Something Larger: The Benefits of My Anthropological and Humanist Training


Below are a couple of sketched observations why I feel fortunate about my training. I believe it helps me help the world in a time during which humanity faces many urgent challenges. (Forgive me, this is the first time I use this format of publishing, so this is a trial “essay”. Any illogical loose ends are my fault.]

I trained in the classics at school and then did anthropology at university, but it was a recent review article in the THES about the latest book of my doctoral supervisor who reminded me of my own beliefs about why social science and humanities matter. In the book (which I haven’t read yet, so I only have secondary sources), Prof Ingold argues that it may be less worthwhile to “review” the many “conceptions and misconceptions” about anthropology. Instead, in rather typical fashion of him to look at a problem boldly and positively, he outlines what he thinks, anthropology “should aspire to be”.

His view, as the polity press page explains, that “a field of study once committed to ideals of progress collapsed amidst the ruins of war and colonialism, only to be reborn as a discipline of hope, destined to take centre stage in debating the most pressing intellectual, ethical and political issues of our time” also summarises why I ‘ended up’ studying Anthropology, first at the LSE, and then for my graduate in Manchester: While as a scientist I wanted to measure the world, find out ‘Truths’ (with a capital ‘T’ at the time), but as a social scientist — and anthropologist, I also wanted “to share in [other people’s] presence, to learn from their experiments in living, and to bring this experience to bear on our own imaginings of what human life could be like, its future conditions and possibilities”.

In other words, I attempt to satisfy my Platonic desire to understand what ‘one needs to live a good life’ through knowledge with the phenomenological focus on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience in different parts of the world. The concentration on the capital “T” had shifted to the “E” of experience (I’m not sure whether capital or not…).

Of course I want(ed) to explain, make sense of the strange ways of living and be able to pass this on to others, too. But I later realised how central to my focus on praxis- and experience-based research approaches was the goal to extend the “knowledge bequeathed by science with the wisdom of experience and imagination”. In my thesis I was dreaming to extend the written word (the main staple of academic work) by other sensory inputs: pictures, sounds, smells. It was — and is — hard to do in today’s set-up of western knowledge production. In the end, I had to settle for photos only, because either my limited funding or the academy’s rules would restrict most other forms of input for a thesis. But already then, I was driving at more conceptual and perceptual inputs for understanding the world, long before I ended in the innovation and product development space.

Social Science helped me get a set of capabilities, not a profession.

I believe that my humanist training prepared me for this anthropological point of view, and together they’re benefitting me still today in my work in a commercial enterprise. I went into Social Science because I believed it helps me get a set of capabilities, not a profession. It was up to me to choose then what to do with those skills. This ‘freedom’, I believe(d), will allow me more to adapt to the changing workplace conditions and to do many things rather than just one. I believed in that because of the breadth of human cultural history I already learned in my humanist high school where I studied also Latin and Ancient Greek. The philosophers we read who taught us that there are multiple ways of looking at and living in this world had a straight (conceptual) line to the social theorists and ethnographic descriptions of how people live-in-the-world that I was reading in anthropology classes.

I love my work, my background helps me deal with its challenges.

So my training made me adaptable, flexible, and open to listen to the diversity around us. From those insights, I then help create new tools and services. It’s small wonder I love my work. My background helps me to look at design or digital transformation or product innovation challenges from multiple points of view. Hence I don’t first ask “what does this [other/unorthodox/humanist/non-directly-practical] thought do for me” because we’d limit ourselves to the ethnocentric or “professio-centric” values and thought-models before having . Isn’t it awesome that my schooling enabled me to consider the full range of human experience and develop solutions for that totality (in a global company)? I feel rather privileged, and I hope that more people will read more anthropology to understand more about human life on this planet. In a time when human societies face acute challenges socially, politically and environmentally, we (=humanity) need that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Martin Ortlieb works with Google among others. He holds a BA in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a PhD in Social Anthropology from Alliance Manchester Business School. His key goal is to build products that connect the digital and human worlds to the benefit of people who can be confident and trusting about the services they use. He enjoys working with people from all walks of life. He also likes giving back to the communities that nurture & host him both professionally & privately. Martin is a dedicated parent and husband who likes the outdoors, music, food & crafts. He lives and works in Zurich Switzerland.


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