Anthropology of Risk


One day I asked my friend, a manger at Canadian hedge-fund giant DGAM, if he was aware that anthropology had a whole sub-area devoted to the study of risk and risk management. Of course he did not know that so I was pleased when he invited me to give a talk to his team which oversees over 3 billion bucks (at the time). To prepare for my talk I read Steven Drobny’s book of interviews with hedge fund managers who not only escaped the ravages of the 2008 financial disaster but managed to make money when others were sinking. Two interesting things came from this book. First of all, there was a preface by well-known quasi-anthropologist Jared Diamond who used illustrations from contemporary anthropology to draw parallels to modern finance. The significance of anthropology being at the beginning of this text on money was not lost upon me. The second important thing I got from this book was that it consisted mostly of lightly edited interviews, in other words, ethnographic-type data. I read the entire book in its finest details and distilled the kinds of knowledge essential for proper risk management. I lo0ked up every arcane financial term in the Financial Times online dictionary. This did not impress the hedge fund team. What did was the ethnographic material I covered on risk management among the Inupiat indigenous peoples of Alaska. “That’s exactly what we do!” exclaimed my friend when I discussed the role of exchange between whale hunting and caribou hunting communities. Not that the managers were trucking in meat but the principles were the same. They immediately ordered an obscure text I had mentioned dealing with archaeological models of risk management that spanned centuries – a much wider frame than contemporary money managers are able to take. As the editor of Peeps magazine declares (see previous post on Serbian hip hop) most business people are completely unaware of the power available to them through anthropology. My hedge fund buddy agrees and wants me to speak to his team again. They are investing employee pension funds and have the responsibility of securing and growing peoples’ life savings.  I am looking to take the anthropology of risk show on the road this summer.

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Shakespeares in the the Ghetto: The Art and Economics of Serbian Hip Hop


I have written a feature essay on Serbian hip hop for the inaugural issue of Peeps, a new Canadian magazine which tracks global cultural trends. The editors call it anthropology for non-anthropologists. The first issue is titled The Modern Protagonist, and focuses on technology. Peeps is a quality production with only propriety, commissioned images not found on the internet.

Last summer I went to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to do some fieldwork. I was driven to know why this music existed there and why it was so excellent. My essay explores the aesthetics and social context of hip hop music and the hip hop subculture. It is complemented by photographs taken by AP photojournalist Marko Drobnjakovic, known for his stark documentation of the wars in Iraq and more recently of the plight of refugees in Europe. His foray into Serbian hip hop was a first for Marko.

Peeps is available online and in more and more bookstores. 20151202_150036 ST-smoking

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Branding USB flash drives

A wide variety of materials and shapes are used in the manufacture of USB flash drives.
A wide variety of materials and shapes are used in the manufacture of USB flash drives


Even the lowly USB flash drive presents opportunities for creative branding. After collecting a few dozen of these PR devices over the past couple of years I laid them side by side to see if there were any patterns of interest. Here’s what I saw.

USB (48)Swivel type flash drive

The first discernible pattern was based on a functional distinction. Roughly half of the drives were of the cap variety, the other half being swivel flash drives. There are pros and cons for each. The main problem with cap drives is the cap, which tends to get easily lost. Swivel drives have no such problem, with the swivel cap being permanently attached to the drive. The advantage of cap drives, however, is that there is more space on the body of the drive for printing or engraving brand logos, names, and slogans. With swivel drives the printing generally goes on the swivel itself (great if you have a distinct corporate logo or short brand name).

The second pattern I noticed was the range of materials used for the body of cap drives: plastic, wood, metal, and, leather being the most common. Each material has symbolic connotations which can be exploited with greater or lesser ease for branding purposes. For example, Danier (a leather goods company) used black leather-bound flash drives in one of their recent marketing campaigns. Beauty goods company Veet chose an eye-catching flash drive in the shape of a bright red lipstick. Flash drives come in an astonishing array of materials, shapes and colours. They can also be custom made to order, such as the cookie-shaped flash drive from Oreo (cute but awkward to insert into a laptop USB port). In general, a wider range of materials are used in cap drives. Swivel drives tend to have plastic bodies and metal swivels. The single example of a wood swivel drive came from éclos. It looked nice but the swivel mechanism malfunctioned. Be careful of adopting innovations before they are tested!

USB flash drive - DanierUSB (27)

USB (11)USB (40)

Everything a company puts out should be considered a branding opportunity. Nothing is too trivial – not even the USB flash drives used for distributing press releases and documents. Though an object with utilitarian value, the USB flash drive is a microcosm of the kinds of choices, values, and attitudes that animate a brand.

