2021 06, Futur as exotic society, by Dominique Desjeux

We are a team of business and academic anthropologists who have been working together for two years for the Global Business Anthropology Summit 2021, on line, in Berlin: Allen Batteau (US), Carsten Clauss (Germany), Julia Gluesing (US), Lucia Laurent (UK), Dominique Desjeux (France).

Below, some excerpts of our meetings:

2020 10 26. Exploring the Future, Dominique

Today our team keeps on exploring the unknown future as an exotic country in which we have no landmarks. This is our anthropological skill: observing what is around us without knowing where we are. And we have several methods of observation (see below my five methods I sent you in February 2020. I am sure everybody has some other methods in exploring the future).

In twenty years, we have had two big crises. The first was the economic crisis of 2008. The second is the Covid 19 one. These two crisis are the sign that we have been entering into a period of strong uncertainty. Uncertainty is not new. It has existed for the beginning of the human history. What seems new is the content of the uncertainty. We thought human being were protected against climate changes at the opposite of the agrarian societies or big epidemic like the plague which stroke Eurasia around the 7th and the 14th century, or even the so call “Spanish flu” in 1918 which was global.

Now we know we are a “normal” world with good and bad things and that the environment issues are coming back into our daily life like in the agrarian societies and that nature is not “good” by itself.

Paris 2020 02 11. How to read the future from an observation of the present: an anthropological methodological approach

The main point on which I would like to focus on is that I try the most possible to move from a static knowledge to a “mobile knowledge” that is, depending on the client issue, changing the point of view of observation. According to my practice as a socio-anthropologist, what means there are several other possible practices, observing means describe material culture as a system of objects in which economics and technology are embedded, social interaction under material, social and symbolic constraints and then representations made of values, imaginary, cultures, identity and meanings. Moving means when I start a field study, I don’t know what the main dimension, that is the material, social or symbolic one, is going to explain the social phenomena I have to observe.

For instance, in 2009, just after the big economic crisis of 2008, I was asked by several clients (bank, companies) to explain the post crisis “futur,” and so what would be the main changes among the rules of the consumption game. I observed 9 phenomena based on my studies in China and Brazil based on qualitative research and readings.

  1. The rise of the modern consumption among the middle classes of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China)
  2. The move of the international uncertainties due to the evolution of the raw materials (the price of which was increasing since 2000 because of the increase of the global middle class), energy (the price of oil was $150 a barrel in 2007) and the global mobility thanks to this middle class.
  3. The evolution of the structure of the French household budgets due to the rise of the “constrained spending” linked to energy, housing, new technologies of communication and food which weight on the poorer households (ten years later we have the “yellow vest” in France).
  4. The change of the power relationships between consumers, companies and political power in France (now the new power relationships are linked to the numerous systems of rating such as Uber, Airbnb, Yuka)
  5. The rise of fears linked to consumption such as those about health (cf. vegetarian people; but also about pandemic disease in 2009 such as N1H1 and nowadays coronavirus)
  6. The rise of two global worries, the importance of an economical consumption and the risk of a food consumption crisis (outside wealthy countries and for the global lower middle class).
  7. A new time of public regulation brought into operation by more authoritarian states under the pressure of China (see the global increase of “populist explosion”).
  8. The risk of a war between China and the US in the Northern and Southern China Sea, like in Europe in 1914 with the rise of Germany which was becoming the most powerful nation and so in competition with the UK and France to get its own space of development (that was call 8 years later the “Thucydides trap” by Graham Allison in Destined for War, 2017.
  9. I noticed that Brazil and China were entering the society of consumption in 2009 and so there were not favorable to slow their consumption of carbon dioxide, but I didn’t focus on global warming as a main stake.

Most of this information was found at a macrosocial level of observation while my main scale of observation is a microsocial scale.

In 2009 I show at a microsocial level how the Chinese middle class has changed its lifestyle, and so its consumption which has an impact on the global world, regarding mobility [they buy more cars], housing [DIY, interior decorating, new technologies of communication], cooking [domestic appliances] and food [eating more animal proteins what leads to the rise of the global cost of soybeans which weight on the food budget of the lower middle class]

This is a good example of “mobile knowledge.” I have to move off-center from the microsocial scale to the macrosocial one, and then to cross the information.

In conclusion, I use five main intellectual tools to move off-center myself: the scales of observation, the itinerary method, the story life method, the system approach and historical/economics readings. I am observing consumption as a tool to understand the evolution of societies, as an analyzer of social changes. All these intellectual devices are based on the observation of the present data in comparison with historical data or information found at other scales of observation. So, comparison is the nonlinear mean to understand what is coming up and so the weak signal of a kind of future.

A video about observing