Savage Interview: ethnographer and entrepreneur theorist Simon Sinek

This winter quarter I had the distinct pleasure of spending several weeks with students talking about corporate globalization and neoliberalism. Students may get an opportunity to think about late capitalism in a more hyped-up and celebratory way in their business or development classes but the anthropological take on capitalism and globalization is that it is patently sinister.

Few disciplines have a less friendly relationship with corporations than anthropology. For many, they are evil incarnate, for some they are a necessary evil, and for others they are a source of gainful employment. The outlook and methods anthropologists share with marketers, branders, and other corporate lackeys compounds anthropologists’ unease with corporations. Few contemporary anthropological projects can afford to ignore the role of capitalism, cognitive colonization, culture industries, consumerism, and corporations in the lives of their informants. Despite the tomes dedicated to the anthropology of capitalism, the variability of values and practices within corporations is rarely documented or theorized. Not without its contradictions and hype, the social values and philanthropic practices of social entrepreneurs seems to be catching on throughout that facet of the corporate world engineered to cater to a politically and ecologically conscious American middle class.

Identifying the parameters of this new species of capitalism would be pretty cool so I thought it important to talk with someone trained as an anthropologist and practiced as a corporate ethnographer who is now an entrepreneur theorist for leaders of elite firms. Simon Sinek is English and grew up in Johannesburg. He got a BA in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University and worked at several top ad agencies, before writing his recent book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. I met him at a truly evocative talk he gave at Causecast in Santa Monica earlier this month and got him on the phone while he was in Dallas last week. We talked about social entrepreneurship, leadership, the academic anti-corporate bias, Western urban business cultures, human biology and marketing, manipulative versus authentic branding tactics, relevant anthropology, corporate culture as Culture, William Ury,  benevolent dictatorships versus consensus driven management practices, and the ethnographic imperative to ask why.

A pretty fierce pull quote: “As an ethnographer we are in search of why but we actually ask what.” Simon Sinek

Here’s the audio for the interview with Simon.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

58 thoughts on “Savage Interview: ethnographer and entrepreneur theorist Simon Sinek

  1. “Despite the tomes dedicated to the anthropology of capitalism, the variability of values and practices within corporations is rarely documented or theorized.”

    I’d have to say that it is rarely documented and theorized within academic journals by the AAA. You see them in many outside the discipline. One of the things that has happened, I think, as a result of the lack of interest from the academy, is that many of the organizational researchers out there use terms like culture without any anthropological oversight. Often what is used as culture are social psychological theories of behavioral theory.

    These’s non-anthropological studies are not bad, and they are quite informative, but often the researchers are trying to reinvent anthropology without the background, which is unnecessary.

    Most anthropologists will never be assigned reading from Ann Jordan’s, “Business Anthropology,” as an undergrad., or any of the myriad of other texts. In a way this is a political economic issue, because academics aren’t rewarded for for producing applicable knowledge, and practicing anthros. don’t get a bonus to write papers and present them to an unappreciative audience.

  2. “Despite the tomes dedicated to the anthropology of capitalism, the variability of values and practices within corporations is rarely documented or theorized.”

    Yes, Google is very good at what they do and that makes them more dangerous than Microsoft, which isn’t. Google will be nationalized, or internationalized and Microsoft will fade.

    This discussion is all tied into the crap coming out of MIT: culture as an aspect of capitalism rather than the other way around. But we don’t view Michelangelo’s Pieta as successful branding for the Universal Church; we thank the Church for Michelangelo not the reverse.

    Simon Sinek is to the market what Montgomery McFate is to the military.

    Kerim, wtf’s happened to your blog?

  3. “This discussion is all tied into the crap coming out of MIT: culture as an aspect of capitalism rather than the other way around. ”

    I don’t understand what you mean here, can you explain in a more dispassionate way that connects the dots? Maybe go into what’s happening at MIT? How does Simon Sinek fit into this, and what specifically about what he writes do this?

    I also wanted to at a P.S. to my last post here. I haven’t read the book that is linked in in this blog, and only looked at the website that is promoting it. Just from that it seems that the author may be following a famous organizational studies guy named Schein, who wrote a book titled, “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” which explores how the founder of a company and current leaderships “create” and “shape” the culture of a company. It’s audience are MBA types, and uses a social psychology frame. It’s valuable work, and I would criticize it for what it is, or says. I wouldn’t say that it is very anthropological though, so I wonder if Simon Sinek has done something like that in more an anthropological way. I’m not sure a B.A. in anthropology can qualify someone to do something like that.

    I think a good intro into the world of business consulting for anthropologists is an article by Aquilera in the Amer. Anthro. (98) in 1996 titled, “Is Anthropology Good for the Company?”

  4. I used html and the link got stripped.
    http://www.convergenceculture.org/
    also: http://futuresofentertainment.org/speakers/

    The current popular terminology of “content production” that MIT, Fast Company, Grant McCracken et al build their model on is the model of advertising; of artists or “Creatives” and therefore themselves as autonomous producers. It’s the ideological optimism of the sciences transposed to the market. It’s the definition of neoliberalism.

    David Chase of the Sopranos and David Simon of the Wire see people as both products and producers. Which is the better model as description? It’s not a hard question. It shouldn’t be for anyone schooled in the humanities.

    This post is built around the optimism of the computer engineers whose work made Grand Theft Auto possible. Think about that for a minute.

  5. Seth, just curious. Do you have an argument here? As opposed to ad hominem and using neoliberalism as though it belongs in scare quotes?

    How would you reply to someone who said, Ah, yes, you’re one of those suckers who landed in the humanities because you thought that writing something that would influence “the right people,” a.k.a., people who agree with you, was doing something significant? Or, ah, yes, another elitist wannabe who was stupid enough to pick a use-to-be elite on the way down?

