How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life: A Conversation with Gillian Tett, Author of Anthro-Vision.

For over a century, anthropologists have immersed themselves in unfamiliar cultures, uncovering the hidden rituals that govern how people act. Now, a new generation of anthropologists are using these methods in a new context – to illuminate the behaviour of businesses and consumers around the globe.

In Anthro-Vision, Gillian Tett – bestselling author, Financial Times journalist, and anthropology PhD – reveals how anthropology can help make sense of the corporate world. She explains how to identify the ‘webs of meaning’ that underpin consumers’ behaviour on the other side of the planet. She reveals why ‘sense-making’ can explain the most erratic behaviour of Wall Street bankers, and why concealed systems of barter shape our relationship with Silicon Valley. She delves into the cultural shifts driving investment in new markets and green issues. And she reveals what anthropology can tell us about our own workplaces, too: by identifying the hidden tribes within the office, or pinpointing which rituals are binding together a team. Along the way, Tett draws on stories from Tajik villages and Amazon warehouses, Japanese classrooms, and City trading floors, all to reveal the power of anthropology in action. The result is a revelatory way to explain human behaviour. In a short-sighted world, we can all learn to see clearly – using the power of Anthro-Vision.

Gillian Tett is the chairman of the US editorial board and editor-at-large at the Financial Times. Perhaps best known for predicting the 2007–8 financial crisis, Tett’s bestselling book Fool’s Gold was one of the definitive books on the crash. Her work for the FT has taken her around the world – from Brussels to Tokyo to Moscow to New York– and won her numerous awards, including Columnist, Journalist and Business Journalist of the Year prizes at the British Press Awards.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Gillian Tett about how anthropology can help us better understand the world, and why business leaders need to understand and apply anthropology to build successful organisations.

Q: Is anthropological intelligence the other AI?

[Gillian Tett]: We’re in a world increasingly shaped by and enthralled to, artificial intelligence. In a way – that’s not a bad thing… AI is an amazing tool that will deliver a lot of progress and benefits, but alongside that we need to retain our awareness of another type of AI, anthropology intelligence. It’s the way we recognise we are human with all the contradictory, messy, glory that entails. To understand our humanity, we need to have an appreciation for culture and recognise that human beings exist on a spectrum of cultural difference which can’t be neatly captured with models or divided into boxes. Trying to define culture just as frustrating as trying to chase soap in the bath – but we can’t ignore it. AI tools are built on big data sets which are really based around correlations. Correlations are important but are not causation. That’s where we need culture to try and inform our understanding of the world.

Q: How can anthropology help us better understand the world?

[Gillian Tett]: Anthropology has a process, philosophy, and method to its analysis. A set of moral values and ideas about how humans work.

One guiding principle of anthropology is that it pays to immerse yourself in cultures and people who seem different to you. Anthropology is obsessed with curiosity, exploring things that see strange, deliberately embracing a sense of culture shock and immersion in the lives and minds of people who seem different. That immersion may be local or on the other side of the world. I went to a place called Soviet Tajikistan and immersed myself in a culture that initially seemed very strange, but which became familiar on closer understanding.

The second guiding principle is to not just use the experience of immersion to better understand the ‘other’ but to flip that lens back to examine yourself, and your own culture, and realise how- in many ways- your life can seem strange to others too. There’s a wonderful Chinese proverb which states that a fish cannot see water. We find it very hard to see the assumptions which shape our own lives, and often, unless you jump out of your own world- your own fishbowl- at least for a moment, you can’t really see what you’re missing.

Anthropologists passionately believe that you need to listen to the social silence, not just the noise. What are people not talking about, what are the blank spaces on the map?

Q: How does anthropology relate to psychology?

[Gillian Tett]: Most of the social sciences overlap, and often the boundaries we see in an academic context are quite artificial. Psychology tends to focus on individual brains and behaviours, but individuals don’t just exist as individuals. They’re shaped by group perceptions and by cultural assumptions taken from a wider context. The fundamental idea of anthropology is that we’re shaped by cultural assumptions that we’re barely aware of because we’re creatures of our own environment and culture. Anthropology therefore looks at the interplay of cultural assumptions and that helps us understand how information spreads and how cultural behaviours and patterns are formed.

There is no black and white in anthropology- rather, it is a discipline focussed on shades of grey. It’s a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one that can be reduced to algorithms. Anthropology is to our understanding of humanity what salt is to food. If you add salt to food, it tastes better and binds the individual ingredients together. Without salt? You’re missing something quite crucial – you’re missing something that binds the individual flavours together.

Q: How should business leaders better understand anthropology?

[Gillian Tett]: Anyone who has risen to the top of a hierarchy has done so often through displaying self-confidence and having tunnel vision. The problem is this. The higher you get in the hierarchy, the greater the danger that you end-up thinking that everyone else thinks like you. When leaders become senior, isolated, flattered, and admired- they fall into the trap of assuming that everyone thinks like them. Anthropology tells us that the first thing a leader should embrace is to go out and develop empathy for different perspectives, even if that’s challenging, uncomfortable and embarrassing.

