Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Movie review of 洗澡 (Shower - 1999)

Greetings all!  My apologies for the delay in posting.  My mind was officially full after the AAA Conference, and I needed a few minutes to wrap my mind around all that I learned.   In the meantime, for my Chinese class, I watched the movie 洗澡, translated as "Shower."

To begin the translation is not the best, as the movie actually takes place in a public bath house in Beijing.  But it was a really interesting film, discussing the themes of parental love, devotion, disabilities and also the impact of rapid modernization on people's lives.

In the movie, a young man Da returns home after a letter written by his mentally handicapped younger brother, Er Ming, indicates that his father has died.  Upon returning home and realizing his father is very much alive, Da decides to hang around when he learns that their district is slated to be torn down for a new mall and residences.

The movie is decidedly male-centric, revolving around the relationships of fathers, sons and friends - and how they are all impacted by the upcoming move by the state to take over their area and raze it to the ground to make way for more development.  I found that this theme, the underlying tension of old versus new, tradition versus modernity, values versus money to be perhaps the most moving part of the story.

When I was in an undergraduate course in Anthropology on Modern China and its roles with minorities, one of the groups we studied were the persons in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities who were displaced due to recent construction.  One book in particular, Strangers in the City, I remember distinctly as it showed the tension of persons who've lived in neighborhoods for generations being displaced to make way for more modern development.  In the case of the author's research, these people were migrants from outside Beijing who took advantage of China's increasingly lax travel restrictions to find good paying jobs in the city.  This differs from the characters in the movie, who had been in Beijing for generations, running their own businesses and developing the relationships with both the land and the people around them.

But the entire process of relocation is an interesting topic to me, especially given the greater international spotlight on it during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.  During that time. areas the government deemed to be too old, or slums, or considered to be the "unsightly" old parts of the city were destroyed for new construction, from everything from malls, new housing complexes, and even the Olympic stadium.

Now while modern is not always a bad thing (sometimes it is preferable), what I found interesting about the whole underlying theme of the movie and of reconstruction of China in general is that often what people want to see when they visit other countries are these more 'traditional' neighborhoods.  And in destroying them, not only are lives and lifestyles uprooted and shifted, but much more cultural richness is lost.  And that was the sad part of this movie.  At the end you felt as though you were closing the book on a chapter in history - that from that time forward no one would know the stories, the struggles, the joys and the pain that once existed in that spot.

I suppose it is all just a matter of time...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Politics of Knowledge and the Elite-ing of the Entrepreneur

My first day at the American Anthropological Association has been a complete blur.  The behemoth that they call a program guide, and the mass of anthropologists convening in the hotel lobby have left me at once breathless, amazed and, as one professor put it "bright-eyed and bushy tailed!"  So much to learn, so many people to meet, so many opportunities to expand my mind.

However, some of my earliest sessions quickly put a damper, or rather lifted the veil of ignorance/naivete that  I had on prior to attending the conference.  I went to one session early yesterday morning, with two very distinguished professors, Dr. George Mentore (UVA) and Dr. Michael Harking (U of Wyoming), both of whom are or have been editors of major Anthropological journals.  They were giving a workshop on how to get published in a peer reviewed anthropological journal.  I found what tidbits they gave to be quite interesting, and not too surprising.  For example, don't just write something because you think you ought to - write something because you believe in it.  Write something you can defend, that you have done your research on, etc.  They explained that often young writers are 'run through the gauntlet' of professional academics who will challenge their ideas and assumptions, purely because they can.  However, if you fully agree with and stand by your statement, that it is not worth sacrificing the integrity of your views, just to have a gold star of a "published author" next to your name.  

Then Dr. Mentore said a phrase that caught my attention.  He called it the "Politics of Knowledge," that is knowing who you are writing for, his or her views, and how you can state your own views to advance your own career, without pissing off the 'academic elite' (my words).  The phrase Politics of Knowledge really struck a chord with me, as a knowledge worker.  Much of what I do, or rather the consulting industry, the political industry, the media and much of what we consider white collar workers do is distribute knowledge.  Professors, too, and the education industry fall in this category as well.  As the economic trends of the 21st century have emerged and legitimized themselves, we begin to see that the economy of the future is one of knowledge (re) distribution.  The old moniker "Knowledge is Power" comes to mind.  And yet, the advent of the online medium for sharing knowledge has cast a light on the power structures within the knowledge economy.  

Bill Eggers writes in a recent article that in the new economy, workers will have to redefine themselves (and their skill sets) approximately every five years to remain relevant.  And that the knowledge one learns in college is no longer useful about five years into the professional workplace.  So then, if knowledge is power and there is a politics to knowledge, are the new social castes of the future going to be played out in who owns the knowledge, and who is seen as "gatekeepers" of the legitimacy of your knowledge?  Who will be the tenured professors of the future who, with the stroke of a pen (or a keypad) can legitimize or forever destroy ones' career?  

My theory is one that came from another talk at the AAA conference.  One by a graduate student, Leslie Mitts of University of Pennsylvania who argues that the new elite class is that of the entrepreneur - specifically those entrepreneurs who are employed within accelerator organizations.  She argues that these accelerators recruit like minded people, often from the same institutions of legitimacy as the Ivy League schools - perpetuating a an intense cycle of elitist knowledge holding and idea generation that is becoming harder and harder for the true average-joe entrepreneurs to crack.  And there is a new form of a co-presence of space in these accelerators, creating a whole new community, to which many want to belong (even if for a few months).  It is become another stamp or seal of approval to prove ones worth as an "independent and innovative thinker."  

I see it here in San Francisco  where you can't throw a stone without hitting  a so-called entrepreneur.  But yet, the very definition of an entrepreneur, as someone who "one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise," with its root in the word 'enterprise' meaning "a project or undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky" is by its definition very vague and non-descript (definitions courtesy of Merriam Webster's Dictionary).  There is no limitation, nor should there be, to who can be an entrepreneur.  So then why in this new world of increasing focus on innovation and becoming the next Steve Jobs has it become something only the elite classes can accomplish to be taken legitimate?  

