anthropological archive letter

This is a conversation between Liz Cory-Pearce, Sadie King, and Mannie Sher that unfolded in the Wellcome Library reading room whilst working on the anthropological threads project. It was captured and written by Liz, who, as an anthropologist, was both participating in and observing and recording the reflective conversations as they unfolded.

Anthropological Threads was a lunchtime talk that took place at the Institute, the recording along with relevant documents is available to listen to here.

[Sadie] We’re teasing out threads that show anthropology has a big influence on Tavistock ways of working. For example, ‘The human element in shipping casualties’ fieldwork, right from the beginning it’s anthropological in its theory, method and analysis. You take this moment and then you connect it to the wider socio-economic conditions. So you go in to the fieldwork, and into people’s anxieties in that moment, and then you go back out and connect it back to wider reality.

[Mannie] Eric Miller is working with medical doctors in Occupational Health at Unilever – they are hand in glove. Miller’s interviews were sent to Dr Turquet, psychiatrist/ psychoanalyst at the Tavistock Clinic. They are reflective field-notes and they are socio-psychoanalytical. What is the relationship between researcher and researched? The relationship can be one of upset, disturbance and anger or relief at sharing hitherto unspoken thoughts with the researcher.

[Liz] It can be culturally specific – when someone’s upset or anger means you have struck on some difference. What is anthropological about it – a reflective field-note?

[Sadie] Anthropology can often be seen as too time-consuming, too problematizing, too messy to use, but that’s not so! We use it. Fiddy Abraham, Mannie Sher and Joe Cullen for instance, they made field notes and a reflective analysis of observations.

[Mannie] The method is also classical clinical psychological – observing and reflecting – which is fed back to the group. You might incorporate one’s reflections into a report later but you don’t send your reflections to the client. From your therapeutic experience, you provide insight to the client. “The system is making me feel this – how does this feedback help to shape the system to work more effectively?” I’m looking at Eric Miller and Dr Turquet at Unilever. Miller says if you don’t face your own critical feelings about what you’re doing, when the work is presented later to an audience, the audience will attack the report. We must prepare for the split that comes from a sub-system doing work on behalf of the total system and avoid it – the doctors (and all of us) want to be acknowledged as good carers, but caring in itself can create a dynamic of hostility (‘I hate the fact that I need to depend on you for care’). Unilever colleagues that make up the Working Group are not thinking critically enough about what they’re doing – so with this method of immersion and reflection, they are enabled to reflect critically on their work. The researcher is making the unconscious conscious, saying ‘don’t be afraid to critique your work’.

[Liz] In anthropology this is known as reflexivity.

[Mannie] Miller makes his assumptions visible. This meeting with the medical Working Group is a cultural system – “I enter it and I am a participant observer. I try not to get caught up in its dynamics. I step in and I observe and when I see what I am experiencing and feeling, this is data for use.” Melanie Klein was a strong influence on Eric Miller. The report – and the admiring uncritical authors of the report – and the imagined critical audience that Miller foresees in future, leads to a hypothesis that ignoring can be a defence in order to cope with something difficult – withdrawal is an unconscious strategy. So Miller facilitates the critical work – but also there is the ‘good enough’ work that needs to stop – the ‘good enough mother’ – a Winnicottian term.

[Sadie] It’s anthropological and it’s psychoanalytical – it is both and they are enriched by each other. The idea, ‘There is no time for observation’, I’d like to knock this one on the head! Observation can be quick. Sometimes research projects run over, when people get lost in the details, and maybe these people trained in anthropology or the project was seen as an anthropological one, then anthropology gets viewed sceptically. And in today’s working culture more generally, some abhor the field-note and think it’s not cost effective and doesn’t produce results on time.

[Liz] Ethnographic observation as a method. How can we practise this today? Fiddy made the point about how she resisted the decline of field-note practice, for instance.

[Mannie] Supervision is key. I recall at the Clinic, one treats for an hour; one writes up for an hour; and then one has supervision for an hour. Practice; writing up and reflecting; and supervision (quality control) – these are the stages. A reflective hour with a client is followed by 2 hours writing up and analysis in supervision.

[Sadie] By writing snippets – participating, observing and writing-up – it can be done in a moment. You shape it to fit the task. We can write ‘ethnographic snippets’.

[Liz] It can feel like being at a party with no friends, you don’t know anyone, but you have to just get in there and start talking to people and making conversations. It’s uncomfortable and you have to be okay with that. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and get on with it.

[Sadie] And then there are the methodological fetishes – the white coat and stethoscope, the latest validated measures, or robust methods or new techniques that are seen to give authority to research. We teach this in P3C. In ethnographic method there is no authority – you have to be confident in just doing the participant observation.

