity culture as the closest thing we have to honor today and why that's a problem. And the seemingly uncrossable gap between American Boomers and Millennials and Gen Z. And mixing all of these ideas together. He asks what is honor? And why did it seem to disappear from our culture?
And what would it look like to create a system of honor today in the contemporary United States that would dissuade people from acting badly with impunity? You know, all those rich, powerful, mostly men who think they can do whatever they want and get away with it. So we dig into all these topics in this episode. And Grant has some great advice for any social scientists looking to go into consulting or business, or if you're in business, how it can be more savvy and practical about infusing anthropological mindsets and thinking into organizations without hitting people over the head with it. Especially if they find the concept of culture confusing.
And in my own personal journey I took heart to also learn that Grant struggled with figuring out how to define himself as an anthropologist and what anthropology looks like in the business world and as someone else who’s moved out of academia, into being a problem solver for business, I took a lot away from this conversation and I think you will too. So let's enjoy it.
Adam Gamwell: [00:02:11] So, to kick things off Grant has a really interesting origin story and that he has both done kind of traditional anthropological education, but then has then decided to make the move into business consulting.
and that really led to a really interesting flourishing of both writing. And even you mentioned this in The New Honor Code that, there were the opinions and perspectives from the Chicago crowd of anthropologist when you decided to make the move. And also one of other piece you mentioned there that was interesting was that you like to put your consulting money back into research.
So even that kind of conversation I think is quite interesting. So I'd love to hear a bit about your own path and process of how you went from, I don't know if it's academic anthropology, but just training at least in the academic side, into the business world and like how that conversation happened.
Grant McCracken: [00:02:50] Okay. I was working at the Royal Ontario museum. I was running an Institute of contemporary culture and it was just tough sledding to get anything done. It took too many committee meetings and I did a little consulting enough to see that, in fact, I didn't have to stay at the museum. I had tenure there, but I thought, you know what, this consulting enables me to pay my own way as it were, become a kind of become a self-funding anthropologist. So that's what I decided to do. I was really conflicted about it.
I thought, this is morally objectionable. And this is wrong for all the reasons that people held certain kinds of consulting in contempt. And I was terrified that they were. Right anyhow, I persevered and yes, in fact that turned out to be the case that I could consult half the year, and that would make enough money to sustain me for the course of the year and in fact, I thought that some of the stereotypes or some of the ways people thought about consulting turned out to be wrong, not least because these institutions were vastly less, um manipulative they weren't captains of consciousness as a, I think it was Ewan used to call them.
They were clueless and often earnest and they just couldn't manufacture the false consciousness that everybody took to be their objective. I remember at a cocktail party that went to in Montreal. I think it was, but there were several Chicago people there. One of whom had risen to great Heights in the AAA. And I was just thinking, I've been offered a position at the Harvard business school and I thought, Oh, that's going to be so interesting. The only way I'm going to get into the Harvard business school is by teaching there.
And so I mentioned this over drinks. Just the two of us in conversation in a room filled with people talking. And she just broke off the conversation and walked away. I had clearly said something that's just so deeply objectionable that I was, that I had disappeared socially. She had raised me from this occasion.
I think the prevail, nobody ever asked, but I think the prevailing assumption was that you did what I was doing in order to make a fortune. And what you were doing effectively was selling your anthropology for the purposes of personal and grandisment and that wasn't true because my model said that I made enough money in half a year to. Pay for the other half of the year to engage in research and the other half of the year, and that would exhaust the money. So I would be, at some point halfway through the year, I'd be relatively wealthy, but by the end of the year, I'd be broke again.
So the notion that it was feathering, my nest in this way was so and what I began to see was, and it's impossible actually, to pick apart where one thing starts in the other stops. But as I fell out of the academic orbit, my anthropology began to change and I thought, this has to be one of the big advantages of getting anthropologists out of the academic world.
There is a gravitational field that people tend to hue to a set of conventions and that it makes lots of sense to get us out. I could feel my own interests and approaches begin to change so that's how the thing played out.
Adam Gamwell: [00:06:12] That's really interesting.