I believe in the next few years we need to be very careful and purposeful about how we manage knowledge - and the attitudes we take when sharing.  The beauty of the internet is that it allows for sharing, whether its an online blog that supersedes the 'institution' of a peer-reviewed journal, or that of an average person being able to learn about a new skill set or a new trade without having to pay for an expensive education - the lines of legitmacy of knowledge are being drawn.  We need to make certain that it is inclusive, and really come to question what isthe politics of knowledge - and how is it that we play as actors within it.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Wine, running, voting and the anthropologist

I lifted the glass to my nose, inhaling deeply as the smell of earth, trees, leaves, and fresh air wafted up to my nose.  The slight acidity of grapes punctuated the fragrance, tingling all the way down to my toes.  I lifted the glass up, the purple liquid translucent in the sun.  "Swish, swish, swish."  The trails of the liquid on the side of the glass ran like fingers slowly to the bottom of the cup - tracing patterns of an art project long forgotten in the realms of the mind.  Finally, I lifted the glass to my lips - the liquid strong and pungent - rolling over my lips and tongues like liquid velvet.  I hold the liquid in my mouth for a moment, breathing in air like a whistle over the top to properly allow the full flavor of the wine to examine my senses.

I smile, I write down my thoughts, "Tastes of pepper and blackberries," - and smile at the wine maker, "good wine!"

I put on the requisite equipment, moisture wicking material combined with enough layers to provide warmth but not hold my sweat against my skin.  I tie my shoelaces once, twice.  I position my watch on my wrist so that I can examine the time minimally without breaking strides, adjust my hat and ponytail and venture outside.  The cold air hits me like a blast but off I go...  one, two (breathe in) three, four (breathe out)... my feet pound the pavement.  Past the cemetery, across the bridge, and onto the Mall I go.  I pass visitors along the way, trying my best not to photo bomb, all the while my eyes fixed on the Capital in the distance, looming nearer with each step.  Pausing only for cars, and the occasional massive tour group, my body gets in a groove, like a well oiled machine.  Five, six, seven eight miles go by as I pass monuments to the great purveyors of our nation - salutes to the fallen, till I finally arrive back home, my mind coming out of a fog that only a long distance runner understands.

My hands are an icy mess - I cannot feel my fingers.  My stomach rumbles with hunger - I typically eat before leaving the house in a rush.   I stand in a line that weaves back and forth on itself, my neighbors engaged in hushed conversation (not wanting to break any rules).  I finally make it inside the school, only to find myself with another 100 people still waiting in line.  I finally arrive at the front, my ID checked, my ballot given, I go up to a machine to exercise a right for which so many valiantly fought.  For a moment I am reminded that I stand on sacred ground - a ground which so many helped pave, and many still crave to participate in.  Amid the tumult of the pre-election season, and the me versus the other mentality that pervades, I look around me, at the shared community of voters and citizens, I smile, push my buttons and move on in my day....

All these reflections above represent sacred rituals (both formal, but mainly informal) in which I've participated in the past two weeks.  Going to a winery for a tasting, going for a long distance run, and voting are all parts of shared experiences that are, at one time, a reflection of my own experiences and yet something shared within communities both recognized (like that of a voting precinct) and those a little less understood (the long distance runners groupies).  Nevertheless, each group has within it certain sacred practices, and sacred spaces.  Be it a bar in a winery - where you are meant to learn, discern and ultimately buy,  or the sacred space of a running path - where there are rules of etiquette on passing fellow runners.  Or more formally in the voting booths, where numerous discussion have been had in recent weeks on who 'belongs' to the community or not.

These topics all reflect the broader theme of this year's American Anthropological Association meeting "Borders & Crossings."  I am already excited at the themes to discover in the next few days, and I look forward to meeting many of my peers.  Now the question is - any suggestions on sessions to attend?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Presenting at the NAPA Expo

Attention all Anthropologists!  For those of you attending the AAA meetings in two weeks, just wanted to let you know that I will be hosting a booth at the NAPA Careers Expo on Friday from 11am - 4pm.  Please feel free to stop by, and say hi.  I will also be tweeting at @beth_schill.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The liminal 'Death' of the Corporation - Does it exist?

In my second post relating the concept of liminality to that of the corporate culture - I will start at the beginning of the liminal process: understanding whether or not corporations are going through the metaphorical change, or death, that is necessary to jump-start a new period of redefinition.

I found myself thinking of this in the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy - which for many people in NY and NJ especially will find them in a real state of liminality much more real and have more real-life impact than any discourse that may be posted on this blog or other sites.  But that very question of an event that launches a community into a state of liminality is exactly, in my observation, what is missing to truly support the foundation that corporations are in a state of liminality.

For example, one could point as the advent of the internet as one of the factors that led to the state of liminality in which corporations are attempting to redefine themselves.  However, the impact of the internet has been one of gradual accumulation - taking place over years (over twenty to be  more specific).  Or perhaps was it the invention of Facebook and Twitter that enabled this change?   Well, yes both of those social networking tools have changed how organizations respond to their stakeholders (shareholders, workers, the public writ large).

Liminality theorists also bring up the idea of a group being in a constant state of liminality, such as Karl Jaspers' theory of axial ages, or Turner's thought that liminality can become fixed.  Both of these theories suppose that the community still follows the normal stages of the liminal process - and ends with some type of 'new world order.'

My proposition is thus:  what if there is no new world order?  What if the constant state of change and adaptation to consistent forms of communication (and thus a response) is a neo-liminal state, constantly in a state of upheaval, jumping from one messianic figure to the next - with tricksters popping up and disappearing all over the place?  The 24-hour news-cycle promoted by the media (and its subsequent impact on our culture and how we process and exchange information) can be a ripe example for further study of liminality.  It seems that the media jumps from one real or imagined crisis to the next, trying to be the messianic figure (leading its audiences to the Truth), while there are tricksters in the form of bloggers, conspiracy theorists, or even talk radio hosts who try to lead people in a different direction.