    Yes, I’m being nasty. But, I’ve read Henry Jenkins, the convergence cultures guy, and he has some interesting things to say about the shift from creating coherent wholes within fixed frames to creating open systems with hooks into a lot of different media — which sounds like a better description of culture.

    Where is the beef?

  6. The culture of the arts and humanities is one of observation, not creation. As my old man used to say “shitting is creative.” But we craft things as a means of self-reflection and awareness. An anthropologist as an observer of culture focuses on the ways we mythologize our relation to the world to form imaginary systems of order and belonging. Shakespeare and David Chase do the same thing. The art that’s universally acknowledged engages and responds to empirical analysis because that’s what produced it. Culture doesn’t solve conflicts and contradictions it patches over them, in interesting ways. The modern idea of “design” puts the cart before the horse as if to say now that we understand history, psychology, economics, we can go beyond them, in a culture of self-aware creation without the aporias or patches. And this got us failed revolutions, esperanto and Brasilia. And now this:

    From a site called Marketing FM
    “Joshua Green (pictured above) gave a great presentation on the idea of convergence culture at the Youth Marketing Mega Event 2007”

    The scientific study of the marketing of products the value of which is founded in culturally specific mythology… to further the marketing of those products.

    Notice that I’m not attacking “commercial” culture, just the idealization of the commercial.
    And among other things I do PR for the company I’m part of. It’s hackwork but it keeps me on my toes.

  7. An anthropologist as an observer of culture focuses on the ways we mythologize our relation to the world to form imaginary systems of order and belonging.

    This is one possible focus. Others include

    1. Implicit rules of which the “we” in question may be unaware, e.g. phonological and syntactic rules to someone who is not a linguist or rules implicit but not articulated in a ritual process.

    2. Material, social, political and economic conditions that affect the environment in which the mythologizing takes place.

    My old guru Vic Turner required all of the above, with evidence based on native exegesis, personal observation, and other research (including in the field such things as house diagrams, census figures, relevant technology, flora, fauna, etc.).

  8. “The modern idea of “design” puts the cart before the horse as if to say now that we understand history, psychology, economics, we can go beyond them, in a culture of self-aware creation without the aporias or patches.”

    I think I know what you mean. I think this was similar to what I was saying about the non-anthropological business and organizational literature, like Shein. It’s 1. very faddish. Every discipline has fads, but there is a mentality in the business world that if you just do “it” then it’s a magic bullet. If team build is good then everyone is now on a team, regardless of circumstances.
    Then there’s more of what you were talking about, which I liken to self-help books. The idea is that if you simply know what’s going on, then you can consciously change it. The worldview and personality of a manager, or the companies founder, create the organizational culture, and therefore changing the personality in the way they deal with people will change the culture; as though a lifetime of circumstance and conditioning can be changed with the reading of a book. As Wilber says, there’s no Yoga. There’s no methodology about how knowledge can be turned into practice.
    Culture happens between individuals. So, they don’t realize that it takes more than showing anyone what’s going on in any situation, it takes the ability to set up structures to initiate change, and then to monitor it.
    There are too many variables in each unique situation for any outsider to fully understand, and it takes the ability not to create knowledge, as you say, but to pull it out from those who live a reality day-to-day and understand what needs to be done collectively, even if no individual can fully articulate it. This takes an understanding that nothing is really real when it comes to culture, and we are the only ones that understand that.

  9. Again back to science and the search for decontextualizable knowledge.
    Sorry to quote myself, but it’s a comment posted here
    blogs.nybooks.com/post/437005501/britain-the-disgrace-of-the-universities

    “The humanities are founded in this: that every 29 years or so someone will write another book on Abraham Lincoln, George III, or Plato. And each book will be different from the last. There was a “Lincoln for the first half of the 20th century” and there will be a Lincoln for the second of of the 22nd, if anyone is alive to write it. People will be writing histories of the important figures of their culture long after the last facts about those people are known, because in each and every case, those histories describe the periods in which they’re written. For the humanities the description of things is the description of our relation to them, not the “things themselves” whatever they’re supposed to be. The humanities oppose the sciences. That’s their job and moral responsibility.”

    We examine rocks to examine rocks. We examine people to examine ourselves. When people become rocks its a problem and that problem has nothing to do with “spiritual values.”

    “1. Implicit rules of which the “we” in question may be unaware, e.g. phonological and syntactic rules to someone who is not a linguist or rules implicit but not articulated in a ritual process.”

    There will always be rules implicit in your own awareness that only others will see. There’s no escaping that: no level of technical expertise. And more and more expertise is used as an excuse to avoid the issue entirely, so we get the absurdity of MIT’s interest in culture. I’m tired of people who study crafts and craftsmen who have no understanding of the role of craft in their own lives. Who have no idea that they spend their lives in performance. Every moment of the waking day we fantasize value: physicists as well as hippies. I’m more interested in that than I am in atoms or marketing.

  10. I’m tired of people who study crafts and craftsmen who have no understanding of the role of craft in their own lives. Who have no idea that they spend their lives in performance.

    This strikes me as a totally bizarre generalization about people at MIT. One suspects that at least those who spend their time in role-playing games or the business school are acutely aware of spending their lives in performance. Do you have any actual evidence to offer?

  11. People will be writing histories of the important figures of their culture long after the last facts about those people are known, because in each and every case, those histories describe the periods in which they’re written.

    That’s just not true. The discipline of history is a humanity; some historians write from a presentist orientation but not all do. Where and when an author is influences his/her description and interpretation of the past, sure, but how is everything about then actually in its entirety about now?

    For the humanities the description of things is the description of our relation to them, not the “things themselves” whatever they’re supposed to be.

    Folklorists and art historians describe objects in order to get at what they have to do with human beings. But that doesn’t mean folklorists and art historians don’t do pure description.

    The humanities oppose the sciences. That’s their job and moral responsibility.