So It is important to highlight the fact that we do actually need to dismantle. I think some of the narrative that is, you're just leaving the academy to go make a fortune.
As if the academy lives somehow not also in economy in the capitalist world itself. But, you know, that's a different debate for a different time. But I think interestingly here, the idea that your anthropology has changed. And if we had to hazard a guess, of course, one of them is probably that the timescale of the research might change maybe, but what else?
So tell us some, what were some of the characteristics that you found when your anthropology started to change in the business world?
Grant McCracken: [00:06:43] I guess I began to care less about what other anthropologists thought were important questions and just began to follow my own nose. And there was just so much.
You would do a project for somebody, a bank or something, and they would ask you to talk to the consumer. And so you'd find yourself sitting in somebody's living room, talking about, you know these fabulously abstract things called money and retirement and savings, and what was a family and how did you plan for it and how did money come into it?
Anytime you asked any question for any commercial client, you ended up gathering, just bags, so data for every other purpose. You always had just a super abundance of data. On hand, which is to say you had at least the illusion that you were watching, American culture, every ethnographic Interview was yet another window on the great breadth of American culture and all of the dynamism and improvisation taking place within it. And of course, I was a kid in the candy store. It was like what's that? And what's that? And you think what? And then you did watch? um,you know, I might have fallen out of the anthropological orthodoxy in any case, but certainly, by these temptation, you know, the temptations were not financial, they were ethnographic, and then to go back to. drinks at the senior common room at some university or other and here people just trod out the old stereotypes was now no longer annoying. It was increasingly odd because it was not just wrong. It stood as a barrier preventing people, anthropologists from participating in the study of their own culture.
It was all there. And all this data was simply, literally all you had to do was open your front door, whatever that was, March down the street and engage almost anybody in conversation. And you would discover that the favorite ideas that anthropologists had cultivated, as an understanding of American culture where we're probably wrong and something vastly more interesting was taking place.
So I began to grow for a while. It was apologetic, and self accusing. And I had this sense that, Oh my God, you know perhaps I got this really badly wrong and, fallen, not just out of intellectual orbit, kind of moral orbit too. And then I thought no actually, there may be some truth there, but the larger, true surely is that I'm getting to see something that is a Shangri-La effect, right? That there's something happening there that is being denied my colleagues by dent of their own way of constructing the world.
Adam Gamwell: [00:09:30] I love that, and I resonate with the idea too, particularly it's one of starting out like does one need to feel apologetic? The flip side is, is really what you're saying too reminds me of Margaret Mead in her own kind of a crucible to use a dramatic term, I guess of just saying no, we actually have to study American culture. Particularly in her case, I really liked that she said, because America is not mature enough to run a world, which I still think is the case, you know but she was willing to endure that.
And so I think that this is quite interesting to notice the same thing here where it's just like it, there is a narrative that one has to go against, however, I really liked the way that you frame it as it's literally just stepping out of your own front door and recognizing that there's such both a wealth of knowledge of actually how American culture actually happens. But then the flip side is that a lot of the social scientists whose job it is and whose expertise is understanding, and then documented the human condition, don't seem to get their own backyards or front doors in this case. Which is when you pause to say it that way, it's we owe it to ourselves, I think to try to get some of this right. You know when I first found your work it was with Chief Culture Officer, you wrote a number of years ago, that was what does it mean to bring culture into the C-suite on the highest echelons of business? And then now you're working on this new book that's The New Honor Code. That's just like a broader perspective. That ties into from your original PhD research, which I want to talk a bit about and how does culture help us rethink in this case honor, like what's gone off the rails in US and a lot of Western society too, in terms of people just acting badly with impunity, certainly in the C-suite, but then on top of that, we're just seeing it politically and things like celebrity culture.
But I want to hear a bit about like, how that process happened for you, that you were thinking about, you know, what, there's this thing that I looked at for PhD research that besides watching The Crown and realizing there's something happening here that we need to, we have to perhaps rethink it.
Grant McCracken: [00:11:15] My PhD work had me studying the Elizabethan period, Elizabethan England for a couple of years. As an anthropologist will, you soak yourself in the data and you come to think about the world as they think about the world.
