The right time for a renaissance man?

Image of Gillian Tett

When Dr Jim Yong Kim, the likely next head of the World Bank, was a teenager, his father urged him to study a subject at university that would guarantee a “proper” job. That’s no surprise: as the child of Korean immigrants, who had come to the US when he was five, Kim was expected to become a professional, not waste time studying intangible topics such as liberal arts.

So Kim duly went to Harvard and in 1991 he qualified as a medical doctor, enmeshed in the all-too-practical world of hard science. But then he swerved: in 1993 Kim completed a PhD in anthropology from Harvard, the academic field that studies all-too-intangible “culture”. This was based on fieldwork in South Korea, where Kim analysed the cultural framework of the pharmaceutical industry.

It is an unusual pedigree, and one that is worth remembering as the fight to run the World Bank heats up. Ever since the US government proposed Kim as its candidate, his background has attracted a lot of comment. Never mind the fact he is Asian-American (a useful combination that could placate US observers and win emerging world support); Kim also has management experience – he is currently president of Dartmouth College and the former head of a large World Health Organisation department – and development expertise to boot. Better still, he has an endearingly human touch. Last year, he stunned Dartmouth students by performing a rap routine on stage, wearing a studded white leather jacket.

But there is another less-noticed feature about Kim that is equally striking: his life shows the power of breaking down the type of intellectual silos that mar so much of the modern world. For ever since Kim got his PhD in anthropology, he has tried to blend the seemingly opposed worlds of science and social science. His path-breaking development work, for example, examined tuberculosis and Aids, both through the prism of germs and biology, but also the cultural and economic interactions of the poor. Technically, this type of research is called “medical anthropology”. But it might equally be dubbed “holistic” analysis, or “renaissance thought”, reminiscent of the renaissance-era intellectuals who dabbled in multiple fields.

I have to admit that my own interest in this detail of Kim’s CV is biased: I also happen to have a PhD in social anthropology and have spent my life jumping between intellectual fields. But precisely because of this, I am keenly aware of why such silo-hopping is unusual – and why medical anthropology has so much symbolic importance.

These days, if you look at the average university campus, government bureaucracy or company, what you typically see is a deeply tribal pattern. Scientists, for the most part, spend their lives embedded in hard numbers; social scientists live in a less tangible and separate intellectual world. And when the two spheres collide, there is often mutual incomprehension. To physicians, anthropologists can often seem irritatingly hippy and ill-disciplined; to social scientists, western physicians often seem culturally arrogant and divorced from the totality of the human experience. And, sadly, as university funding declines, it creates a temptation for tribalism to rise. In a world of constrained resources, students and academics do not have the luxury of spending years hopping between different departments. There is pressure to specialise – to get jobs.

But, as Jonah Lehrer writes in a brilliant recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, in the 21st-century world “the biggest problems we need to solve now require the expertise of people from different backgrounds who bridge the gaps between disciplines.” When, for example, doctors start to treat humans in a holistic way, medicine tends to be more effective, and when the social sciences incorporate “real” science (or maths), the analysis typically becomes more hard-edged and useful. Indeed, Kim’s own discipline demonstrates this well: if you look across the world of social sciences today, the field of medical anthropology has become one of the most vibrant sub-disciplines (even though it is largely unknown in the wider world). When the American Anthropological Association held its latest annual meeting in Montreal last year, for example, there were dozens of sessions discussing every aspect of global health – and bridging the yawning gap between science and social science.

It remains to be seen whether this background will actually enable Kim to clinch the World Bank job (he faces opposition from some observers, not least because he never trained as an economist). It is even less clear how his past would affect how he might run the World Bank.

But if nothing else, his sudden fame should spark a cheer from anyone who wants to celebrate 21st-century renaissance men and women in public life.

A world marred by silos needs all the silo-busters it can find. Even – or especially – if these occasionally come wrapped in a white leather jacket.

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