David Zeitlyn on his book, Mambila Divination

Mambila Divination Framing Questions, Constructing Answers book cover

Interview by Stephan Feuchtwang


Stephan Feuchtwang: Is divination a ritual, despite its being improvisatory and dialogic?

David Zeitlyn: I have two problems with this question: the word ‘divination’ and the word ‘ritual’! We know now that there is enormous variation across time and space about what counts as divination or oracle (but for the sake of clarity I will give a rough and ready working definition below). What counts as ritual is also variable and unclear, especially at the margins. So I am hesitant about making big statements about divination, although I am prepared to generalise about the literature on divination (which of course is not the same thing). My conclusion about this is that anthropologists have spent too long talking to diviners, not enough time talking to the clients. In part, this is because of the lure of experts. Diviners often are local intellectuals, curious and articulate so we the anthropologists have gravitated to people like us: those who are both able and willing to answer our odd questions. Clients often have far more pressing things at stake (such as serious illness), and it is easier for them to tell us to go and bother the diviners rather than them. And as clients often travel to consult it is hard to follow up so we may not know what they eventually do with the advice they have been given.

My rough and ready definition: I am using the term divination in a very general sense for any arcane or occult means by which people gain arcane knowledge (Aune 2005, Zuesse 2005). Arcane knowledge itself is knowledge that is not available from everyday, practical activity and is more or less esoteric or occult in character, often about the future. (In other words, this is not a study of how some people find water sources (water divination or dowsing)).

Stephan Feuchtwang: More than other dialogical processes, such as conversation, is divination bound by a set of symbols?

David Zeitlyn: Here I think you and I are in agreement: there is more going on than ‘just conversation’. If I were trying to advise you about a course of action then I set out my opinion and try and explain why I have come to that conclusion. In many forms of divination, especially when there are texts of procedures to be followed then as well as engaging with these procedures, I have to be attuned not only to Stefan’s input but the contribution (actual or potential) of other people, critically other diviners who may say that my opinion is worthless because I have not followed the procedure correctly. The possibility means I have to be careful to do ‘things right’ guarding me against criticism from my peer group of fellow diviners. As Pascal Boyer is arguing in a paper in Current Anthropology (2020) this also connects to a way in which the results are seen to be trustworthy – because the procedures have been followed correctly the results are seen as not being just ‘something I say’ (just my opinion) but something I am reporting, the source of the opinion, the illocutionary author is not the diviners but as it were the mechanism (technique), and if performed properly then it is credible because it is not biased and partial as humans all too often are.

I discuss all of this in Chapter Three.

Stephan Feuchtwang: Why is a client-centred analysis only about the problems clients bring to diviners and not also about those symbols?

David Zeitlyn: I think it doesn’t have to be but in my case I am both trying to redress the imbalance and reflect Mambila practice. Mambila diviners (those doing spider/ crab divination commonly known as ŋgam du) will talk happily and extensively about the symbols on the leaf cards that are used. These are similar in design to those used by neighbours such as the Yamba and other groups to the south  (examples have been documented from many groups over the years). However in actual practice those meaning seem not to be referred to. This is a puzzle which I think relates to the diffusion of this specific form of divination over the long term: (And I note ŋgam reconstructs as a proto-bantu term for doctor/ specialist). But granted my emphasis on what clients, and in my case Mambila clients do in and with divination if they don’t use the available symbols then I don’t think it right to insist (or impose) on a symbolic reading In the book there is a Mambila myth which explains why you cannot (strictly why you can no longer) talk to spiders. But as I point out the myth takes for granted that the spiders know things without ever explaining the source of their knowledge. I would be delighted were a Mambila scholar to do more work on their sets of symbols (I am not sure is there is a singular system: that seems to me to be one of the things that such a scholar can discuss) but that is not what I have done in the book, which ends up being more of a sociology of the issues that people (mainly Mambila) use the divination to help resolve and something about how they talk about these things. The talking about these things has two parts: in the process of doing divination, that is the process of divinatory consultation, there is a set of issues of how you frame the question being asked, and how you respond to the answers given as you frame new questions. In this part of the book I consider parallels with Harold Garfinkel and see how ostensibly contradictory answers are taken as being prompts either to change or widen the question frame. Towards the end of the book I report  some life history interviews that I have done quite recently. These were looking at the role divination has played during ‘life crisis’ moments in peoples’ lives. The responses were interesting: even diviners seem to have been quite reluctant to divine. And more people than I expected said things like ‘tried it, didn’t like the answers, never again’. So there seems to be variation in Mambila society about things like divination that has to temper how I generalise about them. Now that seems a good concluding point for an anthropologist: generalise with caution!


Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth takes the p. 99 test

Opening to page 99 of Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia, you’ll find my reflections on choosing apprenticeship as the ethnographic method that would fit my research questions exploring how craft labor was related to connections with forest landscapes in the mountain forests of West Virginia. While the page generally focuses on how I changed research topics to focus on the materials of craft as an entrance into the meaning of work and how I found makers (often locally famous and frequently interviewed) had ready-to-articulate ideas about their craft, one sentence stands out to speak to the whole of the dissertation.  


I found that verbal learning about the craft processes and the craft in general occurred more often in tandem with my kinesthetic, material, and temporal experience that inspired discussion not broached in our interviews.


Ethnographic apprenticeship is the methodological rock upon which the rest of the work unfolds, as the bulk of my argument is made through the narratives of building instruments with three makers. Learning the craft enabled me to feel the affect of the work: the compulsion to make despite adverse and anxiety-inducing economic conditions, the joy and frustration of intersubjective relationships emerging between skilled crafter and wood materials as successful instruments or dashed hopes, and living in the contradiction of the major paradoxes of musical instrument making. Working alongside makers enabled me to see how they live in the contradictory processes of bringing life to an instrument through the death of a tree and relying on the capitalist regimes of timber and factory production that elide the livelihoods and material necessities of craft makers. Working together on material objects also revealed other categories that rendered the work meaningful. Through long hours spent together in the shop, topics emerged that were not discussed in interviews guided by my research questions. Relationship building through apprenticeship revealed that religion was the main driver of meaning in work in one case and transnational connections between people and forest landscapes in another. While the presence of the forest and relationship to the materials was central in both cases, it was other relationships that foregrounded the meaning of the work. 


While these methods limited the scope of the dissertation, and made it difficult to speak to the extensive scale of instrument making in Appalachia, empirical discussion of the political economic context, and contrasting takes on the position of racialization and gendering, it did allow me to once explore the intricacies of the relationships between working humans and our environments, as well as position those uniquely human forms of relationship that enable us to make sense of the political, economic, and ecological webs we inhabit. 


Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2019. Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia. University of Kentucky, Phd.

Kimberly Chong on her new book, Best Practice

Best Practice

Interview by Johannes Lenhard


Johannes Lenhard: Your book is continuing a so far relatively short line of monographs in anthropology started by perhaps Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits, 2006), Bill Maurer (Mutual Life, 2005) and Karen Ho (Liquidated, 2009) tackling the wide sector of finance. What is your specific focus and intervention in the anthropology of finance with your study of management consultants in China? 

 Kimberly Chong: Although there is an established anthropological literature on high finance, by which I mean the work and expertise of finance professionals such as investment bankers, traders, and fund managers, rather less has been said about how financial value, financial logics and financial ideologies get transposed into non-financial spheres. In Best Practice I look to provide a corrective of sorts, by examining the work of financialization practiced by management consultants in China.

