Guest blog: Anthropology offers a strangely familiar approach to understanding decisions

Guest blog by Matthew Thomas from the British Red Cross, in our series of blogs on decision making for the Midlands Decision Support Network

Around nine years ago, I was told the secret to making good decisions. “You must go and tell David Cameron” the reindeer herder urged me, seemingly assuming all Brits had direct access to our then-Prime Minister. 

Sunlight pierced the net curtains in his cabin, but that didn’t mean anything – it could have been mid-afternoon, it could have been the middle of the night. This was summer in Norway’s swathe of the Arctic Circle and the sun never set. I was conducting my first fieldwork among Saami people – a minoritised ethnic group, a minority of whom continue to live as reindeer herders. 

With laconic gestures, I was told that the Saami way of making decisions involved splitting off into pairs to discuss the issue at hand. Then each person moves around to form a new pair, sharing what they’ve been learning. These one-on-one debates continue–reciprocally and repeatedly–until a decision emerges. 

Shamefully, I never tried this method (nor did I seek out our PM – I can only apologise if doing so might have avoided certain events in the following years). But I do think we can learn from approaching decision-making like anthropologists. 

Much advice in this realm is derived from economics and psychology – disciplines which explore how individual humans can be rational or predictably irrational decision-makers. These approaches often don’t put enough weight on the ecosystems and cultures in which we find ourselves. But anthropology delights in the glorious messiness of real world interactions. We need to become the anthropologists of our organisations. 

It’s often said that anthropology makes the strange familiar and the familiar, strange. We try to belong, while not belonging. A classic method for doing so is participant-observation. This is where a researcher tries to do as the locals do, while recording their own observations, thoughts, and feelings. The good news is, we are already locals in our organisations – we’re in prime positions to become what you might call observant participants. 

Taking field notes is an important part of this. You might start by thickly describing social events such as meetings or other decision-making forums – for example, jotting down information about the actors, spaces, activities, behaviours, goals, and mood. 

It may seem like a lot of unnecessary detail – do you really need to observe that Kev’s Zoom background of white beaches with cerulean skies might signal he wishes he were anywhere but here, while his tabby cat yet again parades its bum in front of the camera? 

Maybe not, but deeper observation and knowing the contexts and histories of events within your organisation could help develop a nuanced understanding of how knowledge gets created and shared, what are the unofficial and informal routes of power, how knowledge and power manifest through different technologies (e.g. documents, slide decks, instant messages), how people think about (and feel about) their decisions and behaviours, what constrains decision-making and what prompts a decision to be deferred, or when narratives and ideology trump evidence (and whether this could be desirable in some situations). 

Some other trinkets in the anthropologist’s toolbox could also help. I don’t have space to go into detail, but I’ll link to some useful materials here and at the bottom of this article – and may write about some of these in future on my own blog. 

  • Social silences: a term popularised by anthropologist and Financial Times editor Gillian Tett, based on work from sociologist Pierre Bordieu, social silences are the deeply held, unconscious and seemingly self-evident beliefs and values that go unchallenged. Who benefits from the status quo? What is it that’s tacitly unacceptable to speak about?
  • The plural cultures within an organisation – how different teams might have their own worldviews, their own rituals, and perhaps how one part of an organisation might shape its culture to be purposely in opposition to other cultures (known as ‘schismogenesis’ in anthropological jargon). How do their behavioural norms (“this is how we do things around here”), rituals (meetings, parties, pub-going), jargon, and even things like humour and gossip shape how different groups of people in an organisation make decisions compared to others?
  • Fetishising the abstract or inanimate. For example: “What is the data telling us?” – data doesn’t tell us anything: we interpret patterns according to our worldviews, histories, contexts, etc.
  • Reflexivity: being aware of how our own worldviews and our biases shape what we observe and how we interpret our observations – especially important when making and interpreting observations.
  • Selection environments: what approaches and ways of working are considered legitimate, and how do they get selected over others?
  • Social learning: humans learn from others, but in biased ways. We tend to copy successful or prestigious individuals or the majority; we copy when we’re uncertain or struggling to succeed at a task. How might this affect the emergence of shared understandings and decisions? 

A second thing I feel shameful about: after nearly five years at my current organisation, it was only just recently I realised how approaching decision-making like an anthropologist could help uncover ways to improve how we make decisions. It’s too early in my own anthropological odyssey at work to share any concrete findings, but I’d love to talk with anyone else exploring the strangeness of their familiar environments. 

 Further reading: 

 See more from Matthew at: