Sareeta Amrute on her new book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class

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Interview by Ilana Gershon

By focusing on Indian computer programmers, you are able to point out the ways in which computer programmers have racialized bodies, and how this affects their work lives.  If you happened to find yourself at a dinner party seated next to a Silicon Valley recruiter, what would you want them to know about your book?

My book takes sides. It’s not just descriptive, it’s provocative. It humanizes an incredibly cartoonified subset of laborers. Literally: I discuss cartoons satirizing Indian IT workers in European publications as part of my chapter on perceptions. I’d want her to know that coders from India don’t deserve the reputation they’ve been handed down as fast, cheap, and replaceable. These attributes are a result of the way the industry produces value, primarily by divvying coding projects up into creative and grunt parts, which are then given to different kinds of workers, often divided by race. And while engineers from India occupy director and management positions across the Silicon Plateaus, Alleys, Valleys, and Highways around the globe, this racial logic remains. Upper management coders from India elevate themselves above the uncreative grunt coders from India along the lines of urbanity, caste, and elite versus regional engineering college backgrounds. These divisions also reach service workers, packers, and cleaners who have access to few of the perks that accompany tech jobs.

The focus of your work – IT workers in companies – is different than earlier anthropological work on coders, such as Chris Kelty or Gabriella Coleman’s work.  What difference do you think it makes that the workers you focus on work for corporations?   How do the organizational structures under which people labor affect people’s philosophies of coding?

There is much to recommend anthropological focus on hacking and free software communities, since in those arenas, alternatives to the neoliberal organization of life often emerges in unexpected ways. But, I cannot teach about global IT without recognizing its corporate structure. Last year, the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) accounted for at least 50% of all Internet traffic. One out of very two dollars spent on the Internet was spent on Amazon. Most of my students look forward to landing a job at Amazon. Like it or not, the Internet is dominated by corporations.

Within corporations, migrant programmers readily identify the contradiction between the ways that code has to move around the world and restrictions on the global movement of people. This makes them skeptical of free software movements because they simply do not go far enough. By likening code to speech, such movements unwittingly support neoconservative political ideologies that sacrifice human well- being in the name of abstract principles. Migrant programmers diagnose this gap between free software and free people, leading them to violate many principles of what is otherwise considered ‘good’ coding, such as leaving comments that explain their work to others.

You argue that one strategy that Indian IT code writers resort to is writing “inalienable” code, and thus making themselves more essential to a company in a context of temporary contracts.  Could you explain a bit what it means to write inalienable code, and what effect this strategy has on the ways that these workplaces are organized?

Inalienable code is a form of resistance. Global corporations compartmentalize temporary coders from India. “Grunts” resist by writing their code in such a way that makes that code harder to hand off to another, making them harder to replace. This is “inalienable code”. My book includes specific examples, like leaving bad comments or no comments at all, so that the coder is the only one who understand this part of the project.

Interestingly, this is widely considered poor programming. When I began conceptualizing things like this that didn’t fit the “good programming” paradigm, I tried to think of these practices in very concrete terms. They were certainly a kind of foot dragging practice, which we know from studies of factory work is a daily opposition to the ownership of time by the employer. I get a kick out of labor practices developed in the 19th century being right at home in the 21st.

“Poor programming” practices were also a means of creating a kind of wealth. These practices take the idea of knowledge work, that knowledge is capital, at its word. Thinking of aberrant coding practices as creating property and stealing time allowed me to think about the kinds of wealth coding might generate. I revisited anthropologist of the Pacific Annette Weiner’s foundational argument about inalienable wealth, in which she examined kinds of wealth that are kept back from circulation. In her scholarship, she describes wealth that, in a social scene that demands gifts and return-gifts, can be held back from these types of exchange. One of her most famous examples is a greenstone (nephrite) axe, which remained powerfully tied to the history of its victories and could only be held in trust on behalf of a group.

Now apply this concept of “inalienable” wealth to coding. The way global technology companies structure employment agreements, coders do not properly own what they write. They cannot normally exert intellectual property rights over the innovations they may make. So, they instead try to create a special relationship to this wealth by taking it out of circulation—by making it the equivalent of a jade axe buried underground, valuable because it is there not because it is freely available for exchange. Of course, these practices of making code inalienable exist in the everyday alongside the exchange of coding labor for a wage, and the free exchange of solutions to programming problems that coders post to sharing sites like Stack Overflow.

You point out many complex ways in which these programmers represent India to the German public, and a particular model of technological development to government officials in the Indian government.  But one of your imaginative arguments is pointing out that these Indian IT workers have a relationship to India as a state that calls forth a third perspective of how workers are part and parcel of state projects.  Could you explain how currently Indian IT workers overseas understand their relationship to the Indian state?

This is a fascinating question right now, and it demonstrates how coding cultures can be open ended and change over time. By and large, most programmers share a soft libertarian attitude towards governments, including their own. The government should set in motion a limited number of laws, and then get out of the way. As IT workers were understood to represent the new face of Indian business, which was higher paying, innovative and relatively free from corruption, IT workers felt themselves to be the best representative of this new, economically muscular, India. But, the turmoil on the Indian political scene in the last few years has shifted the equation. India’s government, like the United States’ government, has become more nativist in recent years. Opinion about the current state of affairs in India varies widely among Indian IT workers overseas. Some support the ongoing efforts to redefine India a normatively Hindu and are not bothered by increasing inequality, pollution, and violence against minorities. Many are deeply troubled by these developments and have begun to feel displaced, neither comfortable at home, nor in the rightist, anti-immigrant regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

You argue that these IT programmers are deeply ambivalent about how neoliberal logics recommend people should organize their lives.  How do they use leisure moments as moments to reclaim control over the kinds of working selves they are expected to be and as moments of experimentation?

Migrant programmers from India can recognize the failures of subjecthood under neoliberalism because as migrants, their precarious job status belies their vaunted position as knowledge workers. The protagonists of my book did all the things white collar workers are supposed to do to become successful—say, for example, getting up at 5 am to go jogging. Yet, jogging was not sustainable. They were working too many late nights for that. What happened next fascinated me. Rather than give up entirely, they walked in the local park. I name walking and related practices fragments of a politics of eros, because they inaugurated a conversation on the content of a good life. Such a conversation is otherwise evacuated under the logics of neoliberal survival. I’m not saying that walking is a perfect utopian practice; but, it is a moment when people practice inhabiting a world they want. Anyone familiar with India knows that the caste and class implications of walking in parks are complex. These moments of eros can just as easily flip into moments of asserting upper caste and upper class rights to urban public space. But, if we paint all overseas Indian IT workers with the same brush, that is, as classist, casteist, Hindu nationalists, we run the extreme danger of missing the progressive potential in their resistance to neoliberal work and its companions, such as a certain ways of exercising. Even more egregiously, we may miss the widest applicability of the conversation about the good life. How many of us can say that we are entirely satisfied by the way neoliberal logics govern our selves and our attachments? I think one of the most important tasks for anthropology is to interrogate the degree to which we, and others, are attached to these logics of hard work and self-improvement. For me, it is an ethical imperative to ask about the texture of a good life across class, caste, race, gender, and color divides.

Adam Sargent’s “Building Modern India”

My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry.  I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities.  Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity.  By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.

Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad.  As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways.  For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer.  Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor.  Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi.  I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.

Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.


Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border by [Jusionyte, Ieva]

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Interview by Ilana Gershon

What led you to study the conjunction between security and news reporting in this particular town?

I have first heard about the region encompassing parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay–commonly called “tri-border area” or “triple frontier”–through the media. It was portrayed as a dangerous place, a haven of organized crime, where trafficking of drugs and people, contraband, and money laundering were rampant. Having worked as a news reporter, I was aware that journalists tend to write stories that fit into larger narratives, which media organizations adjust depending on market logic as well as on their relationship with the government. We know that the media can both work as a propaganda machine, serving to uphold state ideologies, and it can be used as a watchdog on the political and economic establishment. My decision to go to the tri-border area was motivated by a wish to understand how local journalists, who live in the town about which they write, maneuver and maintain the boundary that divides illegal activities into two categories: those that can be made into news and those that must remain public secrets. Unlike reporters sent by national or international media, who come to the border looking for sensational stories and often reproduce the narrative of the violent and savage frontier, local journalists are also residents of the area, so they are directly invested in solving existing problems of crime and insecurity in their neighborhoods at the same time that they seek to depict the place as a safe destination for tourists. In the book, I show the day-to-day realities of journalists, as they balance between making news and making security, and argue that media practices in a remote border area must be understood within the historical context of state violence in the region.

