Hi, and welcome to Decoding Culture podcast on This is HCD. The podcast focuses on the importance that culture plays in all areas of business and society, from how it shapes organisations and teams, to how it influences consumer experience, design and larger societal trends. My name is John Curran, and I’m your host. I’m a business anthropologist, executive coach and CEO of JC & Associates, which is a consultancy that explores how culture shapes organisations and consumers’ behaviour.
It seems that any Zoom call we are having now – be it business related or with friends and family – we have to navigate a beginning of this call about how we’re all experiencing lockdown with COVID-19. What is becoming clear is that many of us are all having the same everyday cultural experiences, which in turn makes it more difficult to share our stories about our lives – homeschooling, baking, exercise, hair getting long, toilet paper. Stories are central to cultural capital, but when they are so obvious and similar, this signifies an era that our lives have been impacted on greatly. We are living in a dystopian reality where those everyday norms that we have taken for granted for decades and centuries are overnight classified as social stigma, pollutions of what is morally right. Sitting on a park bench talking to friends face to face, playing basketball, going to a funeral – our physical bodies have become objects of morality.
In this episode, I unpack many of these contradictions of social norms with fellow anthropologist, Olive Minor. Olive lives in Seattle, and previously worked for Oxfam in West Africa, where she used her anthropological expertise amongst many things to understand how culture shaped attitudes to Ebola. She describes the work she did there and then we use some of her experiences to understand the current cultural landscape related to COVID-19. Let’s get into the conversation. Welcome to the Decoding Culture podcast.
Olive Minor 02:28
Thanks. It’s great to be with you.
Brilliant. It’s also great to have another anthropologist to have a chat with. Usually when I start these podcasts, I say where I am, and I’m usually somewhere in South London – in Crystal Palace, where I live – and I think it’s important to get a sense of where you are as well.
I am sitting here in Seattle.
Fantastic. So we’re kind of far, far away. But I guess, I’m assuming, with what we’re experiencing at the moment around the world, we’re both in our domestic spaces.
Yep, in my house avoiding interaction with other people.
So it’s almost like we’ve got more in common now than we had two weeks ago. It’s like we’re all following the same path.
That’s good. Well, hopefully we’re going get onto this, offering some anthropological observations from America and also from the UK, a bit later on in this podcast. But what I’d really like to start off with is a general question or general conversation about you – about you and anthropology and what got you into anthropology. What was interesting about it?
I was raised in a progressive family, but in what is still a very segregated city in the American South. Growing up in the 80s and 90s there, I think we had two key messages. By then an understanding that racism is wrong, racism is bad. At the same time that, growing up there, it was clear that race and racism still shaped almost everything about our everyday lives. So all of the spaces that we moved through – much as we had a significant black American population in my hometown, a lot of the spaces that I moved through – my school, my church, etc – were almost entirely white. I think the cognitive dissonance produced by that kind of situation, where you’re receiving two very different kinds of messages, ended up producing a drive to want to understand the underlying causes of poverty and inequality, and notions of cultural difference.
Because to add to that, it was also clear or became clear to me as I grew up that not only was the city in which I grew up very segregated, but, despite positive messaging about racism coming to an end, the African American community clearly lived under conditions that were still quite unequal. The kinds of schools they went to, jobs they held, etc, etc. I think that again instilled a desire to try to understand what was underlying that situation, and then also a drive to actually be able to connect with people that didn’t share my background or my perspective.
I didn’t actually know what anthropology was until I reached university. I think I went in thinking that I would learn to understand the human condition better via psychology or something of a more individualistic approach but discovered anthropology in college and was so taken with it that I did end up pursuing anthropology all the way through a PhD. And alongside that, for me, once you start answering these questions of what are these underlying causes of inequality and ideas about cultural difference, it begs the question of okay, what are you going to do? So I ended up completing a Masters in Public Health alongside the PhD in anthropology. I think I saw global health and public health as a way to answer that question and pursue applied anthropology in the global health space.