    I suddenly had an image of an army of pretentious comp lit grad students having at it with a bunch of stodgy E.O. Wilson types à la The philosopher’s football match.

  12. Outside of actual mathematical calculation, as distinct from the values that accrue to it, everything you do from the way you dress to the intellectual categories you inherit and adapt, describes the present. Post-war American academic philosophy contextualizes within post-war American culture no more or less than post-war American painting, the New Critics, or the Edsel.
    MIT’s capitalist culture vultures are the product of their age. And I’m still waiting for someone to describe for me the relation of the techno-formalist optimism of video design geeks with the dystopian narrative of Grand Theft Auto. This reminds me of fights in my youth when I insisted on pointing out the violence underlying Robbe-Grillet and Borges. “But it’s about language!” No it’s not.

    This has no more to do with pretentious comp-lit grad students than it does spiritualizing hippies. Just ask a trial lawyer, and not one who has the luxury of only taking cases he believes in but who goes for whatever pays the rent. Most lawyers are hack actors and they’re at the center of our culture. They’re storytellers for hire. They’re craftsmen, and the only ones left who are considered intellectually respectable, though in truth it’s only law professors who are taken seriously because they’re engaged in the reasoned conversation of the ivory tower.

    crookedtimber.org/2010/04/01/greenwald-v-kerr/comment-page-6/#comment-309996
    A lawyer loses patience with law professors.
    And there’s no such thing as pure description. You sound just like Orin Kerr. Who sounds like Borges.

    “One suspects that at least those who spend their time in role-playing games or the business school are acutely aware of spending their lives in performance.”

    Again this refers to games you have the choice to play. The prime mover of MIT’s games is functionalism: marketing is a priori. It may be for them but what is it doing as part of the academy? Have business schools taken over everything?

    The imperative of free inquiry is just that. It may include inquiry regarding the church, the state, the market, or the military[!] but it is not bounded by any of them. Nor should it ever be.

  13. Most lawyers are hack actors and they’re at the center of our culture. They’re storytellers for hire.

    I’m sorry, but that’s just bollocks. Are you telling me that if you were looking at a five-stretch that you would hire the lawyer with the superior acting and storytelling skills rather than the lawyer with a firm grasp of the law who is known to put in the hours in pre-trial research and has shown an ability to think quickly on his/her feet? Bill Shatner and James Spader are great on Boston Legal but there really is a lot more to the profession than that show would have you believe. Are you even aware of how an attorney’s courtroom performance is influenced by the need to maintain an ongoing relationship with the guy working the other side of the case?

    You sound just like Orin Kerr. Who sounds like Borges.

    I would take this as an unintentional compliment were I not fully aware of how completely ridiculous it is to compare anything I have every done with Borges’ work.

  14. From the NYT obituary for John Mortimer.
    -Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”-
    blog.edenbaumstudio.com/2009/06/elsewhere-in-response-to-question-i.html
    What was John Mortimer? What role did he play in our world of supposed disenchantment?

    You want more, it’s here. And it’s all obvious.
    home.earthlink.net/~sstudio/working-title.pdf

    I tired of people talking about culture who pretend it’s an inanimate object, who study it without once looking in the mirror.

  15. And I’m still waiting for someone to describe for me the relation of the techno-formalist optimism of video design geeks with the dystopian narrative of Grand Theft Auto.

    Now, that is a good question. Speaking historically and from personal experience I can take it back to the 1950s and the contrast between the scientific optimism of Epcot Center and Disney World on the one hand and the Red Scare and the terror of nuclear war on the other. I suspect that, on a deeper, level utopias and dystopias are always joined at the hip. Zygmunt Bauman is right, I think, to observe that whens studying what people idealize, you should also study their nightmares.

    I tired of people talking about culture who pretend it’s an inanimate object, who study it without once looking in the mirror.

    This, however, is prejudice and easily corrected by examining the archives of this blog and noting how few, if any, of the regular contributors, treat culture as an inanimate object. Everyone here is, in one way or the other, been affected by the interpretive and self-reflexive turn in anthropology that began, Lord, when was it? If you trace it to Clifford Geertz, nigh on half a century ago. You are trying to teach your Grannies to suck very old eggs.

  16. “…the scientific optimism of Epcot Center and Disney World on the one hand and the Red Scare and the terror of nuclear war on the other.”
    Toss in The Two Cultures: the insecurity of humanists in the age of material progress and its connection to the rise of bullshit fantasies of naturalist epistemology; I can give you links to respected professors of philosophy who say history is bunk, and to others who won’t say it outright but tacitly agree. Add the explosion of a culture of individualism in the 60’s, the retreat from Great Society programs, a retreat that that began before Reagan, and the rise of business schools and of professors seeing their wages dwarfed by administrators, who then decide they want a piece of the pie. On and on. All obvious.

    But Grand Theft Auto is a cartoon. and not one like the Simpsons, while the Sopranos and The Wire are drawn from life. The Wire is near documentary, though all documentary is fiction so I shouldn’t even use the term. It represents humanism, as Mortimer did, as a lot of skeptical popular commercial culture does. But the academy lags. Its members flood their life with pop culture but act like fans rather than critical observers of their own lives.

    The futurist fantasies of the geeks at MIT are just that. Intellectual consumerism is nothing more than the tragic absurdity of the Bauhaus hypertrophied as neoliberal farce: it’s kitsch. The mixture of absolute innocence and absolute corruption rings with a cognitive dissonance that’s literally painful. Simon Sinek is a cuter Montgomery McFate, with less guns.

    “You are trying to teach your Grannies to suck very old eggs.”
    No. I’m trying to teach people of my generation and younger who are part of a dying academic tradition that I’m still attached to if only emotionally to be more honest with themselves.
    I make my income importing the products of factory workers in a third world superpower, I’m told the workers are doing well for where they are. Still, I don’t defend it, I just live it.