How does turning to news-making as a fieldsite illuminate a distinctive connection between national identity and national security?

News-making is a key site in which national identity is produced and through which it is circulated. The idea that the press serves as a vehicle for creating nations as “imagined communities” is attributed to Benedict Anderson, and although his thesis has drawn criticism regarding the historical accuracy of his claims as they apply to Latin America, it continues to illuminate the process and the conditions of nation-building. Perhaps nowhere is this as clear as it is in the borderlands, at the edges of nation-state sovereignty, where the airwaves of one country compete against those of its neighbor’s. In the second half of the 20th century, when Argentina, Brazil, and other states in the region became concerned with national security (this was especially notable during the military regimes), the governments began paying much more attention to media broadcasters in border areas: investing in radio and television infrastructure, as a means to spread political discourses emanating from the state’s capital, was akin to defending the nation against a foreign invasion–one that was not carried out by an army of soldiers but advanced by cultural programming. In the tri-border area, this competition was between Argentine and Paraguayan media, transmitting in Spanish, and Brazilian media, transmitting in Portuguese. This battle over airwaves is still ongoing: complaints that signals from more potent Brazilian antennas were interfering with Argentine radio and television broadcasts were recurrent issues debated in town council meetings during my fieldwork–a proof that in the border region questions of national identity and national security continue to be highly contested to this day.

How do journalists’ symbiotic relationships with security forces such as police and military officers affect how crime is reported?

Security forces have a strong presence in the border area and they provide a substantial amount of news material for the local media, covering a wide range of topics, from routine crime investigations to military ceremonies and parades to large-scale intelligence operations. It is a symbiotic relationship because journalists need stories (reporters are often asked to produce half a dozen news pieces per day), while security forces want good publicity of their work and readily provide the media with interviews and press releases. However, this convenient arrangement means that journalists rarely ask difficult questions, for example, regarding police impunity, corruption, and complicity with criminal actors and organizations. Usually, crime stories are authored and authorized by the security forces, with the media serving merely as the outlet for circulating the official version of events to the public. But not all towns in the tri-border area are alike. Compared to the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, where local news organizations are rather weak, do not have resources or training to do investigative journalism, and cannot protect reporters if they decided to pursue such stories, some media companies in Ciudad del Este, a larger city on the Paraguayan side of the border, have done important investigations into organized crime. Nevertheless, due to corruption that entangles politicians, business owners, law enforcement, and even the media, critical crime reporting remains severely limited in the region.

Often what is illegal is still socially acceptable, and especially in your fieldsite of a border town. How did journalists engage with this tension?  Did the medium the journalist was using – text or video – affect how they negotiated this tension?

Difference between practices that are legal or illegal and legitimate or illegitimate was very important for my attempt to understand how journalists decided what became news and what information was to remain off the record, as a public secret. Socially legitimate, albeit illegal activities, such as food contraband or smuggling of fuel, were rarely covered in the media. Journalists did not report on practices in which they (or their families, or neighbors) frequently participated. Even the tools of media production–cameras, cassettes, computers–were regularly bought in Paraguay and brought across the border into Argentina illegally, avoiding taxes and other import prohibitions. On rare occasions, when illegal and socially legitimate activities became the subject of news stories, the print media had an advantage over television and even over radio. I learnt this while working on an episode about irregular adoptions and child trafficking for an investigative television program “Proximidad”: people were more willing to share what they knew when the interaction between journalists and residents did not entail the use of cameras or voice recorders.

One of the themes in your book is a running comparison between being a journalist and an ethnographer, and you managed to be both in this Argentinean border town.  You also talk a great deal about how difficult it was to move knowledge that was generally known but not openly discussed into the public sphere.   Could you discuss whether it is a different process for a journalist and for an ethnographer, and if so, how?

