We met with University of Oslo’s highly influential anthropologist, Thomas Eriksen to talk about climate change, the speed of information, and so much more. Enjoy!
"In the last 20 years, the internet and the social media has a lot to do with it because communication is taking place too fast. You never have the time for after-thought."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Dr. Thomas H. Eriksen offers wisdom into the impact of climate change on local communities, the positive power of multiculturalism to shape a people, the negative effect of speed on the United States, and how alienation from one’s own culture drives innovative inquirers to ask deeper questions. Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Dr. Eriksen talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See additional leaders in anthropology in our article
Top Influential Anthropologists Today
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, it’s Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com, and today we have a special guest with us today, Thomas Eriksen, who is speaking to us all the way from Norway. So we’re gonna ask the typical questions that we like to ask of the people who are academic influencers and have made it to the top of our list.
How did you get started in your field, and what made it interesting to you?
"As we sometimes say, you only live one life, but you are born with the possibility of living thousands of different lives."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas Hylland Eriksen: In my own field, well, in anthropology, which is my field, I guess I was seduced by anthropology as a young undergraduate. I tried philosophy, sociology, but with anthropology I could sort of tick all the boxes, and that appealed to me.
It was extremely exciting discipline for me because it’s global. It gets you into the lives of other people. As we sometimes say, you only live one life, but you are born with the possibility of living thousands of different lives. And through anthropology, and I suppose literature and some other methods, you can actually get a glimpse into some of those other lives and you can live them vicariously.
Jed: That’s really cool.
Thomas: And so my engagement in the public sphere, where I write and I speak and do lots of things, I also have a podcast, which is dormant right now, but it’s sort of running now and then.
I mean I have a few objectives, a few things that I really want to get across to a broader public, which is to do with, I guess, the acceleration of living in such a wonderfully complex, diverse world.
And perhaps also conveying a bit of recognition, respect, understanding, tolerance, interest, in other people’s lives. So that has been part of my motivation.
Jed: Wonderful. This is fascinating, fascinating. Well, we’ve had a few interviews with anthropologists, and that same theme seems to be coming through a lot, that anthropologists have found their field because they really enjoy interacting with people, listening to their stories and entering into their world.
Thomas: That’s right.
Jed: Was there a certain thing that happened?
Tell us a little bit about your early background and your education. I’ve been to Norway, and one of the things that I enjoyed was, for example, looking at the Kon-Tiki Museum, where the gentleman went from South America on a raft to see how he could arrive at the different islands in the South Pacific.
Was that anything... Something like that? Something that broadened your mind about different cultures?
Thomas: Yeah, well, not exactly. I don’t think, no, not the Kon-Tiki expedition. That was a bit remote for me, I guess, but there were other things that triggered my interest.
We spent a couple of years in Kenya when I was an adolescent. So I lived in Nairobi, I went to school there. My dad was interested in Africa, he loved Africa. He made newspapers for the UNESCO, so you might say that I got a bit of a head start that way in my early teens.
Jed: Oh good.
"Part of my motivation has also been thinking that maybe we can use this kind of knowledge to make the world a slightly better place."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas: But, yeah, but then I wandered off and was really determined to do other things. I never really planned to become an academic when I started university, but here I am. [chuckle] 39 years on and I’m still at the University of Oslo, so something must have been right.
And I think it’s about curiosity and it’s also about trying to connect a few dots, trying to understand what it’s like to be human being and trying to come to terms with our contemporary world. And I think I should also add that it’s also... Part of my motivation has also been thinking that maybe we can use this kind of knowledge to make the world a slightly better place.
Thomas: As the anthropologist, Ruth Benedict famously said about her mentor Franz Boas, when he died in the 1940s, “The aim of anthropology is to make the world safe for difference.”
Jed: Oh wow, that is nice.
Thomas: Yeah, and that was the 1940s.
Jed: Can you say his name again one more time, so that people can hear what you...
Thomas: Yeah, that was Franz Boas. And like many...
Jed: Franz Boas.
"And I think having this slightly sort of distanced or maybe even slightly alienated relationship to your own culture enables you to ask questions that others won't because they take everything for granted."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas: B-O-A-S. And like many anthropologists, he was a bit marginal in his own culture. He was a German Jew who migrated to United States, so he already belonged to two minorities in the US.
And I think having this slightly sort of distanced or maybe even slightly alienated relationship to your own culture enables you to ask questions that others won’t because they take everything for granted.