Would this lack of a new world order be, in and of itself a new world order according to the theories of liminality?   If so, who would guide?  I find this all fascinating and wonder if the answer to this line of questioning would help us better understand the impact of media saturation in the modern American corporate life.  How would corporate organizations take advantage of, or attempt to control the discourse to make the most of short-term profits?  One can only see how this all starts to get the wheels turning...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Liminality: the state of corporate (in)decision

Last night I was walking home from Chinese class.  It had been an odd couple of hours.  An alleged bomb threat had shut down all the buildings near my school, including the school building itself.  Although the 'all clear' was called, the staff had, nonetheless, left for the evening with a note on the doors indicating all classes were cancelled.  Not to be dismayed, my class of eager students (all six of us that showed up) ended up having a shortened class in a lounge in one of the nearby buildings.  It was not a normal evening.

As I walked home - a thick fog had descended upon the city.  The buildings where I lived were shrouded in a soft blanket - the city's hard edges looking like they had been gently rubbed away.  The light the buildings gave off gave the area a warm glow - much like that which occurs in the middle of a snowstorm.  Near my house there was a construction site, eerily quiet- with the white coverings from the windows flapping in the slight breeze - casting a ghostly look upon what during the day is a bustling site of economic progress.  It all seemed so surreal...

And that had me reflecting that evening on the state at which I think we find the corporate world in general today.  There is such rapid change going on that the precepts which have heretofore guided the decision-making of your colleagues seems to not hold up to the scrutiny and pressure facing many CEOs today.  For one, new pressures from non-Western markets change the amount and type of skin the game.  It is no longer just a matter of profits, but also a sense in many organizations of social responsibility.  Corporations are entering into a territory of liminality - and one can already see it occurring.

It is no surprise that the advent of social media has literally changed the world - with everything from corporations bowing under consumer pressure, to entire governments collapsing due to pressure from the people.  But when you examine the world of corporations this holds even more sway.  The one benefit of the 2008 financial crisis was that it wakened the public up to an entire secondary means of governance - that of the impact of corporate money and support on the public affairs of our governments.  All of a sudden  people cared about how much a CEO made, all of a sudden they saw the inconsistencies in social welfare.  When even warren buffet proclaims that a system of payment and 'rewards' is out of whack - then you know that the times are changing.

I was partly realized the impact of what this liminal state brings last night as I watched the "Half the Sky" documentary on PBS.  While I do read Nick Kristof, I do not always agree with his methods of raising awareness.  I think he pulls at the heartstrings of the 'other' and the 'foreign' and somehow latches onto that fascination that most Westerners have with the lifestyles long since forgotten in our world.  Nonetheless, what I appreciated about both his book and the documentary was the amount of attention int brought to serious issues around the world - and what a wide audience it has gathered.  I don't doubt that the organizations featured in the program will se ea wellspring of support from donors in the West - and no doubt an increase in awareness on the impact of our own actions, or rather inaction, on the lives of people thousands of miles away.

So why liminality and what do corporations have to do with this all?  There has been a trend recently, also with the advent of social media, to encourage the innovators of our world. Corporations are all seeking the next Steve Jobs, and are putting immense resources into encouraging innovative thinkers in their organizations - and the result is the very fabric of how corporations are structured is breaking down.  Take a simple example; the increase of Telework policies.  It is now a given fact that with the advent of mobile technology people do not have to be physically present in the same space every day to complete work (even education is feeling the brunt of this policy - but that is for another post).  The result is a workforce that now expects entirely different things from their employees - and it is changing the very dynamic of what it means to be a worker in a corporation.  A recent study by Deloitte actually examines this trend - and the greater impact it has on talent competitiveness in the overall American workforce.  And while I do not agree with all the conclusions of the authors as per the then relevant impact on higher education and vocational training - the very conclusion that the way the corporations do business is rapidly changing should raise eyebrows.

I was actually introduced to the concept of liminality in my first college lecture post 9/11.  I was a freshman, and my Anthropology 101 teacher, Dr. Andrew Shryock, explained the state we were all in in terms of liminality.  The new collective sense we had as Americans, the yearning for a leader figurehead - the presence of tricksters and those who want to take advantage of the situation for personal gain.  These are all present now.  Corporations as a whole are finding themselves in an unknown territory - and they are all equal in that grey fog.  While money continues to be the sacred object for which they all yearn, they recognize that the individual sacredness of profit is not dependent upon myriads of other factors that they really did not consider - for instance how instability in geographic locations can impact the supply line of goods that help to make a product.  And they yearn for leadership - a figure - the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet or any great leader to move them forward.

What this liminal state will look like is anyone's guess - but I think it is an incredibly exciting thing to watch.  In subsequent posts, I intend to look at the various aspects of liminality in more detail, so that we can better understand the changes in the world around us - and start, perhaps, to find our way out of the fog.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Review of 和你在一起 (Together)

To those who read this blog, it may come as a surprise that I am presently enrolled in Chinese language classes.  Although I often write about Tibet, and experiences there, I believe that in order to understand a situation completely, one must be able to fully observe the opinions and lives of all those involved in any given situation.  Thus, in my scholastic examination of the impact of tourism in Tibet I should be able to examine and observe both the Tibetan and the Chinese points-of-view vis-a-vis the cultural implications of increasing tourism in the TAR.

Any scholar of Asian tourism can tell you one thing, and that is the opening up of travel restrictions in the Chinese mainland has opened the world to the largest population of tourists: the Chinese.  Even if China should, for some reason, close its borders, there can be a fully-functioning and supportive tourist culture within its own borders.  Thus, in order to best understand those population dynamics, and the implications, I have decided that it is imperative that I understand the Han dialect.  I also have been always intrigued and fascinated by the Chinese culture, and given its rise as an economic power, believe that there is no foolishness in better understanding the language.  I also intend to continue my studies of Tibetan, but with the little bit of language I took I found it infinitely more difficult than Mandarin!  So I am also starting with what I believe to be the simpler of the two just to get back in the practice of studying a language.  I digress...

