Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 2

In Part 1, I compared traditional fieldwork in a South Indian village with my unexpected and forced relocation to a U.S. treatment center for heroin addicts.  Now, in Part 2, I want to try out a concept to explain why it felt like I was doing the “same” thing in such different places. What fundamental of an anthropological perspective might have led to that feeling of sameness?

I’ll continue to use those early experiences from the late 1960s and early 70s. I don’t think the fundamentals have changed all that much.  But more recent experiences will be added in now and then. Over the decades, I’ve used what we do in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, some of them not suitable for mention in a family blog of this type.

It strikes me that—in contrast to most everyone else who talks about a human group not their own—anthropologists start out by wanting to learn about that group and what they do, from them, beginning with a suspicion that what the anthro and every other outsider thinks is true is probably wrong. I sometimes describe us as “ambulatory falsification machines.” Tell me something that you or I think we know about the people we’re interested in, and I’ll bet my retirement savings it’s at least a stick-figure version and maybe flat wrong.

Back in the dark ages there were a few other examples of traditional behavioral/social science that had this attitude, but most of them were the exceptions that proved the rule. For example, consider the classic work of Leon Festinger. In his book When Prophecy Fails, he made famous the concept of “cognitive dissonance,” about as mainstream as a behavioral/social science idea would ever get. But in contrast to most psychology, the book was based on time spent in tasks with a group who prophesied a date for the end of the world which then didn’t happen. The researchers dived in and learned what the group actually said and did. I’m not sure how well it measured up to anthropological research standards. I’ve never read the original. And of course once the book came out, the new concept was immediately hauled back into the hermetically sealed psyc lab, as if Festinger had been rehabilitated after he snuck out of a faculty meeting and jumped off an epistemological bridge while tethered to an extremely short and strongly elastic bungee cord.

When I landed in the South Indian village as an anthropology undergraduate, I had already absorbed our skeptical attitude from readings and lectures without even thinking about it.  “Don’t trust what you think you know.  Learn from the people who actually do the tasks you’re interested in because you probably don’t have any idea of what’s really going on until you get up close and personal.”

For example, I walked into the village on day one thinking in terms of a model where a “headman” ruled the roost. Once I got far enough into the language, I learned that the hereditary village headman, the Naik, was a young drunk who embarrassed everyone. So how did headman tasks get done? I spent a fair amount of time working out the answer based on how conflict in the village was handled in a Naik-free way, conflict resolution being the main job the current one couldn’t be relied on to handle. I learned by going through one damn case after another.

Same anthropological perspective a couple of years later, when I landed in the treatment center for addicts in Lexington.  As mentioned earlier, I checked in as a patient for a couple of weeks. I’ve told stories about that (mis)adventure in my farewell to the drug field, Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs. Before check-in, I learned the description of the official structure of “patient” therapeutic tasks. Then, after I went through admissions, got my grey pants and white t-shirt, and moved into my room in the male residence unit, I learned how the tasks looked, with the “patients,” from their point of view.

I wrote up a report about what I had learned, naive 60s student that I was, to single-handedly make the institution a better place. Senior colleagues, it turned out, didn’t want to hear the difference between what I’d learned and what they wanted to believe, and they held me personally responsible for telling them. Probably the worst news from their point of view was the “therapy game.” The phrase “the X game” was a common street formulation to name various ways of hustling money or some other advantage from “squares.” In this case, “the X game” referred to how you should do therapy and produce an “insight” at the right time to secure an early release date.

Tasks in the streets interested me, too, but, like the addicts, I was confined to the “joint,” a slang term for a prison, the regular use of which offered another quick insight into patient views of the “treatment program.” Addicts talked about the street world all the time; staff, hardly ever. I tried to figure a way to learn about street events from a distance. My very first publication in Human Organization in 1969 called the method we invented “The Simulated Situation.” It was a kind of role-play that the patients and I had a lot of fun with. It introduced some of the dynamics of a couple of key addict street tasks and helped me understand their transformation into life in the joint. Several years later I worked in New York and saw for myself the value and limits of studying “culture at a distance,” as the anthropologists working during World War II called it.

The context of those two early research experiences, the village and the joint, was different in several ways, but that’s not the point here. In spite of the different settings, that instinct to take a closer look at the tasks that people did and to learn about those tasks from the people doing them—that reaction came right out of an anthropological way of looking at things, an anthropological perspective, and it worked the same way in both places.

Here’s one way of describing what the learning is about. You want to learn how to talk about a task with people who do it, and maybe even learn to take part in it yourself. If you succeed, you will be able to tell. You will be able to take part in conversations with those people in terms of what the point of a task is and how it gets done. A linguistic anthropologist would use Dell Hymes’ phrase and say you become “communicatively competent” in the topic of that task among people who routinely do it. You can at least talk the talk, maybe even walk the walk.

Notice the hedge on participant observation, “maybe walk the walk.” Claim actual competence in the performance of the task you’re learning about? Maybe, but probably not. For example, I’m talking right now with a colleague about a study of water managers. If I do it, I don’t expect to be qualified as a manager by the end. But I do expect to learn to talk with them in a way we will both understand as being about their work. I doubt I’ll ever say, “Here, I can figure the amount of water the city of Albuquerque gets this summer and explain it before the city council.” Such a performance would require a lot of additional training and experience in water management, not to mention local political savvy.