  17. The futurist fantasies of the geeks at MIT are just that. Intellectual consumerism is nothing more than the tragic absurdity of the Bauhaus hypertrophied as neoliberal farce: it’s kitsch.

    Let’s assume that you know what you’re talking about. Most of us here don’t. You’re talking too fast and not explaining your references. Which futuristic fantasies? Which geeks? Why the particular animus against MIT (why not Cal Tech)? What is Bauhaus? Why do you see it as a tragic absurdity? Is kitsch always neoliberal farce?

    I don’t know about you, but for me the Internet has reinforced a lesson that seeing the Michigan State course catalogue when I got there in 1962 made clear. No way was I going to learn everything that it might be interesting to know. I urge everyone to consider a point I made in other place about these debates we get into on the Net.

    The starting assumption should be that, since none of us knows more than a tiny fraction of what there is to be known, we start all conversations by acknowledging that we do not know what others may know or have in mind as the conversation unfolds.We have to ask to find out.

  18. I just followed the links to Sinek. I hadn’t before.
    He’s teaching the craft of seduction, the rhetoric of integrity. In writing courses they teach “show, don’t tell” It’s also packaged in books on how to pick up girls: Don’t chase. A little curiosity and a little indifference. “We just like making good computers” The first tag line I thought up for my company was “We’re a small company, and we want to stay a simple one” It works.

    I’m done.
    Despair is setting in.

  19. Why despair? You are not young Werther and, as far as I can see, have run into a little opposition only because, given the strength of your reaction, you have have failed to recognize that the people with whom you are conversing come from a lot of different positions — none of which is, as far as I can make out, the straw man with whom you are battling. Replace the straw with bones and flesh, and tell us more clearly why you find them ugly. You may find the reception quite different.

  20. He’s an evangelist and pitchman and an immigrant living the American dream. He’s selling himself selling general social interactive sophistication packaged as product.
    That became clear the moment I clicked on the link, partly due to my existing basic intuitive knowledge of human behavior -I read his motions, manner, use of language, tone of voice- and partly due my similarly common understanding of American history and popular culture.
    I didn’t just listen to his ideas I observed their form, their rhetorical structure and the performative rhetoric around them and placed them in context from my perspective as someone embedded in American culture. I re-cognized them.
    The academy equates worldly sophistication with sophistry. Scholastic idealism is the narcissism of and pure reason, that’s why Yeshiva bucher is a synonym for rube.

    I’m less put off by s Sinek than McCraken because Sinek focuses on the craft of interaction. He’s teaching performance not ideas, and perspective not imagined universals. It’s less American; less desperate for fundamental meaning. McCracken disgusts me. To see a human being so fully a function of determinism does drive me to despair. He’s so much a blind reaction to event that he might as well be a form of plant life. And that horrifies me.

  21. sorry i came late to this, but seth is right on the money. this sinek guy is exactly part of the reason us anthros should stay away from corporations. forget that he “harnesses” knowledge just like mcfate and RAND corporation anthros and other historical antecedents in order to perpetuate the inequality of large scale capitalism. forget that he believes in great men and even greater histories, which we dismissed a long time ago as coming out of a particular western epistemological position that hides much more than it tells (ie guha, troillot, etc). forget that “fierce pullqoutes” and soundbyte-fads are part of the same trend that loves jack welch and richard branson and ignores the construction of powerful discourse and about who can actually speak in these fake polemics. forget even his bourgeois ideas of what “change” is, his ready acceptance of what the limits of change and what he even means by change.

    no, just look at his awful yuppie suit and imagine him coming to your work and recommending outsourcing as the next step to greater leadershiphood… indeed kerim, i must underscore seth’s point above, WTF HAS HAPPENED to this blog???

  22. Anthropology is a social science. It is a field of theory and method. It is not, nor has it every been an ideology, an economic or political position, or a personal philosophy.
    No anthropologist gets to tell any other what he can or can’t study, as long as it’s anthropological (people N>1). We also don’t get to tell others where they can or can’t work. Being an anthro. does not mean a person is a Marxist or an anarchist, or is not allowed to help companies make better products or improve services. I’d like to ask when the f%$k did this assumption come about?

    Anyone that takes this position had better never use any product or service that is developed, manufactured, serviced, or sold in the private market. And, if they do, they have never complain about any of it. What I mean is that they had better never think to themselves, this car (phone, computer, airline, store) should or could be improved. If they have ever done this in their lives, then they are defacto hypocrites and a member of life’s back seat driver community.

    I don’t think enough people in the academy understand the fact that no one cares. What they say affects no one. Practicing anthros. do not care. They are not paid, nor are their careers affected by any of this self-important bullshit. These debates happen in an eco chamber. Practicing anthros have a reason not to give a shit especially when academics attack them out of symbolic preconceptions which are based on zero data.
    I mean you’re gonna attack a man for wearing a nice suit?!

    To make deductive inferences with zero inductive data is not anthropological.

  23. I don’t think enough people in the academy understand the fact that no one cares.

    I am so glad I am not the only person who has said this.

  24. “No anthropologist gets to tell any other what he can or can’t study, as long as it’s anthropological (people N>1). We also don’t get to tell others where they can or can’t work.”

    You’re listening to Simon Sinek, but you’re not studying him. You put him in a position equivalent to yours, of viewer, so you respond to the content of his words. Why not put him in the dual position of viewer and subject? Why not examine him? That’s how HBO makes its money

    “To make deductive inferences with zero inductive data is not anthropological.”

    The suit is data; behavior is data. Ask any theater critic. But maybe you think there’s no data involved in direct observation of fellow human beings, in which case there’s a lot of fieldwork you can just throw out. Are you really going to stand by that absurd statement just because you think I’m a moralist? Don’t confuse me with Jonesy.