And so occasionally I would look at contemporary culture, think, especially struck by the thing that you just pointed out, that the bad behavior is apparently costless. Um, there's a nice quote that I found for the book from a woman who worked at a big media house, she was assaulted by a big name in the entertainment business. As she was walking down the hallway, this guy just came up behind her and groped her and the journalist asked her about it and she said, the tone is just heartbreaking. She says Oh, in those days they just did what they wanted to you. And it was so you could feel her disgust, but you could also feel her resignation and think. What is the matter with a culture that has any pretensions to moral probity, actually creating an office place in which that behavior could happen, but that the victim should be obliged then to accept it with this, complacency is the wrong word but resignation, I guess is the right one. Anyhow. So that was, I thought, that wouldn't have happened in the Elizabethan case. So I'm being kind of an economistic kind of calculation. Could we create a culture in which there is this fungible thing called honor, the loss of which costs you and you're standing in the contemporary world, you know if noble behavior were going to happen, it would have happened.
So at this point, I think where we were reduced to should just trying to change the playing field so that people feel that if they don't have something to gain morally. Then we have to make it that they have something to lose, uh in order to protect that woman in the New York media biz.
Adam Gamwell: [00:13:21] Yeah, that's a really interesting idea too, in that it has a level of historical precedence, as you said, and also if I like the phrasing that if people were going to, if we were going to be honorable, we would have done it by now. Or what it would have been like, fundamentally only good or only bad.
We would have done that by now, but it's like where you were just quite a gray in this case that we have capacity for great good and for great evil. And so it really is about the kind of roles and rules and regulations that we set for ourselves or that we might call culture.
Grant McCracken: [00:13:48] Right. And this is in the book, but it maybe ought to be, we created this quite poisonous system called celebrity culture. And which I talk about in the book because it's so obviously the competitor against an honor culture. But the key thing here is I think those people in that New York firm we're talking about, the media giant were behaving that way because they were famous.
And fame it's to some extent it's maleness plus fame that creates these monsters. All of this is to say there is that kind of tension between fame and honor.
And because we've seen so many people actually accomplish fame by destroying their honor in spectacular acts of self display. You think about the Kardashians sisters and sex tapes and things that would have removed you from, being a credible social actor actually helped create a celebrity for some of those people. And so there's that? Yeah, there's that tension.
Adam Gamwell: [00:14:54] That was actually a really interesting part of the book too, one of the things that you do is you trace some of the different historical movements. And this is like the rise of celebrity culture, as well as the avant garde before that. And that was like, and we may think about the hippie movement that might've been things like, let me try a lot of psychedelic drugs, or free love, like move past inventions of authority. But I think there's another piece too, that has really struck me about the way that you're framing this.
This also comes from the book as a small spoiler alert But just seeing the idea of swift peoples, the idea is like the 1950s family of always trying to get ahead.
which is not the hippie idea, I think he was trying to get away from this idea. Then it's not just about trying to get ahead and then there is, to me, almost this like Zen-ish sounding idea, let us treasure the now. Right and it seems on one level to like even the artisanal moment. That you bring up the the idea of artisan ship is also a response to this in terms of how do we bring the, a bit more of slow making and like locality and hereness, that there's nothing to escape from, which is quite interesting.
And it seems like that is perhaps then the most fertile ground for us to rethink this idea of honor, because it's now that's almost like if we can get people to be here. Not trying to get away or not trying to get ahead. I dunno I get that, you set the timeline at this way, but at the same time, this feels almost like a natural inflection point at which honor can find more fertile ground.
Grant McCracken: [00:16:08]Yeah. Yeah. So I wrote something on the 1954 Buick and I forget the title exactly, but it's something about Raymond Loewy and the 1954 Buick.
And what was interesting about that historical moment is that he was charged with bringing a kind of modernism to the redesign of the American automobile and Studebaker thought this would be fantastic. And the American public were horrified by his design and it had to be yanked from the marketplace. And again, as an anthropologist, this is just grist for our mill. We're looking at this, like if only I were Nancy Munn looking at trobriand canoes, but this is exactly a Nancy Munn trobriand canoe moment, right? It's just looking at these magnificent and extraordinarily odd instruments in people's driveways and all the things they meant to those people and how they caught up a whole series.