Many of the big anthropologists in the 20th century, they were sort of marginal in a way. They were Jewish, they were women, they were migrants, and so on. Yeah.
Jed: Well, that’s great.
Now, Professor Eriksen, what do you particularly study?
Anthropology is a huge field. You could study any number of different cultures. So tell us a little bit about the ones that you’ve studied in your career.
Thomas: Yeah, well, my first fieldwork in the mid 1980s was in Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. Which is an island state which many Europeans associate with high-end tourism, basically.
Jed: Yes. Basically.
Thomas: But that was not my field, I didn’t look at tourism. I stayed in a fishing village for some time and then moved into a small town. And I was looking at ethnic diversity because it’s a very diverse island with Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, people from three different continents who were sort of thrown together in Mauritius during colonialism.
And I was interested in finding out how they managed to live together and to what extent they were able to build a national identity, a shared national identity, in spite of all these differences. So that’s where I started.
I then went on to Trinidad in the Caribbean, which has a similar history to Mauritius. Trinidad also has Indians, Africans, Europeans and so on. It’s also a plantation society with sugarcane and so on. But it’s also different in some ways.
I did comparisons between Mauritius and Trinidad. Then moving on to do other kinds of complex societies. So I’ve been basically devoting my life to understanding, you might say, the meaning of the word “we”. What does the word “we” mean and what does it entail? And who can be included, who’s excluded? That sort of thing. So I’ve done multiculturalism in Europe, as well.
But more recently I’ve been looking at what I call overheating, accelerated change, fast change. Which is taking place in a big way across the world now. You see, since the early 1990s, things have just taken off.
Anything from tourism, to the number of photos taken in the world, to world trade which has quadrupled since 1980. So there’s this huge sort of surge of change, which is enormous.
Did you know that, I mean even only in 15 years, the number of plane tickets sold in the world more than doubled from two billion in 2004 to four and a half billion in 2019?
Thomas: So that sort of thing. That’s the kind of phenomenon I call overheating, and I’ve directed a rather large research project on it; actually I’ve got a couple of those books right here. [chuckle] Because I’m teaching one of them. This is one of my recent books called Boomtown: Runaway Globalization on the Queensland Coast, based on fieldwork in Australia...
Thomas: Where I was looking at a really fast-changing industrial place in Australia. And here’s another one that I edited with a colleague, called Climate, Capitalism and Communities: An Anthropology of Environmental Overheating, where we’re looking at how people in local communities respond to climate change and environmental destruction and so on. From Mongolia to Malaysia. Yeah.
Jed: Interesting. Wow, unbelievable. If a young person, which is the kind of people who’ll be watching this interview, would like to go into anthropology, even maybe as a graduate student…
what kind of fieldwork do they usually do? And did you have any fieldwork in your PhD program?
Thomas: Absolutely, we do. And even at the master’s level, we have a half a year of pure fieldwork. Now owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been difficult because people haven’t been able to travel. So we’ve had to find other solutions for them.
But they are now increasingly able to travel, at least to a few places. So yes, we do fieldwork. I will place a great emphasis on that. And for us, fieldwork, it’s not just going out and asking people questions and looking around, it’s really spending a lot of time.
You can say that anthropology, it’s not particularly expensive, it’s not capital-intensive research because it’s quite cheap. It’s not even always very labor-intensive, because much of the time you just sit around waiting for people who never show up. [chuckle]
Or if you do village fieldwork, you wait for something to happen, which it never does. And yet you have to spend a lot of time because we have to get close up and personal with people, you have to get to know them really well in order to make sure that we get the details right.
In order to become an anthropologist you have to enjoy being with people, you should enjoy being with people. And if you also have the, what I call the comparative curiosity, the curiosity that comes from comparison. “So it’s like this here, but why is it so different over there? Let’s see if we can make some connections and make comparisons and find out about it.”
Jed: Wow. Well, that is fascinating. And like all anthropologists, I feel like you have a lot of wisdom for people, let’s say in the United States, who are currently undergoing a lot of tension and strife between the two political parties; people who are for wearing masks, people who are not for wearing masks; people who are worried about immigrants, people who are wanting to embrace immigrants; this and that. There’s so many different divisions, like there are in Europe as well.
Thomas: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Jed: But what advice... You keep mentioning this idea of acceleration, can you unpack that word “acceleration” when it comes to what we’re dealing with in our friendships and relationships in the United States?
Thomas: Yeah, I think I could, but that could... It could be a very long lecture, but I’ll try to be brief.