So you were actually doing both the PhD and the masters at the same time. Is that right?
Wow. Something you were saying about growing up in a town or city and you’re seeing this inequality on your doorstep. Were you feeling slightly like an outsider? The reason why I say that is because I think historically so many anthropologists are in that position where they don’t really feel part of their original community.
In some ways, yes. In terms of race, I’m not sure I can claim a kind of outsider status, being a white southerner. It’s odd to talk about as someone who belongs to the dominant group, because I’m certainly not here to throw a pity party for white southerners. But at the same time, I do think there’s something profoundly alienating in being told from the time that you’re a small child that you’re not allowed to be with these people that are your neighbors. They’re too different. You should maybe even be afraid of them. You may recall that in the US, the 90s are the height of this kind of rhetoric around young black men being super predators and that kind of thing.
What about your PhD? What was the focus of the PhD on?
In kind of a very large shift in perspective, I ended up working with the LGBT community in Uganda, particularly trans and gender-nonconforming people. By then I was partnered with someone who identifies as trans, and just after I started this project, the Ugandan Parliament introduced that terrible anti-gay bill that had proposals for, for example, the death penalty for being gay. So what I wanted to do was understand how people navigated visibility and risk in that kind of very politically fraught environment. And then the MPH part was understanding access to HIV prevention and treatment services for that population.
You then took your anthropology into the world of development. If I’m right, you were working for Oxfam in Western Africa, but with a specific kind of focus on Ebola. Is that right?
Right. Soon after I graduated, I was very lucky to be brought on with Oxfam during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak. What they were confronting at the time was, by the time I landed in Liberia and then Sierra Leone, people working for Oxfam had realized that a lot of the people in their areas of operation had gotten the messaging. They did know symptoms of Ebola, basic ways of preventing transmission, the modes of transmission, and yet weren’t always acting on that advice. It became really important to understand what were some of the barriers preventing people from acting on the advice that they already had in many cases. By then, this was not a question of being ignorant of the risks or being ignorant of the disease. So it became important to have anthropologists on the ground to try to understand what was going on at a deeper level.
I think that’s a really great point, because we see that also here in the UK. Looking at Ebola and the government when it was working on that, there was that influence of anthropologists on the ground floor. I’m just wondering, from your role, what were you offering that maybe was missing? How are you anthropologically able to make people and policymakers and other groups see differently and start thinking differently?
It is interesting. We’re often asked to articulate what is the value of anthropology? What is the difference that anthropology make? And it’s an interesting question for us, right? Because it may seem kind of obvious that, well, yes, you want to understand the experiences and perspectives of the people you’re trying to reach. But we’re asked to answer this question of, well, what do you actually do? So I think some of the value of having anthropologists there on the ground – in the first place, any time there’s an outbreak of disease, you will see stigma and blame directed towards the population, the individuals and groups that tend to get sick, right? But the problem is that never stops the epidemic. That is not helpful in any sense. So it’s important to understand the experiences and perspectives of those that are actually experiencing the disease.
Going in, one of the things I wanted to do was get beyond a prevailing attitude, especially on the international level, that what was happening in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone was that people were ignorant and that they had all these weird beliefs that were keeping them from cooperating with the response to the outbreak, and that they were resistant. I wanted to understand what was actually underlying the things that we were looking at as resistance. One of those things was taking seriously what people were telling us about their experience, whether or not that sounded like just rumor or untruth etc. To give you an example, when I was working in Monrovia, one of the main things we were doing – I was embedded with a team of volunteers from Monrovia and we’re going door to door delivering that messaging but also engaging in a two-way conversation with people about what they were experiencing. So (a) trying to identify anyone who might have symptoms of a possibly Ebola infection and (b) understand what was going on with them more broadly.
