How Will Gillian Tett Connect With the Natives of the US Left?

Gillian Tett is an anthropologist on the move. She’s worked for a Pakistani non-profit (at 17), covered war in the former Soviet Union and documented Japan’s financial fall (Tett, 2003). For her Ph.D. fieldwork in anthropology, Tett studied marriage rituals in Tajikistan. But Tett’s greatest anthropological achievement came when she studied “the tribe” of J.P. Morgan, (a global financial services corporation) right in her own backyard of London, England. Tett sleuthed how a group of Gordon Gekko-type hot-shots brought capitalism to its knees.

“It was completely mad in places,” said Tett.

As a columnist for the Financial Times, in 2005-2007, Tett went out on the limb and told the world about her ethnographic findings, warning of a catastrophe ahead. Her bestselling “Fool’s Gold” (2009) tells this story with dramatic punch, unpacking the history of obscure financial processes known collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, which she had suspected lay at the root of a possible nightmare. It turns out that these instruments were a chief spark for the meltdown.  Why weren’t more people aware of this fact?

“It was all incredibly tribal,” said Tett, “people’s loyalties are tribal. They are in separate silos [canisters of specialization] and all these silos are competing with one another, so people hog onto information at all costs, so only people at the top can see what is going on.” But those people did nothing, so Tett did.

And she’s now a movie star. Tett plays a significant role in the award-winning film “Inside Job” (2010) the first film to provide a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008.  If you do not have time to read the book, go see the movie, the counter-curriculum to neoliberal deceptions. Narrated by Matt Damon it is highly entertaining and dreadfully depressing.

As Managing Editor of the Financial Times, Tett is one of the most powerful women in media.   She arrived in the U.S. this past summer and is prepared to take the country by storm, suiting up to take on rivals at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.  FT management so appreciated her fieldwork in Fool’s Gold that they gave her a column, “An Anthropologist in America.”

Defending “Applied Anthropology” against those Anthropologists Who Tell Her to Stop Calling Herself an Anthropologist

Tett got into anthropology because she was “always fascinated with other cultures. I wanted to immerse myself in other cultures and explore ‘The Other.'” But after the Ph.D. she left, frustrated with an academic anthropology that was committing “intellectual suicide.”  That’s what she said publically in a searing November speech at the American Anthropological Association, “Silence and Silos: The Problems of Fractured Thought in Finance.” A video of her speech is accessible at the link below (AAA 2010).

“I feel like a bit of an imposter,” she confessed, “I don’t regard myself as a proper anthropologist. Fundamentally I’m an amateur anthropologist,” she said defensively.

“I get criticized all the time,” she recounted as she read a “rude email” she’d received from an academic European anthropologist. “Gillian, you are a journalist now, not an anthropologist, Please stop [saying you are].”

“I will not stop!” said Tett. “I’m not going to stop because I feel quite strongly that people need to think how the academic world can be applied more broadly to the wider universe of activities, and particularly the arena of public policy.”

Tett is profoundly important for her central message: “anthropologists are well trained to absorb information, not project it.” They have to “emit.” She wants to help them do it.

Most Powerful Woman in Newspapers?

On May 16th, The Daily Beast ran a headline that pondered whether Tett was “the Most Powerful Woman in Newspapers?” “Are you?” I asked her.  “No, no, no. The managing editor of the New York Times is much more powerful, as is Arianna Huffington.”

“I have a powerful platform,” said Tett, “and I have a profound intellectual debt to anthropology.”

But make no mistake, Tett is powerful. She hobnobs with the ruling class and reports on their activities as a kind of cultural pedagogue or public anthropologist. A few weeks ago she wrote about her morning fieldwork in “the brand new, cavernous headquarters of Goldman Sachs”  followed by “dinner in George Soros’s elegant uptown flat (Tett, 2011).”

Attending were Gerry Corrigan (former New York Fed governor), and Andy Salmon (former commander of the British Royal Marinesto. They were hosting an event for Major General Andrew Salmon, the former head of the British Royal Marines.

