An excerpt from Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World By Christian Madsbjerg
The year was 1959 and a young French anthropologist named Pierre Bourdieu was visiting his home in the foothills of the Pyrenees while on leave from the miliary. He had been focusing his research on far-flung locations in Algeria but he realized during this visit that his own childhood village was just as deserving of an anthropologist’s eye. Although he had known the small town of Bearn his entire life, he had never really seen it. Could he make the familiar feel strange and look at it with the eyes of an outsider?
An opportunity presented itself one day when he went out to visit one of his classmates from primary school who was then a low-ranking clerk in a neighboring town. His friend pulled out a photograph taken of their entire class when Bourdieu and he were children. There were dozens of sepia-toned faces of young boys all the same age and from the same small peasant community. The boys stood in lines wearing the same drab peasant shirts and slacks. The group looked remarkably homogenous, yet Bourdieu’s school friend cast his hand across the photo in dismissive scorn and pronounced half of these young boys “unmarriageable.” The children he was referring to, now grown men, were all the oldest sons in their families. In the agricultural world of Bearn—one that at the time revered primogeniture, the tradition of passing land down through the first-born son—the idea that eldest sons would be unmarriageable didn’t make any sense. More striking was the cruelty with which his friend tossed off the remark. Unmarriageable. He might just as easily have said: Worthless.
But why would these young men set to inherit both land and the agricultural traditions of their fathers be deemed worthless? Wasn’t their status as the eldest born exactly the opposite?
This mystery stayed with Bourdieu throughout the early days of his visit. He was certain the word unmarriageable was an important observation, but of what? And why? He might have asked his schoolmate for more answers, but these types of questions—explicit and direct—rarely reveal meaningful truths about the subterranean structures that guide our behaviors and habits. His schoolmate would likely have said, “Isn’t it obvious? Just look at them.”
Bourdieu did have a bit of perspective on Bearn that his classmates did not share. Whereas his friends had all attended local schools, Bourdieu left for a boarding school at a young age in the nearby town of Pau. After high school, his talents as a student earned him a scholarship to study at one of the Grande Ecoles in Paris. By the time he was a young adult, Pierre Bourdieu was moving in a world made up of the wealthiest and most well-connected families of France. This vantage point gave him some understanding into the insularity of life in Bearn but it still wasn’t enough to help understand the word unmarriageable. He would simply have to be patient and observe. Look—but at what? And where?
The Christmas holiday fell during this time and Bourdieu attended the village’s Christmas ball held in the back of a bar. Young people from around the region gathered on the dance floor. There under the lights, for all the town to see, was the next generation. Young men from the local high schools and universities were there, some of them from the larger town of Pau, as well as factory workers and clerks in the local bureaucracies. They were partnered with young girls from around the area. They came in fashionable clothing with their hair in stylish coifs. Two by two, they paired off to dance the Charleston and the cha-cha. All together and in time, the young people showed off their playful skill with this new music. They were the future.
Pierre Bourdieu watched the dancers, captivated by the excitement and movement that emanated from the center of the room. These young dancers were the focal point of the night. But then his eye was drawn to the shadows at the edges of the bar – the chiaroscuro. There, in the background, he could discern a darkened mass. It was a group of slightly older men, all closer to 30, standing at the periphery. Just as the young dancers were the story of the ball, Bourdieu realized, these older men were also the story. Unlike the younger men who moved with confidence in the light, the shadows could not hide the awkwardness of these older farmers. Their bodies looked stiff; their big hands hung heavily out of their thick, dark suits. Their feet seemed stuck to the floor. While in the foreground the feet all tapped in time, in this background there was not even a shoulder swaying to the music. Instead, the men were inert like rocks in the road—an impediment to progress. These, Bourdieu realized, were the unmarriageable.
When it was close to midnight, it was finally time for the bachelors to move towards the bar. Now they could relax and take up more natural postures—holding drinks, leaning against tables, and siting on stools, looking at each other eye to eye. Away from the swirl of movement on the dance floor, their wool suits no longer felt so inhibiting. The young people left in new parings while the bachelors stayed behind and broke out into singing the old-fashioned Bearn songs. They sang into the night and, when no one was left dancing on the floor, they flopped their old berets on their heads and headed back to their farms.