In one neighbourhood when we are walking around, we came across someone, an older man, who, when he saw me, started saying that white people had been going around his neighbourhood poisoning people. And he became very upset. He was kind of shouting, and he started to draw a crowd. Because of the social distancing protocols that we were operating under, once a crowd started to gather, we had to leave the area, but I remained curious about what he had been saying. And that’s the kind of story that would be really easy to reject is just, oh, well, he’s an old man and that’s a crazy rumour and there can’t be any truth to that. But what we did was continue going door to door to in this neighbourhood asking people about what they had been experiencing. And house after house, we started to hear that people were experiencing nausea and fatigue and other weird symptoms after having taken a drug that had been given out by another organisation.
It turned out that one of our partner organisations had gone door to door handing out a malaria prophylaxis. Now, the idea was to try to suppress the levels of malaria so that those cases wouldn’t be confused with potential Ebola cases, which is a good thing to do. They had handed out instructional pamphlets telling people to take the prophylaxis with food and water, but unfortunately handing out these pamphlets to a lot of families who didn’t have a literate family member, or may not have enough to eat, so people were taking these and feeling quite sick. So in some senses, that older man had not been wrong. He had observed something happening in his community, but just the underlying story about what was happening was not 100% accurate. But from there, we were able to take that information and go to our partner organisation, and they were able to shift the way that they were communicating what they were doing to the local population and make sure that they were very clearly communicating how this drug needed to be taken.
That’s really enlightening. You really touch on this idea around blame and how easy it is for communities or outsiders even to think that there’s a clear rational blame that you can ascribe to people. Were you finding that also in other areas? I mean, my limited knowledge around Ebola and anthropology, though, looking at things – for example, like funerals or traditional burials – being another space for blame around it, being an irrational kind of behavior now having a funeral, but actually anthropologists being able to show that it was wrong to situate blame in those areas. And actually, a funeral had a very important social structure going on as well. So it wasn’t just about stopping funerals; you were actually stopping many more other aspects of social life, for example.
Right. I think there were a few lessons that emerged from that. So first, trying to take storytelling seriously as a way in which people were trying to understand and grapple with their own circumstances, and understand the underlying frames of those stories. Secondly, one that will be obvious to anthropologists, is reflexivity. Rather than assigning blame to the people that we’re trying to reach, trying to understand how are our own programs potentially contributing to behaviors that may be counterproductive for preventing further spread of the virus. For example, again, handing out a malaria drug without communicating very clearly what the purpose is and how to take it. And thirdly, regarding the funerals, yeah, understanding the ways in which these things are embedded in larger social processes. And it’s not easy for people to just suddenly overturn the social roles that they’ve always played.
Yeah, I mean, you just naturally have spoken and used terminology that I think now a lot of people are aware of you. You’ve used terminology like ‘social distancing’ and all these things that we’re all trying to live out at the moment. I want to maybe think about taking this forward into the here and now, when we’re talking about the coronavirus and how we’re being told to behave and act. It feels like what you’re seeing, that there are comparisons here. There’s a massive demand that we change our behavior that maybe for the last, I don’t know, culturally, historically, 100-odd years has been normal to us. And all of a sudden – I’m just wondering, as an anthropologist, or just naturally with your observations, what have you been sensing now with the coronavirus and how we are supposed to be behaving or how we are behaving? Maybe this is specifically looking at the US and, you know, I can intersect with the UK, but just from an anthropological point of view, what are you seeing?
The thing that really fascinates me at this moment. And, you know, I do wish that I could put on my anthropologists hat and leave the house and get out there. Again, thinking about storytelling and narrative and then the underlying frames of those narratives, I would really like to understand the difference between those who started to hear about coronavirus and internalized a sense of vulnerability – either a sense of vulnerability themselves or a sense of responsibility – that caused them to start socially distancing or self-isolating earlier on, versus those that even up to now don’t seem to share that sense of vulnerability where they feel like it’s necessary to do so. I’m very firmly on the side of the former, so I have an easier time perhaps connecting to that point of view. But I would really like to understand what’s underlying the reaction of, ‘Yes, I hear this is going on, but it’s not me. It’s not affecting me and it’s not going to affect me, and I feel fine carrying on as normal’ or ‘Yeah, I feel fine taking the risk of carrying on as I did before.’
