What did your journey to anthropology look like?
When I was thinking about college, I knew I wanted to study abroad. I was disappointed with the education system in Slovakia. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study at a high school in the United States for one year. This experience opened my eyes and motivated me to go abroad for education. At the same time, I was very interested in questions related to why Slovakia – but also the rest of Central Europe – was so different from the West. I went to study history and Russian in England at the University of Sheffield. I thought that I would get a quality education there that would help me solve this question. With this mindset, I went on a four-year bachelor’s degree, during which I spent three years in Sheffield, England, and a year in St. Petersburg.
The study of history and Russian was beautiful. The humanities are my passion and I still love them very much, but, as a consequence of my studies, I have begun to lose touch with the immediate reality around me. I felt like I was creating a separate reality of the beautiful discussions about Russian literature, but I could not connect it to what I saw around me. At the end of my studies, I, therefore, moved on to other topics. My bachelor’s thesis was on the migration of the Slovak Roma to Great Britain after Slovakia’s accession to the EU in 2004. As a part of this project, I already made a very weak and unsuccessful attempt at some mini-ethnography with the Slovak Roma who lived there. However, I encountered a great misunderstanding on the part of my supervisor, who was old-school – he did not understand how I could write a story on something that only happened fifteen years ago. For him it was something that had not yet settled, something that was still alive.
I did not enjoy putting things into boxes like that and so I decided to study social anthropology, as I care about the things that are still alive, the things around us we can study, even though they are still in the process of becoming. I studied for a Master’s degree at University College London, where I studied social and cultural anthropology for one year. From the semi-closed world of the humanities, I suddenly found myself in the open space. Suddenly I was thinking about people, geographical locations and contexts that I had not even considered because of my previously cultivated Eurocentrism. Suddenly, we talked about issues such as the consequences of the civil war on women in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. For me, it was like going from one unknown to another, and so it was all interesting. It was a sincere attempt to meet the “other”.
What did you do as part of your anthropological field research at UCL?
During my studies, I was most interested in the anthropology of the global economy. I was never really attracted to “traditional” field research. I was even slightly annoyed by the idea that a white anthropologist would come to an island with three doctoral students, researching people they considered “savages”; I just never felt good about it. I was more interested in how anthropology could be applied to something that was happening around us. I was interested in anthropology and ethnography as tools that could be used to go underground. During my studies, I happened to read an article where the Archbishop of the Anglican Church claimed that they were going to lend money ethically. Their goal was to drive out lenders who did so at high interest rates. They argued that there were moral ways to lend money. It was a big promise that fascinated me at the time. I was interested in how it combined lending and ethics, because I had never connected these two things before. So I decided that my research would be about how this works in practice. In the case of my field research, the point was to see how the employees who worked in the credit union lived every day with the awareness that they were supposed to be the ethical lenders of money. I was interested in how they thought, felt and treated those members who were not customers, but members of a credit union. I researched one credit union for eight weeks, working with them three days a week as an auxiliary force at the branch, which gave me a great opportunity to be involved in everything that happened there.
This is a very interesting topic, quite unconventional. What did you find in your research, what were the conclusions?
First of all, I figured out what my own “glasses” were through which I looked at the world. I was conflicted because I believed that there was no ethical way of lending money, which was the reason why I was interested in the subject in the first place. Therefore, I found out that I myself had assumptions and prejudices, and so I had to work with the fact that this is something that I felt and consider it throughout my research. Such self-reflection is very important in anthropological research because we are far from being as objective as we think we are.