I mean, it's, there's a beautiful series of layering going on here where the whole of the culture is in several quite different particulars. All the metaphor here, marching to the same drum. They're all caught up in this same sense of motion and progress and movement. And yeah, that was the thing to think about is that's when people, it seemed to me where most Americans were deeply happy with this idea that they were swift creatures that they were in constant motion and it was that motion in social space and emotional space and domestic space that, where things went best when you had this sense of motion and movement and especially upper dissent in the social scheme of things. Anyhow and what does Baudrillard say? The best way to see America is in a rear view mirror, as you rocket down the highway, that's the defining understanding of American culture, which works beautifully. So you're working that you're hearing people talk about school. They never used that language, but I have to tell you of all the modest efforts at phrase making I've engaged in doing the study of American culture. That term really speaks to people and they repeat it almost instantaneously. And this is people, especially living in the corporation in the middle class, and then creatures of privilege love this idea of swiftness.
Adam Gamwell: [00:18:25] One of the things that struck me about this too, I thought it was quite interesting is that this is kind of a generational divide also like, cause you do talk about the idea of Millennials versus Boomers as like in, in a bit of a different context, but just like a bit about how do we communicate with each other and partially because worldviews are different and we grew up in these different spaces where there is like, The swift self might define the Boomer and the millennial self. I think on some levels it's still being defined. The other idea too, that I would add to this equation that you also mentioned in the book is the idea that, you know, popular culture. We just need to drop the adjective for popular culture, it's just culture. And how boomers have typically treated television and you know what we call pop culture just as like noise, right? As fluff. It's not the real stuff, but then.
You kind of pointed the argument that actually, no this is the real, this is culture. And so part of that, how do we like coming to take that seriously? I guess how did you see that kind of playing out?
Grant McCracken: [00:19:14] Yeah. I had always had suspicion, studying American culture, especially after World War II you can't fail to notice the chorus of skepticism that came from people like Galbraith and Minow, and a whole series of people set themselves up as critics of the American middle-class and really scorned suburban life. And especially that suburb that appears after World War II. Um and especially Galbreath just goes at them. It's just astounding. You think. Gee, as a Canadian, I know where Galbreath is from, he's playing a Brahman, manners without a warrant, which is always interesting.
Anyhow, so that finds its way into studies of TV and so when Minow in ‘61, I think is appointed by Kennedy to look at television and assess its cultural significance. He's the guy who says, listen, this is a vast wasteland, nothing good can come of this and the intellectuals, love this, the academics ate it up and wrote books about dumbing down and this was now the standard issue, orthodoxy about popular culture, that it was bad, that it was stupefying that it would and so when people began to consume Netflix television they began to apologize for it.
When people said, so what are you doing? Isn't, that a bit weird watching all that TV they've said, Oh yeah , well, no, we're bingeing. And it was a way for them to apologize for behavior that in their hearts, they believe to be dubious. And what they were doing is playing out what the intellectuals and the academics had told them was true of American middle-class culture, that it was dumb and stupid and undemanding and indulgent. So the good news here is, this is the blessing that awaits and anthropologists does a study of the contemporary world for commercial clients, in this case, the client was on Netflix. So I'm now able to use their resources and their magical word, Netflix would get you in almost anywhere but so now I'm interviewing people, sitting in their living room, talking to them about how they watch TV and what they talk about. What, they're not, what they're not telling me is that they're sitting there drooling, overfed with that TV.
They're not watching The Dukes of Hazzard and in point of fact lots and lots of TV got better and you could see a systematic breaking of the basic rules of the contract that TV had fashioned between the viewer and the showrunner. One of which was keep it simple, stupid that rule died early. Another rule was, oh the bad things must never happen to the hero or the character. And that began to be, especially in the last sort of eight years now, it's routinely the case that people will kill off the character who would normally be preserved, so the whole set of rules that were now being violated, they were making a better, more interesting, TV, but people were still inclined to use the metaphor and my sense was it really was a bad, active metaphor that in fact, these people weren't bingeing, they were feasting. And you could see this happen. So again, bless Netflix. They sent me to London and Rio and Mexico City and all over the world to talk to people there telling the story, they're just completely enamored with how interesting TV is.