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Observing a McDonald’s Drive Through

McDonald's at Pape and Cosburn, Toronto, Ontario
Observing the McDonald’s drive-through at the corner of Pape and Cosburn, Toronto, Ontario

What can you observe in 30 minutes? Last February 20th I had lunch at a local McDonald’s. While looking out the window I could see cars stopping at the drive-through telecom to order food. What caught my attention was how many high end cars in a row were driving up to order McDonald’s. I decided to conduct a tiny ad hoc research project to see if there was anything to my initial observation. I began recording some observations. Within 30 minutes, between 1:25 and 2:15 pm, a total of twenty cars came to the drive through to order food. Although I could not see what people were ordering I took note of the make of car and how many passengers were in each. One thing that came from this tiny half hour study was that over half the vehicles were premium brands: Audis, Beamers, Infinitis and Acuras stopping to munch on McDonalds! What does this say about the buyers of luxury brands? They like to eat on the quick and cheap like everybody else. Another interesting observation was that 15 of the 20 vehicles contained only the driver, no passengers – while the other five cars had only a single passenger each. I have tabulated my observations below to show how even a small set of observations can provide useful insights into human behaviour and provide a starting point for questions and for more methodical research.

Car   Model Number of people in car
Acura 1
Acura 2
Audi 1
Austin Mini 1
Austin Mini 2
Chevrolet Cavalier 1
Chrysler Van 2
Dodge Caravan 1
Ford F150 xIR 4×4 1
Ford Fusion 1
Honda Civic 2
Infiniti 1
Jeep Grand Cherokee 1
Nissan 1
Pontiac Wave 1
Saturn 1
Toyota Camry 1
Toyota Camry 1
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Business anthropologist Ashkuff packs a punch

Business anthropologist Ashkuff is the brainchild of Al Ashkuff, a Florida-based business anthropologist. I was lured over to his site by a posting on LinkedIn advertising a free white paper titled BLOOD, SWEAT & ANTHROPOLOGY: a Tactical Guide for Aspiring Fitness Club Owners and Business Anthropologists. It is an engaging piece of auto-ethnographic writing. Told in Ashkuff’s inimitable, witty style, it is the story of how he starts a business – a recreational boxing club  – and at the same time it is an anthropological analysis of the entire process. It successfully combines informative, highly readable content in a concise format. Management consultants charge big bucks to produce research reports like this and I’m definitely going to offer Ashkuff work on my next consulting gig (if he’s available).

Besides the free white paper there are all sorts of other goodies at There are short ethnographic films, essays, photographs, blog commentary, and opinion pieces. The website is an example of the excellent things that can be done when a sharp anthropological mind-set (devoid of obvious ideological motives) is combined with ingenuity and drive. It should inspire those students of anthropology who choose not to pursue graduate studies but strongly desire to apply in practical contexts the knowledge they acquired studying the science of culture .

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Applied Anthropology at the CBC

The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBCOne of my most memorable consulting projects as an applied anthropologist was a job I did for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) via Kaleidovision (now TerraNova Market Strategies). From a large pool of applicants, CBC awarded Kaleidovision a contract to  conduct qualitative research on the production and consumption of news. One of my duties was to travel across Canada, going into peoples’ homes, watching, listening and discussing all aspects of the news with them. I also visited CBC studios across the land, where I interviewed news professionals and got to see in part how the news was made, from reporters’ desks to broadcast programs. This research is now discussed in a very favorable light in a new book, The Tower of Babble, by former CBC boss Richard Stursberg, .

Stursberg writes about his experience as a top CBC executive. Among the topics discussed is the attempt, in 2002-2003, to revamp a moribund English language national news service, which, at the time, was behind rival networks Global, CTV, and even CNN, in audience count. In order to grasp how the entire news department functioned at the CBC, a massive research project was commissioned. Part of the research was a quantitative audience survey; part of it was qualitative research, which involved in-depth interviewing and detailed field observations. Stursberg calls it the largest research of its kind ever done. He also praises it as an “an impressive piece of work.”

The report (co-authored by TerraNova principals Liz Torlée and Louise Ducet, and myself) was a massive tome dubbed “the bible” by some news producers. It served, among other things, as a production guideline. That it is being referred to as a groundbreaking piece of research is very gratifying. It also provides further evidence for the unique value that applied anthropology can provide to corporations intent on viable, meaningful change.

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Turn On Your Lights! The Case Against Earth Hour

“The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore… they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.”  
Sir Julian Huxley (Co-founder of the WWF)


I will not be turning off my lights for Earth Hour this year. Instead, I will urge my kids to turn them all on as a gesture of resistance to a global corporate ritual I oppose. I believe Earth Hour has less to do with promoting environmental awareness and more to do with conditioning people to think and act in concert on a global scale. Though there’s nothing wrong with that in principle, I am, however, suspicious that Earth Hour is little more than a feel-good party set up as a front for more nefarious purposes. Here’s why.