When it comes to conclusions of my research, I have found that even such lending has its limits, despite the advertisements and promises on billboards that stated that “they lend money to those to whom the bank no longer lends, to those who do not have good enough credit scores”. The people who worked at the branch were in a position of power. That is, as they would say, they could facilitate or refuse to facilitate access to loans, and so they created an imaginary boundary through which they divided people into those who deserved this “merciful help” and those who did not. This boundary was nicely captured by two concepts: on the one hand, the concept of “hand-up” – that is, helping someone who fell, but at the same time it was important that it was not a “hand-out”– something that was just handed out for free. The members of the credit union entered into the relationship with the awareness that it was not impersonal borrowing in the sense that they received a non-purpose loan – they paid 5% and could do what they wanted, but other, more personal aspects were also taken into account. For example, my colleague at the branch knew the relationships in some families to such a depth that they consciously or subconsciously expected and demanded some type of behaviour from notorious lenders. It was not obvious at first glance, but it happened below the surface. He would tell me who he sees as a moral member of the team to whom we should lend money (hand-up), and who is already beyond that line, and therefore no longer deserves our help (not a hand-out). Thus, the lender entered the lending process from the position of power and decided who deserved the money and who did not, sometimes on the basis of their own moral parameters.
What did you do after that research and your study? Where do you work now, and how does your area of research relate to your work?
I currently work at Tatra banka as a research designer within the Experience Design and Research department. Our department has a UX team – user experience of artists and designers, a CX team – designers who create innovations or harmonizations of existing processes, and it also includes a team of researchers, which is where I work. As researchers, we do UX tests, which means we test prototypes or changes in online and offline products. However, sometimes we also work on original research, which is the most interesting part of our work. But I did not arrive at this job right after graduation, the journey was quite long.
So what did your path to what you are doing right now look like?
Frankly, I did not know how to put anthropology into practice right after school. The fact that I am now trying to apply things from the world of anthropology to research within a corporation like Tatra banka is a result of years of searching. I have done a variety of things before – I first saw myself as a teacher. In London, I had a part-time high school teaching job in history, and then, to my own surprise, I also began teaching full-time mathematics. It was a difficult period for me, in which I experienced burnout and as a result of which I returned to Slovakia. After returning, I worked for three years in the non-profit organization LEAF, where I did various things – for example, I worked with Slovaks abroad, I worked on building a community of the Slovak diaspora abroad, I helped to create a development program for teachers. I experienced a range of roles and I am very grateful for these experiences.
You have mentioned that you also do original research in your work. What does such research look like and how is it prepared?
To put it critically, many things in a bank are traditionally done “from the table,” in the sense that the people in charge of the product believe that how they understand things from an expert’s point of view will also make sense to people who consume it on the other side. I often feel that these experts are not aware that the people who are supposed to consume them have a completely different view of reality and, in fact, are not even interested in their product as such. They just want to solve a problem or fulfill a need.
As I said, I’m happy that things are changing slowly. We are finally trying to begin by thinking about the client. For example, we now conducted a lot of qualitative research – we looked at eighteen Slovak households, in which we examined their financial needs and the experience of everyday reality associated with money. As a part of this research, we first conducted an hour-long online interview in each household to get to know each other and ask each of them what their relationship to finances was, and how they thought about money in their daily lives. Subsequently, we spent another two hours in-person at their home, where we worked with them on a detailed visualization of their monthly expenses and the emotions associated with these expenses. There you could find elements of ethnography, as we spent time with them in their “natural environment”. I believe that this research will be the basis that we will gradually build on, and that will help us to look at things not from the point of view of the bank, namely through a product matrix, but through the view of the needs of individual segments. I think this can potentially radically change what the bank offers to its clients and how it thinks about the purpose of its business.
It is very interesting that you can apply elements of ethnography in research in this environment. Do you apply any other elements from the field of anthropology in your work, whether some ways of thinking or some specific methodological considerations?
Something that completely fascinates me is looking at how the team around me works in the bank. I am relatively new there, and having come to the bank during a pandemic, I feel that I have partially limited access to people, as I have come at a time when people are much less socialized and have their department-specific closed groups. I feel that in an environment such as a bank, it is very important to understand the most human relationships – who gets along with whom, to whom and how to communicate certain things. It is also interesting to look at the different types of reciprocity and the different types of cultural understandings within the bank that I encounter there. Often people just do what they are supposed to do, but they do not realize what lies behind it – our actions, which is a good strategy for successful survival in the corporate world, in a very interesting way potentially correspond to the wider culture in our country. For example, one of the things I observe at this level is our issue with expressing disagreement, criticism and doing so in a limited, direct and impersonal way.
