The unbound discipline

Exploring the world of anthropology through the eyes of Graham Candy

Speaking with Graham Candy about anthropology makes you want to drop everything and go back to school to become an anthropologist. Not only is his passion for the discipline evident in every word he says, but his choice of words are, frankly, poetic.

“Anthropology is not bound like all the other disciplines,” he says. “You do not have to stick in the past, or only in literature… You can do everything. I think that the best anthropology works are historical and contemporary at the same time. Anthropologists read books, they interview people, they do what they have to do to create a complete story. And that makes sense. You can’t create a complete story by only looking at one aspect about a situation.” Such a beautiful portrait of the world of anthropology makes it easy to understand why Graham has chosen to dedicate his life to it.

“I’ve always wanted to be an academic—since about the first year of university,” says Graham, whose path in academia has taken him around the world and provided many life experiences. Happily, it is not a path he has taken alone. Graham was fortunate to find a partner in his love for anthropology, as well as in life: his wife. Their studies, both beginning at the undergraduate level in the department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, have since taken them to China, South Africa, England, Ghana, and Montreal before depositing them back at U of T as candidates for their PhDs. These years of traveling gave Graham the opportunity to study many different cultures and meet many amazing individuals, chief among them his master’s supervisor, Dr. Bart Simon, who ran a multi-disciplinary video game lab at Concordia University. It was in this lab, surrounded by computer scientists, game designers, artists, and other social scientists such as himself that Graham truly engaged with the world of anthropological study, completing his master’s thesis on the relationship between video games and society.

More specifically, his thesis explored the relationship between varying internet speeds on online gaming sites, and the kinds of social networks gamers would form as a result of them. He determined that in order to avoid lag times, gamers were clustering around the fastest servers in their region, creating active social groups that were highly geographically focused, shattering the myth that internet gamers are playing with anyone anywhere in the world.

“So, it was about how milliseconds shape who you know and who you’re friends with and the direction your life takes on the internet,” he says. Graham avidly enjoyed researching and writing his master’s thesis, but at the time did not have a clue what his future in this discipline had in store. “I had no idea that marketing research existed. Even five years ago, I don’t think I had any idea that cultural anthropology could have had this kind of impact.” Despite this, he and his cohorts believed in their work. “We just knew that we could be consultants. We had no idea with whom, but we knew that there was value in what we were doing.” He could not have been more right.

Graham’s first experience in marketing came during years spent in London working in the online advertising department of the London Telegraph, where he learned the power of the internet in transforming advertising, and the ability of advertisers to tailor their ads directly to the needs and desires of their audience; he’s now a vital part of that process, providing valuable insights into consumer behaviour. As far as he is concerned, there are no insignificant subjects, and few irrelevant factors. “When talking about people, you can forget that culture exists in deodorant,” he notes, before launching into a fascinating discussion about the cultural significance of scent. “Our challenge is that we are talking to very smart people who have no background in social sciences. When you mention culture, people tend to start thinking about trends, things like Gangnam Style or some new dance thing that is sweeping the internet. And it’s true, those things are a part of culture, but they are a reflection of something else that is going on, something deeper. Our challenge is to say Gangnam Style is symbolic of something else.”

As Graham will share with us in his Talk, it then becomes a question of how that “something else” becomes an actionable strategy. While the answer to that question will be different in every case, Graham has a pretty clear idea of what the answer is not. “The human emotional experience does not change, but culture is constantly changing,” he says. “That is why you can read books read hundreds of years ago and understand exactly what they’re talking about. So, if you want to grab someone’s attention, you have to use culture. Emotional narrative is not new, it is not unique, but culture is.” That’s why Graham believes there are deeper meanings to be found in trends, and that there is value to studying things like video games: all are a reflection of our ever-changing culture. The insights gained can be transformed into strategy. “When you study one group really intensely, you’re going to find out what is going on in society, because they are reflecting that. And when you study a very new social group, you start to get hints at what is coming next.”

Written by Aliah El-houni, Peeps
Photography by Nation Wong, Peeps

Graham Candy is a PhD researcher in cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto. Read his cover story on China in the inaugural issue of Peeps Magazine, or preview it here: http://peepsforum.com/winning-losing-modern-china/.

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TAGS /Anthropology / Graham Candy / Peeps Talk /