And you can see that this discussion of this TV is now what dominates the Saturday evening that used to be taken up with talking about mortgages and other Brunel issues that people couldn't wait to have these conversations, um and a whole set of social effects, including one woman who said, look, this is the way I figure out who I want to go out with.
I have a brief preliminary conversation with a guy and he has to like the shows I like, he has to like them in the way I like them. He has to be able to talk about the kinds of issues with kind of intelligence and sensitivity. And uh that's how I know who I'm dealing with that tells me vastly more than any, um sorting dating app could ever do.
And so just interesting to watch people had risen to the opportunity that streaming TV made available to them. And they rose to the intellectual challenges, the emotional challenges that these shows made available to them, but they hadn't actually embraced the cultural shift. They were continuing to play out these metaphors of apology and embarrassment and self criticism.
Adam Gamwell: [00:24:01] I love that metaphor that raises this challenge then the idea of bending versus feasting is the idea that entertainment and TV is just trash and noise. And this is partially what kind of, what we're seeing and what you set up in the book too, is partially of this, a bit of a generational divide.
About what art is good for. And then, so how does this play into what the honor code would be then. So if we're trying to put these pieces together, it's that it seems to me like we're trying to get a more realistic picture of what American culture, if there is not, obviously not a monolithic thing, but like what American culture actually is experientially for people and how that how they live it.
And, so it seems that one piece right has been, that's the idea of honor in terms of that people can act without impunity, but then it filters into these interesting ideas that entertainment is worthless or not so great. And that leads to sort of a, that Millennials aren't necessarily always truthful with Boomers and how they perceive the world.
That has a double problem of giving away saying Boomers, you just, you had your perspective and like the Boomers think the world operates the way they think it does, but then also it then it faces or hides millennial culture too. So there's this interesting tension too, of like, how do we have a more honest conversation across generations or different class groups, even how does that play into the question of honor?
Grant McCracken: [00:25:11] Yeah. Yeah. The issue for what does anthropology bring to the party? It's this extraordinary ability to work with this thing called culture and to listen for it and detect it and to hear tiny movements and to be able to say what that could mean in the longer term. I mean, that's our gift but it is the thing that's extraordinarily difficult to make visible in the, in the world of the American organization.
And it's such a chronic difficulty that I now speak in metaphors, tend to think about culture as the kind of dark energy of the American experiment. People know it's out there, they know it's important, but they don't know how to think about it and that's, I think that's problematical, especially for the grimmest outcome here is that the organization is on the verge of making a decision about some communication or active innovation or whatever they're doing. And they say somebody in the room can be relied upon to say, let's figure out, let's ask the intern what she thinks.
Because they know they don't know culture and they know that other generations do know culture and they're now, this puts them in a position of having to ask somebody they're not paying to help them make a decision that falls squarely in their professional confidence. They really should know what it is they're dealing with here.
And not to know is I think a shocking kind of abrogation of their responsibility. Anyhow which is why I wrote The Chief Culture Officer. I thought, if you're never going to embrace this idea called culture at least put somebody in the C-suite who knows about culture.
And this is, this would be perfect, right? This is a Gen X, and Y are ready for their close-up right. They would take these jobs up beautifully and the corporation looked at the book and thought long and hard and then said, no, we're not going to do this. We don't want to have somebody who knows about culture in the C-suite, that'd be extremely annoying.
And so I failed on that one but that's, I think what's happening when, in this part of the book. I'm talking to a woman who's implying that she's lying to the people she's just been talking to it at Christmas party and I say lying? And she looks at me like I'm slightly dim, pretty close to the truth of the matter and set and reveals that of course she's lying, she's always lying when talking to Boomers because she has to have her view of the world, which accepts that culture exists. And then she has to have a different view of the world for Boomers, because they're just so deeply stupid and stubborn and incapable of grappling with certain issues, culture being just one of those.
