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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Swimming with Joris Luyendijk

An interview about cultural difference from banking to Brexit

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Joris Luyendijk is a Dutch anthropologist and journalist who is best known for The Banking Blog, a column in The Guardian that logs his research into the world of finance in London. Erin talks with him about his career diversity and future plans.

1. The topics of your books range from middle eastern culture to banking in the UK and populism across the Atlantic. Why such a diversity?

I get bored quite easily so once I feel that I have figured out the broad outlines of a 'field' I prefer moving on to becoming a professional expert.

2. You're trained in both anthropology and journalism. Some people claim that they're similar because they both involve spending a lot of time on the ground observing and asking questions. What has each approach taught you?

I wish that journalism involved spending a lot of time on the ground. It really does not, 95% of it. Journalism has taught me to write for outsiders—you have to win over your audience as you're competing for their attention. This is very different from academic writing. There you're writing for peers whose job it is to read your stuff. Academia has taught me how to think, not only about the world but also about thought itself.

3. Ruth Benedict is famous for saying that "the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences." Is this what you were trying to achieve in your book People Like Us: Representing the Middle East? And if anthropology and journalism are similar, why do you need to use the former to overcome the shortfalls of the latter?

I'm not sure I agree with Mrs. Benedict. It is our job to expand people's understanding of difference. But I have found that in some cases at least an increased awareness of what separates us actually amplifies tensions. Some differences are irreconcilable, for instance the belief in equality and salafism.

4. Some people might think that banking is an unlikely topic for an anthropologist, but not at all surprising for a journalist. But in Swimming with Sharks, you really emphasise that your approach is anthropological. Why did you think this was important?

Journalists focus on what happened today, ie, how is today different from yesterday. Anthropology is concerned with structures, ie what happens every day. That was my perspective in SwS: to see if the crash of 2008 plus the scandals that broke in its wake are the story themselves—as journalists would say—or whether they are symptoms of deeper lying structural factors.

5. In your new book, On Trump, Brexit, and Bullshit, you try to understand how populists think. How do you go about this? Why is populism rising around the world, and how should we respond to it?

I have found it very useful to speak TO populist voters rather than about them. It's not difficult to do. I think that step one is to stop using the word 'populist' as it is a label that makes it very easy to ignore the arguments and simply dismiss the other. The mirror image of this 'elite' which is used by the other camp to dismiss their opponents.

My best bet is to ignore the 'populist' politicians and fix, mitigate or at least address the real problems and grievances underlying their success. This way we separate those who vote 'populist' from racist motives from those who vote 'populist' in spite of the populists' racist provocations.

6. Finally, if you had unlimited resources and personnel, what project would you tackle next?

I'd start a pan-European medium so we Europeans could finally talk about ourselves to ourselves, and to defend our corner in the court of global public opinion.

Joris Luyendijk. Photo via Flickr courtesy of the OECD.Joris Luyendijk. Photo via Flickr, courtesy of the OECD.

Journalists focus on what happened today, ie, how is today different from yesterday. Anthropology is concerned with structures, ie what happens every day. Joris Luyendijk

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Joris Luyendijk publications
Joris Luyendijk publications