As part of my language course, my professor has asked us to watch and also review the movie "和你在一起 (Together)."  It is, to begin, an incredibly heartwarming, coming of age story that details the relationship between a father, Liu Cheng, and his son, Liu Xiaochun.   Liu Xiaochun is a gifted violin prodigy, who is selected for a chance to win a scholarship to study his art in Beijing.  The two set out to the city, where Liu Xiaochun performs brilliantly.  However, due to his background (i.e. lack of bribe money) he is not offered the scholarship.  Nevertheless, Liu Cheng convinces a professor at the Conservatory, Jiang Laoshi, to accept his son as a student.   The remainder of the movie follows the father and son as they realize the reality of living in a large city where, despite the belief of the world that all have equal access to life's successes, being from the country proves a difficult obstacle to overcome.  Their relationship is what drives the movie, especially the increasing tension as Xiaochun's experiences increased disdain for his poor background, while his father does every job possible to ensure his son's success.

What struck me most about the movie was the fact that the director did not hide at all the realities of life in one of China's big cities, and the inherent class struggles that can ensue.  Liu Cheng and Liu Xiaochun live in an area of town that is poor, full of folks of working class - including a young escort, Lili, who befriends Liu Xiaochun.  The living conditions they endure are not glamorous, and depicted in a very real light.  What strikes me most is that at some point, Liu Xiaochun's talent catch the attention of *the* eminent professor of violin, Yu Laoshi, who later takes Xiaochun under his tutelage.  Yu Laoshi's house is modern and clean, spacious.  He takes in Liu Xiaochun who beings to see a different style of life - which is all possible given his talent.  He is finally faced with a choice: that to have the life he imagined for, if he gives up his family (who has worked so hard to get him to where he is) - but at the risk of losing the person who he is... or to go home.

My only dislike in the move was that the development of the characters seemed a bit chliched - Liu Cheng while from the country also has a very Confucian attitude, kotowing (literally) to persons who are esteemed above his station; Liu Xiaochun displays the traits of any young spoiled person, while Lili (the ONLY female character in the movie), definitely represents the dragon-lady characteristic quite common in movies.  She is not demure, intense, driven to anger - and rarely gentle or seeming very kind.  I honestly wish there were more female characters in the movie, but I suppose it was a young boy coming of age movie.  The professors are either drunk, or pompous (or both) - and seem to rest quite comfortably on the reputations they have earned in their previous lives.

However, despite any character development (or lack of) the movie was an enjoyable watch, and I think a little more realistic view of what it takes to become successful in any field in China.  It shows the wide range of affluence - and the privileges that affluence affords, and yet still illustrates that despite "having it all," there is still much in life to be desired.  A highly suggested watch - especially if you just want to be entertained.  Special bonus is the classical music soundtrack that weaves its way throughout the movie.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Neat Article

Hey everyone!  My mother actually sent me this link about how monks in exile are being encouraged by the Dalai Lama to pursue science as a part of their studies.  A very interesting read!

Many thoughts regarding the themes of previous posts regarding how to maintain 'tradition' and still be of the world.  A lot of folks seem to think that science and faith are two mutually exclusive ideas that somehow set the stage for conflict if a person pursues both as a realm of study. 

Reading the article, I immediately thought of the tradition of Jesuits as some of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, mathemeticians and physicists.  The motto for many Jesuits is to "pursue God in all things" - meaning that the priests were and are not encouraged to live lives of cloister, but are meant to be of the world, while not for the world.  In particular, I had to do a recent mini-presentation on Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, a colleague of Einstein's, who is credited with some of the original thought behind the Big Bang Theory. 

Given the recent push by the HH the Dalai Lama, I wonder why then is there still this continuing dialectic that sets up "science" or "facts" on one side, and religion and reflection on the other.  What makes people think that 'culture' will be driven awry by science or facts; and how come so many people feel that science challenges or cheapens deeper truths that many people hold close?  

A short post for today, but interested to hear if anyone is familiar with the Emory program mentioned in the article, or any other neat programs that seek to combine the 'hard sciences' with more religious studies.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Class Warfare or a New Realm of 'Cultures?'

In an interesting post on Truth Dig, professor Juan Cole discusses the implications of the class warfare that has sparked the Occupy Movements, and how or why students in universities tend to be one of the major populations supporting the movements. There are a number of items that Professor Cole discusses, but the one of most interest to me is the dialectic Mr. Cole proposes that places academic institutions as in line with 'Big Business.'

The theme of Prof. Cole's premise that academia is being influenced by the culture of business to provide goods (i.e. students) that then have marketable (read: can make businesses more money) skills, has also been highlighted in recent times. Back in late October, Governor Rick Scott of Florida stating that

"We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job." (Courtesy the Marc Bernier show)

Needless to say, this comment caused a lot of stir among anthropologists who immediately came to the defense stating the benefits of anthropology. One of the more interesting items was an opinion article in the Economist, which illustrated the work of Ms. Gillian Tett, who has produced some amazing studies on the culture that preceeded the 2008 financial crisis.

For me, what I find interesting about all these articles is this dialectic that is set up between the 'soft' studies and those of a more technical nature. Much has been writtend on this in both the Chronicle of Higher Education, popular business magazines and more. However, what Ms. Tett alluded to in the economist article - that is that many foks regardless of their occupation are so mired in their own worlds that they fail to see what else is going on around them. I would argue that this is true both in the case of the students involved in OWS as well as Academic institutions and big banks. Everyone is looking through their own lens at a set of very complex interactions that help to define our world. Students do not fully understand the complexities of all the decisions being made - and often tend to demonize 'the man,' when in fact many of these organizations are made up of real people who are trying to do the best they can in a very odd world. Academia is also responding to some very real economic constraints (I don't think forced upon them by the banking institutions, but definitely helped), and are trying to figure how their institutions are going to survive over the next five, ten, fifteen, fifty or hundred years.  Now, granted, I don't think that institutions need to go as far as the Quebecois government has in increasing the tuition rates of its universities an exorbitant amount, but a school does need some basic funding to be able to function.