Did studying and knowing social anthropology help you deal with such things?
Reality is complicated and chaotic, as anthropology teaches us all around. I myself am in reality an actor and not just an observer. I think that just when I feel that I am above everything and that I have everyone around me analyzed, I am committing the greatest anthropological sin. My colleagues at the bank and I are part of a dynamic system that works but also doesn’t work in different ways, you can’t just think of yourself as outside of the system and feel like you are above it. Maybe something like that can be done, but this way we are only creating an impression that we understand what’s going on. In reality, however, there is a chance that we have lost empathy and compassion not only with others but also with ourselves, and we do not have the courage to remain emotionally invested in co-existing with others. It happens to me sometimes, but then I try to come back and remember that having anthropological training does not give me a special “mandate” to be above everything.
I would now like to turn to the area of applied anthropology. Your work could partly be considered a form of applied anthropology. How do you perceive the connection between the study of social anthropology and work in a corporate environment?
Anthropology is very much needed where we rarely find it. In the Slovak context, we do not find much anthropology within the corporate world yet, but it is slowly changing. It is precisely in systems that operate under strict hierarchies, according to set external expectations that social anthropology can bring great wealth through its self-reflection, understanding of how to enter interactions, and how what we consider to be true shapes reality not only for us but also for others around us. And I think it is something that can improve people’s quality of life when we make them aware of it. That is the plane of spiritual and personal growth. The second level is, in my opinion, the level of productivity. The whole team can benefit from increased self-reflection. I hypothesize that many teams are unproductive primarily because they do not have open communication, and while they might speak the same language, they do not know how to be emotionally vulnerable with each other, they are distant from each other, and this is why it is hard for them to progress in their work.
Many of our readers are students, and may not know how to combine the study of social anthropology with practice in the future. Do you have any advice on how future anthropologists can employ their anthropological skills after school?
In my opinion, this application is much broader than we often think. Anthropologists sometimes position themselves to stand outside of the system. I understand this, but at the same time I just want many of us to go “dirty our hands” to places where important decisions are made, whether it is the state administration, large corporations or growing companies. This is where money is spinning and where we find “the system” which we are often rightly very critical about. I think that, as anthropologists, we need to cultivate courage and confidence every day in order not only to describe the world, but also to change it. If you are, for instance, interested in hospitals then research what added value you could have as an anthropologist in the hospital, go to the director and try to show them that they need an anthropologist. And this applies to anything, really, whether it’s a car repair shop, a bank, or a school. I think we lack a broader social debate about what social anthropology can contribute. We take many things, such as how groups of people work, for granted. At the same time, these are the kinds of things that are often dysfunctional, precisely because they are not looked at as something you can and should consciously work with. I believe that anthropology is uniquely positioned within the social sciences to help people work better together, not only despite their differences but thanks to them.
Anything you would like to add at the end?
I would like to encourage all of us to follow our dreams. The problem is often that we are ourselves the biggest destroyers of our own dreams, that we do not allow ourselves to pursue them, or that we say that our dreams hide behind a high fence, which we do not want to skip. The journey might sometimes take longer, but I think it is important to go with your dreams. Doing so makes life better. When we chase our dreams, we help to create a world around us with a new quality that is an expression of us and our personalities. I want to encourage fellow anthropologists to pursue their wildest dreams. Maybe we are a young discipline that is not well established and people in Slovakia don’t know much about anthropology, but we can take it as an opportunity – let’s go and talk to people about what anthropology is. Although sometimes even anthropologists themselves cannot agree on what our discipline is and what it is not – and perhaps, paradoxically, it is this flexibility and variability that provides our greatest wealth. As anthropologists, we have a set of approaches and theories by which we can look at reality and cultivate the art of self-reflection. As anthropologists, we have a set of approaches and theories which we can use to look at reality and cultivate the art of self-reflection. This flexibility of anthropology does not bother me at all, and I believe that it is thanks to it that anthropology can function elegantly and usefully in the complicated and interconnected worlds in which we live.