Emma's blog

Modern forms of divination

Anthropology teaches you to respect the knowledge that emerges out of other cultures. Reading Evans-Pritchard on the Azande of Southern Sudan as a student blew my mind. He describes how logical their way of divining who is a witch is, if you understand it, even if you don’t agree with it. Beliefs that I had dismissed as primitive were revealed as moral, intelligent and rational in their own terms. You can understand only if you look carefully at how it works in practice.

I’m struggling to do the same to modern forms of divination used in management. Take the two examples of risk and talent management, relatively new business discourses promoted by auditors and human resources consultants respectively. Both demand predictions about the future, one mostly financial and the other focused on the talent of staff. The processes for making these predictions are becoming more specialist, expensive, elaborate and demanding and only intelligible if you study them in great detail. At first glance they seem as irrational as Azande witchcraft but, trained to respect other cultures, I’m trying to appreciate the sense in the underlying beliefs if at all possible.

Corbyn quiddity

Tony Blair tells Corbyn’s supporters that they are irrational and over-emotional by planning to vote for him. All political responses are a tangle of emotion and opinion. In any case, since Corbyn supporters probably don’t trust TB, it seems unlikely that they will be swayed by him. A US politician once told Richard Fenno, a political scientist, no one will vote against you if you are on first-names basis and if you chew tobacco with them, then they will even fight for you. People vote for those they believe and it is easier to believe people you like. Corbyn is likeable because he speaks his own mind – we think we know who he is – and he avoids patronising people.

If it is difficult to like liars or obfuscators. People who are loyal to any organisation, including political parties, will sometimes disagree with it, and those in leadership positions have no choice but to defend their team. Otherwise people will see the whole team as disorganised, wasting time on disagreement rather than doing anything useful. So Ministers bury their own views to be loyal to colleagues. At other times they lie to cover up mistakes, particularly when in government because they have such scope for causing havoc. But it can be difficult to tell pernicious government lies from understandable loyalty to party. Either can appear patronising because concealment, with a pretence of honesty, is insulting.

There is something exciting about a rebel. Corbyn was the most rebellious MP during the Blair government. When I interviewed him he related a typical conversation between him and his whip, Sadiq Khan:

Whip: ‘Hello there Jeremy, just wanted to check how you are planning to vote on Tuesday.’

Jeremy: ‘I’m going to vote against.’

Whip: ‘OK.’

Jeremy: ‘I mean against the government.’

Whip: ‘Yes, I know.’

Jeremy: ‘Sadiq, at this point you are supposed to persuade me to support the party.’

Whip: ‘I can’t be bothered. Would you consider abstaining?’

Jeremy: ‘No, sorry I can’t do that.’

Whip: ‘OK.’

Any party needs a few rebels, it seems to me, to keep them on their toes. Obedience from all MPs within a party would imply a troubling lack of ideological diversity. Whether he would make a good leader of the Labour party is a complete unknown, from my viewpoint, so I make no comment on that.

(For more, see Emma Crewe, House of Commons: an anthropology of MPs at work, Bloomsbury).

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