Heading for a new collective reality; what business can learn from anthropology

Line Groes

Those are the concluding words of Jørgen Leth’s short film classic The Perfect Human (1967). It exudes curiosity and an openness to new realisations.

I have to admit that the phrase excites me less today than it usually does. Maybe because it speaks directly into the reality we are currently living. We set up workstations at home, organise digital coffee meetings, motivate our colleagues and try to maintain whatever momentum we can. We are desperately attempting to keep some familiar structure in our daily lives, while at the same time entering a new reality that we don’t yet know. Click this link.

“Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days". 

Human, Denmark


Section 1

Those are the concluding words of Jørgen Leth’s short film classic The Perfect Human (1967). We have been told that how we behave today is vital to our health, our economy, our businesses, and our future. We learn how to act and behave by trying our best, but we don’t know if it’s enough. We’re all working in the dark, and our well-known map of the world has been replaced by the paths we each tread now.

One thing is certain – business as usual is no longer an option. Our experiences and predefined modes of thinking and doing do not help us much right now. No one dares to predict what the future might hold: I’ve never seen such humbleness from politicians, business folks and opinion makers. There’s a world-wide collective uncertainty, and whether we like it or not we’re forced to navigate it the best we can.

This state of emergency undoubtedly creates uncertainty and wonder. Our strategies, business models and work processes are being challenged in ways we wouldn’t imagine possible a few weeks ago, and we’re being forced to ask ourselves some serious but important and fundamental questions. How are we to move forward from here? On a strategic level, how should we deal with this new reality? What might we wish for? These questions are not straightforward, not least because we’re currently in the eye of the storm, but maybe we need to understand the deeper and more fundamental nature of the situation. Perhaps we can learn something about the world, ourselves, and our business if we look at this situation as a collective rite of passage. We’re in the middle of a transition, a no man’s land, and we don’t have a destination.

The term Rites of Passage was coined by the French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who describes it as a transition of three phases: separation, where we are taken away from our usual environment, liminality, where we find ourselves in a no man’s land, and finally incorporation, where we re-enter the world with a new identity and status.

If you translate these stages into the current situation in Denmark, the three phases will look something like this. Separation phase: Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announces a two-week lock-down of the country. Liminal phase: Isolation, quarantine, disruption of social norms, social distancing and uncertainty about when the new normal sets in. Incorporation phase: We get to the other side of the pandemic, the world has found a new state, yet unknown to us.

Van Gennep describes the liminal phase, the stage between what was and what will become, as a place of wonder, curiosity and openness towards the world. If we consider our current situation as a collective liminal phase, it must - at the risk of sounding cynical - hold a future potential. The big question is, what are we heading towards? What does the reality look like when we reach the other side of the pandemic and have to re-enter the world with a new identity?

Most of us would probably prefer to maintain business as usual and try and re-create the world and structure we are familiar with. We have a tendency to long for what has been. However, if we consider this state of emergency as a rite of passage, we will never return to what has been. Our chance to shape the future is right now. Not in two months, not in three weeks, but right now. The challenge is that we have no cultural experience to guide and support us. Unlike other transitions, such as that from child to adult, here there exists no accepted template for what we will transition into.

Anthropology might teach us something about our current situation. We must be guided by what we continuously explore and acknowledge, rather than what we know and what we can predict. We will be forced to get rid of our previous understanding of the world and replace it with a more curious and explorative approach. We must observe, gather information and analyse what is going on around us. Only then will we understand how to proceed, what to adjust, and how to adapt to a new future. Our previous understanding of the world is no longer valid. We must dare to explore the landscape around us in order to adjust our strategies to act here and now, and more importantly to ensure that we are prepared when we reach the other side of no man’s land.

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