Business are trying to survive as well. The most common thing I hear in my job is the need for all employers (regardless of industry) to need "smart" people in their jobs. Often there is a misconception that this includes students from "the best" institutions - and in order to maintain top positions, these best institutions often tailor the emphasis of where their money is funded in order to help graduates obtain jobs (one of the measures utilized in college rankings). The business want folks who will help them achieve their mission to make money - and that is part of their culture. Part of their definition of who they are - just as an academic institutions mission is to educate for success (what ever that 'success' may mean).

In our culture today we face a very real fact that money drives everything; as illustrated in my post yesterday, even places and people which we deem 'sacred' are monetized.  For one, I think that it is about time we had another "Jesus moment," where he comes into the temple and upends the tables of all those selling goods and wares in His father's house.  By that, I mean that the only way we can fight against the system of everything needing to have dollars and cents aligned to it (whether business or academia) is to know the enemy, know how to use it, and know how to disprove it.  Gone are the days, for many, when the pursuit of higher education or meaningful careers can and should be pursued for the betterment of the person.  The impetus now lays directly on the shoulders of the said individual to prove how he or she, by way of finding fulfillment can be a better student, professor, worker, and member of society.  If you can show that in terms of efficiency, money, or time spent completing tasks - even better.  Ultimately I do believe that we are in a pendulum swing where money means everything, and I have no doubt the pendulum will swing the other way.  However, until that time I believe it behooves everyone to be able to understand the language of the 'other' and utilize new and different arguments to further expand your own.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Whose culture is it?

Over the weekend I was quite surprised to hear word that the Chinese government plans to build a Tibetan theme park outside the city of Lhasa, Tibet.  I first heard about the news via some Twitter feeds, and then proceeded to read some articles about the news online.

I must say that this move does not surprise me in the least.  When I was in Tibet in 2004, you could already observe a move such as this in the works.  There were "Traditional Villages" scattered throughout the Tibetan countryside, where busloads of Chinese tourists would pull up, and the local villagers would don their fine ceremonial garb and proceed to partake in shows and games to the delight of the audiences.  While the dances and games and shows the native villagers in the area displayed were not not authentic, it was more a matter of the timing and the manner in which they were displayed that bugged many in my group.  The dances or games were often items saved for a holiday, or a feast, and were not examples of "everyday" Tibetan life.

The display of Tibetan culture was also seen in the local clubs, or nangmas,  that are found all throughout Lhasa.  These night-clubs, frequented by both Tibetans, Chinese and tourists from around the world are perhaps one of the most bizarre scenes of cultural displays I have ever witnessed.  Picture this - 11pm at night you are sitting in a dark, crowded club with the music, the lights, the disco beats, when all of a sudden a young woman in traditional, colorful Tibetan clothing steps out on stage and begins to sing a traditional Tibetan love song, while the screen behind her flashes beautiful scenes of the countryside.  The club goes wild, everyone gets up to dance and enjoys a spectacle that I can only describe as modern Tibetan in its entirety.

A few years back, I published an article relating all these themes, and asked the questions "Whose culture is it to define?"  And this question has never been more relevant.  The comments in the Guardian piece I quoted above reflect a naivete on all parts - as the one voice missing from the conversation is that of local Tibetans.  It is true that the recent politics of the Chinese government can come under speculation and scrutiny - especially given the recent spate of self-immolation undertaken as a protest to Chinese rule.  Yet, it can also be said that what the Chinese are doing is not at all different from what the US did to Native Americans, or what the European colonies did to S. America and African nations.  The only difference in this time and age is that we are currently living in a consumerist society where everything (and I mean everything) takes on an identity of commodification.

As I concluded in my paper, and post again here,

"The exoticization of Tibet by China [and Western cultures] inadvertently cheapens its culture and prevents Tibetans from having the freedom to identify it for themselves and to lead their own lives freely.  The true reality of Tibetan culture, a rapidly changing and redefined identity, is then lost amidst the flashes of cameras and glimpes of a culture that existed long ago and no longer exists today."  

I, for one, do not think it wrong that people are alarmed by the idea of building a theme park when such a rich cultural tradition and artifacts already exist in Lhasa.  The Chinese government, for their part say that the purpose of the theme-park is to draw crowds away from these ancient structures so that the increasing footprint of the tourist does less harm to places such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, and nearby monasteries.  In fact, the Chinese tourist population alone dwarfs the rest of the world - and numbers of people who have travelled to Tibet despite restrictions on the part of Western tourists, have jumped dramatically.

Unfortunately though, we are all partners to this cultural commodification - we live in a consumerist society.  A society which China is quickly become a member of, if not a key driver in defining what has value, and what does not.  ANy time we travel and buy some item from a stall, or take a photo with a 'gladiator' posing outside the coliseum, we partake in this same commodification.  It is the way our world is.  For China to take advantage,while also promoting a culture is no different than what Walt Disney did when they created the Epcot Center.  Culture on display, and for sale.  Yet - at the same time many people's only interaction with these cultures is through a display like that in Epcot Center.  It is not truly authentic - but then what is?  Culture shifts so rapidly, and changes so frequently that we are not the ones to dictate what authenticity or tradition is.  All we can do is watch, observe, and speak the truth to our own experiences and our own culture.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The way we communicate

Last night, I finished watching the final episode of "The Big Silence," a documentary created by BBC2.  In the show, it takes five people from all over the UK, and has them explore the purposeful silence in their life.  They are led on their journey by Fr. Christopher, of Worth Abbey (full disclosure, I had the chance while studying in England to go on a weekend retreat at Worth. The priest on 'loan' to the Cambridge Newman Center was a former Abbot of Worth Abbey, and gave us the chance to go there for a weekend retreat.  I thus had the opportunity to meet the priests featured in the program - truly an amazing experience if anyone is looking for a place to make a silent or guided retreat).  I would also highly suggest watching BBC 2's "The Monastery" - the first of these series that gave five men the opportunity to live in a Benedictine Monastery, and to see the results of which play out in "live TV."