Let’s listen in. “But as I listened to the dinner debate – over perfectly cooked lamb – there was a surprising sense of déjà vu. One key theme of the evening was the mistakes that western armies have recently made in Iraq or Afghanistan or Bosnia. And one of the factors that sparked those mistakes, the experts explained, was that the military had been operating with a one-track mind.”

I’ll comment on her observation, below. First to Tett’s tale.

Follow the Money

Tett went on a crash course in “absorption” when she turned to the world of finance, which she studied like a new language, having already mastered three. Back in 2005 she wrote a series of “iceberg memos” within the company questioning the phenomenon of equity markets, something no one was noticing.  Given a green light to investigate, Tett took her team on a topsy-turvy path of discovery. Following her anthropological instincts, she directed her colleagues to “go to the bankers in their natural habitat. . .the investment banking conferences.”

And so they went to beautiful settings around the world, including France and Switzerland, to study these exotic people. A professional conference, she recognized, performs like a ritual mythical structure in the manner it reproduces the ideologies of the group. It is a place “that pulls together a scattered group of bankers and financiers, defines them against outsiders.” There they “restate [their] core cultural maps, both formal and informal, which allows [the group] to be reproduced through time.” “This is not obvious” to them. She discovered that the best and brightest in the financial world were giddy over a supposed revolutionary innovation that would change the world.  The effects of these polices on people was largely ignored. “I came back absolutely fired up,” she said.

Why was there so little coverage? Tett says first it was “a trend story, so it was hard to get the quotes, numbers and prices” that are required for a traditional ‘Western story.'” Second is “a more subtle point” having to do with silos (discussed  above). The third reason was that the regulators mirrored the siloization of knowledge of the financiers themselves! And, then it was all so boring. “Once something is labeled boring, it’s the easiest way to hide it in plain sight.”

Anthropology is a “Social Silence,” That’s S-I-L-E-N-C-E

Tett spoke a truth to power while many others did not. Many bankers publicly ridiculed her work. A finance anthropology colleague has taken some personal blame for not speaking out sooner. Annelise Riles, Cornell University anthropologist, is author of the soon-to-be released Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets (Riles, 2011).” In a January 28th blog entry for the Collateral Knowledge website Riles makes the following observation, worth quoting at length:

“I think Tett’s diagnosis should cause academics to ask some hard questions about why we did not do more to highlight and critique the problems in the financial markets prior to the crash.  For myself, for example, fieldwork in the derivatives markets had convinced me long before the crash that all was not well in these markets. My husband (also an ethnographer of finance) and I often joked way back around 2002 that our research had convinced us not to put a penny of our own money in these markets.  But our own disciplinary silo made us feel that it was impossible to counter the enthusiasm for financial models out there in the economics departments, the business schools, the law schools, the corridors of regulatory institutions.  There surely was some truth to our sense that no one wanted to hear that markets were not rational in the sense assumed by the firms’ and regulators’ models.  But maybe we should have tried a bit harder; it turns out many other people also had doubts and thought they too were alone. What might have happened if we had all found a way to link our skepticisms?”

One way to link disparate ideas is through culinary metaphors. Here’s Tett.

“Anthropology is like salt with food. If you combine it with economics, health, politics it is a powerful dynamic to bring to the table.” Tett said anthropologists are absolutely essential for how they can distill contexts, unravel power structures and decode “how elites control rhetoric. “

“But they have to get out of their comfort zone and embrace life. . . . Anthropologists are trained to absorb information, to sit perfectly quiet and watch other people [and write about it.] That’s the reality of a competitive academic landscape. This is quite an important point.”

She argues that they need to combat their shyness and project themselves forcefully into the culture.

The Silos of Financial Journalism

Anthropologist Keith Hart, creator of the “Open Anthropology website,” commented that, “It is a curious fact that the financial crisis seems to have flushed out a number of major monographs by anthropologists. They include: Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street; Alexandra Ouroussoff’s Wall Street at War  (which focuses on conflict between CEOs and the ratings agencies); and Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold. . .A reviewer in the FT noted that books like these suggest a new synthesis of anthropology, economics and history may be round the corner. “

Indeed there are a wealth of books on finance and the crisis by what might be called “finance anthropologists.” These include Caitlan Zaloom’s excellent Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (2006) which also used participant observation to  explore the culture of capitalism. Another is anthropologist Jack Weathford’s  The History of Money (1998). Neither book is referenced in Fool’s Gold.