That's on us, I should speak for myself. That's on boomers, this failure to, to get serious about the topic and I guess it'll change, but I thought it would have changed well before this.
Adam Gamwell: [00:28:18] That’s interesting I guess also, in part, because capital can move both fast and slow, right.
And so when it comes to a corporation and structure you know, it seems like that. I think they would be reticent to change because obviously like if taking in the idea of culture should radically alter the way that people consider business practices. And what might be good for people or, how do ideas flow even?
And so, but the idea is much easier to segment people into like just the Gen Z is do that or multicultural Millennials do this or that. And it's like cause it simplifies it, however, it's right that the ethnography points out that culture of course crisscrosses has all of these labels that we use to. So it is really interesting to think about how do we both take seriously that these things crisscross, but there are also of course both class or generational divides that we set up that we have to work across also.
Yeah and yeah. Who knows maybe. Yeah. It's like maybe businesses will change in the future in terms of. And embrace some more culture. It seems like you might see startups doing that much more like a smaller or a new organization, but right. Curious, like with something like Netflix, which is a global organization now that isn't that old, 20 years maybe. Yes.
I dunno know. Yeah. We were in an interesting inflection point, I think in terms of how business might change over the next 20 years from now, even in terms of C-suite leadership changes, like will we see culture become one of the equations a little bit more?
Grant McCracken: [00:29:32] Totally, and from your lips to God's ears but I think it's remotely possible that culture is just the thing I insist is just the term I insist on using and other people insist and I now do this more and more in my professional practice is I just talk about problems and the solutions are soaked with cultural understandings because that's the way I think, but the client doesn't ever have to hear that word.
And in fact, it's happiest if they don't hear that word and maybe that's the longer term kind of accomplishments that it will just work a cultural sophistication into problem solving and we'll just cease to use it altogether because that was the striking thing to learn from an intern I had when working at the museum, he was talking about about a Hollywood blockbuster and he wasn't embarrassed about it.
And I thought, wow, that is so interesting uh and he said, ah, look, it's just, it's not popular culture, i t's just culture that adjective has cost us so dear that the moment you call it popular culture, the journalism gets goofy, the Boomers get scornful every kind of barrier to taking it seriously rises up. Yeah, maybe we just dispense with it altogether. I don't know.
Adam Gamwell: [00:30:50] That's a really fascinating idea. It's funny. Cause this similar debate about, should we just drop the term at all happened 30 years ago? When George Marcus was writing the book Writing Culture about should we just not use the culture concept? Cause it's just, it's like too overloaded and too over stuffed.
Grant McCracken: [00:31:07] That's great.
Adam Gamwell: [00:31:09] But obviously it didn't go away, it's still here yeah. But however thinking about it in a business context is a really interesting other way to ask us this question, of solving problems and actually obviously the solutions themselves are social and cultural reality.
So actually that idea too, I think it's something that is quite valuable about your work too that I wanted to tag onto is just that, this is one of the values I think that. Anthropology has that folks that are in the academy or obviously they're in business more but helping people realize that anthropology is actually quite an excellent tool kit for solving problems. Right.
Grant McCracken: [00:31:41] Right.
Adam Gamwell: [00:31:42] Um and how folks can come to see that, I guess is and that's where I still wrestle with. And that's partially why I did the podcast too, is that we're framed around the idea of anthropology is there to help us solve problems. You know that it's like, it is actually one of the best toolkits we have for both understanding people and the ethnographic interview. Right. So what are your thoughts on that too? It's a problem solver, how do we get people more used to it being that I guess?
Grant McCracken: [00:32:03] I guess the happiest moments for me and my consulting life are the brainstorm. You get lots of people in a room and they just start blabbing. And that's when you feel ideas pulled out of you by this collective rushed to revelation, right?
Everybody can feel the idea rising and bad ideas are proposed, but they fall away all on their own. And it's just this kind of it's a feast to use that metaphor again. And that's problem solving. I'm not using anything that's obviously anthropological, but everything I do in the analysis and especially in the creativity is anthropological.
