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Dark night of the ethnographer’s soul

He lived for months with Cambridge rowers and last year spent six weeks working with surgeons at Camp Bastion, but Dr Mark de Rond is neither an athlete nor a medic. So why embed himself in such extreme environments, what has his research revealed about how teams behave under immense pressure, and how have these experiences affected de Rond himself?

Dr Mark de RondDuring his first seven days in Afghanistan in June 2011 Dr Mark de Rond, Reader in Strategy and Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School saw 174 casualties brought into Camp Bastion’s 50-bed hospital. Six were already dead. On the living, surgeons operated for 134 hours and performed 23 amputations.

Of the many hundreds of British casualties that have been through Bastion’s hospital, several repeated the experience. One such casualty, Jay, had been blown up twice in two years. “He has a foot and part of an arm torn off, his nose is gone, his upper lip gone too. He stood on a mine and his weapon took his face off, but he’s full of morphine so still talking,” de Rond explains.

‘What the fuck am I doing this for?’ Jay says. ‘It’s the second time I’ve been blown up. Two years ago it was a suicide bomber. The way I feel about my face right now I may as well stick it up my arse’.”

Confronting an audience with such harrowing footage, as de Rond did earlier this year during a Darwin Lecture in Cambridge, predictably provoked strong reactions.

“Two people were taken to hospital, having fainted. Others walked out. It’d have been disturbing if they hadn’t,” de Rond explains, “but I felt it was important to force people to see some of the images – reality is far bloodier than any of the photos illustrated. We see so much of this on television that we risk forgetting that people are losing their lives even as we speak.”

Among the lives he saw lost in Afghanistan were local families as well as soldiers and insurgents. “One morning a father came in with three children at about 8 o’clock and by 9 o’clock all three were dead. He completes some paper work and buggers off. It’s terribly sad. What did we ever do to stop the war?” he asks.

What, then, impelled an academic from a business school to study surgeons in a war zone? The answer lies partly in the ethnographic methods de Rond uses, and partly in his belief that certain behaviour is most easily observable in extremis.

Ethnography is the written account of fieldwork. It’s a way of doing research and closely tied to social anthropology. I do fieldwork the old fashioned way, and try to understand teams by living with them under similar conditions,” de Rond explains. “My working hypothesis is that extreme environments really allow the best and worst of social coordination to come to the fore.”

It’s an idea he’s tested before when, during 2006 and 2007, he traded his comfortable office at Cambridge Judge Business School to live with the elite oarsmen of Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) during their punishing preparation for the university boat race against Oxford.

I spent two years with them – one year full-time and one year part-time,” he explains. “The rowers operate in a setting that’s hyper-competitive. There are 40 of them competing for eight places and the only way they can compete effectively is by collaborating in making a boat move fast, so psychologically it’s a very difficult place to be.”

It was the book he wrote about his experiences with CUBC – The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew – that set de Rond on the road to Camp Bastion. “The book was read by one of the military and he became very interested in it,” he says. “I was very keen to get involved, to try and find a team that had to operate under very difficult conditions and I though a field hospital might be a perfect place to do this.”

During the 18 months’ negotiation that preceded his trip to Afghanistan, de Rond was invited to do some teaching about high-performance teams on the preparatory courses run by the Royal College of Surgeons and then, once he’d secured permission to go, he spent six weeks with the surgeons in pre-deployment training before departing for a six-week stint in Camp Bastion.

The rowers drink only occasionally when training. With the surgeons it’s very important. You have to drink with them and allow yourself to let your hair down for them to trust you,” says de Rond. “That allowed me to get to know people better, spend time with them. It is also here that the most interesting stories are smoked out.”

Pre-deployment training also gave him his first opportunity to work on cadavers – “That was new for me. To know what it’d be like to be with a corpse, I wasn’t sure how I’d react, but it was better, easier, than I’d thought” – and to prepare psychologically.

“I was so worried about not being able to cope emotionally in the field that I began a long time before being deployed to put up some emotional barricades. It was so successful that I didn’t dream for a good six weeks after I came back. My dreams can be incredibly emotional now,” he admits.

In Camp Bastion I actively tried not to become emotional, and felt guilty about that – not reciprocating emotionally all the suffering I saw right in front of my eyes. I felt guilty about not feeling more emotional.”

As well as detailed field notes of observations and conversations, de Rond also keeps a set of “head notes”, including his thoughts and dreams. Reflecting on his dreams, he believes, helps keep his data clean by flagging up occasions where he may be at risk of attributing to others emotions that are, in fact, his own. “I try to account for everything, full disclosure, I’m very open and candid about my insecurities and my dreams,” he says.

Asked about his rowing-related dreams, “Gosh,” he replies, “Many were quite sexual … In the rowing study I very much wanted to be like the rowers – big guys in the prime of their lives, sexually predatory, very strong. With the military, I never wanted to be like the soldiers although I respect them a great deal. So my dream world with the rowers was extremely active, it really put a finger on all my insecurities, all my hang-ups, and I’ve still not outgrown that, I still feel far worse having done the research than I did beforehand about myself.”

As he did in The Last Amateurs, de Rond hopes to write a book based on Camp Bastion, although he’s not yet sure what shape it will take. “There are many books on war by journalists and soldiers. However, there are relatively few written by military medics, MASH would be an example, and Catch-22, so I’d like to do something like that if only to explain how surreal their world really is,” he says.

As well forming material for a book, de Rond’s research informs his teaching, from undergraduate level to executive education. “You give people extreme stories that you know intimately and get people to react,” he explains, “and it’s proved far more effective than I could ever have imagined, partly because of the exotic nature of the stories and partly because these worlds are so black and white.”

But although the raw material might be useful for teaching, the books themselves have less academic currency compared with journal papers – one of the many tensions that seem to come with the territory of ethnography.

As a research method, it’s uncommon in business schools, de Rond says: “The problem is the publish or perish culture we have now doesn’t lend itself to ethnography – it’s too time consuming and the typical way of disseminating research is through books, which isn’t appreciated – it’s all about journal articles. I have an article on the rowers that’s just been accepted in one of the top journals in the field, but I’m afraid it’s reduced my ethnography to tables!”

The prospect of eviscerating his research from Afghanistan troubles him: “You become very impatient with triviality after the Camp Bastion experience … Many of the surgeons joke about being put on committees after deployment, if only to speed up decision making.”

Frustrated with academic publishing – and believing photographs might be a more effective means of telling his story – de Rond will spend part of his up-coming sabbatical on an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication.

“I’ve started to understand in a very small way the power of images,” he says, which is how he chose to communicate at least some of his experiences of Afghanistan with his colleagues at the School: “I think I may have annoyed my colleagues because I became so obsessed with the fact that we make too little difference to the world with the research we do.”

He will, however, return to Cambridge Judge Business School, not least because of the students he teaches. “I love the teaching. Students can be very direct, very bright – they’re lovely,” he says. “But when I come back I’d like to use my academic rigour in a way that’s a bit more public-facing.”

He tried, too, to return to Camp Bastion to work with the helicopter pilots who ferried the dead and wounded. Not surprisingly, it was deemed too high risk. And when he flew home from Afghanistan, he took little with him save over 1000 photographs.

When I was done I left almost all my clothes behind, except the clothes I was travelling in, because I felt they were all tainted. I wanted to try and shed all that stuff. Maybe it’s an over-reaction, but how do you cope with all this stuff?”