At any rate, the program "The Big Silence" is meant to give the watchers a cause to pause and reflect on just how busy we are filling our lives with things. There are the obvious perpetrators such as digital devices, the television and cell phones.  But the program also touches on deeper issues, such as our inability to be in company with those around us without filling the time/place with noise.  Or the habit of many people to go, go, go in every moment of their life with a constant to-do list, which necessitates constant movement (heaven forbid we let one moment lapse - that would be laziness!).

I have dawdled with the idea of silence for the past few years.  Growing up Catholic, I always loved going on retreats - especially now as a working adult.  To spend time in a place outside of a city, where one could hear the cacophony of birds and animals outside, well, to me just feels like being wrapped up in a blanket of luxuriousness.  However, despite how much people gain from silence and pause, we seem to revert back to ever more-connected means of communications.

It led me to ponder upon going to bed last night, what impact is the lack of silence and self-reflection having on our culture as a whole?  Are we stifling ourselves from the moments of reflection that can lead to genuine insight?  Are we overbooking ourselves into mediocrity?  What is happening, as a result, to our ability to communicate with others either by person or through written media?

On the one hand, it can be very easily argued that improvements in communication have made it so much easier to communicate.  I can use Skype to call friends all over the world - or pop an email to my Aunt in England asking her for her recipe for Yorkshire Pudding, and receive an almost instantaneous response.  Yet on the other hand, how is our new method of communicating via tweets and texts changing how we actually think and make decisions - is everything now being condensed to 140 characters?  If so, what are we loosing as a result, or what are we gaining?

The thoughts above took me back to an undergraduate Anthropology class I had at Michigan, where I remember reading Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal, where Professor Ahearn discussed the impact of written language had on traditional marriage rituals and ceremonies.  I never made the connection before, but is it possible that we are witnessing our own shift in cultural values and implications of that shift in real-time?  Admittedly, linguistic anthropology was never my strong suit, but still the fascination of how our language is both a by-product of our time, and a key shaper of how we relate to the world is fascinating.

And that brings me back to the whole silence question.  Last week, a boss of mine posed a question to our internal group and that is should we consider taking a one day electronic hiatus?  He was inspired by this article, but the responses of the crowd at large was fascinating.  Most everyone responded "yes, we need an unplugged day."  A few keen observers though had the insight of why do we think of this technology as somehow impeding our communication - why is it not just an innate part of culture, where it is seen as natural as it was to use the original land-line telephones to communicate (as opposed to writing letters or going over to your neighbor's house to 'call' upon them).  Regardless of what you think of the use of electronic devices, I do think that we each need to have our moments of silence.  Where we can take the wealth of information before us, have time to meditate, or to pray, and to see how new innovations and solutions - or perhaps questions to answers that impede us may bubble to the surface.

I am curious to know the general populations' thought on this.  Agree/disagree?  Anyone have a better understanding of the paradigmatic shift we're seeing when it comes to our language?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Emotions and the search for 'Truth.'

My mind has been occupied the last few days at some of the news I have seen coming from Tibet. I have been following the events and social unrest there for quite some time, always reading multiple accounts of what human rights activists say is happening, versus what the Chinese government has said is happening. I have been first astounded at how bold the Tibetan monastic and local populations have been in standing up to what they believe are unjust policies and practices, and also equally astounded at what a harsh crackdown the Chinese government has taken to suppress these movements - believing that the protests are actually a form of mild terrorism and actions against the tranquility of the PRC.

As someone who has sympathy for the Tibetans, yet also understands the intricacies of the politics surrounding the Chinese point of view as Tibet as part of the Middle Kingdom I've always attempted to stay neutral - to stay academic, and to view things through an apolitical lens of observation and commentary. However, never before have I been impacted on what I believe to be a personal level. Never before has the issue been an emotional one for me (partly out of self preservation). That is until last week when I heard that the protests had spread to Dzogchen Monastery in Western Sichuan province.

For those of you who don't know me, I carry around on my keychain a keychain from Dzogchen Monastery- the name of which is written in Tibetan on one side and Chinese on the other. The keychain for me has come to symbolize the complex interplay of the cultures of the Chinese and Tibetan - and the fact that there are real people at the heart of this turmoil. Both Tibetans and Chinese who want the same thing that anyone else in this world wants: life, liberty, and the ability to pursue their own dreams. For the Chinese entrepreneur, this may mean entering a new market of the "wild west" of China to start a business or to explore. For the Tibetans, this could mean the freedom to worship as and whom they choose, to have jobs that will support their family, and so on.

For me, I remember clearly the valley around Dzogchen - a glacial mountain rising high above the valley interspersed with thousands of prayer flags in every color and size. A series of three glacial-fed pools surrounded by fields of mountain wildflowers; a scene I only thought existed in my dreams. A monastery being built brand new, funded by Tibetans and Chinese buddhists, a lively monastic center - a place of learning. I remember sitting by a stream about 9pm at our campsite. Over the loudspeakers at the monastic learning center down the road I heard the voice of a chant being played against Tibetan flute. I sat, with the sounds of these chants, the gurgling water, the stars above me and just cried. I was homesick, I was confused, I was happy - and I knew that there was so much more complexity to this situation than any one person could ever understand. I was at once incredibly disturbed and oddly, at peace. It was the climax of my three month trip to Tibet - and one of those moments that is etched in my memory forever.

That is why when I heard this news I was so angry. Not at the Chinese, not at the Tibetans, but just angry. How dare they desecrate such a place? How dare they desecrate the place of my memory, my epiphany? I felt I had to keep these emotions to myself - because who am I (an outsider! An American!) to judge either the Tibetans or the Chinese? Who am I to know what it is like to be there on the ground witnessing this.