So when I was at MIT, I was trying to persuade students there that we should think of ourselves as assumption hunters that then what anthropologists do. And I wasn't talking in this case to anthropologists. I was talking to media students, the first thing that anthropologists know about culture is that it's deeply embedded, always active, but largely invisible.
And then what we're good at is seeing those invisible assumptions and mechanics and logics, uh and bringing them to the surface. So let's think of ourselves as assumption hunters. So I think that's just the argument I would make for anthro... who cares what I think? Young anthropologists is, go to it, get engaged in these brainstorms and just conduct yourself, give yourself to the joy that is that conversation and your anthropological training will inform what you do. You'll be better at what you're doing for the fact of your anthropological training, but maybe, don't use anthropological language or even logic just rise to the intellectual occasion and you'll be better and smarter and more creative for the fact that you trained as an anthropologist. But you will have in all of those moments, that engagement, you will put all this distance between who you were and who you're becoming. And I think that's, that was terrifying for me. I really am. I was talking early in the conversation about this idea of maybe it's right? Maybe an anthropologist shouldn't do consulting? And I could feel myself kind of whip sawing back and forth between worlds.
What was the metaphor I used to use? Yes. That I was riding uneven circus ponies, that I was constantly moving back in. Eventually that's the reassurance that we can give young anthropologists is freefall. Give yourself over to these intellectual occasions. don't try to impose an anthropological view and it will transform you as an anthropologist.
But your anthropology, I think will get better for the fact that it's taken place in, uh in this radically different context that makes no, that makes no provision for the fact that there's anthropologists in the room. So I think that's that's a tough thing for people to embrace, but the benefits are extraordinary, I think, cause it's just so much fun to do some of this work.
Adam Gamwell: [00:35:04] Yeah, that really resonates with me too in I think what I'm taking from the conversation now is that it's important for us to realize too, the anthropology is big enough and strong enough to take a remaking. It's not going to not become anthropology.
Grant McCracken: [00:35:15] Yeah. Yeah.
Adam Gamwell: [00:35:16] And I think that like it's interesting. Cause one has to go through some training to understand what it is to practice anthropology. But then at the same time, like when you get that, you realize that it's a bunch of Lego bricks that you can configure in any way. But it's still gonna be anthropology exactly. As long as you, you give it.
Grant McCracken: [00:35:30] Yeah, I think we could now look forward to some point in which we look back at the academic version of anthropology and think about it as our academic captivity to use slightly biblical language.
That was a moment when anthropology was profoundly shaped by those sherry parties and by the tenure process and the teaching. And that it's a glorious experiment when that breaks free and enters different contexts and, shot through with moral difficulties to be sure, but enormous opportunities in the field. And again, I can't separate how much of me is an anthropologist and how much of me is just somebody who would think like this in any case, but to the extent that my example is useful for other anthropologists. Think we can say, you know it's difficult and painful, but once you make the transition it's pretty interesting to see what anthropological ideas can do in these new circumstances. And even when you think, is this still anthropology? I think an absolutely an anthropologist down to the ground but other people might say, this guy is totally no longer working within any acceptable definition of the term
Adam Gamwell: [00:36:43] Sound like an anthropologist to me. I love that idea too. I empathize and celebrate with that idea just because that's also where I'm at personally but also I think a lot of our listeners too, are trying to figure this out, like where's their own place in the world anthropologically, but perhaps also just for career choices and I always find like some of the, some of the most fascinating conversations are in this precise realm where it is like we're pushing the boundaries of what we know to be anthropology in, in new spaces and just applying it in old spaces and new ways of taking old ideas and trying to put them in new ways. And that to me almost is even what the kind of work you're doing with The New Honor Code.
Is that also right? We're taking an old idea and repackaging it in a way that works in a new landscape. And I think that's Is the example of the value of anthropological thinking of and pick your PR where you want it to land is fine, like you can land in and quote, popular culture, actual culture and in a UN organization in the academy, like to me still recognizably, anthropological, I guess as a way to say that it isn't that kind of worth us pondering over. I think at some point in the future what is, what are the hallmarks that we now can say, we can point to something and say, oh that's still anthropological right.