Jed: Of course. Okay.
Thomas: Now for one thing, the United States is a big place, it’s not one place. There are many of my friends in the United States that live in New England, in San Francisco, and they share very much of the kind of world that we have in Scandinavia in many ways. That you have these communities where people really look after each other, people take responsibilities, and so on.
But then the US is complex. And that’s one of the wonderful things about the United States, is that it has so much positive energy; that’s been my experience going there. It’s still that, in some ways, the land of opportunities and you have a lot of personal freedom.
But the cost, the price to pay for all of this freedom may be that you have less security. So there may be a trade-off here between security and freedom. And quite clearly, the United States at the moment is not very cohesive. You have different parts of society which are simply not talking to each other, who are shouting at each other, which is never a good sign.
We get this in Europe as well, okay? It’s not just the US. But things may have got a bit further, you’ve gone a bit further. Not least during the present presidency in the United States than in Europe, regarding polarization.
So I think... One advice regarding in the US... I’m going to answer your first question in a second, okay? One piece of advice would be try to scale things down in order to make people morally responsible and accountable. Because many of the big events or processes that affect people’s lives take place at a very high scale.
You have Amazon and Google and all of these sort of tech giants and big politics, which is far away, and why should they listen to me, and they’re not listening anyway, nobody asked me for my opinion. Much of the anger that you see in parts of the United States directed at the government these days is to do with a feeling that you’re not being heard, you’re not being listened to.
"It's civilizing to sit across the table and have a coffee together and try to sort out your differences. Whereas when you argue online, things get heated very quickly and they get overheated."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
And this may be a result of large scale, that things are getting remote. When it comes to acceleration, I think one short answer is that in the last 20 years... I mean, the internet and the social media has a lot to do with it, because communication is taking place too fast.
You never have the time for after-thought, you never have the time to think about nuances, to get to listen to the other guy’s point of view. It’s very... There’s a sort of... The world of Twitter, the world of Facebook is very fast and it gives little time for after-thought.
And it’s also unhealthy, I think, and that’s also speaking as an anthropologist, not to meet people face-to-face. It’s civilizing to sit across the table and have a coffee together and try to sort out your differences. Whereas when you argue online, things get heated very quickly and they get overheated.
And then it starts to explode. So that will be a part of the story about acceleration. But acceleration may take... It affects our everyday lives in every way, in so many ways.
Partly it’s to do with the production regime. We’re expected to produce more this year than last year, consume more efficiently, faster. Chuck away things and buy new stuff because that’s part of the economic growth model that we are committed to. So, that’s part of the story.
But also, if you think about technology. When I was a young man, we wrote letters. When I was on my first fieldwork in Mauritius, it could take a month before I got a response from home. I sent off a letter to Europe from Mauritius, it might take more than a week to reach them, and then another week before they answered, and then a third week. And then I had to go into the post office and pick up the letter. Whereas nowadays, it’s instantaneous, it’s fast.
Thomas: And there are some rewards about acceleration. I’ve just finished a book about the smart phone, which is coming out next year.
Jed: Oh, good.
Thomas: And there are many rewards because you carry the world in the palm of your hand in a way.
Jed: Yes, it’s amazing. [chuckle]
Thomas: But... It is, isn’t it? You want to check something, you go to Wikipedia or somewhere else, and you find the answer. You want to connect with your son who studies abroad, send him a message, he responds, and you’re connected. So that’s fantastic. But there are downsides, as we know all too well now, about this speed, as well.
Thomas: Because there are so many gaps that are being filled in our everyday lives. The slow time of doing nothing is threatened by this speed.
Jed: Yeah. Well, you don’t seem like such a slow person. Like in our interview today, you’ve been really go, go, going. And yet, you advocate for slowing things down, taking it down a notch. So, how do you manage that in your own life? Not every Norwegian that I’ve met is as high energy as you are.
Thomas: No. No.
Jed: So, do you surround yourself with the more typical Norwegians who are more little laid back and stuff? Or how do you keep yourself from getting a little bit too accelerated?
Thomas: Yeah, it’s a very good question. I wrote a book 20 years ago about speed and fast and slow time in connection with the information revolution called Tyranny of the Moment. And people were making endless jokes about, you know, “Why should this guy of all people write about slowness?” And that is something...
Jed: Well, you know about it.
Thomas: Yeah, I know what the problem is, because...