Bourdieu might well have assumed the revelry of the dancers on the floor was the most important observation. But he had enough training as an observer to remain in doubt. If everyone was looking at who was dancing with whom under the lights, wouldn’t it be more revealing to ask: Who wasn’t dancing? Who wasn’t the center of attention? And perhaps the most interesting and perplexing question: Who wasn’t marrying?
An understanding of the foreground—the dancers—would only be possible with a profound understanding of the background as well, the world of the motionless bachelors standing in the shadows. For generations, a peasant’s social standing was not measured by material goods like jewels or fine clothing. They demonstrated their social worth to themselves and to their community by accumulating more land. This wealth creation could happen through bountiful harvests, of course, but it happened more often through inheritance from father to eldest son. Until very recently, all social order in such villages spun on an axis around this social practice of inheritance. When Bourdieu was growing up, a woman from a small village in the area aspired to marry the eldest son in a peasant family who would inherit the farm, its land, and perhaps a small dowry. In his observations of the Christmas ball—with its background of forlorn bachelors—Bourdieu identified an insight: a seismic shift in what he called “the market in symbolic goods.” These bachelors were facing a “brutal devaluation” in their worth because their marriage prospects were inextricably tied up in farming, land, and old-fashioned matrimonial exchanges controlled by their families. Whereas the young people on the dance floor moved with the freedoms of modernity—pursuing jobs in towns and leaving behind life on a farm—these bachelor farmers were trapped by their inheritances to old ways. The land they owned and the skills they had for working it simply were not valuable anymore. A new world — of trade, of mechanized farming tools, and a general globalization of every aspect of the economy — had shifted the ground under their feet. His friend’s description of this phenomenon—one of the greatest societal and economic shifts to occur across provincial France in the twentieth century—was unmarriageable.
After that night, Bourdieu described hurling himself “into a kind of total description, a somewhat frenetic one, of a society” he knew “without truly knowing it.” Everything was data in his quest to understand the phenomenon of unmarriageable: photographs, maps, ground plans, statistics, games played, the age and make of cars, the age pyramid of the population. Eventually, he assembled a system for seeing his own world. This rigor allowed him to test his insights against analyses of other rural communities across Europe and other areas of the world. Looking at the background of the Christmas ball in Bearn gave him a direct portal into seeing the emergence of modern society. He went on to write and speak about this new society and his insights about the unmarriageable ultimately made him one of France’s most celebrated twentieth-century intellectuals.
* * *
Almost everyone stops observing the minute they see those shiny, young dancers at the Christmas ball. Most of us take in the foreground and then—snap—we stop looking. We land in a judgment, lose curiosity, and stop seeing the greater context.
Taking note of the dancers does matter, of course. But what matters much more is cultivating an awareness of the hidden social structures that are happening outside the light. The best observers know that leaving the Christmas ball without seeing the lonely bachelors in the shadows is to miss out on understanding the most profound forces shaping our reality. The ability to observe what is invisible in a social context—what Bourdieu referred to as “social silence”—isn’t only useful for an anthropologist in mid-century France. It’s valuable for observing any context because it reveals what really matters in a society.
Take our culture’s fixation with tracking consumer behavior as an example. With big data and the barrage of statistics inundating our minds every day, we hear a lot about what consumers are doing. We learn that we are buying more snacks, downloading more content from streaming services, and ordering more home office furniture. But what are we not doing? What are we not buying? We base so many of our macro and micro decisions on large datasets that record what happened but how much attention do we put on what goes unrecorded? When you ask who was in attendance, do you also look at who was left out? When a person is speaking, do you also observe who is choosing not to speak? When everyone is talking about a new trend, what are they not talking about? These social silences show us what matters. We can never truly know what happens in a place or a context unless we also know what doesn’t happen.
No one knows this better than Gillian Tett, a masterful observer and editor at large at The Financial Times—better known in the United States as FT. Gillian has been covering financial markets and global politics for decades and she is widely recognized as a media expert, in part because she ushered the FT through a rough period when media institutions were forced to reconsider twentieth-century business models in the face of digitization. FT is now owned by a Japanese holding company and, as a Brit, Gillian has been the conduit between its Anglo-Saxon roots and the culture of the new ownership.
Most journalists in the industry, however, revere Gillian as an observer for another reason. She was one of the only journalists covering the markets to understand the terrifying depths of the Great Financial Crisis—calling out her alarm years before Lehman Brothers collapsed in September of 2008. How was she able to see what so few others could see? And how does she continue to get great scoops on one big story after another? What gives her the ability to observe the visible in what appears to be invisible?
