NEWS: Financial Times editor Tett speaks on future of anthropology

BY DANNY JOHNSON
Staff Writer

Gillian Tett, assistant editor and columnist at the Financial Times, spoke about the inspirational career of French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu and about a modern-day lack of respect for anthropology as a field in a talk titled “Joining Up the Dots: Why An Anthropologist Helps to Make Sense of the World” on Wednesday afternoon.

Tett framed anthropology’s capacity to help us understand our own societies through the story of Bourdieu, a 20th-century anthropologist whose military experience in Algeria led him to scientifically examine his own community and larger French society.

Drafted in 1955 to fight against the Algerian movement for independence, which sought to break away from the French colonial empire, Bourdieu often got into trouble with his superiors for reading pacifist literature and spreading other subversive ideas, Tett explained.

While stationed in Algiers, Bourdieu had an epiphany that led him to study Algerian society. “He could see that most French people thought that Algerians were, if not idiots or peasants, barbarians,” Tett said, describing the beginning of Bourdieu’s desire to study and understand Algerian people. “Somewhat remarkably, in the middle of this very brutal war, he began to do just that.”

In 1957, Bourdieu left his barracks and teamed up with an Algerian scholar to travel the country, gaining notoriety at home for his publications on Algerian society. Bourdieu later returned to France with his Algerian colleague to “flip the lens in a very dramatic fashion” by studying the small community where he was born and French society at large.

“He was using his experience in the other to turn around and look back at where he came from, the supposedly sophisticated world of France, and look at what makes it tick,” Tett said. “It’s a story that is not widely known, but that captures the power of what anthropology is.”

Despite its major contributions, the field of anthropology has not been afforded the same respect in society, business and public policy that other fields, such as economics, have been afforded, she said. At the Financial Times and throughout her financial reporting career, Tett said she used to be “in the closet” about her Ph.D. in anthropology because she was surrounded by holders of economics Ph.D.s who may have misunderstood her degree.

According to Tett, one reason that anthropologists don’t receive the attention they deserve is that they tend to be “outsiders” by nature, and thus are “disinclined to playing the game in the various orbits of power” that others consider laudable.

Tett argued that anthropologists also do not receive the acknowledgement they deserve because most of society is not interested in what they have to say. She added that many disciplines have become focused on crunching numbers to learn how the world works, while the human or social factor is less interesting to them.

In Tett’s view, this focus on number-crunching leads to what she said is the third reason anthropology is not as respected — the rise of big data.

Despite these attitudes, Tett said she sees emerging opportunities for anthropologists to assert their relevance again.

“Something rather curious is going on,” Tett said. “As the business of data science grows in scale and scope, many of the data scientists are beginning to notice that they need the social component, even that they need the social component more than ever before.”

According to Tett, American businesses no longer see the world arranged in a binary fashion, but rather hope to make sales to other parts of the world that depend in part on understanding these new consumers’ cultures.

“There are many reasons to feel frustrated with the lack of recognition of anthropology,” Tett said, but anthropologists today should be “proud of how it has improved the world … and excited about its role in the future.”

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