Politicians as anthropologists

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Recently, I and the rest of the Stagis team have helped the City Council members of the Municipality of Varde to gain new perspectives on the authentic strengths of their own back yard. In an intense one-day workshop we trained the politicians in the theory and practice of anthropology before sending them out to conduct miniature fieldworks in different corners of their municipality.

Asking instead of answering
Open mindedness, curiosity and close attention to the small details of everyday practice characterize the anthropological approach. This approach somewhat conflicts with the mindset and conventional training of politicians. As professional experts in making their opinions heard, answering questions, drawing conclusions and making decisions it showed difficult – but all the more illuminating – for the City Council members to have to ask questions (instead of answering them), listening (instead of speaking) and exploring the opinions of others (instead of expressing their own).

After the morning training session, the local politicians – two and two and assisted by a member of the Stagis team – were sent out to different corners of the Municipality of Varde. Their mission was to interview local citizens and observe and take part in their daily activities.

Blog foto, Cupcakes with the Mayor

Cupcakes with the Mayor
Together with our CEO, Nikolaj Stagis, the Mayor of Varde, Erik Buhl, visited a family who had just recently moved to the area. While making cup cakes with the mother of the family in their kitchen, they learned a lot about the experiences of newcomers to the municipality. Other City Council members set out to conduct fieldwork at a large scale egg producer, at a small goat cheese diary and with volunteers from the organization behind one of the major cultural events in Varde.

Blogfoto, in the kitchen

Politicians in the kitchen

In the company of two City Council I visited a newly opened hotel funded by a small village community. We met the young hotel manager in the hotel kitchen. While he instructed us how to prepare the traditional Danish dish “hakkebøf med løg”, he shared in details his experience of starting a business based on quality, craftsmanship and the good will and support of the local community.

Being there
Most people feel a bit uncomfortable in conventional interview situations. Some do not like to be the center of attention, some are eager to perform well in the sense of giving “correct” answers (ie. the answers they suppose the interviewer wants to hear or answers that position them as professional and clever) and yet others do not feel they have any information of value to bring to the table. All of this all too easily leads to distorterted data of poor quality. An efficient way to avoid this is to spend time with people and partake in their daily routines.

According to my experience being, working and talking with people in their everyday environment is the most reliable way to get to know their values, experiences and how they perceive themselves and the place they live. As ‘anthropologists for a day’ City Council members learned that the citizens of Varde hold markedly different perceptions of the place they live, but also that they share a range of common traits and values.

In general, citizens of Varde value close social relations, are skilled at organising themselves locally and profit from the synergy this creates. They feel safe and at peace in their local communities, and they identify strongly with the natural landscape of the municipality which many use very actively.

Adding new tools to the political toolbox
Gaining a clear understanding of the strengths and potentials of a municipality is the first step if you wish to develop a succesful vision for its future development. As policy makers, City Council members are responsible for formulating and implementing strategic visions for the future. Anthropological methods offers a fruitful way to uncover the authentic strengths and potentials of places and organisations and therefore, adding anthropological skills to their political toolbox is a profitable investment.

Changes from within
If you want to create real change in an organisation – whether small or large, private or public – it is of extreme importance to have a thorough understanding of its culture, identity and values. But the authentic identity of an organisation are not restricted to the political and managerial level – and neither does it necessarily manifest itself most strongly there.

On the contrary, it is practiced, formed and lived in and through the everyday activities of members at all levels of the organisation. As anthropololgist at Stagis I am excited to help managers – whether politicians or CEOs – to revisit and understand their own organisations in a new light as a way to initiate healthy changes.

Varde Kommunes byråd og borgmester drog med os ud i Varde Kommune på jagt efter de guldklumper, som er unikke og autentiske for Varde. Målet er at Vardes særlige styrker og kendetegn skal hjælpe Varde Kommune med at få et stærkt brand – også uden for kommunegrænsen. Guldgravningen sendte blandt andet borgmesteren i køkkenet til cup cake bagning.