The answers to these questions go back to Pierre Bourdieu and that Christmas Ball. Gillian Tett received her observational training while pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Long before she was analyzing and reporting on derivatives in the City of London and on Wall Street, she was deeply embedded in a village in Tajikistan in Central Asia observing marriage rituals for her dissertation research. It was through this training that she learned how to listen to the noise—what people talked about and said—while analytically observing the silence, or the things left unsaid.
Gillian is one of the most curious people I have ever met: she never really knows what she is looking for when she goes out to observe the world for her reporting. She has a sparkling personality but if you observe her working, you see that she is almost always looking, not talking. “Absorbing, not emitting”, as she calls it. She has the anthropologist’s eye: always trying to connect the dots across disciplines.
I have gotten to know Gillian well so I wanted to ask her about her experiences leading up to the financial crisis. She told me about her first exposure to the world of bankers trading complex financial derivatives back in 2005 at a conference in the south of France. Like Bourdieu entering the Christmas Ball, she kept her eyes open to both the dancers and the non-dancers. She noted what people said and talked about as they each stood up to present their PowerPoints to the room. She was also keenly aware of what they didn’t say and what they didn’t present. In the slides, for example, the financiers used acronyms to describe their innovations—collaterized debt obligations became “CDOs” and credit default swaps turned into “CDSs”—and they measured the value of their products with Greek letters and algorithms. Yet none of these conversations coming from the stage ever addressed how real people in the world would use these products.
“What was missing from the presentations were the presence of human faces,” she told me. During the breaks at the conference, she told me about countless conversations she had centered around the craft of securitization. These, she explained, were usually predicated on the idea that markets needed to become more efficient. Yet in the middle of this constant chatter about increasing “liquidity” and creating a capital that could flow like water, she never heard a single human story.
“Who is borrowing this money? Where are the humans?” She found herself asking. “How does this connect to real life?”
The world in the conference hall was filled with patterns of behavior as complex and hidden as those in the Tajik village she studied for so long. The bankers had a fluency in the emerging language of acronyms that described the derivative market. Even though the attendees at the conference had come from financial centers all over the world, this secret code bonded them. No one else in the world could master this language or even understand it and their knowledge created a culture of elitism. The financiers felt as if they were in on something exclusive. When Gillian expressed her own confusion over how the terms were used and the metrics for measuring their value, the rituals of explanation only added to the aura of their insiders’ club.
“All the attention was on how smart the hedge fund managers were and how they were transforming financial markets to be risk free,” she told me. “And never on the immense risk of people not being able to pay their loans.”
Just as she had analyzed the way information was disseminated across family networks in the Tajik village, she observed how the dedicated message system attached to the Bloomberg finance terminals fomented even more of a clubby culture. Quips could go back and forth quickly on this messaging system—including references to complex mathematics inaccessible to all but the most highly educated—without any outsider ever stopping to ask for an explanation or accountability.
“The problem was that financiers could see neither the external context of what they were doing (what cheap loans did to borrowers),” she explained, “nor the internal context of their world (how their clubbiness and peculiar incentive schemes fueled risks).”
There were dancers and nondancers in that convention hall in 2004 but Gillian also identified the social silences that were occurring in the industry of financial journalism itself. Her world of media was accustomed to focusing its attention on the equity markets. These were the stories deemed the most relevant for FT readers—including dramatic human stories about entrepreneurs and CEOs as well as facts and figures communicating straightforward concepts such as profit and loss. The problem, she identified, was that her own industry spent so much time focused on these equity markets that they were missing the stories happening in the background. She called upon the metaphor of an iceberg to describe how the world of journalism was observing the markets.
“The bigger piece—derivatives and credit—was largely submerged,” she described to me. While most of her colleagues were chasing scoops by looking at the tip, she could cast her observational eye on the submerged world that few journalists were incentivized to notice: the capital markets.
In spring of 2005, when she took over her new beat as “head of capital markets team” for FT, it didn’t take long for her insatiable curiosity to turn to alarm. Just as there were no human faces on the slides and presentations at the conference, her interviews with financiers in the capital markets were almost entirely focused on abstract math, acronym-fueled debates, and a general detachment from any real-world consequences of the craft of securitization.
The foundational myth at the core of this culture—what Gillian referred to as the creation myth—was the story of “liquidity”. Financiers in the world of capital markets all followed the same ideology: more innovation would create more efficiency in the overall global finance system. With this increased liquidity, all the risks would be dispersed across the system.
