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.

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.  

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting points. You've articulated a couple of crossing trends -- the democratization of knowledge (Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Google) and the professionalization and cultishness of entrepreneurship. I agree that, to the extent that entrepreneurship depends on privileged access to information and communities, technical entrepreneurship (as opposed to the McDonald's franchise-owning kind) develops its own elite community.

    I'd argue, though, that the consistent rate with which new tools become cheap (sophisticated code libraries, cloud computing power, all sorts of "platforms") will keep entrepreneurship as something smart 20-year-olds in their college dorm can still do in ways that up-end stolid companies.

    I would say that the real elites in entrepreneurship are venture capitalists, without whom most of the coolest companies and apps could not raise capital. Sure, they fail most of the time, but they are definitely the royalty of Silicon Valley and Route 128.