Journalist and author Gillian Tett said anthropology is one of the “most unrecognized and most useful tools” for social scientists at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Monday.
Tett, who serves as the U.S. editor-at-large of The Financial Times and chairs the publication’s editorial board, discussed the role anthropology can have in helping economists better understand the world and its challenges.
Tett delivered the IOP’s 2023 Malcolm H. Wiener Lecture on International Political Economy. Past lecturers have included former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Lael Brainard.
Unlike many economic columnists, Tett holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology, rather than in economics. Tett said anthropology provides “lateral vision” that can help economists better understand the global context.
Jason Furman ’92, professor at the Kennedy School and former chief economist to President Barack Obama, introduced Tett on Monday. Furman lauded Tett’s accurate predictions about the 2008 financial crisis at a time when many economists were “reassuring us that no problem was on the horizon.”
“She was one of the very first people to warn about the financial crisis before it occurred,” Furman said. “It was precisely because of that Ph.D. in anthropology.”
Tett said many economists failed to see “the cultural pattern” underlying the financial crisis, adding that it is crucial to view economic issues in a context beyond only “looking at the numbers.”
When Tett first entered the world of economics, she said she “didn’t talk much” about the field of anthropology because she believed others viewed her interest in the discipline as “really, really weird.”
With her nontraditional academic background, Tett found success in the financial industry as “an insider-outsider,” she said, bringing a fresh perspective to economic issues.
According to Tett, anthropology is “a bit like salt”; it can be paired with many other disciplines to “bring out the flavors and bind them together” to create a “better way of looking at the world.”
Tett added she believes many can benefit from the lens of anthropology, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The lockdowns have turned us all into amateur anthropologists,” Tett said. “We’ve all undergone that experience of being tossed out of our familiar world into a new place and having to look at the world afresh.”
In today’s economic landscape, Tett said the financial industry needs a “reality check,” which anthropologists could provide.
“I would love the Fed, I’d love some of the big banks, I'd love some of the rating agencies to just hire a few anthropologists and get their insights to complement what others are getting,” Tett said.
—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.
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