Jed: Yes, you’ve experienced it. [laughter]
Thomas: But you are absolutely right. I think we have to carve out niches and we have to do that very consciously on slowness. And in Norway, we have this culture of going into nature, which is very widespread.
Thomas: People go for mountain walks. They go skiing in winter. Many people have a cabin somewhere remote, some remote place in the woods or on the coast. And when you get to the cabin, you automatically slow down because then you...
Jed: Do you have that? Do you have that in your life too?
Thomas: Yes, yes, we do.
Jed: Okay. Good.
"But it's always a struggle because the outside world puts pressure on you to do things fast and it advocates speed. We have a culture which is addicted to speed."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas: So I find ways of slowing down. But it’s always a struggle because the outside world puts pressure on you to do things fast and it advocates speed. We have a culture which is addicted to speed.
Think about transport. Since the 19th century, we’ve been obsessed with doing things faster. When the first transatlantic telegraph was opened in 1869, and you could send a telegram from London to New York, and it took just a few minutes to reach New York; can you imagine that kind of revolution? Only a few decades earlier, they had to wait for weeks or maybe months to get news from Europe.
Jed: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Thomas: And suddenly, it was instantaneous. And at the time, The Times of London, they had an editorial where they said that, “This transatlantic telegraph is the greatest achievement of mankind since the great pyramids of Egypt.”
And I’ve been thinking that, blimey, maybe they were right.
Jed: Well, it’s certainly been the most influential thing that we’ve accomplished and all the things that have followed have influenced us, changed us, as a species.
Thomas: Yes, it has.
Jed: It’s crazy. Well, this is really fascinating. Just to sort of put into summary what you were just saying most recently about the United States. The two things are that we need to scale to more local, some of the things that happen.
Both sort of the tech giants and how we obtain our groceries and our things that we buy, and our politics, how we run the show here at home. And if both of those things could scale down to the local level more, we might be a more friendly united people, more of a sense of “we” and less disenfranchised. That’s what you were saying about that.
Thomas: I think that could be at least something that it would be feasible to discuss. Because if you compare to smaller countries, the level of trust is often much higher in smaller countries.
Jed: Trust of the government, mainly? Is that what you were thinking about?
Thomas: Yeah, well, yeah, yeah. Both, both. If you take countries like, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Scandinavia, and so on, with somewhere between five and 10 million inhabitants, because the social distances are quite short.
Thomas: So everybody knows someone, who knows someone, who knows the Prime Minister.
Jed: Exactly. [laughter]
Thomas: And so the Prime Minister is one of us, basically.
Thomas: They are ordinary people. They are not very rich, politicians in this part of the world, they’re not particularly rich. Which it is a healthier sign, ’cause it tells you that they’re...
Jed: Well, it’s definitely healthier.
Thomas: Yeah, probably not much corruption.
Jed: Yeah, and we may not be able to get to that because our size is large, but we could start to think about things more at the local level, like who are our mayors, our aldermen, our councilmen at the city level, at the state level, because so much of our focus in the news is always at the national level.
So, your advice to us is just to think a little bit more about what’s happening locally; focus our energy, our concerns at the local level rather than worrying about the national level quite as much, and letting that occupy our worries and our time. So, that was... You think that’s a pretty good summary? Okay.
Thomas: Yes, I think that’s a good summary. And back when I was a teenager in the environmental group that I took part in, we always used to say, “Act locally and think globally.” In other words...
Jed: Yeah, that is exactly what it is.
Thomas: Yeah, you have to make connections, you don’t want to be isolated from the world. You should know about the world. And you should read a bit of anthropology [chuckle] about people in other places. But you should...
I think one major problem, and you see it and you could call it a problem of legitimacy, problem of justification for governments, is the feeling that people are not being taken seriously and not being listened to, and you get the feeling, even in a democratic country, that you don’t really have much of an influence over your own life, that there are other forces that you can’t do much about.
So let’s try to concentrate on and strengthen those aspects of our surroundings that we can do something about. I mean, when it comes to climate change, probably we’ll never be able to stop, you know, the melting of the glaciers in Greenland, okay? It’s not going to happen. I can’t do that because it’s too big, but maybe I can save this little clump of trees just outside my house.
Thomas: Or this little river that runs through my city, that we could clean that up. So we can scale things down to make them more manageable and to feel that we actually have an impact, that we have agency and influence.
Jed: So scaling it down, that was the first piece, and then the other piece, when we were talking about acceleration, was just on a personal level, getting your life so it’s not so filled with everything, the tyranny of the moment and all of that that you were talking about.