Terms of the Trade: The Price of Independent Journalism

In her speech Tett told anthropologists that they “have to dumb down [and] make compromises” in order to work in the non-academic world.
Do they? Applied anthropologists are well aware of the impurities of the “applied world,” and many know about the maneuverings one must make in order to maintain some level of integrity and “do anthropology.”  These issues are currently undergoing more scrutiny by applied anthropologists. The levels by which one either compromises with power or decides to vigorously challenging power on the job is a daily tightrope that requires on-the-job experience.

Yes, compromises must be made, however the concept of “compromise” misses a lot. Many applied anthropologists pursue a “pubic pedagogy” or “action anthropology” that continually tests the “line of unfreedom” in their work, finding the place where it may be dangerous to do certain things or teach certain “truths” and debating their next maneuver.  They can do one of four things: decide to test the line, fall back from it, nudge over it or jump madly to the other side! Many anthropologists, like former SFAA President Ted Downing have done the latter to good effect (McKenna, 2008).

When Tett talks about compromise it is necessary to comment that compromise is rampant in journalism. As journalist Alex Cockburn says, “journalists may start out with the pure urge to tell all but their working lives are spent in environments profoundly hostile to this primal desire (Cockburn 1987:184).”  Journalists are highly dependent on source material for their stories, especially from official and powerful sources.  This can lead to insufferable compromises as one seeks to pull one’s punches in a story so as not to offend said source, in order to keep access open.

In his essential “Terms of the Trade” about how journalism operates, Cockburn lauds I.F. Stone whose famous weekly newsletter followed “a slightly different method, less amenable to contamination. He did not move along the usual gossip circuits, but preferred only to read source material, congressional reports, budgetary statements. And in that way he remained immune from the compromises to which his colleagues almost invariably fell prey (Cockburn 1987:185).”

All of us can learn from journalists like Stone, who when he was a young man and working for an establishment publication, found a way to write more critically under a nom de plume, on the side, while surveying the damage to working people during the Great Depression.

That strategy is available to Tett and to all applied anthropologists. I’ve done it myself, as a “Media Muckraker” columnist, with good results.
The key point is, how do we all deal with these compromises?  How do we circumvent them? How far can we go?

We usually don’t know how far until we assert ourselves. In fact, there  is a great deal of social control in the newsroom. Michael Parenti tells what happened to James Aronson, when he worked as a reporter at one of Tett’s chief rivals, the New York Times. “My political and social philosophy had made it increasingly difficult to write ‘objective’ stories for a newspaper committed to United States policy, which was relentlessly developing the Cold War,” he said. “A censorship so subtle that it was invisible affected everyone on the staff. The ‘approach’ (it was never a vulgar ‘line’) was made clear in casual conversations, in the editing of copy for ‘clarity,’ and in the deletion of any forthright interpretation as ’emotionalism.’ Work became a conflict with conscience, although there was never an open challenge to conscience.”

Aronson found that “The surest way to isolation was the espousal of unpopular radical views (Parenti: 1986:37).”

Which takes us back to Gillian Tett’s January 28, 2011 column on “Tunnel Vision” in which she suggested that “perhaps it is time for those Wall Street bankers and military leaders to have dinner together, and swap some battle tips on becoming ‘multidimensional’. And who better to host than Hank Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs? After all, he once spent time in the Pentagon himself.” Tett said that it’s easy to be cynical about this idea, but seemed to support the “various initiatives [that] are under way to persuade soldiers to adopt a multidimensional vision instead (i.e. to teach soldiers how to fight, and build political structures, and win support from the local people.).”

I’ve written about this idea, as well (Why I want to teach anthropology at the US Army War College, McKenna, 2008) and the response was rebuke from faculty at the US Army War College. I guess that part of the problem is about how one defines “holism.”