Yeah. Which is the interesting thing, because it’s actually kind of saying, ‘I’m fine carrying on taking the risk of being normal.’ I guess we don’t ascribe ‘risk’ and ‘being normal’ as joined, but now it certainly is. I mean, we’re talking now at a time where the UK Prime Minister is in a bed in an intensive care unit, and lots of stuff is going on. But like you, I’m interested from an anthropological point of view around how the boundaries of social taboos are rapidly changing from what was or what is still perceived as normal is now potentially breaking these social taboos. You know, that might be, you know, big news in London, as it’s going to get warmer and you’re not allowed to have a picnic in the park. You’re not allowed to lie down and sunbathe. Which is, if we think about it, on one hand, it’s totally rational. But on the other hand, it’s like an explosion of how and what we think normality is. I’m just wondering where that sits at the moment within the US and these almost micro behaviors of the everyday life being kind of taken away from us to a certain extent.
And it strikes me hearing you talk about that, the ways in which all these micro behaviors inform our sense of who we are. For some of us, this may require an entire identity shift – not just a behavioral shift, but learning to see oneself as ‘at risk’ or as ‘vulnerable’ may be very difficult.
That’s really interesting. So by trying to carry on being normal or taking the risk of being normal, we’re actually trying to also maybe have a narrative or an unconscious narrative of it’s quite fearful to break away from that. I’m fearful of maybe being contaminated or contaminating others. I’m turning away, my back is turned away from the actual responsibilities maybe I have.
Right. But informed by this. I think we forget how much our sense of who we are is made up of what we do for work, who our friends and family are, where we live, the things that we do on the day-to-day. And when you start to shift all of those things – and, in some cases, even take them away, so suddenly lose your job, not be able to see your family, not be able to connect with your friends, not be able to carry on the hobbies that give you a sense of who you are and what you’re doing in the world – that can be profoundly disruptive and there’s a part of me that can understand a reluctance to just give everything up, even understanding that there is risk.
That’s a good point. I’ve been noticing a kind of narrative at the moment very much focusing now on the body politic, on the physical body as either a moral good or a form of social pollution. I mentioned to you sunbathing in the park. But literally how you hold your body, how we walk now, how we go and jog, keeping distance, what we wear. I’m seeing daily more people wearing masks, so the mask isn’t just a form of protection, it’s actually also making a cultural statement.
I’m not wearing one but you are, who am I? You know, am I trying to be more normal? And also the thing about what we actually wear – and we know this as anthropologists – is clothing is form of identity, and it gives off the signals for who I am and who I belong to. I saw one tweet saying, ‘Well, do I wear the gray jogging bottoms or the black ones today?’ – the sweatpants, the gray ones or the black ones today, you know?
And what were the stakes of that decision?
We’re seeing the physical body now becoming this object of either doing something right or being an object of blame, which is also, I guess, central to culture. I mean, I’m wondering then: you were talking about blaming when we were talking about Ebola, and trying to understand that anthropologically from different vantage points. Are you seeing similar things around collective blame?
I think we all are. And I do want to circle back for a moment on your observations about how we carry ourselves and how we walk in public. I also find that fascinating. I remember very clearly in the context of the Ebola outbreak, and then especially returning home from that, learning how one internalizes that sense of being somehow polluting or unclean in the way that people reacted to me when I returned. I had friends that simply said, ‘I’m very sorry, but Ebola is scary, and I don’t want to see you until you’ve sat for 21 days and really been cleared by the CDC.’ And I remember internalizing that sense of possibly being a risk to other people or being infectious even when I knew that I wasn’t. In the case of Ebola, if you don’t have symptoms, you are not infectious. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, should I go to the coffee shop? Is that unfair or is that putting other people at risk?’ Even knowing the science behind Ebola and understanding that I was in no way a risk to other people at that point, right? So how do we have people internalize that sense of being a potential risk to themselves or other people? Or maybe we don’t. Maybe we want people to behave in a certain way without having to internalize a sense of themselves as somehow polluted in order to do so?
