Eating Brains

26 Feb

It’s hard to work as an ethnographer in a business environment. Then again, it’s hard to work as an ethnographer anywhere. That’s part of the territory, isn’t it? It’s the very point of the process.

Social scientists and MBAs live in two very different cultures. There’s no point in pretending that we don’t. We speak different languages and adhere to a different set of norms. Much of our work life is spent trying to understand one another – translating between cultures and interpreting nuances of meaning. It’s natural in these situations to inadvertently insult people, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, break norms that you didn’t even know existed. As an ethnographer, I’m probably more comfortable with that than others. When you enter an unknown culture, you often illuminate the norms by breaking them. That’s traditionally how you learn about the group that you’re studying. I spent two years in the field with parole agents who held very different views of the world than I do. I’m familiar with navigating that territory.

What if a vegetarian ethnographer was living with the hunter-gatherer Hadza? Everyone has to come together and collaborate to reach a common goal, which is getting food. That requires bridging the gaps somehow and becoming comfortable with hunting and eating meat – or starving! I mean, maybe eating a baboon’s brains would be going too far, but eating the flesh isn’t. You figure it out. Or you starve. And if you accidentally eat a taboo part of the baboon, you apologize and make it right and learn that the camp elder gets that part. You don’t make that mistake again.

When you’re in the field in a more traditional non-business way, there will be times that you’ll be so frustrated, embarrassed or exhausted that you’ll want to scream. You’ll want to cry. You’ll just want to pack your stuff and head for home.  The best thing to do is to go right ahead! Scream and you could learn about how a culture handles anger, frustration, noise, or norms around expression of emotion. Cry and you might learn about sadness, comfort, whose role it is to give you support as an outsider, and about your level of acceptance into the group. See what you’d miss if you packed and left for home? Suddenly, you want to stay. You want to see what new knowledge and experience tomorrow brings. Even if it’s hard.

Office culture isn’t really that different when you get down to the basics! The same principles apply as we’re trying to understand various languages and ways of being. We’re gonna screw up. Each side is going to insult, confuse, and frustrate the other. Then we’ll figure it out, find some common ground, and be excited to see what new experience tomorrow will bring. If you approach it as an ethnographic field setting, the office can actually be the most exciting territory to navigate of all!

Just don’t eat the baboon head.


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