My research can be divided into two parts. Firstly, my book provides a close range analysis of how labour and work has been transformed under the aegis of financialization. I am interested in the forms of evaluation that management consultants instantiate in their clients, as part of their endeavour to create ‘high performance organizations,’ and which link notions of performance to financial value. Moreover, I explore how this linkage is circumscribed by practices of organizing and managing, and how it leads to the devaluation of certain kinds of labour. As well as being poorly paid, such labour is rendered precarious and vulnerable to outsourcing. Secondly, my book examines the specific instantiation of financializing a hitherto non-financial entity. The global management consultancy in which I carried out fieldwork was parachuted into Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to prepare them for initial public offering on international stock exchanges. It has been hired to install IT systems which are designed to operationalize ‘value-based management’, that is management with the overarching objective of creating shareholder value. Yet, as I demonstrate in the book, the way in which the consultants, most of whom are actually Chinese nationals, understand their work is not in terms of evangelising the gospel of shareholder value, but rather as a dream of state capitalism. They see their work as making SOEs, and by extension China, into a paradise – a place of modernity and development, on a par with advanced Western nations. This does not necessarily represent a weakening of, or disruption to, processes of financialization, rather I show that local structures of meaning can be appropriated to enact financialization.

Johannes Lenhard:-  You position your book squarely at the intersection of the anthropological study of ethics and the economy (closely related to Max Cam); what I would want to know more about is how you think about economic ethics (as opposed to ordinary ethics or the ethic of the ethical turn for instance)? What does ethics mean in the realm of the economy? 

Kimberly Chong: I carried out fieldwork during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2007/8 financial crisis. During that time I was disturbed by narratives, from the media and within academia, which suggested that the financial crisis was somehow causally linked to a kind of moral deviance. People were too greedy! We need more women in finance! The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they fail to recognise that the very system in which financiers are operating legitimate and circumscribe certain forms of action. As Janet Roitman has argued robustly, perhaps the financial crisis was not a crisis at all but rather the financial system working as it was intended. If that is so, then changing the people would not be the solution. Also, it would be very difficult for management consultants to do their jobs if they really thought they were perpetually creating harm, waste, or fraud. This became even clearer to me when, in another research project, I studied the decision-making of fund managers. For both management consultants and fund managers, it is important to have a belief that their actions are the right thing to do, or at the very least, have positive efficacy of sorts. I’m not saying that what they do is always right but having the belief that it is right or commendable in some way, is very important if management consultants are to stay management consultants. The way in which they claim moral righteousness or ethical legitimacy for their actions, may, of course, vary between different actors.

In terms of approach, I analyse how ethical coordinates for action are produced through systems which involve both people and things – documents, charts, IT interfaces – through which value is ascribed and produced. I show how economic value is always produced in concert with ethical values, the latter serving to legitimate the production of the former. As exemplified by the trope ‘best practice’, management consulting is the business of creating ethical injunctions through which their interventions are judged and valued, but then naturalized as value-free (in other words, ‘the best’).

Johannes Lenhard: Similar to Stein’s closely related monograph on consultants in Germany, you also have a strong focus on the idea of work. What kind of work is it that consultants are performing (also in relation to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’)? What’s the significance of that work particularly in the Chinese context and how do you see that work (and its impact) changing? 

Kimberly Chong: I start the book with a vignette which shows new consultants learning to face down the tricky question of what management consultants do. This is presented as almost unanswerable in part because of the rather particular nature of  management consulting which I argue is highly performative in character. By performative I mean, following the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Callon, that consultants are in the business of producing – performing – economic realities in which they can substantiate their claims to expertise, and thus the legitimacy of their interventions.

So what does that mean in practice? A lot of management consulting is about selling and instantiating systems of evaluation, or ‘performance management,’ which allow them to make claims about improving efficiency, and create imperatives to restructure, outsource or downsize. These systems generate a huge amount of work to run and maintain – there are people whose job it is to set up the system, others who monitor it, others who create policies to optimise performance within it. And for people whose performance is being measured, such systems significantly impact their experience of work which then becomes subordinated to the fulfilment of performance targets and legible measures of productivity.

Although Graeber doesn’t mention management consultants specifically, it is probably not unreasonable to say that they have fundamentally changed the nature of work, especially given the scale of their influence – there are few large organizations that haven’t hired a management consultancy at some point. Certainly, consultants have helped to produce jobs whose value is so tightly hewed to the production of certain kinds of representations – such as ‘best practice’, ‘high performance’ – that the content of these jobs becomes hollowed out of meaning.