And that is when I read this post by Carole McGranahan, about our sometimes lack of emotion in the academic or professional world. We are trained as anthropologists, and as business people, to be judgement neutral. To examine our subjects from as much of an etic perspective as is possible - and to observe patterns of behavior. But what happens when that cannot happen? What happens when we know our own viewpoint is thwarted by memories and connections and our culture? How can we maintain integrity to report on what is happening? How do we maintain composure?

How do we know what is Truth?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reposting: Big Data in Government and Higher Education: A new paradigm?

Now I am about to embark on a completely new adventure, something that is relatively new and has been receiving a lot of buzz lately in the blogosphere and twitterspace: Big Data!

What is Big Data? Well - it is is exactly what it sounds like, a study of all the questions that arise when confronted with the massive and incredibly complex amount of data available to us from common media sources. Google's recent decision to link all of its products with the Google+ feature had enlightened many average internet users to the power of what can happen when massive amounts of data are correlated to be able to give you specified links and adds as you search the internet.

The implications, then, of Big Data on government and especially within Higher Education is not a small one. Just last week, the White House announced a new initiative to embrace the idea of Big Data in Government. As a result the technology world has been a buzz in terms of how they can cash in on assisting the Federal government in its quest to collaborate all data together.

Of particular interest is the impact that Big Data can have in higher education. For instance, as written about in the Chronicle for Higher Education, a professor is utilizing Google and Google Reader with his classes to source over 1000 literature sources. This being my first day using Google Reader, I sympathize with the overwhelm these students must feel. But then I stop and consider, imagine what would happen if we all have access to incredible amounts of data on a day-to-day basis? What potential could we have to reach beyond the bounds of what is known through perhaps our teacher and our classmates, to connect with scholars and workers from around the world thereby expanding not just our own political footprints, but also the ability to gather heretofore unknown research and input that information into the common lexicon.

Within Higher Education once can already see how the massive amounts of Big Data are shifting the parameters of what is acceptable research - and what is not. For instance, when I was in school sourcing items from the internet was really only ok if you were sourcing from a major news sours (i.e. the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist). No one would ever think of utilizing a blog as a source of real information - in fact I think blogs were just in their infancy as I left grad school. Nowadays, people would not think to leave the blogosphere at least untouched when researching a new issue.

So given the impact Big Data can have on higher education - what, then, should the institutions be doing now to ensure that the chance for access to this information is not wasted?

Well - for one, the government should look to funding not only its own research for BigData, but to also support in the form of grants and research BigData ThinkLabs at major universities and corporations. These organization would be able to utilize the support of the government to better understand the vast socio-cultural implications of data (ex: crowdsourcing, crowdsharing, and the like).

Further, the government should take care not to fall down the same holes it has done in the past with similar collaborative efforts - that is the goverment has to be willing to experiment with Big Data in real time. As indicated in Information Weekk, the government must, must, MUST make sure they are working on this in a collaborative nature. I believe the government should create a big data site where people can work in a sandbox environment with realtime, non-sensitive data, to figure out ways the Federal government can utilize the information covered by Big Data to answer the various questions it is plagued with on a day-to-day basis. Health and Human Services, by nature of the electronic health records push, is having to deal with some of these issues already - but it (as well as the rest of the Government) still has a long way to go.

And this brings me to the last part of my musings. You may notice the title of my blog ends with a question "A New Paradigm?" The reason I ask that question is that throughout researching the idea of "Big Data" and seeing just how 'hip' and 'cool' and 'sexy' it appears to be, I wonder why that is the case. I believe it has something to do with our innate trust of numbers. For some reason, in business, in government, and in life we are more compelled to change when there are numbers and so-called 'facts' to support one claim over another. But why is that so? Especially in the realm of big data, we are dealing with such large amounts of data and information that it is nearly impossible for two people to look at the same amount of data in the same way. Let alone compile it, display it graphically, and then draw some sort of conclusion from that data. I think that the big data issues illustrates that we are on the cusp of some kind of new paradigm of thought - where we will start to see the emergence of a new culture, and new realms of understanding that have their basis is data, facts, and so-called information. The days when people segment themselves into 'right-brained' or 'left-brained;' people who have a proclivity to data and mathematics, versus social issues and arts, I believe will start to blend together into a world where those who will be truly successful will dance on the edge of data tnd creation; figures and art; social trends and supported tweets. I, for one, look forward to this venture and what the future will bring.

For those looking to learn more, check out Twitter #bigdata or #bigdatagovt. Also the company Integrated Software Solutions and Lucid Imagination, as well as IBM and various government agencies (DARPA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy) are all working in this field.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Land, Culture and Development

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture sponsored by Machik, an organization devoted to the "development of education, capacity-building and innovation on the Tibetan plateau." I have been following Machik for a few years now - but this was my first opportunity to attend an event here in D.C. It was so wonderful to walk into a room with people from, and who had visited Tibet. To hear the language spoken (even though I can only understand words here and there) was like a long-lost part of me coming home.

The talk was entitled "Palzan Salon on Water Management in Golok." I know, not too sexy huh? But it was so incredible! The speaker's name was Palzang, from Ngawa (the site of the 2008 earthquake that devastated a monastery I had visited in Summer 2004). He has been working the past few years on helping to clean up area waterways in the Nyinpo Yurtse mountain region. This mountainous area is the home of some of the major rivers of Asia - including the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Mekong, and Brahmaputra to name a few. Yet in this area the notion of 'trash' is a somewhat novel idea. I saw this myself in 2004 - in the middle of Lhasa. Up until recently (and this was confirmed by Palzang), most of what Tibetans used (or re-used) was biodegradable in nature. However with the influence of 'modern' society - and the materials that accompany a more developed lifestyle, Tibetans were exposed to new materials that are non-biodegradable (plastics, chemicals, etc.). So in Lhasa it was not out of the ordinary to see, for example, kids eating candy and just throwing the wrapper out on the side of the road. My group even remarked that an area outside of Lhasa was known as the Plastic Bag Forest - as the wind would whip through Lasha, pick up plastic bags, and they would get caught in the trees on the outskirts of town making it look like a forest of plastic bags.