[Mannie] We’re currently running a Social Dreaming Matrix at Wellcome Library. A disturbing dream was presented in the matrix – really hard stuff but listened to respectfully – ‘We want you to carry on’. The awfulness of the dream was linked to the feelings in the meeting, ‘I am worthless’ etc. As matrix host, I could have invoked various techniques to make people feel better, but that would not be my role.

[Sadie] Evaluators often feel attacked, so they want a method which they feel protects them.

[Mannie] We’re linking Kleinian thinking to social science. Eric Miller was good at this. It attracted me to work with him and work at the Tavistock Institute because it meant that my Kleinian home could be found at the Institute. It was present at the Clinic, but the Institute was different. Using diaries is a key help because anger is not unimportant and should not be disregarded. Emotions should come into supervision, so that you’re freed up to go on working with the client. Working ethnographically changes you via powerful projections. You must allow yourself to be seduced into the projections, something one may feel one shouldn’t be doing, or maybe one does not feel comfortable with because it’s not how you would do it – but once seduced you can produce the interpretation that leads to change.

[Liz] Anthropological threads – are they continual or are they broken? Frayed at the edges?

[Mannie] I studied anthropology as a minor subject at university, but in my time at the Tavistock I overlapped with Eric Miller. My training is not primarily in anthropology but I resonate with it – so I regard myself as part of that thread. Other Tavistock staff similarly had had some training in anthropology, like Gordon Lawrence, and it shaped the qualitative approach to their work, how they are attentive to people’s voices – it’s a really transformational training.

[Sadie] The proposition of negotiating entry into organisational consultancy is an anthropological one. It’s the thing you look at in the very beginning of your PhD training, ‘How are you going to get in there?’ This training and then the actual doing of it, this becomes your first chapter, ‘This is how I gained access to the field’. I’ve not heard this anywhere but in Tavistock consultancy, that we need to negotiate entry and it’s not just a given. So my proposition here is that this is an anthropological one. Jean Neumann talks about this in Developing Organisational Consultancy, a book she edited along with others. She describes how this entry negotiation requires two tasks: you must cross geographical and social boundaries, so you can develop a mutual understanding and with authorised representation.

[Liz] Yes it’s the same whether you approach a ‘chief’ or a ‘chief executive’ or any kind of group leader, you need a mutual understanding of how the project will proceed.

[Mannie] Eric Miller and A. K. Rice translated this into Group Relations. The opening plenary of a Group Relations conference is replete with ‘crossing the boundary’ issues – crossing from your outside world into the Group Relations conference …. ‘How did you get to be here?’ ‘What happened on the way here?’ And then observing your thoughts and feelings and emotions around this.

[Liz] So, if we are (or were) translations or versions of anthropologists at the Tavistock, what are we not doing now? Why the need to do this ‘Anthropological Threads’ work now?

[Mannie] Now we find there is already a received understanding of what the problem is – an organisation is giving us a pre-formed diagnosis, and we could get caught up with their and our mania – the bullet-point is not the diagnosis.

[Liz] Or, we could identify with our discipline, a slower identification of the issues?

[Sadie] But there’s an influx of new people from many disciplines; there’s commercial pressure; there’s a proliferation of off-the-peg solutions; and so we get asked, ‘Can we replicate this package?’ ‘Can we use these measures and these tool kits?’ and so on. But here’s something we can apply to everything. We should remind ourselves, on behalf of everyone in our Tavistock, we don’t do this! But then again, it’s a risk-averse market and the client doesn’t want us doing things this way, but actually is this so? Is the anxiety in the client? Or in us, as staff?

[Mannie] Why are we doing this archival work now? Because the past is disparaged and the new is idealised – who said that, ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’?

[Liz] David Lowenthal wrote a book with that title. I used to teach it in the anthropology of museums and heritage.

[Mannie] The past, it is reckoned, should be thrown out. ‘What is it for?’ people ask. As a researcher investigating the past, one becomes identified with a disparaged part of the client system – but then at the same time if you become too preoccupied with the past you become obsessed with the past and cut off from life!

[Sadie] Mainstream evaluation organisations can be very anxious about keeping up with what the sector is using, in terms of methodologies. New methods can literally be made up from chopped up pieces of methods used elsewhere, which are seen as more robust, and then they are plonked in and rebranded, and then we go on new courses doing this one, then this one, then this one! Why? We should be celebrating and not worrying – we have here the tried and the tested – we should own it.

[Liz] Yes, we don’t need to do this chopping and rebranding we have this bulk of methodological heritage right here in the archive.