Grant McCracken: [00:37:54] Yeah and I think we could use an empirical measure that says that this is anthropology, or at least not something else because when I make a presentation of my work, you'll often get. people going, Oh, Oh this is a, these are people who have, their engineers or they're MBAs. They're whatever they are. And they're very smart and they're very clear and they're very good at thinking. And when you give them something anthropological they're entirely prepared to accept that it is anthropological because it's just so new and interesting and useful to them. So that's maybe one way to reassure ourselves that we haven't just abandoned the project.
Adam Gamwell: [00:38:35] Yeah that's a good point and also just the desire to carry the torch forward. Right,from different projects I've done in design research consulting and other client work the other truth that we know is that. If we don't point out what some of these pieces, some of these hallmarks of anthropology, other people will do it.
You'll see all the time, like a designer saying, Oh, I'm an anthropologist. And you're like, you have a degree in design. You may have read one or two books about anthropology and that's fine. But like to call yourself that or say, this is anthropological, we can also see here are some boundaries that need to be mentioned. Cause I wouldn't walk into say I'm a designer if I'm, if I never had training right it doesn't work like that.
Grant McCracken: [00:39:09] Exactly. Just in fact I don't know, six months ago or something IDEO published a great statement of who they are and what they stand for. And they managed never to use the word culture and I thought, wow, that is really weird that they ought not to. And I started looking at the design statements of all the big design houses and nobody was using the term culture. And I thought, this is like a physicist never using the term energy or an economist, never talking about value, it is the most fundamental thing.
Anyhow, I had a look, the guy who founded design thinking uses the term culture, like eight times in a 20 page paper. So it was there at the beginning, but it got edited out. And I mentioned this too, people at IDEO and in other design houses, you know what gives, you guys are claiming the mantle of intellectual leadership, talking about design thinking, but you're never talking about culture surely that's wrong.
And some people were gentle in their pushback. And one guy was a guy I enormously admire intellectually was just unbelievably hostile. He said, this is your special thing this thing called culture, whatever that is, was the implication. And so you're trying to get everybody to care about it because that would be good for your career.
And I thought you son of a bitch that's enough, forgive my language, but that that, is that the way intellectuals behave when challenged? Uh I don't think so. So he actually made it worse, right? Somebody started politely in a very Canadian way, said, what about this? He said, no, we don't think about that, that's your personal preoccupation so agree with you entirely. I think we're entitled to say what about culture?
Adam Gamwell: [00:41:00] I think that's the question.
Grant McCracken: [00:41:01] Yeah.
Adam Gamwell: [00:41:06] Cool. Grant. I just want to say, I think this has been an amazing conversation.
Grant McCracken: [00:41:09] Thank you so much. And thank you for indulging me in the walk and talk opportunity, that's just critical to the way I think so. Thank you for that.
Adam Gamwell: [00:41:17] Once again many thanks to Grant McCraken for taking time out to talk about his new book, The New Honor Code, as well as share some of his wisdom learned over the years. If you noticed that last thing that he just said thanks for indulging in walking, we actually tried a new method where we used a remote recording thing using Anchor and Grant was able to walk and talk on his phone. It was kinda cool, so we did a literal mobile, remote, podcast recording. So if you’re interested in being a guest on the podcast and you’d prefer to walk and talk we have the technology.
Once again, thanks for listening. I’m Adam Gamwell, today’s episode was produced by myself and Luciane Schons da Fonseca so many thanks for your help on that. We are super excited to be bringing you a ton of amazing content this year. We’re going to be hearing from MacArthur genius Mary Gray on Ghostwork in Silicon Valley, Gillian Tett, on media and journalism, Paul Stoller for writing for non-academic audiences, and John Hartigan on how multispecies ethnography helps us understand ourselves better, especially in the anthropocene. That’s just a small preview of what we have coming so stay tuned, stick around, and we will see you soon.
Here are some great episodes to start with.