Consider an example from the insurance world. Back in the 1930s, executives at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in Connecticut realized that warehouses which contained oil drums kept blowing up. Nobody knew why. The company asked a fire-prevention engineer named Benjamin Whorf to investigate. Although Whorf was a trained chemical engineer, he had also done research in anthropology and linguistics at Yale, with a focus on the Hopi Native American communities. So, he approached the problem with an anthropologist’s mindset: he observed warehouse workers, noting what they did and said, crying to absorb everything without prior judgment. He was particularly interested in the cultural assumptions embedded in language, since he knew these could vary. Consider seasons. In English, “season” is a noun, defined by the astronomical calendar (“summer starts on June 20,” people say). In the Hopi language and worldview “summer” is an adverb defined by heat, not the calendar (it feels “summer(y)”). Neither is better or worse; but they are different. People cannot appreciate this distinction unless they compare. Or as Whorf observed: “We always assume that the linguistic analysis made by our group reflects reality better than it does.”
This perspective solved the oil drum mystery. Whorf noticed that the workers were careful when handling oil drum marked as “full.” However, workers happily smoked in rooms that stored drums “empty.” The reason? The word “empty” in English is associated with “nothing”; it seems boring, dull, and easy to ignore. However, “empty” oil drums are actually full of flammable fumes. So, Whorf told the warehouse managers to explain the dangers of “empty” to workers and explosions stopped. Science alone could not solve the mystery. But cultural analysis-with science-could. The same principle (namely using antho-vision to see what we ignore) is equally valuable when mysterious problems erupt in modern bank trading floors, corporate mergers, or pandemics, say.
That is because, “the least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable,” as the nineteenth-century French physician and anthropologist Paul Broca reputedly said. It is a dangerous mistake to ignore the ideas we take for granted, be that about language, space, people…