So let’s stay with the more modest version. Say you want–at minimum–to  learn to be communicatively competent in some new tasks. What does “learn” mean? Unfortunately there are enough theories of learning so that, laid end to end, they would circle the earth at the equator. I’ll use Bateson’s pioneering work on levels of learning, usually referenced with mention of his concept of “deutero-learning.” That original work has diffused into many places, for example into discussions of single-, double-, and triple-loop learning in organizational theory and practice.

Anthropologists typically begin at Level One, aware from their own experience that the semiotics that they brought to a task isn’t working to talk about what is going on, as made obvious by reactions of people who actually do it. Learning the “right way” to interpret and talk and act from the perspective of task participants requires anthropologists to create some new semiotics, semiotics that they didn’t have before. That is Level Two, Bateson’s “deutero-learning,” not just a change in what you do, but a change by adding new possibilities of what you might do that you didn’t have before. Eventually Level Three learning might occur, a profound change, similar to an epiphany or religious conversion. In this case many Level Two changes snap into a single coherent focus. An understanding of a different way of being in the world takes shape—“different” with reference to the original state of the anthropologist before the work. The anthropologist is now becoming “bilingual/bicultural.”

As far as most behavioral/social sciences go, this communicative competence is not required. You can comfortably research under the malevolent eyes of your peers and get away with a denial that any Level Two learning is required at all. Your training, and your similarly trained peers, do not require relevant task communicative competence of the “subjects” that the research is supposedly about. In fact, you can get away with murder describing your assumptions about who “those people” are and what they do in their life, as long as you don’t write it until the “discussion” section at the end of an article. For that matter, the suspicious peers won’t require an understanding of “subject” communicative competence for the actual research task itself, either. What are subjects doing when they do your experiment or answer your survey? Why are they doing it at all? Better not to know, any more than the staff at Lexington wanted to know about the therapy game.

The stories I could tell. Here’s just one example. I once helped with a focus group project involving ten different drug treatment agencies. The only important result was that the program staff who ran the groups learned that their clients could actually talk about and had articulate views of program tasks that were different and useful and previously unknown. They were amazed. The clouds parted and they saw the possibility of deutero-learning. Their hard-won “conclusion” is actually an anthropological starting point.

I know it’s awkward to name this important fundamental with the clunky clause, “learning communicative competence from those who do a task,” but the concept has grown in my mind over the years as a core of anthropology, back in the old days and now, from research to application to practice to a brief conversation about what we do. Whatever I’ve done, long-term ethnography to short-term intervention, if I’m the only anthropologist in the room, then, most of the time, I’m the one who wants  communicative competence inside the task of interest, right away, before any other questions are asked or information gathered or conclusions reached. In recent years working as self-employed, that ability can get me rapidly hired or just as rapidly fired. It’s seen as symptomatic of either genius or anarchy, but all it is is souped-up ANTH 101.

Here’s one recent example, a short-term project for an outpatient cancer clinic. I use it a lot in talks to non-anthropologists, partly because almost everyone has some relationship to cancer—self, family, a friend—and so it engages audiences and, in the end, they can see the truth of it from their own experience.

A clinic contacted me to help reduce “waiting time,” defined as the number of minutes from check-in at the reception desk to room-in, i.e when a patient starts their chemotherapy.

What, I wondered, was “waiting time” for an outpatient? No one had wondered that before in any serious way. The full project is too elaborate to describe here, but the answer was definitely not the absolute number of minutes. The answer, based on learning patient and front-line staff communicative competence in the “waiting” room, was that it was about the threatening uncertainty of those minutes in a context where cancer had abruptly taken over one’s life and handed its control to professionals. As it turned out, you couldn’t change the number of minutes much, but you could do a lot to change the quality of those minutes. The results of this brief project led to an action proposal that made sense to clinic staff and the patients I spoke with. Unfortunately it was never used, as far as I know, but that’s a story about “implementation” for some future series of blogs.

A second contemporary example, based on this same task-based communicative competence fundamental, is the recent history of UX, user experience research. It  took off when companies realized that they really didn’t know much about how their goods and services worked—or didn’t—in the real lives of their customers and clients, either when they were shopping or when they put the product to use in their lives. Now UX is one of the more interesting areas of anthropology (and many other fields), witness the growth of EPIC (Ethnographic Practice in Industry Conference) over the last several years. A  year or so ago I did a workshop for a UX group in Toronto and I could write a blog or two just on my own user experience.

Learning communicative competence for a task is like solving a puzzle. You start with a lot of pieces that you can’t make sense of. But once the outlines of the puzzle start to appear, you look for other arrangements and other pieces and how they might complete the picture. And then, even in a limited project, the task you’re working on has sub-tasks and is part of larger tasks that make up an even bigger picture. You don’t finish the job, whether a brief consult or a multi-year ethnography, with a simple list of pieces and a new semiotics to interpret each one.  You finish with a pattern that shows how the different pieces come together to make a bigger picture clear.

Pattern is my second nomination for a fundamental of an anthropological perspective. That will be the topic of the next blog in Part 3.

Michael Agar

Mike Agar worked for decades professing, applying, and practicing anthropology, usually spicing it up with other disciplinary and professional ingredients as well. Savage Minds invited him to look back and think forward to see if he had any idea now of what anthropology is actually about. The five guest blogs over the first two weeks of November are a start at one possible answer. More info on him and his checkered past on his Ethknoworks home page at