Anthropologists and journalists both face the challenge of making knowledge that is familiar to few available to others, but it is important to recognize that our work follows professional standards and ethics that may diverge. Journalists must protect their sources, just as ethnographers promise confidentiality and anonymity to their research participants, so from the point of view of those asking the questions and observing behavior the difference is not that obvious. Yet people who agree to disclose sensitive information, to share their private stories, see a difference between a reporter and an ethnographer. On the one hand, people are more familiar with news media as a genre of representation, and this familiarity can help build trust, although it could also undermine it–people are aware that the media sensationalizes issues. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a mystery. When I arrived to start ethnographic fieldwork, people were reluctant to talk to me about anything illegal because they did not understand what the information would be used for: Would I give it to the media, to the police, or to the government? Would the effects of making it public hurt them? With time, as research participants begin to trust the anthropologist, they are more comfortable sharing what they know. But then it is up to the anthropologist to decide what to do with this newly acquired, sometimes dangerous knowledge. Unlike journalists, who publish stories in order to draw attention to an issue, such as drug smuggling or domestic violence, in hopes that public knowledge about it would lead to changing social or political circumstances that make it possible, anthropologists often use the knowledge they gather to engage in internal theoretical debates with other scholars. This scope of our work, limited to circulating the findings within the academe, is not always clear to the people who share their lives with us, sometimes in anticipation that their knowledge could change the status quo. Of course, there are anthropologists–sometimes called engaged anthropologists or public anthropologists–who try to reach out to broader audiences, make their publications part of public debates on current issues, and push for policy changes, but this public engagement is not (or not yet) considered a defining feature of the discipline.


Elizabeth Keating on her new book, Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office by [Keating, Elizabeth, Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Since the book is written for a general audience, could you say a little about how you would explain the book to linguistic and media anthropologists who are considering using this in a class, and want to know what it is about.

For teachers of linguistic anthropology concerned with having an impact on students’ understanding of language and culture, especially beyond the classroom, this book links the classroom with the paid work world. Concepts and methods in linguistic anthropology are highly relevant to job skills. For one thing, there is understanding how local one’s own communication habits and expectations of others are. For another, understanding how communication really works builds better skills to repair misunderstandings. This book rather unabashedly makes a connection between learning about linguistic anthropology and becoming a more flexible, interested cross cultural communicator. One of the main points in the book is that because of technology, many people are working in virtual teams, or virtually with colleagues in other places. This results in little face-to-face time, or time to hang out and learn about others’ habits, preferences, and life stories. There’s little environmental context. Without the ability or time to learn from each other, there is a role for linguistic anthropology principles to play in generating understandings. I’m thinking of general principles like how people do things with words, that meaning is negotiated, social roles, socialization, the workings of convention in meaning, common ground and context, etc. In the book there are examples taken from engineers’ workdays, engineers trying to design things together in virtual teams, while living and working in four different continents.

The value in the classroom is the application of linguistic anthropology concepts to the engineers’ struggles with their inadequate communication model.  The book proposes a better communication model based on linguistic anthropology. We discuss how culture affects language use, with examples from the engineers and from other researchers’ work. To take a simple example, if the students have never thought about differences in question asking behavior—that it might not be felt to be appropriate in a certain group to ask a question (or only appropriate for the boss to be asking questions)– they could have unpleasant surprises at work if they assume that an absence of questions means everything is understood.

In most linguistic anthropology and media classes, students are preparing for many different types of careers, some in similar settings to the engineers. It’s useful to have a way to link linguistic anthropology to students’ desire to prepare themselves for work after university. When my co-author asked one of her graduate business research assistants to read the draft book manuscript, he said afterwards that he didn’t think he should be paid, since he learned so much. Another reader from the business world said he finally understood the reason behind his colleague’s “exasperating” behavior of not asking questions.


How do you think your focus on engineers in particular shaped your ethnographic exploration of cross-cultural communication?

The focus on engineers shaped our engagement with cross cultural communication in several ways. The first group of engineers we studied in Houston were suspicious of the situation thrust on them by management—that they had to work with a group of engineers across the globe who had unfamiliar habits and approaches. The engineers in Houston were already under a lot of pressure to build a state of the art energy plant under time, budget, safety, and environmental constraints. Working with engineers in another part of the world made their job even more challenging, because they had to work with them in a virtual sense, that is, they couldn’t sit side by side or cubicle to cubicle; they couldn’t see what was going on (puzzled expressions or problem sequences) and participate in so-called informal learning. The engineers they were suddenly working with were in a country where man hours were cheap and materials had always been expensive and scarce (so much so that in former times the engineers in that country could go to prison for using too much steel, they told us). But the Houston engineers lived in a country where it was the reverse: materials were cheap and people expensive. Imagine these two groups designing an energy plant together. One group is assuming a design requiring many maintenance operators, and one requiring as few operators as possible. How to become aware of the other’s habitual ways of thinking before too many hours of design work are done? There were also differences in how you show someone you respect them (by saving time or by spending time?) Although technology was making these work collaborations possible, technology was also a handicap to the engineers being able to learn about each other. This affected how we approached the topic of cross cultural communication. The space of collaboration, the technological interface of computer screens and phone sets, was uniformly absent of distinct cultural cues.