The interesting thing was, months ago, antisocial behavior was something that was always ascribed to a certain type of group or groups. Youths hanging out in the street corner or drug addicts over there – you know, that type of thing. But now it could be the mother and her child walking too close to me when I’m trying to get lentils from the supermarket or the store right now. That’s antisocial. It’s incredible how it’s become so much more localized, so much more next to me. And also I then can be antisocial as well. So it isn’t just the risk of getting infected, but it’s also the risk of me being antisocial and having to quickly learn these almost emergency norms, I guess we could call them, of how we behave. And it’s interesting, I guess, the whole thing of the body and how we walk and how we talk and things like that. We know this as anthropologists; this is culturation. We don’t think how we walk, but we walk in a certain way because we’ve been culturized. This is now literally telling us to walk in a certain way. Our bodies are mechanically wired to do this.
I want to move on a bit, but this idea of – I’m going to throw this out here and see where it sits with you, with your observations in the US: the idea of national unity. Let’s drop our differences, and let’s all become one and work on this together. Is that something that you are experiencing in the US?
Very locally. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Seattle, but Seattle has a reputation as a city for being very antisocial. There’s a phenomenon called the Seattle freeze, which is naming the fact that people are very, very nice on the surface, but it’s very hard to actually be invited in. Seattle is known for being just notoriously insular. And so the joke around here is that it hasn’t been as hard for us to socially isolate because we’re just doing what we do best here, which is being antisocial and avoiding other people. And if anyone should be able to do this, well, it should be people in Seattle.
It’s interesting in the UK. Every Thursday there’s this kind of ritual where at 8 o’clock in the evening, everyone steps out and applauds the care workers, the NHS, people who are on the front line. And even with party politics, the boundaries have dropped a bit. So Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, being in hospital, everyone’s tweeting and saying, ‘Regardless of what you think of him, we must support him.’ There is almost this imagined community collectiveness. But at the same time, what’s interesting is there’s still quite a lot of racial abuse happening towards nurses who are African, Caribbean or Muslim. That hasn’t necessarily dropped. But there’s a counter argument going on. ‘Isn’t immigration fantastic. Look, people are working on this.’ So although we’re feeling the sense of national oneness, there’s still this tension that was there before.
How does it all work? Because I guess from the UK, we’re seeing Trump and we’re watching the press, the news conferences with Trump, and walk away feeling quite confused. Where’s that sitting, do you feel, within the US?
I don’t know that we’re feeling the national unity right now. I do see a fair amount of blame being directed at various groups who we want to name as the people either making the epidemic worse, or naming them as people who are overreacting and destroying the economy for whatever reason.
Can you give an example that? I mean, who are some of these groups?
I’ve seen efforts to kind of name a generation that is at fault for not taking it seriously and continuing to gather. So people blaming young people for wanting to get out of the house and carry on their social lives, and then younger people who have had to work very hard to get their older parents to stay in the house and not go to book club and naming the older generation as one that is somehow inherently more selfish or less cooperative. It’s also getting slotted into, in the US, our very divisive left/right politics.