[Sadie] Like Force Field Analysis by Kurt Lewin.

[Liz] Like Eric Miller’s neat, clean formulation of observation without judgement overlain. It keeps it fresh. Reading it is like it being there, in the present, now. These don’t read like stories from the past (they don’t feel outdated) or hopes for the future (they don’t read as overly idealistic or utopian). They’re clean and crisp.

[Mannie] That is the method! Of being in the present in your observation and being aware that you are not bringing in memory and/or desire. And, as we said, being comfortable with the present, even though it is uncomfortable to be there doing the research. It’s awkward, ephemeral, ungraspable and imminent, and then it’s gone. So we might want to flee from this confusion and blur, because it raises anxiety – but we have to stay in the present.

[Liz] Is it possible to do our research like this today? Can we pitch this as our distinctive methodology, this anthropological/psychoanalytical immersion, presence and reflection? Can we say, ‘This is the Tavistock and this is what we do’?

[Mannie] Well Eric Miller did. It was in his persona. He was tall and striking. He had a deep base voice and smoked a pipe and when he spoke, you knew this was the voice of authority. But he was humble with it and not oppressive. He wasn’t telling you what to do. If he described a situation or a relationship in particular way, it had accuracy.

[Liz] I am struck by Eric Miller’s ability to move comfortably across the social hierarchies that are so apparent in his overseas fieldwork.

[Sadie] Today we are confronted with so many theories and approaches, so there’s constant competition and the pressure to denigrate other methods, to knock out the competition.

[Liz] Instead, we can use this history to distinguish ourselves.

[Sadie] And our commitment to the client, that under all conditions we will stay with you and work with you through it all, with the shared objective of understanding better.

[Mannie] It is also a requirement to have team and institutional support – this is how we do the work as a team – it’s vital to have this (then and now). Back then, A. K. Rice, Isobel Menzies and Dr R Higgins (who was also psychoanalytically trained), the three of them worked together and were a force to be reckoned with.

[Sadie] It is also about being true to your training.

[Mannie] As anthropologists we can learn from the psychoanalytical use of transference and counter-transference as a valuable tool in the participant-observer approach. In transference and counter-transference, the patient projects parent or authority status onto the analyst, and similarly so in fieldwork.

[Liz] And in ethnographic fieldwork this happens, and can in a sense be ‘true’ – because the reality of your presence, the anthropologist coming from the outside, and how this whole researcher/ researched relationship and discipline of anthropology came to exist in the colonial period, it’s because you are from the ‘mother country’, you carry this imperial history and even today (although this is changing and contested) through this power you are enabled to be the researcher.

[Mannie] Exactly. And this person you meet in fieldwork – their reaction to you is going to be coloured by their history, their experience, their perception of you and so on, and it subverts the task. It gets in the way. Freud said this at first, it gets in the way, and then he changed his mind to say no, the transference is core to understanding social and mental structures. It can be a welcome source of data, by accessing this it offers a way in to understanding. Anthropologists could make more use of this. So, if you are accused of being the Queen’s Representative, the normal reaction is to say ‘No!’ and to oppose that idea. Rather, you could say ‘Yes, I see you have that view’ and use it. The leap we are making here is from the individual’s experience, which is easier to grasp hold of in research, and which is visible and examinable, to the social, the cultural, the economic and the political levels. In fieldwork and field-notes, as an anthropologist you are trying to describe a society through encounters with individuals, so how are you going to make that leap? You could start with the projected images.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Liz Cory-Pearce

About Liz Cory-Pearce

I’m an anthropologist passionately interested in the workings of human relations and the formation of social groups, and I’m joining the TIHR Archive Project in the role of growing the archive’s audiences and relationships. I joined the Tavistock Institute in 2015 following a career in academic anthropology which involved not only teaching and ethnographic fieldwork, but also much delving into historical museum collections and archives around the world. As a result, I have a deep love of archival work and I’m always fascinated by the relationships that unfold both between collections within an institution (for example, how does the Tavistock archive relate to the many other collections in the Wellcome Library?); and between a collection’s ‘inside’ (its contents) and the world ‘outside’ (it’s human and organisational relationships, past and present). My aim is to grow the relationships that emerge as audiences for the TIHR Archive Project and its associated events and activities widen, so I can put my fascination with an archive’s ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ to good use! In my academic career I worked in New Zealand, Canada and Australia but I’m now re-immersed in UK social and organisational life, and enjoy exploring my East Anglian roots with friends and family.

Latest Posts By Liz Cory-Pearce


Icons and Ideas, Reflections and Practice, Responding and Researching