At any rate in the Nyinpo Yurtse mountain region this same cultural influence is being felt acutely in the waters. People, nomads in particular, would dump everything, from batteries, to chemicals, to typical waste in the headwaters of some of the major rivers leading to a huge pollution problem. So what to do about this situation?

Well, Palzang decided to take quite an anthropological approach. Despite his own education in ecology and biological sciences - he turned to the local lamas for help in this solution. In particular, he appealed to the local Tibetan's sense of what we can refer to as an 'eco-sacred system,' that is areas where spirits are believed to reside in natural forms. In Nyinpo Yurtse, there are an abundance of Lu, or traditional water spirits that are said to reside at the headwaters. Thus much of Palzang's education was from a religious perspective - appealing to the desire to honor the Lu, or not to anger it. In particular, a common practice among the natives in the area is to make offerings to the Lu, called Ter. As the region has grown in tourist and religious eyes - Ter were sold and thrown into the water at an alarming rate. So Palzang worked with local monasteries to develop bio-degradable Ter that would help lessen the amount of trash in the areas. They also organized entire clean up teams to help rid the rivers of the trash - and they were all locally organized.

The impact was amazing - he was able to help organize whole communities toward a beneficial effort to produce clean water not just for the local communities - but to the benefit of the entire Asian continent (talk about good karma!! - which was, by the way one of the other teachings that was used to teach the importance of not polluting the river). It was just amazing how by looking at a situation from an etic perspective - whereby you understand what is really going to impact the people to change their cultural perceptions is just amazing. The results he has for the clean up effort are quite extensive given the low amount of funding and the difficulty found in reaching these areas; and the success with grassroots organizations.

All in all it was an incredibly refreshing afternoon - and reminded me about all the theology that I had forgotten regarding Tibetan Buddhism and the importance of physical, natural locations to the local culture and populations. Definitely makes me want to pick up some old college books to refresh my memory... and it was just plain inspiring to hear some good news coming from a region that has been hard hit these past few years.

If you are interested in finding out more, Palzang's work was funded by both USAID and Winrock International - though I have had difficulty finding any presentations that are publicly available.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Paradox of Global Development

A few days ago a friend sent me a link to a blog article on HuffPo, titled "The State of our Disunion," by Robert Reich. In the article, he goes on to briefly illustrate how the private sector is becoming increasingly global, while public sector is becoming increasingly private.

While his article illustrates some high-level observable trends that really are not that revolutionary to anyone following Big Business, he does make an interesting point when reading in between the lines: the cultural assumptions we make about various players (i.e. 'the state' 'big business,' etc.) are quickly changing. Take for instance the U.S. Government of the 1960s. It was an era when NASA was reaching to the moon, when the CIA and FBI were in full out clandestine operations, and when, unbeknownst to many of us, DoD researchers were putting into motion research that would one day bring us the internet. In short - government was the place to be for an aspiring young mind.

Yet what do we hear today, vitriol and downright hate regarding state employees (from back office workers, to public teachers). What is the cause for such a shift? Well some of it belongs to the shift of history books - and the waxing and waning of various political parties in power. However, the crux of it lies at the impact of culture on our perceptions. What has changed in the past forty to fifty years are the multitude of players, the invention of the internet, the 24/7 news media, and technology changes that make it easier for us to learn information ourselves, and do it in a quick manner. Unfortunately, much of the larger government apparatus seems stuck in time - and has not readily adapted to the changing times, hence the implications that government does nothing.

And herein comes Mr. Reich's opinion that the public sector is becoming increasingly private. Why is that, many ask? Well as a gov't contractor it is quite simple - we can do things faster, more efficiently, and can get things done. We get buy in from major stakeholders and implement practices that are known in business circles to improve many things, from efficiency, to employee morale and loyalty. Yet - we are never seen. Many companies, mine included, take special note to ensure that all the work we do looks as if it comes from the government office - it is a tenant of 'good service: ya make your boss look good!' But it leaves one feeling sometimes like the Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain..."

I am not sure if the current system in place is going to remain there - or if, as is my hope, government catches up and learns from the things contractors are doing and we can get the agencies to a point where they can, in turn, fire us. But regardless this is a culture currently in place and relatively accepted by many within the two groups.

Now as per global corporations - well that deserves another blog post altogether. For now I will just leave you with this:

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's, Resolutions, and Development Goals

Ah! It is the New Year! 2012, Year of the Dragon - the end of the World!?! (According to the Mayan calendar). Inevitably talk of the New Year has us discussing New Year's resolutions: losing weight, smoking less, drinking less, making more time for family and so on.

I found it somewhat interesting that during this time period I also happened to go through my mid-year review process at work. One of the key items examined are our yearly 'development goals,' and how our performance has or has not enabled us (or me, rather) to achieve those goals. Part of the mid-year discussion involves refining those goals, rewriting those goals, and/or deleting some altogether.

Amidst all this pressure to define myself in terms of 'goal accomplishment,' I found myself musing as to when did our American/Corporate culture get to this point? At what point did we move away from our only goal being survival, to all these nuanced items that reflect more what our culture expects of us, rather than what we expect of ourselves. I could not help but think of my time in other parts of the world: Tibet, Spain, Italy, England, and wondered are those cultures as obsessed with perfection and constant improvement? Ok, so granted I know that my company is global in nature - so therefore my colleagues in Europe and Asia are expected to uphold similar standards of performance. But what about other home-country companies? For example, what are the 'performance' expectations of a state-owned Chinese company? Do they reflect at all the expectations of Chinese culture writ large?

These distinctions are important because as companies expand beyond their natural borders, something as simple as performance, or performance expectations will change from culture to culture. For American companies, continual self-improvement is seen as a very good trait to have, whereas nations in other parts of the world value more the emphasis on team-work, and improving the lot of the company, organization, or community. What are some ways in which performance expecations take into consideration cultural implications on performance. Is the idea of "performance reviews" too Western an idea for other businesses?

Any other insights anyone has on this topic would be great to see.