Monday, December 30, 2013

Purpose and Wellbeing

As Tony Schwartz (in the NY Times) argues in a recent column: a sense of purpose--contributing to something meaningful and larger than yourself--is a core element of life satisfaction, wellbeing, and the good life. He quotes Nietzsche's observation: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

We often hear purpose and passion as extolled virtues these days: find your passion, live life with a purpose. This is the sort of self-help that resonates with the demographic represented by readers of the Times.

Indeed, yesterday's paper ran an article about Martha Beck ("the merchant of happiness") who has built a small empire around life coaching: she says “Everything I’ve ever taught in terms of self-help boils down to this — I cannot believe people keep paying me to say this — if something feels really good for you, you might want to do it. And if it feels really horrible, you might want to consider not doing it." 

But, as readers of this blog will know, having a larger purpose in life is not the exclusive purview of the affluent and middle classes. The poor as well as the rich give purpose to their lives; it is in many ways what makes us human. And such larger purposes must not be as lofty or laudable as the passions featured in the paper: political extremism, racist ideologies, and other such projects may increase individual wellbeing among their adherents while harming collective goods.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Culture as Strategy, and the Relevance of Anthropology

The demand for anthropological knowledge is great. This might surprise many of my fellow anthropologists--there is growing lament about our irrelevance in big debates--and certainly all those graduate students looking at a bleak job market. But I almost daily I hear from colleagues in medicine, political science, business, and other fields how they try to incorporate notions of "culture" (our discipline's signature concept) into their work and business practice.

Most often, the ideas of culture thus borrowed would seem antiquated to a contemporary anthropologist. Treated as a static thing with clear boundaries, the notions of culture used in other fields most resemble early trait-list approaches. In current parlance, such views do representational violence to the folks they hope to describe. Today, we see culture as dynamic, creative, imbued with power, fluid: Arjun Appadurai argues that it should be used as an adjective (cultural) rather than a noun (culure).

In translating this into other fields, we might look at culture as strategy, intentional orientations toward the future that guide decisions but also depend on serendipity, adapting to changing circumstances, and shifting hopes and dreams. For development programs, public policy, and business, this means that being culturally "appropriate" isn't about handing your business card in just the right way or knowing dinner table etiquette, but taking seriously the aspirations of those with whom we collaborate, seeking common futures.

The Financial Times reports that the Swedish appliance maker Electrolux has started to take some strategic direction from emerging markets, essentially breaking down the walls for a division for poor places and another for rich ones, and that this has invigorated their growth in both markets.     
 We may also seek to orchestrate serendipity and cultural creativity through institutional and architectural arrangements.  Michael Soto reports on Institutionalizing Serendipity in a company environment, a model with much broader implications.  (And a conversation with Michael yesterday inspired this post.)