    I’m asking a very basic question that has many political implications, but it’s not radical at all.
    Remove the word ‘inductive’ from that statement and then it makes sense. At least it’s consistent with the rest of your argument. You’re a rationalist. The boundaries dividing those you talk to from those you “observe” are based on what exactly? The need to keep things simple? More than anything I’m defending the moral necessity of self-aware sophistication. If it comes attached to an Italian suit I’ll deal with it. I own one.

    Manet painted the world he was part of as directly as he could, without hiding behind false moralism or cheap tricks (he wasn’t much of a technician). That’s his greatest strength and what makes him as important as he is. He was a keen observer and he was honest.
    Ask an art historian.

  25. nobody said you had to be a marxist, rick, but your hilarious love-it-or-leave-it attitude reminds me of my undergrad students who can’t even picture a world without the huge corporations that so easily and neatly screw them and their families with aplomb. it also reminds me of david graeber’s false-argument in his “fragments of anarchist anthropology” (available free only, google it) on page 38.

    you’ve convinced me: i would argue that not only should you NOT be a marxist or anarchist, but you should never take any stance ever! i mean, you’re right, anthro is merely a social science: things evolve, are observable, are reducible to idealtypes and averages, and can be packaged and sold to the best bidder, right?

    sorry, i disagree completely. to argue that nobody has any right to criticize and that we should sit back and produce social sciece-am-i-rite is to me a completely duplicitous endeavor and ignorant of our complicity with the world’s worst offenders, from colonial trading companies, western frontier expansion to today’s biomedical companies. go home one day and actually READ what evil beast bore our precious social science, and perhaps you can make a historical link between what constituted “badness” back then and what constitutes it today, which is under the guise of huge corporations + the state.

    one thing i do agree with you about is that nobody gives a shit. 100% there with you. doesn’t mean, again, that you need to glenn beck on me and tell me to either not criticize, or never buy anything (comeon, that is hilariously bad! how myopic a view of anthro does one need to possess in order to ignore the other major charge of our discipline, about exchange, circulation and consumption of objects?)

  26. Seth, I don’t know anything about Mr. Sinek, or any MIT researchers. My last post wasn’t direct toward you. For all I know you could be correct, I just don’t know. That’s why I haven’t jumped into the debate between you and McCreery. You are both actually making valid points. I think the crux of what he’s saying is that you shouldn’t be so absolute with groups like that. You’re right about history to a degree, but context matters.
    The last post was directed toward Jonesy, who did that annoying thing that academics do, something called domain dependence. That’s when you are not able to apply your field of knowledge to anything not framed in a certain way. A famous example is a few studies by psychologists that showed statistics profs. who were acted probability question in not statistical, non-domain ways, they tended to not do very well. This attitude that Capitalists = evil, would not be tolerated if framed in any anthropological way, yet many anths. hold this position as a personal belief and they feel that their personal belief should be unquestioned and respected in the discipline. We should ask, what do anths. actually do in companies? Generally we improve communication, ease frustration, increase motivation, improve products and services, etc… If you think that electronics, and programs, have become more user friendly and intuitive over the years, then thank a design an working with companies. If you like the way touch screen phones now have physical keyboards, and social networking stuff, and other things, then your welcome, I actually suggested that with others to a major manufacturer. (I have no idea if did that, I just know they didn’t exist until the project).
    The literature is filled with practicing anths. who write about what they do, and it’s always great stuff that needs to be done. And, more importantly it actually has an affect on people’s lives. Anyone that wants to make a comment about it needs to educate themselves before hand. I can suggest many articles and books.

    This domain dependence flows into other areas as well. If you ask a Marxist anth. what they think about Michigan Militia types, like the ones that were just busted planning on killing police to bring about a Christian revolution calling forth the end of days, they will probably tell you very nasty things about those people. If you ask them about Islamist terrorist, then they often will tell you about how they are righteous freedom fighters, yada yada. Fuck that. If you blow up a school with little kids in it then you need to die, and it doesn’t make it better if you do in on the other side of the world.

    It’s an issue of geographic and economic distance. Many academics go through their days enjoying much of what applied anth. has done for them, and yet it remains invisible to them. Every human being is capable of the greatest good or the greatest evil, and you can’t tell by their suit.

  27. McCracken disgusts me. To see a human being so fully a function of determinism does drive me to despair. He’s so much a blind reaction to event that he might as well be a form of plant life. And that horrifies me.

    Seth,

    This sort of statement is why we need some evidence on the table. I’ve known Grant through his books and online for several years, and, as I see him, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. It begins to appear that you are the sort of critic who has never been backstage or taken the time to meet the actors, a spew of self-righteous prejudice.

    That judgment on my part could be wrong; but, this is the vital point, raising your voice and flaming away simply isn’t persuasive, Since you are a guy who seems to know something about performance and the arts of seduction you might want to rethink how you communicate.

  28. I’m intrigued: Rick, John, why exactly do you like him? Why trot out the “domain dependence” sociology? Do you all like him because he makes money… or because he merely is saying something different? I’m just not understanding the larger argument – I must admit I’m sympathetic to jonesy and seth, and am missing the idea of why a practicing anthropologist would be so defensive of someone who is, essentially, building a better way to know how to sell to consumers?

  29. I don’t agree with everything that Grant says or does, but I continue to find the distinction he draws between patina and fashion as sources of value good to think with. Patina is value accumulated over time, through stories about provenance. I, for example, am the happy owner of my maternal grandfather’s desk, the one he had in his drugstore in Savannah. Fashion is transient, a source of transient value with shallow roots in novelty.

    More recently, I have been intrigued by what he says about trends in Flock and Flow. HIstorically trends have been envisioned as continuous curves. Malcolm Gladwell introduced the idea of the tipping point, where a trend takes off. Grant’s contribution is to propose that there are, in fact, multiple turning points, at each of which the trend is modified to meet the requirements of a new and larger audience. His prototype is what happens when a small indie band climbs the charts and, if it goes all the way, achieves classic status, by which point the original fans are bemoaning the loss of the band’s original edge.