When we looked, through a linguistic anthropologist’s research-based view of language and meaning, at their attempts to better communicate, it was clear that their communication model was faulty. They professed the familiar conduit model of communication. They tried to fix problems by being “more clear and direct.”  We focused on: How could the engineers approach their collaboration with a view of language, not principally as a conduit for information, but as a tool with many other capabilities?


Could you say a little about the experience of writing with someone from a business school? I know of many collaborations between anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, but this may be the first I have come across of an anthropologist authoring with someone from a business school who is not also an anthropologist (since business schools sometimes show remarkably good taste and hire anthropologists). And I am curious about how this shaped some of the challenges of writing a book together.

This is a great question.  First let me say that I gained a lot in the process. My colleague is not a specialist on language, but rather on virtual teams and management. Her focus is on how people can most efficiently achieve short and long term goals in a business profitability and creativity sense. She was focused on the practitioner aspect at all times, and fairly uninterested in the minutiae of language dear to a linguistic anthropologist’s trade. The authority of our findings in the book had to depend more on assertions linked to prior language research rather than relying on discovering the findings through a very detailed data analysis of the engineers’ conversations and documents.

My business colleague continually reminded me that business practitioners have minimal time to read added material, and they operate in the “three power point slide” framework. After experimenting with different ways to join business and linguistic anthropology goals, we decided to use the engineers as actors in the narrative to keep the content focused on situations likely to be familiar to a reader, or situations that a reader has already experienced and been frustrated by. We created the phrase “Communication Plus” (for communication plus culture) to convey to the reader that they already have a great deal of knowledge about communication in their own culture, but they have to add knowledge about culture’s influence on communication.

It was necessary to take a prescriptive stance in the book in order to justify a practitioner’s time spent invested in reading the book. A lot of the engineers we worked with read poetry and appreciate literature and social science, but they also appreciate getting expertise in a manner they can immediately use. Business authors have no problem being prescriptive. My co-author would have been happier if the book was very short, with very short paragraphs. I felt it was necessary to have as much material about language and anthropology as possible. I am happy to say that over the course of the time writing together, my business colleague became convinced of the power of the close analysis of transcriptions of conversation, in this case conference call meetings. I became more aware of the pressures on people to perform in the constantly changing, globalized work world. Cross-disciplinary research and writing requires extra investment in time for the authors, managing differences and gaining some knowledge of the other author’s vocabulary, research goals, validation standards, methods, even what counts as a ‘finding’ or what’s cool. Similar to the engineers, we were both frustrated with each other’s practices and habits of thinking at times.


Are there insights you had about the interactions you observed that you were unable to write about because it would require too much specialized knowledge on the part of your readers to explain the ideas adequately?

I was not able to write about indexicality in a way that showed the importance of the concept and its ubiquity in communicative encounters. It’s a very abstract term that most people haven’t encountered before. I found that Garfinkel’s notion of ritual status degradation was very useful in analyzing what many of the engineers complained constantly about (feeling treated as non-humans by others due to the symbolic expression of respect taking a different form). Although Garfinkel meant something grander like pulling down the statue of Lenin or politically motivated imprisonment, the notion of ritual status degradation gets at the great seriousness of “small” slights like problems with greeting rituals among the engineers. No salutations in emails provoked surprising anger.

Similarly, I found that Goffman’s notion of “spoiling” identity was a useful way to analyze problems I saw the engineers experience when they disagreed about what the “right” (“good engineering”) design was, conflicts that became intractable because “wrong” was just different or unfamiliar. Writing about ritual status degradation and the spoiling of identity didn’t work well in the book, though. What worked better was a discussion about cultural differences in theories of the person (ideas about personhood that explain differences in things like greeting patterns and why the wrong pattern can be so offensive). It worked well to discuss the idea of language as action (looking beyond content of utterance and the referential function of language). I would have liked to bring more conversation analysis principles into the book.


Since the 1980s, anthropology has had a vexed relationship with the culture concept – often to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles. In this book you talk about culture and cultural misunderstandings without any caveats, and I am hoping you can say a little about your embrace of culture as a strategic decision or intellectual commitment.