Earth Hour is a project of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), a powerful NGO dedicated to environmental conservation. The WWF’s first president was Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (consort to former Queen Juliana and father of the current monarch, Queen Beatrix). Born and raised in Germany, Bernhard was a notorious lover of fast planes, fast cars, fast women, and, of course, nature. Bernhard was also one of the co-founders, in 1954, of the Bilderberg Group, a secretive annual summit where the world’s money and power elites meet to decide upon political and economic global strategy.

Long considered a war hero in the Netherlands due to his public image as an anti-Nazi activist, the latest historical research (Annejet van der Zijl’s Bernhard: A Secret History) tells a different story. It appears that the prince’s anti-Nazi stance was a cleverly devised piece of theatre. Bernhard had in fact been a “brown shirt,” a volunteer in the Sturmabteilung, the dreaded Nazi paramilitary organization. That was before the Nazis had come to power and before the Nazification of Germany had begun. He was an “early adopter,” to use contemporary marketing speak, though he claimed to have signed up to save his skin.

Not known for honesty, Bernhard was disgraced later in life when he was caught taking bribes from the American aerospace giant Lockheed Corporation to influence the Dutch government’s military purchasing. Bernhard’s reputation was tarnished by other scandals, among them, the statement by Nelson Mandela’s government that Bernhard may have used the WWF as a vehicle to combat the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Not a founding father to be proud of. Enough said about Bernhard.

Consider now another famous environmentalist and globalist, co-founder of the WWF, Sir Julian Huxley, like Bernhard, a scion of elite blood. Huxley was the grandson of the great nineteenth century biologist Sir Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog.” The first director of UNESCO, Julian Huxley was a principal architect of the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” the merger of Darwinian Theory with the science of genetics. Huxley’s credentials in this area are unimpeachable.

However, Huxley was also an avid eugenicist. He was president of the British Eugenics Society as recently as 1962, a fact downplayed in his autobiographical writings and by his contemporary defenders. Though ostensibly not a racist, Huxley was undoubtedly a major “classist,” advocating denial of medical services to the poor and sterilization of the chronically unemployed. The great scientist was thinking of the earth first, of course, and of the health of humanity as a whole!

For these celebrated fathers of the WWF and forerunners of radical environmentalism, the love of nature did not necessarily entail a love for humanity. Radical environmentalists often compare humans to maggots or parasites living in feces of their own making. To my mind this is wrong and should not be a message that is taught in schools, as it increasingly is nowadays. It fosters an unhealthy species self-loathing among impressionable youth.

Add to all of this the fact that Coca Cola (among other global companies) has been one of the major corporate sponsors of Earth Hour the past few years. Yes, that same company that phased out refillable bottles and replaced them with the globally ubiquitous disposable plastic bottle and tin can. Such huge corporate backing for Earth Hour renders laughable the simplistic notion that environmentalism is just another word for the political left, as many conservatives believe.

In fact, the leader of the Nazi S.S., Heinrich Himmler, loved animals so much so that he promoted anti-vivisection laws within the Reich because he could not understand how anybody could harm defenseless beasts. His colleague, Richard Walther Darré, Hitler’s minister of food and agriculture, was a neo-pagan naturalist and a fiercely anti-Christian, anti-Semitic eugenicist, and, champion of the organic farming movement. Hitler himself believed in and wrote about the moral superiority of vegetarianism.

This commentary should not be interpreted as hostility to environmental conservation, though it undoubtedly will be. My goal in disclosing these inconvenient truths about the dubious origins of Earth Hour is to urge people to research the subject before uncritically participating in this global rite – with candles and darkness – in 2012. School children do not need a nature ritual like Earth Hour to remind them of something that is practically rammed down their throats on a daily basis.

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Forensic anthropology at Treblinka

Forensic  anthropologists provide expert testimony in courts of law from local to international jurisdictions. Physical, or biological, anthropologists – specialists in human anatomy – are employed in many cases having to do with crime scene investigations. For example, University of Toronto anthropologist Tracy Rogers led a team of excavators at the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton in British Columbia. Recently, archaeologists have been involved in forensic cases where their expertise at examining human artifacts has been used to decide what really happened at the infamous Treblinka Nazi concentration camp in Poland. The Daily Mail Online of the UK reports that a team of British archaeologists have debunked the Holocaust deniers’ version of the story. Genocide denial is at the centre of various political disputes between ethnic groups and governments. France, where it is illegal to deny the genocide of Jews during the second world war, recently passed a similar law prohibiting the denial of the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during and after the first world war. Turkey took diplomatic action in protest. Certainly there must be a greater role for cultural anthropologists in this area of applied anthropology.

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