5 Minutes with Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist, author and blogger. His most recent book is Chief Culture Officer.

The appetite and need for anthropologists in a business context has grown over the years, and you’ve certainly had a big part in opening those doors. What do you think are some of the challenges that anthropologists continue to face as we try to continue to apply our methodologies in a corporate setting?

Not to get boxed into other people’s ideas of what anthropology and ethnography are. What’s really good about both anthropology and ethnography is they’re so open-ended as an approach. The trick is to throw us into the deep end. If we have our wits about us we’ll think our way out, by gathering the data and finding the patterns. What anthropology does really well, and what I think is increasingly valuable, is not finding out what the answer is but what the question is, what the problem is.

Some clients want to manage the process, they want to tell you what ethnography is and they want to make certain specifications. No, you either trust me or don’t trust me, and I hope I’m not being a prima donna, because I just follow my nose until I have something and I don’t know I have something until I have it. Even then I need to think about whether it will truly deliver value.

There’s a structural similarity between the dynamism and chaos of the world and the relative dynamism and chaos of anthropology. For clients, if you want to find out what that dynamism and chaos is, use a method that is itself chaotic and complicated. But then don’t put restrictions on it. You want to extract full value from that analytical opportunity, let it be what it is and it will give you new clarity, but don’t manage it – you will hobble its ability to give you clarity.

I don’t have this question written down, but I’m curious. I use this when I have to remind my mother what I ‘do’. If you had to say it in one sentence, what is anthropology in your practice of it?

I guess I have two answers, one for ethnography and one for anthropology. The ethnography answer is: My job is to think about how people see the world, act in the world, feel about the world – what it looks like from their point of view.

The anthropology answer is quite different, and we need a PR firm to come to our rescue here. Everybody thinks ethnography is the whole of it, but I think it’s only part of it. The other part, the larger part, is the anthropology, and that’s being able to find these patterns, just emerging, that are barely patterns.

It’s moving from the very particular, where I am listening to you to figure out how you see the world, and I’m then on this helicopter ride to an altitude where I’m looking down on this bigger pattern. I think the combination of those two things, if you can find out what it looks like on the ground for some individual and helicopter up to the bigger, broader picture that shows all the wheels within wheels and captures how it works as a system, if you can do both of those things you have some hope of capturing the world. But to do one and not the other is a problem.

People are really interested in millennials right now, what they’re saying, how are they saying it, and who they’re saying it to. What makes them so interesting?

Some years ago I wrote a book called Transformations, and it was about something that was just emerging in the world, a new kind of multiplicity we were seeing everywhere in popular culture, this idea that one individual could have many selves. I was trying to figure out, well what is this anthropologically? And it’s been interesting to see how often millennials use a multiplicity strategy to define their lives. They’re waiting for the state of play to know what my leading self, my DJ self, my day-job self, my nighttime self, or whatever it’s going to be. I think that multiplicity is really interesting. Some of it is being driven by economic necessity, you know, just because it’s so difficult in this economy.

So here’s the anthropological problem: Is this only being driven by economic necessity and will it go away when the economy returns to something like normal and they get that single job that defines them in their entirety and we’ll be back to a primo-multiplicity model, or is multiplicity the name of the game and will continue whatever happens economically? My bet is on the second, but I could be wrong,

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.