There are many anthropologists, like David Price, Roberto Gonzalez and David Vine who would very likely have voiced disagreements about these ideas around that dinner table because of conscience. Indeed there is a great deal of controversy around a related issue, the use of anthropologists working with the U.S. military to win “hearts and minds.” The Network of Concerned Anthropologists are strongly opposed. A new Bullfrog film. “Human Terrain, War Becomes Academic” (Bullfrog 2010) addresses these issues well. This topic is at the center of debate for a renewed “public anthropology” (Beck, 2009).

One does not have to agree with Tett’s theoretical perspectives to learn from her mind-blowing insights, her methods or her practice. Her 700 word articles are fieldnotes from the front, read by scholars of all orientations, from Left to Right.

At the same time a critical ethnography of the Financial Times (or NYT and WSJ) would prove very illuminating!  One wonders about the stack of insider insights and secrets that would be uncovered.

The Holism of Capitalism

One visibly invisible “secret” before us all is that elephant in the room, capitalism. It is encased in a take-for-granted culture of neoliberalism, the new common-nonsense (Giroux, 2004).  Curiously, Nowhere in Fool’s Gold do we find the word “neoliberalism.” Similarly Marx is nowhere to be found. A holistic theory of capitalism is not there. Missing as well reference to another book that “predicted” the Meltdown of 2008, Michael Perelman’s The Confiscation of American Prosperity, From Right Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology to the Next Great Depression (2007). Nor is there mention of anthropologist Richard Robbins whose “Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (5th edition, 2010)” is one of the most popular texts in anthropology for explaining the inevitable crises of capital. David Harvey, one of the world’s most well-known surveyors of capitalism and a Professor of Anthropology at CUNY is not referenced either. Harvey (a reader of the Financial Times) has a terrific ten-minute animated cartoon explaining the crisis from his point of view. It offers a different perspective on the causes and cures of the Meltdown than Tett.

Open up the Financial Times to Anthropologists & U.S. Left for Guest Columns

Cockburn, from the Left, had a long-term column with the Wall Street Journal in which he excoriated capital and told the story from the bottom up. Perhaps Tett, in her new found position, might consider opening up the Financial Times to an independent columnist from the anthropology world? It could be called, “Voices from Nacirema,” or “The Muckraking anthropologist.”

Alternately the Financial Times could set up a rotating format where different anthropologists are provided with 700 words once a week. The first columns could come from fellow financial anthropologists like Ho, Hart and  Ouroussoff. All of the writers referenced in this piece, like Perelman could be offered a shot (as could Counterpunch’s excellent economics writer Michael Whitney and Left Business Observer’s Doug Henwood). Dr. Tett could also consult the SFAA and the AAA for contributors.

“Emit, Project, Perform!”

Tett is absolutely correct that anthropologists (and indeed all academics) need to project themselves more forcefully into the culture.  “Anthropologists are well trained to absorb information, not project it.”

They have to “emit.”

Tett is doing very important work. She writes from a privileged place in a glamorous and competitive world. At the same time she tests the limits of what is possible. Whether or not she goes far enough is a question to ponder. But all of us must ask ourselves the same question, “How far do each of us go in a hierarchical environment?” As Bourdieu might say, we are all limited by the habitus and the dominant cultural discourse of our own contexts. Tett, like all of us, is shaped by her everyday environment and has constraints on what she is able to write, without censor or self-censor.

Learning when to compromise and when not to, or when to feign compliance or not is part of the art of the “weapons of the weak” that anthropologists employ as tools in the “real world.” These need to be taught more explicitly in higher education programs. Avoiding compromise in the “real world” while maintaining our professional voice and our jobs is key. Tett has some things to learn from applied anthropologists about these issues.

Tett also has much to teach applied anthropologists and “Fool’s Gold” is exhibit number one. She is an anthropologist immersed in high stakes power politics.  She is a powerful antidote to the tired rituals of a cloistered academic in the knowledge factory.

Tett is “very committed” to using her privileged position “to shuck ideas [from anthropology] into the mainstream for debate.”  The natives are restless hereabouts and look forward to the opportunity.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, February 2011. Tim Wallace, editor. See:

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at:


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Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at