Ep. #41: Mediocrity, Confusing Cake, Public Accountability & Gift Reciprocity: This month on TFS

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Simon (0:48) kicks off this panel by asking us about mediocrity. He reflects on his fieldwork in Iran, where he observed – particularly in the education sphere 9329003017_4003dfb2c1_o– that there was a very small difference between being ‘perfect’ and being a ‘failure’. “In Australia we…have this kind of uncomfortable-ness, I think, with excellence and the idea that people who are very good should blow their own trumpets…but in a lot of other societies, there is this real idea that excellence is something that should be shown, demonstrated.” Given the neoliberal culture of competitiveness, Simon asks: do you think it’s okay to be just ‘good enough’? Should we embrace mediocrity or strive for pure perfection?

Next Jodie (6:13) – who has just come back from a wedding in Germany – shifts our conversation towards shared cultural understandings. Or rather, what happens when your expectation of having “coffee and cake” is very different from those around you. She mentions John Law’s concept of the Hinterland, which is (to drastically summarise) about the world being interpreted in different ways by different cultural groups. Thus Jodie’s understanding of “coffee and cake” was drawn from a different cultural ‘Hinterland’ than her German friend’s was, even though the words “coffee and cake” were the same. Simon, laughing, says that’s his everyday experience. Julia suggests that it’s more about expectations that don’t become explicit until something goes wrong and we need to reflect on it. Kylie reminds us that this is all a learning experience, albeit uncomfortable, and it’s about making the strange…familiar.

Julia (11:14) dives straight into her question: “Where does your expertise end when you become publicly accountable?” She recently attended a masterclass about researcher involvement in public policy making, where it was emphasised that researchers should aspire to conform themselves to a certain ideal of ‘expert’ – such as not speaking beyond the boundaries of their field and remaining humble – yet this doesn’t always play out in action. Given this, she adds: How can we effectively use our own expertise in the best way to impact change? Kylie shares her experience of feeling too platformed as an ‘expert’ in a field where she was only ‘mediocre’, while Jodie says it should be more about the skills and broad knowledge that we, as experts, can bring to the table.

Finally, Kylie (16:08) digs a bit deeper into the concepts of giving, receiving, reciprocity and relationships. This has been on her mind with the launch of TFS’ new Patreon account (Yay!). Kylie wonders whether a relationship can 8334245127_30a73c2715_kexist before acts of reciprocity are introduced or are they established only through this giving and receiving? Julia says, “It really puts strangers to the test, in terms of how much they will oblige one’s request [of giving]” but that “it always requires some kind of reciprocal exchange [for the relationship] to continue.” Jodie shares that when it comes to savvy savings during shopping sprees, she feels more comfortable asking for a discount from a stranger whom she struck up a conversation with than a close friend. Simon suggests “If Mauss is right – giving is a relationship, [where] you enter into a relationship by giving something … I think if you give a gift to someone, you are entering into a relationship with that person … a relationship of obligations… Is there such a thing as a ‘free gift’?”


For an explanation on the Aussie term ‘tall poppy syndrome’ see:

Jodie mentioned John Law’s ‘Hinterland’ – you can find his book ‘After Method: Mess in Social Science Research‘ (2004) where he discusses it, here:

Jarrett Zigon’s paper ‘Moral breakdown and the ethical demand: A theoretical framework for an anthropology of moralities’ (2007) can be read here:

For a brief overview on Marcel Mauss’ ‘The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies’ (1966), check out: http://anthroposts.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-gift-summary-marcel-mauss.html

And you can find the book here: https://www.routledge.com/The-Gift-The-Form-and-Reason-for-Exchange-in-Archaic-Societies-2nd-Edition/Mauss-Halls/p/book/9780415267496

Also, don’t forget to check out our Patreon page! 🙂


This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Shownotes by Deanna Catto and Matthew Phung

[Feature Image by Tony Rammaricati sourced from Flickr:

[‘Beware the lollipop of mediocrity…’ by Lauren Friedman sourced from Flickr:

[‘Gift’ by Andrey sourced from Flickr:

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