    He has had an interesting career. His dissertation was, I believe, on Elizabethan court costume, considered as an early example of fashion. He then worked for a while for the Royal Ontario Museum, before going on to carve out his current niche as a cultural consultant to marketers, including, for example, Coca-Cola. He is currently promoting his new book Chief Culture Officer, which argues that in a world of increasingly flighty consumers with lots and lots of options, corporations need someone to look after cultural trends in the same way that the CFO looks after the finances and the CIO looks after the IT. If he succeeds in promoting the idea, he will have created a lot of new career possibilities for people looking for an alternative to adjunct serfdom or the junkyard dog competition of the current tenure track.

    Far from being “a function of determinism,” he is, in my view, an extremely self-aware and active agent, who does not wallow in despair. I find that rather refreshing.

    But then I am the guy who remarked, following a lecture by Marshall Sahlins, that, “Those who believe that economic forces are translated directly into cultural effects have obviously never worked for an advertising agency.” I have.

  30. blog.edenbaumstudio.com/2010/04/note-taking-its-motherfucking-zietgeist.html
    John McCreery
    Go to the link and scroll down to the words “The wider context” the third word is a link to 3 posts on McCracken including an exchange with him.
    He thinks advertising is art because he thinks art is content not form, and text not subtext.
    If he were a constitutional lawyer he would be follower of the most absolute form of originalism. If he were religious he’d be a fundamentalist. He’s a fundamentalist about language. Again: we do not look at Giotto because he was so good at branding. I’m not a catholic or christian or religious. What’s left to us by Giotto is not what he thought but how he thought. The structures of thought not the “content.” I listened to the ideas of Simon Sinek and I observed the forms he used, physical and verbal rhetoric etc. I engaged with text and subtext (as I sensed it) I wasn’t too impressed with either but not offended either. We do not have that immediate access to something written or made 500 years ago. That’s what the originalists of all sorts can’t accept. But there’s also no valid argument for originalism even in the present. My mind and my emotions are not anyone else’s and I communicate only through being articulate in mediating form. That’s a craftsperson’s skill.

    If I say “I love you” to a woman in a plaintive whine, the odds are she’d think or maybe even say “No, you don’t.”
    If I say “I love you” like a sleazebag she’ll say “Go jerk off!”
    If I say I love you” in another way that I’m not going to try to describe she might say “Maybe you do.”

    The content of those three phrases is identical, the meanings are not. Conceptualists and ideologists of the present tense do not deal with that fact. My experience of infomercials and motivational speakers colors my response to the videos of Simon Sinek. So does my experience in bars and cafes and my half-assed knowledge of American history. It frustrates me no end that I searched the index of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and he had no mention of literature or law; with the craft of seduction which is central to both.

    We live in intimate relation with the world. We respond is subtle ways and to things we’re not even aware of. Those relations dominate our lives; but official intellectual life in this country pretends otherwise and as a result is more and more unable to model the world we live in with any complexity or depth. Multi-lingual club kids in Miami and Queens are more international than anyone at Harvard and in that respect more intellectually advanced.

    The academic commercial culture of MIT gives us Grand Theft Auto; the dissonance just in that is mindbending, Grand Theft Auto is a symptom of our time, it’s disposable. The non academic equally commercial world that gives us the Sopranos, and crime as real narrative with all the descriptive power that time allows-in multiple perspectives and contradiction[!] gives us not symptom and instant relic but complex record.
    Which is more valid as a product of the intellectual imagination?

    I’m been arguing this for most of my life. No one gave a shit 25 years ago and no one gives a shit now. The people who get it don’t bother to articulate it and the people who could articulate it don’t pay attention. The only real intellectual life in this country is ant-academic and anti-intellectual. So what the fuck am I doing?

  31. “I’m intrigued: Rick, John, why exactly do you like him?”

    Ok, I gotta hurry before the Ambien kicks in, so this may develop badly. I have no personal feelings or stake in this, and know nothing about Simeon. My argument here is about a fictional narrative which colors anyone with a pollution as being set aside within the category of the eternally depraved, especially when no evidence is offered.

    I am a practicing anthropologist, so I’m kind of sensitive to that shit, unless this guy actually did something wrong, in which case, light him up. I have not seen any evidence though. The only time I really ask for it is when someone is in the process of defaming another. There’s no reason not to be nice and civil. I can’t stand this new culture of defamation and incivility motivated by misinformation and personal feelings.

    There’s nothing wrong with figuring out what you want, figuring out how it should work, and then figure out how to sell it to you. Do you like your computer? Do you like the way you can buy things very easily on it, and have them shipped to you. I mean I could go on and on all night, but the point is the same. What is wrong with actual work, that actually helps people, and gives them what they want? Is it beneath you as a human to work at a place to try to improve goods and services? Unless things are perfect as is.

    I begrudge no academic. God bless you and more power too you. Amen. I just don’t see why academics so often feel they need to climb out of their shitty no-tenure, bad pay, no respect, bad clothes life and give the rest of us grief. I mean the world has places for different people. My idea of hell is a class full of undergrads., and I don’t feel the need to make no money for a job. That’s just how I roll. To each their own.

  32. He is currently promoting his new book Chief Culture Officer, which argues that in a world of increasingly flighty consumers with lots and lots of options, corporations need someone to look after cultural trends in the same way that the CFO looks after the finances and the CIO looks after the IT.

    This is probably an offensive thing to say in a number of ways, but the first thing that popped into my head upon reading this was that a corporations dealing with flighty consumers seems kind of like a wife beater dealing with a twitchy spouse.