And even though you sort of spoke about these two things separately, acceleration on one hand and how Norwegians and Scandinavians, in general, go out into nature, wouldn’t you say that that second thing is kind of an antidote to the first thing? Like if you do spend a little...
Thomas: It is.
Jed: Okay, so that would be sort of the second piece of what you said is that...
Thomas: Yes, I would say, yes, slowing down would be a good thing for everyone.
"…no new ideas would have come into the world if people never got bored. So boredom as a recipe for creativity."” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas: Because it’s necessary in order to get to know yourself. It’s probably necessary for creativity, as well.
Possibly, I mean, no new ideas would have come into the world if people never got bored. So boredom as a recipe for creativity. Because you have to do something and, “What am I going to do?” But when your life is filled with media consumption and events and things that you need to do immediately, you never get to the point where you can think up something new.
"…it is where nothing in particular happens that anything could happen, right?"” – Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen
And I think the reason is that when something is happening all the time, nothing is happening really, because your hard drive is full. And this is because it is where nothing in particular happens that anything could happen, right?
Thomas: So we need to guard those moments and those times where nothing in particular happens.
Jed: That’s very wise.
Thomas: Going for walks, that sort of thing.
Thomas: The philosopher Nietzsche said that he didn’t trust any ideas that had been built or developed by people who were not walking [laughter] while they did because he thought that walking was necessary for thinking. I mean, that’s taking it a bit far, it’s extreme, but I can see his point.
Jed: No, it’s probably true. Well, as we end our interview, let’s just comment a little bit on how COVID affected you and your fellow Norwegians in this aspect of slowing down, and how are you doing now? What I’ve heard for people who’ve gone to Denmark is that it’s all back to normal, essentially.
Jed: So tell us a little bit about how you think this may have affected your country, and maybe how it’s affected the United States from what you hear from your friends, and if this is maybe a chance, an opportunity to reset and slow down.
Thomas: Absolutely. I think we could take that opportunity because in a way this pandemic period is what we in anthropology, we would call a liminal stage.
It’s liminal. In the sense that it’s between two sort of situations. Suddenly, very abruptly in mid-march, the world slowed down, it closed down, borders were closed, and we entered into a kind of state of exemption, and that happened here as well.
The prime minister, ashen-faced, went on TV and said that, “I’m not enjoying this at all, but we’re going to now impose the most severe restrictions on your freedom and your mobility since the Second World War.” And then they went on to list everything that you needed to do.
So, and things are not quite back to normal here. We still have digital lecturing, for example, online teaching at the university and so on. But to great extent than in many other places. But we’re all affected, and it reminds us of the fact that the world is an inter-connected place and we’re all somehow in the same boat.
And it says something about globalization. Just think about it. There’s seven and a half billion of us and virtually everyone has been affected in one way or another by the COVID-19, which is a massive, global, it’s a massive global event. It’s an event of world historical significance.
But I think, as you suggested, that we could take this opportunity to rethink a few of our priorities. Maybe going more for walks in your own neighborhood...
Jed: Yes, that’s right.
Thomas: As I have done, because suddenly I couldn’t travel. So I had to cancel all my fights and things, you know, like everybody else. And I have started to go for walks, in my neighborhood. I got acquainted with it in a way that I didn’t before. And I know that in some parts of the world sour-dough baking, knitting, jigsaw puzzles, that sort of thing, board games...
Jed: Oh yes, big time, big time!
Thomas: Have caught on, yeah. And these are slow activities, which bring people together. I was just waving goodbye to my wife who’s leaving the house. [chuckle] Small world.
25:02 Jed: It’s a very small world.
Thomas: So I believe that would enhance it, it would improve the quality of life...
Thomas: To slow down a bit and to relish that which is concrete, it’s physical, it’s near, and yeah, and it connects you to other people and to your immediate surroundings.
Because we’ve lost some of that in this frantic, globalized, hyper-modern world. I mean it can be great sometimes, but we need a break and we need to balance the slow and the fast. And up until now, the fast has always got the upper hand, everything else follows.
Jed: Always does. Well, thank you, Professor Thomas Erickson, for this wonderful interview. So helpful, so encouraging, so uplifting and energetic, and we really appreciate all of your enthusiasm. So thank you for taking time with us today.
Thomas: Thanks so much for the invitation, Jed. It’s been a pleasure talking to you too.
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