…humans always assume that the way that they organize the world around them is entirely natural and inevitable.
So, Tett’s book is primarily a reaction to the Global Financial Crisis. An anthropologist by training, she started to question why traders in the same bank were making opposing bets, how risk analysts could have been so blissfully unaware of the downside of some of these trades, and how economists and regulators missed the forrest for the trees.
The answer, she claims, is our unfortunate tendency to break the world down into neat little boxes. This can be effective, and even necessary, in our taking in and understanding the world. But the siloisation of expertise, information and people can be dangerous.
And it’s also not very accurate.
A common theme of anthropological research is that the way we classify the world never really matches the reality of our environments. People might draw neat diagrams of their kinship structures and family trees, but there are often ambiguities, overlaps, and underlaps. Things fall between the cracks. Life does not always fit into the official descriptions of what people are supposed to do. Much of the time we ignore these messy realities. It feels easier to stick with the neat classification systems we have than constantly rewrite them, be that in the sphere of kinship, religion, domestic life, or anything else.
If you watched any of this year’s campaign coverage, this should be familiar to you. Analysts broke America down into categories – white voters, women voters, black voters, latino voters, rural voters, working class voters; they ascribed motivations and prescribed answers.
But the world doesn’t want to conform to our little boxes. When it comes to institutions this can cause confusion, blindness and infighting. And, guess what, it does that in politics too. Maybe it’s time to question the boxes.
…the conventions that we use to classify the world are often not officially defined or spelled out. Instead, they arise out of a dense set of rules, traditions, and conventions that we have absorbed from our surroundings, often in an unthinking way.