  33. This is probably an offensive thing to say in a number of ways, but the first thing that popped into my head upon reading this was that a corporations dealing with flighty consumers seems kind of like a wife beater dealing with a twitchy spouse.

    LOL!

    Seriously, however, whether having Chief Culture Officers around is the right solution remains to be seen. But the problem Grant is addressing is a real one, that afflicts all large organizations, both in business and in politics, and especially so when the world is changing rapidly. As people devote themselves to working their way up a hierarchy to where they can make a difference, they tend to lose touch with what is going on in the world outside that hierarchy. One frequently attempted solution is to parachute in someone from another organization; but they don’t know the organization into which they are parachuted or the field in which it operates and, to be senior enough to be considered for this kind of move, they have worked their way up somewhere else. They are equally unlikely to have a “street smart” sense for what is going on. The idea of having someone high in the hierarchy whose primary responsibility is to keep track of what is going on, who also has a voice at the table where major decisions are made, is not a bad one. Finding the right people may, however, be very, very hard. This is always a problem when a new niche is created.

    Why do I take this sort of thinking seriously? My favorite example is Lyndon Baines Johnson. Lyndon knew more about Texas politics and the people and rules of the Senate than any other U.S. president in history. Did he know anything about Asia in general or Vietnam in particular? Hell, no. So, in making decisions about the Vietnam War, he fell back on political instincts honed in a totally different place. He continued to depend on people like Bob McNamara and William Westmoreland who had risen to the top in their own organizational contexts; but, just like Lyndon, knew diddly about the place in which they were trying to fight a war. It would have been very helpful if (1) there had been someone in the cabinet who knew something about the place in question and (2) had a voice as powerful as those with other backgrounds. Ditto for our present adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Didn’t happen, of course, and the one thing that’s easy to predict is that it never will while those who pride themselves on “cultural expertise” take a woe-is-us, holier-than-thou approach to trying to influence public opinion. In the words of that great ethnographer William Jefferson Clinton, the public will always pick strong and wrong over weak and right. We want to be right, we have to be strong, despair just doesn’t cut it.

  34. In the words of that great ethnographer William Jefferson Clinton, the public will always pick strong and wrong over weak and right.

    Was his remark in the context of a discussion involving Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?

  35. “the public will always pick strong and wrong over weak and right.”
    No. Most people are comfortable only with the patterns they know and will continue to follow them even in inappropriate situations. How do I know that? I heard in on an infomercial.
    The one thing neither of you idiots are capable of contextualizing is yourselves. You like McCracken’s manic utopian babbitry because he’s ‘doing something.’ But you can’t map the course -the narrative- that led you to have such a discussion on a website named for Claude Levi-Strauss.

  36. The one thing neither of you idiots are capable of contextualizing is yourselves.

    I make a motion to stop feeding the troll.

  37. Was his remark in the context of a discussion involving Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?

    As I recall, I heard it sometime during the primary season that led to the Kerry campaign. But I wouldn’t trust my memory too far. So I did a Google search for “Clinton strong wrong weak right” and found a bunch of references, e.g., this one from Real Clear Politics. There I found,

    After the 2002 election, Clinton had an explanation for those who did not understand why Bush and the Republicans had picked up congressional seats. The GOP victories that year, in which national security was a big issue, were the exception to the historical record of the president’s party usually losing seats in mid-term elections.

    “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right,” Clinton said.

  38. Strong and wrong etc.
    Not “No.” My mistake Your comment excluded your own kind again that’s all. Other than that it’s a valid point, even a truism.

    But Clinton was to the right of Brian Mulroney’s Canadian conservatives and even then Pierre Trudeau callled him a Republican. You’re arguing from class or elitism one way or another, I’m arguing systems. The American perspective is universalism in the eyes of Americans; in the eyes of others not so much.
    But don’t reply. Don’t feed the trolls. I’m only writing for some of those too put off by casual references to spousal abuse to bother posting anything. Between the crassness and reinvention of the wheel, this thing is done.

  39. “Did he know anything about Asia in general or Vietnam in particular? Hell, no. So, in making decisions about the Vietnam War, he fell back on political instincts honed in a totally different place.”

    Outstanding example. Another good one is Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Most of the info. that he needed to not make such a mistake was available, but it was open source. Instead, he got his info. from secret sources, because they were secret and therefore seemed more credible. If he had had voices that actually knew something about Cuba, its history and culture, then history would probably be very different.

    I think part of the issue is that people think the information is available and that those with power simply ignore it, or choose not to use it. This is a popular myth of government and capital. Therefore, many anths. has a sense, based on nothing, that if they contribute then they will simply be one more crowded voice that will be ignored. My experience is the opposite. In my experience, people are information starved, and the natural state for any information starved person is to seek out information. They’ll take what they can get. Politicians live in bubbles, heads of city and company departments live in little fiefdoms. When you show up and are able to competently understand and repeat back thing in their own language that they already know to them, then they will eagerly listen to what you have to say. The world has moved a long way since the 1960-1970’s, and academics like to give examples from. Today, a city manager, or a CEO, or whoever, is likely to be a highly educated person whose own fields of education have taught them many modern concepts, that don’t just exist in anthropology. They just weren’t taught ways to put them into practice in unique places or customizing them. They need us for that.
    What I’ve learned working with private and public institutions is that I was ignorant and biased against them, due to may anthropological education. I am often amazed at how progressive people and institutions can be, or want to be. Working most recently with the City of Dallas (on going), city bureaucrats have blown me away. I simply was not prepared for the progressive, forward thinking ideas that people had, and plans they wanted to carry out. They’re currently building the largest urban park in the world. They have the most LEED certified buildings in the US, and just hired a Vancouver planner who is helping design the eco-cities in Dubai, so he can replicate many of the ideas here. They have frozen eminent domain statutes in poor areas. The city architects asked me to introduce them to residents in poor communities, so that they could come to City Hall and help them work on designs for improvements to their neighborhoods, and they now run new plans by local residents, to ensure that development is customized and a sense of place is maintained.
    And this is Dallas! They simply needed better information. People out there beyond the academy are not stupid, and treating them like they are or unworthy of us is contemptible and arrogant.

  40. I think part of the issue is that people think the information is available and that those with power simply ignore it, or choose not to use it. This is a popular myth of government and capital.

    An excellent point. Why is it, do you think, that people think that way? Why is the myth popular?

  41. “This is a popular myth of government and capital”
    “An excellent point. Why is it, do you think, that people think that way? Why is the myth popular?”

    “Apologetic McDonnell Adds Slavery Clause To ‘Confederate History Month’ Proclamation”
    tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/04/mcdonnell-apologizes-for-proclamation-adds-slavery-clause.php?ref=fpa

    I guess the info just wasn’t available.

  42. “An excellent point. Why is it, do you think, that people think that way? Why is the myth popular?”

    TV, movies, popular culture. I think it comes from the same place that conspiracy theorists get their belief in a hyper competent government that can pull of high level conspiracies; like 9/11 was an inside job. You watch CSI, 24, NCIS, thriller movies, etc… and you get the sense that there’s a computer program out there and that triangulate data in a magical way through the use of shadows, and that employee movements are tracked and everyone knows what’s going on. Then in anthropology there’s an assumption in traditional ethnography that local people know what’s going on in a place. In a modern US city people don’t know what’s going on a couple of miles from them at any given time.

    In some of my interviews with Dallas residents, I’ll talk with them about how they would like to be contacted about certain programs, or if they’d be willing to tell people they know if we contact them, and they assume that there’s someone at City Hall who has that job. Like there’s a guy there whose job it is to contact people. That guy doesn’t exist.
    There are two or three drug houses on every block in part of my fieldsite, and I ask people if they ever call the police, and they assume that the police have super powers and can do shit that they can’t legally do. They want the police to be in their communities 24 hours a day.

    This shouldn’t be so surprising to academics. How well do bureaucracies work at a large university? Are their disconnects between depts., or within depts., and are they’re disconnects between admin. and others? I’m guess they’re always are, and there’s nothing magical about the world outside academia.

    Another issue is when the information is there to be had and no one listens to it, because there’s a group think dynamic going on. Again, this is part of the human condition. Most large orgs. take in more information than they could ever hope to process. I heard that the CIA takes in as much info. in a single day as has been produce in most of human history. 80% of that is open source. No one considers all information equally, or even listens to all of it. It’s our job as anths. to frame information is a culturally credible, available, and topical way. It isn’t on others to learn our jargon, its our job to learn theirs. Everyone has a preconception of what is or isn’t the truth.

  43. ““Apologetic McDonnell Adds Slavery Clause To ‘Confederate History Month’ Proclamation”
    tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/04/mcdonnell-apologizes-for-proclamation-adds-slavery-clause.php?ref=fpa

    I guess the info just wasn’t available.”

    I don’t get the connection. Seems like a long walk to make one.

  44. I think part of the issue is that people think the information is available and that those with power simply ignore it, or choose not to use it. This is a popular myth of government and capital.

    An excellent point. Why is it, do you think, that people think that way? Why is the myth popular?

    That makes sense for your average American. But doesn’t the CRS exist for the express purpose of giving our elected officials access to on call professional researchers ready to draw up concise lit reviews from the collections across the street?

  45. Existence for an express purpose is one thing. Use for that purpose may be another. Serendipitously, I am reading Cross, Rob and Andrew Parker (2004) The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press. Among the interesting observations I have discovered so far is the need to distinguish between awareness, access and energy networks. These represent respectively the networks indicated by answers to the questions (1) Are you aware that X knows Y? (2) Can you find out Y from X? and (3) Does contact with X leave you feeling energized or dispirited?

    I am currently informally consulting with a Japanese friend who is working on a dissertation on the possible benefits of introducing greater diversity into Japanese medical device company R&D teams. This kind of thinking seems directly applicable.

    Let’s suppose that a company hires a bunch of Chinese, Indian, Eastern European or even USAnian researchers. How will the members of existing R&D teams find out what they know? Even if members of existing teams are told about the new peoples’ expertise, how easy will they find it to get at it? There may be all sorts of organizational or physical barriers in the way. Let’s suppose they can get to these new people. Will they and the new people be comfortable working together? Will their mutual encounters spark new ideas or leave people on both sides feeling, “Never again”?

    Rick has nailed it. The fact that information exists is no guarantee that people know about it, want to know about it, will be stimulated by it, or do what we hope they will as a result of that stimulation. Get used to looking at the work in this more contextualized way and you begin to realize how fetishized and magical a too typical intellectual’s relationship to knowledge can be. I have to admit that, in my own case, it wasn’t until I started working in advertising and learned about communication and media strategies, that I woke up to the fact that value isn’t a property of books or journal articles. Their value, if any, lies in what people do with them, and between intent and execution there’s a lot of ground to be covered.

  46. balkin.blogspot.com/2010/04/commemorating-confederate-history-month.html

    “I think Governor McDonnell of Virginia is correct that we need to remember the Confederacy and the causes that led Americans to forsake their country and commit treason. Americans need to know their history, and how the world we live in came to be. Herewith my own commemoration of Confederate History Month:

    From Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ famous cornerstone speech, delivered March 21, 1861, explaining the purposes of the confederacy, and the assumptions on which it was founded:
    The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.

    “I think part of the issue is that people think the information is available and that those with power simply ignore it, or choose not to use it. This is a popular myth of government and capital.”

    Amusing or just sad, how much your behavior gives the lie to your own arguments. I wouldn’t still be at this but for the serendipitous fun in Virginia. And cutting and pasting is easy.

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