In China the emphasis on performance marks a shift away from organizations run by principles of hierarchy and political or social connections. Many of my interlocutors told me they wanted to work in a global consultancy because they deemed it to be fairer, more meritocratic, and they explicitly linked these claims to performance management. In many ways they pose an interesting counterpart to the ‘bullshit jobs’ view; although many of them did question impact of their work on their clients, the meaning of their jobs came from the broader frames of value in which they were inscribed. As well as being more meritocratic, some Chinese consultants appreciated consulting as a way of honing their professionalism and expertise. Denigrated under socialism, expertise has been rehabilitated in the post-Mao era, and the fortifying of one’s professional capacities, even if this is done in a global company rather than domestic one, is seen as a means of contributing to the nation and China’s strength.

Johannes Lenhard:- I am also curious about documents in the consultants’ jobs. They use PowerPoint slides (both electronically and in print-outs) a lot.  How do people talk about expertise in relationship to these slides?  Were some people considered more skilled than others with PowerPoint, and how did people assess that skill? And given that these slides were so ubiquitous, how did these documents function to shape the work day and flow of information? 

Kimberly Chong: One cannot overstate the importance of PowerPoint! It was the main medium of written communication, not just with clients, but also within the consultancy. This meant that everyone developed their skill in using PowerPoint– support staff like HR, as well as consultants. Moreover, the legitimacy of one’s expertise was tightly linked to the use of PowerPoint, and this included my own expertise – in the book I mention how I had to present my own pitches for access and research collaboration through PowerPoint. So yes it was ubiquitous. At the same time, some PowerPoints are more important than others, an obvious example is the proposals for new business, which are very slick. Although within academia it’s fashionable to talk down PowerPoint, my time in consulting has meant I have seen what can be achieved with this technology. Or rather despite this technology. PowerPoint is not a graphic design software, which makes it very hard to make visually spectacular documents. It was not uncommon to have slide decks with over one hundred overlaid images – tiny arrows, shapes, lines – which would comprise intricate diagrams, flow charts, graphical representations. This is meticulous work and requires painstaking attention to detail.

One might wonder how useful it is to have highly educated employees spending so much time doing what is essentially intricate formatting work. However, these documents were crucial to performing and enacting economic realities. As I show in the book, PowerPoint diagrams such as ‘Change Tracking Map’ constitute a kind of epistemological intervention through which consultants substantiate certain claims about their expertise. Other PowerPoints play an important role in training consultants and socialising them into particular ideas of their own control and potency in conditions of uncertainty. For example, in training they are exposed to slides that contain charts and graphs which model the delicate matter of client relations in a pseudo-scientific manner.

Johannes Lenhard: Finishing with a methodological question, let’s talk about elites. You had issues with access which is nothing new when ‘studying up.’ Continuing an ongoing debate re-invigorated by among others Souleles, what were your specific issues with accessing your informants? What did you do about them and what were you still not able to do and study? 

Kimberly Chong: There were many challenges. I networked tirelessly for six months before I obtained access to a global management consultancy and my problems didn’t end once I had my entry pass. As all ethnographers of organizations know, access has to be continually negotiated and renegotiated during fieldwork, and at all levels of the hierarchy. Second, there was the challenge of studying an extremely large organization, which at the time, had over 4000 employees in its China arm. Third, how do you get people to talk to you in an environment where confidentiality is highly prized and where people come and go all the time (as consultants ‘roll on and off’ client projects)? I felt strongly that I needed ‘legitimacy’ – a position within the organization that allowed my interlocutors to make sense of me, and thus feel comfortable talking to me about their work.