I’ll illustrate some of the problems you are alluding to with an anecdote which addresses your question. My co-author and I were working on an article for an engineering journal, before we began the book. She said, “okay, we have to define culture.” I stared at her, incredulous. Isn’t this the honorable work of still generations to come?, I thought. Isn’t this misdiagnosing the solution to our ignorance? She didn’t see the problem, not having been a party to the discussions anthropologists have about this (discussions as you say “to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles”). The engineering journal reviewers also insisted on a definition, as part of their editorial job of questioning our scope. I got inspiration from Duranti’s and Keesing’s discussions about culture, and we added reference citations for Schein of MIT’s work on organizational culture,  Foucault’s work on institutions, Wolf, Bourdieu, Bateson, Parsons, Kuper, Lave, Garfinkel, and Henrietta Moore’s piece on concept-metaphors in anthropology.

A second anecdote concerns what happened each time we went to an engineering firm to introduce ourselves and get started collecting data. In the beginning of the project we were three, and we arrived on site together: a business professor, an engineering professor, and an anthropology professor. After the introductions, the engineers invariably focused all their attention on me (of course business and engineering were already quite familiar to them, but for those of us experiencing the recent assaults on the Liberal Arts, in demands for proof of our continued relevance, this was a great endorsement). The engineers said things like “yes, we really need to know about culture” and “we hope you can help us understand culture better.” They knew cultural misunderstandings were affecting their projects’ success and their job satisfaction. They had had some very frustrating and expensive experiences, but they didn’t know exactly how to learn from them. I would say my embrace of culture came from the engineers. There were particular aspects of culture more relevant to their situation, their situation being little if any face-to-face contact, lots of email correspondence (where requests and problems with responses to requests were frequent), group conference calls, expert-expert interactions, non-native English, and few, if any, shared work hours of the day. Some of these problems I’ve already mentioned. I found talking about identity an accessible way to discuss cultural influences on work collaborations. We tried to show how cultural practices that were annoying and threatened relationships (such as being too direct or being too indirect) had a moral basis. Not getting expected behaviors, as Garfinkel showed in his famous breaching experiments, results in people attributing malicious intent (people are held accountable). Being aware of the range of perspectives in human societies is a step to avoiding these ascriptions of harmful intent.

Talking on the scale of culture easily leads to overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and I’m sure they are in the book. We found that the engineers, and others we interviewed like them, have an appreciation for diversity and are aware of the inaccuracies and hardships that can stem from overgeneralization and overattribution. Embracing culture was the way I felt we could bring linguistic anthropology to a readership dealing with globalization.




Tamar Kaneh-Shalit’s Positive Thinking Without a Smile

Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies. In a heading on page 99, I named this tension “from introspection to instruction” to describe coaches’ and trainees’ negotiations with the neoliberal and therapeutic notion of cultivating reflexivity and following the specific instructions of a professional authority. Scholars such as Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose, James Faubion and others have extensively theorized how healers and experts of the soul exercise their power through the cultivation of their patients’ reflexivity. One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri (direct speech) that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination.

Dugri refers to utterances spoken in a blunt manner, as a form of criticism aimed at one’s interlocutor which symbolizes intimacy, authenticity, care, and courage. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. The logic behind dugri is that only someone who truly cares about their interlocutors will put him/herself at risk by expressing an unpopular critical view (Katriel 1986). Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.

The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. In my dissertation I show how Israeli coaches and their trainees negotiate these two discourses – the global and local – as well as these two types of caring, in their effort to balance between focusing on the trainee’s abilities to be reflexive and centering around the coach’s expression of his/her authenticity as well as expert knowledge and power.

Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Recently I had a chance to view the new Netflix documentary about the famous American life coach Anthony Robbins titled: “I am not your Guru” (which I highly recommend: Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder – is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style?



Katriel, Tamar

1986    Talking Straight: Dugri Speech in Israeli Sabra Culture: Cambridge University Press.


Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. 2015. Positive Thinking without a Smile: Self and Care in Israeli Life Coaching. Phd dissertation, University of Haifa.


Aneesh on the publication of his new book, Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor, and Life Become Global

Neutral Accent Interview by Ilana Gershon Questions for the Author: When you first decided to study Indian call centers, what questions did you want to explore and how did the fieldwork change your focus? This is a good, if difficult, question … Continue reading