Which feels less here at the moment. It was very much here with Brexit and the arguments around Brexit, but that’s subsided. Quickly, then, before we round up, I was also thinking – I mean, so much of the work that we do about being at home. What is the home symbolizing at the moment, as well, because there’s remote working from home, and there are lots of webinars we can go to about how do we do this work from home and what technology do we use, and schooling from home and so many things – baking and exercise. You can go and do whatever you want. But the home has always been a symbolic subject for anthropologists to explore. I don’t think I know quite what the home means at the moment – if it’s a place of containment, or a place of creativity, or a place of coming together in collaboration with family. I’m not quite sure; I haven’t unpacked it yet. I’m just wondering if you’ve got any thoughts about the home and how it sits and is represented at the moment in these times.
It does remind me of conversations in anthropology about the idealization of these concepts like home, family, community, the way that we tend to cite these things as an unmitigated positive. And of course, in our lived experience, all of these things are very fraught. Home can be very complicated and fraught. Family can be very complicated and fraught. So for some of us, yeah, home might be the place we imagine as a place of rest and quiet. For others, it might be containment. For others, it might be a site of abuse. And we’re hearing a lot about what this means for people that have complicated or abusive family situations. The way that community can be a place of nurturing and growth, but also one of power dynamics and these less positive things.
Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard the home becoming the prison, the negative aspect of it. It feels also that over blocks of days almost the narrative changes, the reality. We’ve talked about boredom or tiredness and these type of things, and in some way the home now is having to contain it all. It will be interesting see, if this carries on for a few more weeks, do we see them now go into more that it’s a cell, it’s a space of control rather than a space, as you said, of relaxation or family or community, and things like that. Where do you think anthropology can really help here in understanding the now but also understanding the future of how culture, society, community can almost be reflecting on itself of what it’s gone through?
Two things immediately come to mind. For one thing, I think our training has us focused on the way in which things will look different depending on how you’re positioned in society. And we didn’t really touch on this so much, but a lot of how, for example, home will be experienced will depend on how you’re positioned – you know, what amount of financial or other privilege you have. And I’ve lost my train of thought of the second, having named two upfront.
There is that whole point, though – I think what you touched on, which we haven’t really talked about – is there’s home but there’s also work, and that also being a form and sense of identity about who we are. And almost the uncertainty of one’s employment, what that is doing, what that can do to our sense of who we are, identity, and also how do we create narratives around that to understand where we are. Well, listen, we’re coming to the end. I wanted to set this up as a conversation and it feels like we could almost do this on a weekly basis, touching base as anthropologists just to see and reflect on cultural nuances, what’s happening out there. Before you go, and I give this to all the guests on the podcast, I want to hand you over the symbol anthropologists notebook. If you want to go and take that notebook and go and do an ethnographic study somewhere, wherever you want to, where would that be and why?
That is such a good question. Lately I had sort of shifted some of my work towards more tech spaces. I recently wrapped up a contract with Google, which was quite a pivot from working in the global health space, and that pivot was based in an understanding that I think a lot of – so I’m a very classically trained anthropologist in ethnography and on-the-ground participant observation. I started to realize that some of the really interesting developments in both methodology and the kinds of questions that were being asked are happening in these more tech focused spaces. And with Google, I had an opportunity to learn a lot about more remote methodologies or asynchronous methodologies, and then trying to answer these really big questions around how technology influences our lives. My ambition would be able to take that learning back to the global health space. So in the broadest sense, I would want to take the toolkits, your notebook and your vast experience in more business or tech spaces, and take all those lessons learned to the NGO sphere and to promoting global health.
Great. Olive, thank you so much and good luck in the next few weeks in Seattle. I’m sure we will be carrying on the conversation – maybe not over the podcast, but definitely other means. But I think in a few weeks, we’re going to have to maybe do a recap and share again with what we’re seeing.
Thank you so much. This was really fun.
Brilliant. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening to the Decoding Culture podcast. And I hope some of the points that I discussed with Olive have really helped you understand your experiences. Please do subscribe to it on iTunes and give it a rating. If you want to learn more about other shows on This is HCD network, visit ThisIsHCD.com, where you can also sign up to the newsletter and join the Slack channel, where there are lots of interesting conversations happening.