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Rites of Transition [May. 4th, 2005|05:28 pm]
We had a little reception this afternoon to thank our outgoing division director (my boss, who is going back to being just a scientist), welcome the new lab and division directors (both women, go us with the gender equity thing), and announce that our very senior guy is going to be heading up a new center within the lab.

The interesting thing about it (aside from the free food, which is always interesting) was that as I was standing there listening to people say their various bits, I realized that it was actually a ritual about transferring power. This is an important ceremony, wherein the old chief hands off power to the new chief, and we all recognize it and are reassured that everything is going well and that, despite change, everything will be just fine. The content of this gathering was no different than an aged king passing the crown to his heir, or a tribal chieftain handing off the spirit staff to his successor.

Just the trappings are different -- in our culture, it's important that there be wine and beer available, and that there be cheese and crackers and other nibbly things to be eaten off small plates but no place to sit, and that everyone say some nice things about the transition (because it's important to be able to hear how sincerely they say them), and there probably has to be a cake with "Congratulations, So-and-So" (in this case, the name of our lab) written on it in frosting.

It was just kinda neat to suddenly see it through anthropology glasses (it's all kung_fu_monkey's fault), and to feel a kinship with all those ancient peoples who did the same thing thousands of years ago around a campfire. To say, "oh, yes, this is just how we do it here and now -- but really, it's all the same."

[User Picture]From: kung_fu_monkey
2005-05-04 05:43 pm (UTC)

Isn't it cool to see things that way? The symbolic artifacts used, the rituals and rites, the hierarchy of power... it's really everywhere and we just get caught up in the here and now to appreciate this perspective.

I knew you'd finally accept some aspects of the anthropology discipline, even if accidentaly.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2005-05-04 07:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
My favorite examples of this are actually primatological rather than anthropological. For example, I remember first coming to the realization that expressions like "fuck you!" are precisely what you would expect when you graft verbal skills onto a monkey wired to use genital display as a dominance move... it gave me a real feeling of connection to the primate class.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2005-05-04 10:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, why is there never any place to sit? We must stand in the presence of power?

We had a thing for someone leaving today. No one wanted to be there, the snacks were dreadful, and no one was taking over. In fact our department (which I've only been in for two weeks) was having an "oh shit" moment when we realized we have lost 2/3 of our workforce due to one advisor leaving, and another getting married.

You mentioned you've read "To Say Nothing of the Dog," but have you read "Bellwether"? It has some interesting (and very hilarious) observations of corporate structure.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-05-04 11:09 pm (UTC)
I haven't read it yet, but it's got enough recommends that it's on my list!
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2005-05-05 07:40 am (UTC)
You have foreshadowed a post I was going to write. Does that mean I should post quickly to keep the momentum, or wait a day so I seem more creative and unique?

Ah, the decisions LJ forces upon us. . .
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[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2005-05-05 08:02 am (UTC)
The scarred and cynical among us will point out that the ritual can be wholly divorced from the reality of the situation. I remember far too many reassuring introductions of new management that turned sour mere days after the accession. Still, the ritual fills an important purpose of making things seem more stable than they probably are and preventing panic and anxiety. Whether or not the anxiety is ultimately warranted, it's good to let it develop slowly, not be shocked into it.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2005-05-05 08:56 am (UTC)
True. One of the things that struck me, though, was that in this particular case, it was pretty easy to gauge the sincerity of the participants, and it was high. I think that people are often better at reading emotional subtext than we give ourselves credit for, and if the ritual is a big lie, there will still be this sense of unease in the pit of your stomach afterwards. (Unless the principals are really good liars - which is, sadly, probably not uncommon in the corporate world...)

But maybe it only works well in contexts like NCAR, where people are not, in general, political and devious.
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