By virtue of being cloistered in their corner offices, leaders can also develop tunnel vision of how their company works. If they’re working in a world of economic modelling, balance sheets and big data, they can think that these tools reveal how to navigate the world. That’s dangerous. Those models are no doubt useful, but they have boundaries. The inputs are decisions, and the boundaries tend to be the horizon beyond which everything is ignored. That can prevent models from seeing context.

Economic models treated environmental issues as externalities for many years because they were external to the inputs of those models. They were footnotes to the corporate balance sheet. Today we realise that environmental issues matter deeply- the context has changed radically. That pattern has been reflected repeatedly in the corporate world in relation to many of the issues to do with the environment, society, reputation and more. One of the things which sits at the heart of the environmental and social governance movement is a recognition that you must look at externalities beyond models. You must use lateral vision, not tunnel vision, when you look at the tools, you’re trying to navigate the world with.

Imagine someone walking through a dark wood at night with a compass as the only navigation tool. The compass can be brilliant, but if you walked through the wood looking at the face of the compass, there’s a high chance you’ll walk into a tree. Anthropology gives you that lateral vision and enables you to lift your eyes and look up and around.

[Vikas: Does anthropology allow us to better understand risk management?] 

[Gillian Tett]: ESG started as a tool for trying to ‘save the world’ it was driven by activists who were often very laudable in their desire to build a better world. Today, ESG Is more of a tool for risk management by most companies. Employing the lateral-vision perspective seen in ESG is anthropology by another name, and employing that perspective allows you to also see things like the reputational risks that come with sexual discrimination, environmental issues, supply chains and more. Anthropology isn’t fool proof, but it sometimes enables you to ‘see around corners’ from a risk perspective.

Q:  What is the importance of social silence?

[Gillian Tett]: Social silence is embedded deeply into anthropology. Fundamentally it’s the gap between what people say they will do, and what they do. That gap can often be huge. Another way to look at it is to examine what people aren’t talking about as much as what they are.

People ignore things but can also choose to ignore things because the topic may seem embarrassing, self-evident, taboo, geeky or dull. All those labels justify silence but are often very revealing.

We live in a world of overwhelming noise where there’s a constant clamour for attention. That noise can drown out everything and take us down very one-dimensional tracks of debate. We need to stop and evaluate. In any given situation, people may be talking about X, but what are they doing? How much does their activity correspond to their discussions? That gap is often very revealing- it’s like a blank space on a map.

If you take a photography; your eyes will be trained to go to the centre of the image. But what is around that? What are you screening out and therefore what are you not seeing?

When I was a journalist in 2004, I was working at the Financial Times running the LEX column. This is the financial commentary part of the FT and so I was often writing on about the news stories of the day. I was curious as to what would happen if I went to the City of London with an anthropological mindset – and examined what people were talking about, and what was driving revenue. There was a huge mismatch. All the chatter in financial media was about equity markets, but the activity driving revenue was derivatives. There was almost zero coverage on these instruments and so in a way the noise was the equity markets, and the silence was the derivatives market. I decided to refocus coverage onto derivatives, and that turned out to be incredibly important in the 2008 financial crisis.

Q:  Does the anthropologists perspective help us to better understand phenomena like cryptocurrency?

[Gillian Tett]: Cryptocurrencies are an area where anthropologists can probably explain things better than economists. You have value, mediums of exchange and forms of wealth, but you also have patterns of trust. You have a shift from vertical to horizontal patterns of trust as people shift from trusting institutions to trusting their peers. You see these horizontal patterns of trust in many segments of society- you trust your classmates because you can eyeball them, you know them, and you know what to expect of them. Small scale communities often trust each other because they know each other personally. Today’s digital technologies allow this horizontal trust to be replicated on a massive scale. Anthropologists also have a lot to say about the social behaviours and patterns of tribalism that we’re seeing in cryptocurrencies. Crypto assets quickly become a part of people’s identity – you see the same with meme stocks. There are signals, cultural rituals, and behaviours which economists simply wouldn’t normally pay attention to.

Q:  How can we practically apply Anthro-Vision to our lives?

[Gillian Tett]: There are five ways we can take more of an anthropologists view in our lives.

  1. Embrace a bit of culture shock. Try and jump out of your skin. If you can’t do it physically, do it mentally. Go into cyberspace and explore a world which is completely different from your own. Try to immerse yourself in someone else’s life and get some empathy for their position.
  2. Imagine an alien landing in your world today. What would they see? What would they not see? What would they think is important or not? What would they perceive as being completely crazy or weird?
  3. Try to actively look at social silence. Try to look at the parts of the world you’re ignoring. Try to see where there are gaps between what you do and what you say you do.
  4. Try to study rituals, symbols, ceremonies, boundaries, and spatial patterns. One of the few good things about COVID is that we’ve been forced into culture-shock. We’ve been forced to re-examine things that we used to take for granted. We have had to create new rituals, traditions, and boundaries.
  5. Try to remember that human behaviours are not set in stone. There isn’t just one way to live or to be. We can learn from each other, and we can all change. Just look at the way we behave in relation to masks today versus two years ago.

Understanding human society through the lens of anthropology is scary, liberating, and exciting!

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.