Hierarchies are everywhere. Government, corporations, and academia all rely on structures that enable managers to allocate duties and evaluate employee performance. Employees know their responsibilities and the compensation they can expect based on the work they do.

In writing this blog post, I am thinking about my experience and those of my practicing anthropology colleagues whose careers began at or transitioned into immense hierarchies. As a novice in the U.S. Department of State, a federal bureau, I had to generate my own unspoken “rules” to survive the challenges within this overwhelming behemoth. Fortunately, earlier in my life, I had begun forming similar “rules” in a different, but equally intimidating environment. Then, I was undertaking field research on the yearly festival cycle among the Mayan population of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico. Things improved for me in my new job as I gradually began adapting these previous “rules” to my new position.

Rule number one: Know your leaders and the hierarchy.

It is important to know not just who your boss is, but your boss’s boss and bosses up and down the line. While in the field, I had to make the acquaintance of the community’s headmen and skirt rivalries among them in order to interview field assistants and gain acceptance with different festival leaders.

Discretely discover the traditional rivalries among major departments, current directors, and other managers. Then choose your allies accordingly. This knowledge may help you avoid unnecessary antagonisms and recruit supporters for a project.

Rule number two: Always be polite and friendly to all administrative staff.

Why? Because good admins manage the office and know their bosses. If I need to say more here, then you probably shouldn’t be working in a hierarchy.

In the field, friendship with spouses, children, and extended family, who were akin to admins, enabled me to gain a sense of interrelationships that enabled interviews and helped me discover previously unknown details about the festival system.

Rule number three (or perhaps a corollary to rule number two): Make friends in diverse offices and create a network of favors.

Reciprocity is essential in Chamula. I shared fruit, helped shape tortillas by hand, and played with children, thus increasing my rapport throughout the village and easing my entry into festival settings. These situations were not clandestine, but did involve the uncertainty of being accepted by a group of celebrants in their home compound.

As in the field, promote friendship by observing your social environment. Creating a network of favors in a big organization can be as simple as replenishing dwindling office supplies, running mutually useful errands, contributing writing for social media, or offering to take meeting notes.

Rule number four: Understand the betwixt-and-between or liminality in your organization (courtesy of Victor Turner and Mary Douglas).

In the field, we outsider anthropologists are liminal characters. We must maintain vigilance over the ways we affect our field community, which can lead to the perception of creating a negative impact. We also learn that observing liminality in the field can point to areas of social dysfunction and political instability.

Imperfect humans create hierarchies. These structures, therefore, will manifest their own liminality through ambiguities and imperfections in the seemingly rigid order. You will need to analyze your organization to discover how expectations contradict one another and the ways employees navigate at the edge of or outside the seemingly inflexible boundaries to achieve their ends.

I was a fairly compliant worker bee, but when red tape seemed to block the way, I created a personal kind of liminality by learning to say “I’m sorry” after achieving my purpose instead of asking for permission. Interestingly, I don’t remember ever having to say “I’m sorry.” (Do this if you wish, but please do not quote me.) As you become more familiar with the system, you will learn when you have to accept mandates and when you can use liminality safely and creatively to move your project forward.

A different kind of liminal status for anthropologists in a large hierarchy occurs when working on contract. Contractors have their own employers and answer to an office outside the established structure. In the Federal Government, contractors will not receive formal awards or bonuses for their contributions. Contractors may cause friction among staff that doesn’t welcome them, and may not ascertain a clear sense of their assignment. Sometimes federal contractors may be de facto leaders within a project, but will not receive acknowledgement from the organization. When contracting goes well, it can be a great source of satisfaction and a way to gain experience in pursuit of permanent employment.

Rule number five: Be confident of your intellect.

I wish someone had told me that I knew more than I realized when I started my federal job. The skills I developed in the field were an unrealized asset for me. Whether at work or in the field, I recommend proceeding with curiosity and courage; check, check, checking your facts, and using your brains so that you never take anything for granted.

I could continue with more “rules,” but will end now. I hope that the few words here will encourage you, as practicing anthropologists, to think about a working in a hierarchy as a field experience and motivate you to develop your own “rules.”

About the Author: Priscilla Rachun Linn

Priscilla Rachun Linn
Priscilla Rachun Linn wrote her DPhil. thesis from Oxford on the festival cycle in the Mayan community of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico. Her desire to share anthropology with a wider audience led her to becoming a museum professional for 40 years. In 1997 she was hired as the first curator for a diplomacy museum at the U.S. Department of State, where she worked for the last seventeen years of her career. Today the National Museum of American Diplomacy (diplomacy.state.gov) features a dynamic web presence and highly successful education program. The State Department anticipates its opening to the public within the next two years. In her retirement, Priscilla has been a volunteer for the Margaret McNamara Education Fund (mmeg.org), which provides higher education grants to women from lower income countries, and “curating” blogs for the Anthropology Career Readiness Network. Member: WAPA, AAM,