“Securitization distributed credit risks so widely that if losses occurred, lots of investors would each take a tiny blow,” she explained to me, “but no single investor would take a painful enough hit to suffer severe damage.”
This was the prevailing ideology. As a trained anthropologist, however, Gillian understood that it was just that: a story. If it wasn’t true, it would mean a huge portion of the global financial system was at risk. In addition to other warning signs, she could see that these innovative assets weren’t even being traded—far from liquid in nature they were essentially inert. The CDOs were so complex that it was hard to even understand how to value them. With so few trades to draw pricing from, accountants had no way to measure their worth. Instead of using direct market pricing—what is referred to as mark-to-market principles—accountants turned to the abstract models of ratings agencies to determine value.
She used her role at FT to sound an alarm. In 2007, she wrote several pieces describing the inscrutability of the entire system with observations detailing her sense that something was wrong. Of course, the market was still strong at that point, and she was called out publicly as scaremongering. She laughed when she told me about a financier who complained about her use of the words “opaque” and “murky” to describe these new financial innovations.
“He was certain he had full transparency into the entire capital market just because he had access to the Bloomberg terminals,” she recalled. “But most of the world isn’t sitting at a Bloomberg terminal. No one was talking about that. Nor was anyone saying that this transparency was an illusion.”
As an anthropologist, she knew all too well that unspoken codes of culture serve those in power. Bourdieu calls what isn’t said—what is socially silent—“doxa”.
“Good observers look for doxa,” Gillian explained. “What isn’t said and what is hidden in plain sight. It is a kind of chip in your brain or x-ray vision that you get when you look at the familiar as strange and try to imagine alternatives to the way we do things. It really is a superpower.”
In the summer of 2007, the faceless humans who never appeared on any of the PowerPoints or in any of the Bloomberg terminal chats started to default on their real world mortgages. Financial authorities tried to prop up the global finance system, but the contagion could not be contained. In the fall of 2008, what came to be known as the Great Financial Crisis sent markets across the world into turmoil. A dozen of the U.S.’s most important financial institutions all teetered on the brink of failure over the course of a week and banks all over the world needed to be bailed out to prevent bankruptcy. Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve at the time, called it the worst financial crisis in global history.
* * *
The observational skill of a master like Gillian requires training, practice, and the courage to be a contrarian when it matters. She described the approach she takes in all her work.
“My process is twofold,” she explained. “First, I try to see the strange in the familiar. I see myself as an outsider that observes a complex system that I didn’t grow up in and that isn’t obvious to me. It is obvious to everyone else involved, so obvious that they don’t even think about it. But as an outsider, you have the chance to see how odd the whole thing is. What is familiar to others is strange to me. Often the conversation—or the dancing—works the way it does because it suits the people in control. The way they classify things helps people in power and not others—usually the powerless.”
In the second step, Gillian uses these facts to try to imagine how things could be different. She tries to hear what isn’t said and why. She imagines alternatives to what she is observing. It is through this process that she arrives at insights about what she is seeing. What would that conference in 2004 look like if it were structured to serve a different stakeholder or constituent or consumer? Imagine if it were designed to appeal to the people applying for mortgages. What if the real people applying for the mortgages had to come in and meet with the financiers to complete their applications? Or if financiers in the system were incentivized to make their work more available or more accessible.
Whether it is dancing at a Christmas Ball or presenting PowerPoints at an investment conference, the best observers are always asking these types of questions: what do rituals of culture mean and who are they for? Gillian’s work reminds all of us to enter the world with both curiosity and doubt. Embrace the role of an outsider and ask what makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Never be satisfied with what people say. All the best insights are occurring below the sounds of conversation, in the submerged iceberg that sits unseen to most of the world.
Stop talking and try listening. What will you hear in the silence?
Christian Madsbjerg is a founder of ReD Associates, a strategy consulting company based in the human sciences and employing anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers. Madsbjerg studied philosophy and political science in Copenhagen and London. He lives in New York City.
In Look, Madsbjerg sets out the key observational skills needed to show how we can recapture our ability to pay attention. Drawing from philosophy, science, the visual arts, and his own life, he offers both practical insights and a range of tools for experiencing the world with greater richness and texture. The result is a dynamic approach to rethinking observation that helps all of us to see with more empathy, accuracy, and connection to others.