The way I managed these multiple challenges was by collaborating with the consultancy. I become a member of its Human Capital Strategy Programme which was described to me as an initiative of ‘corporate culture’, hence certain employees felt that, as an anthropologist, I’d be well suited to joining. But this did not solve all my problems. Although I was able to obtain access to their ‘client sites’ which is where consultants actually spend most of their time, I was never allowed to speak to their clients and ask them what they thought about the interventions that were being prescribed to them. This was perhaps inevitable, given I was dependent on the management consultancy, and thus would not be allowed to do anything that could potentially compromise their relationship with clients. But having restricted or partial access is, to some extent, the same for all anthropological research. We can never have as much access as I we would like, and often one’s positionality has a big effect on what we can see and participate in. I don’t see this as a problem, as long we are clear about this in our writing.

Lastly, I want to mention something that isn’t often written about and that is the pace of fieldwork when your interlocutors are very busy people working under intense pressure. Because I could almost blend in with my interlocutors – I was a similar age, ethnicity, and educational background – I did. At one point I had worked four months with not one day off, like many management consultants do, and was still writing fieldnotes in the evening. In the end I paid the price with my own health – both in terms of physical and mental health. Looking back, I realise that in some ways the ethnographic method isn’t suited to this kind of fieldsite, and this is something that we should be cognisant of, and we should modify our methods accordingly. For me, I think taking regular breaks from the field, and not feeling like I should stay as long as possible, would have been helpful.




Elizabeth Falconi and Kathryn Graber’s edited Storytelling as Narrative Practice

Cover Storytelling as Narrative Practice


Interview by Dilara Inam

Dilara Inam: As you say you blur many taken-for-granted distinctions between spontaneous and rehearsed or quotidian and unconventional ways of telling a story. Also, there are crucial discussions on how to understand the concept of “everyday” as a category of analysis which became even more clear in Elizabeth Falconi’s chapter on Zapotec storytelling. How was your experience with working on storytelling as narrative practices holistically? With the increased interest in the concept of storytelling, how would people benefit from this book?

Kate Graber: Thanks for your question, which strikes at the heart of what we were trying to do in this book. This project emerged from a conversation that Lizzy [Falconi] and I had several years ago, in which we realized that although we were researching different genres of language—Buryat news stories and Zapotec folktales—our research participants were treating both as stories, somehow. The same analytical problems of storytelling animated these really different contexts, in Russia and Mexico: understanding what’s at stake in a particular society in demarcating what counts as “story” (and as a “good” story), identifying how tellers break through into performance, figuring out how they’re socialized into it, learning from the story audience’s uptake, and so on. Yet what I was researching—and what a lot of the other chapter authors in the volume describe—is usually analyzed in other terms: as media discourse, for instance, or as narratives of personal experience, in the case of other chapters. So we were interested in what ethnographically unites those different genres. What might a myth have in common with a family history, or a news story with the grand master-narrative of a nation-state? The rules and the forms of the narratives differ, but the social fact of having rules and forms does not. We realized that storytelling is a more expansive concept than disciplinary and topical divisions have allowed it to be. I think if more people are interested in storytelling right now, it’s because they have that same hunch.

Elizabeth Falconi: I would say that over the course of my research I was presented with and heard many different types of stories, some were presented more formally as “Zapotec folktales” while others emerged spontaneously in conversation. The similarities in stories that were presented to me as distinct in terms of genres, tellership and so on was very interesting to me, and which I discuss on pages 174-177 in my own chapter in the book. This perhaps answers your question about how to approach storytelling holistically. My attention to different storytelling episodes of the same teller (here Isidro) was another way to approach the analysis of this practice holistically. Storytelling is an ingrained practice in a wide variety of cultural contexts, and paying attention to this analytically I can help students and scholar develop an awareness of the role such practices play in socialization, relationship building, and the inter-generational transmission of knowledge, helping us to break down barriers between cultural groups associated with “oral versus written” traditions and so on.

Dilara Inam: Without the expected genres to talk about narrative practices, it becomes a very broad topic which discussed in a well-organized way in your book. We see 12 different case studies surrounding the discussions on narrative practices organized under three main parts which are Boundaries of Self, Negotiating Heritage and Constructing Discursive Authority. How did you end up deciding to structure the book? Continue reading