EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet
Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012
On the borders of corporations
Date and Start Time 12 Jul, 2012 at 11:30
Powerful and opaque corporate boundaries now constitute many aspects of everyday life, identity, biography, and the material world. We interrogate the anthropological encounter with these patrolled but slippery boundaries, and their implications for anthropological knowledge.
In market economies the idea of the corporation constitutes one of the primary manifestations of certainty in contemporary life. At the same time they are one of the most opaque, evasive and resistant objects for anthropologists to study. Considered in terms of brands, products, designs, finances, or expertise, the boundaries of corporations appear as fixed, enduring and stable, whose distributed productions are actively monitored. Anthropologists working from within by contrast are aware that the 'web of relations' (Cassells 1993: 28) spun by corporations are frequently ambiguous and have material manifestations that create unintended hybrids. Anthropologists often need to negotiate the compartmentalisation of knowledge, experiences, skills and intellectual property on entering or exiting their thresholds.
We propose to explore how and where opaque corporate boundaries are constituted. We invite contributions that are either ethnographic accounts by anthropologists who engage with companies, or those who are interested in following merchandise that either fixes or destabilises the corporate boundary. Possible topics include:
• Organisational boundaries as a resource or hindrance for anthropological analysis and interpretation.
• The implications of entering and exiting corporations.
• Notions of keeping, bringing, and giving while traversing boundaries.
• The materialisation of corporate boundaries in objects, and the role of merchandise in creating new categories, hybrid social forms or practices.
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.
Oil men vs oiled men: sharing space and (re)defining boundaries on the Louisiana Gulf coast
The US Gulf Coast is a space shared between the oil and fishing industries. Exploring ethnographic research conducted in southern Louisiana can give insight into how the boundaries between corporations and communities alter, develop and remain the same after a major man-made ecological disaster.
Plaquemines Parish on the Louisiana Gulf Coast presents a fascinating context when exploring the negotiation and development of corporate, social and physical boundaries. Surrounded on three sides by levees which are crucial in preventing regular flooding, residents constantly maintain geographic boundaries in their relationship with the natural world. This physical and symbolic boundary was breached in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina decimated the parish, causing massive destruction to every man-made structure in the community. As the region began to recover it was dealt a second blow in 2010, as the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill polluted the waters and marshes surrounding the parish. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are a shared space, utilised by both the fishing and oil industries. These two industries dominate the economic landscape of the parish with the majority of the population relying on them for their livelihoods. The boundaries between these international corporations and self-employed fishermen therefore have always been malleable, and at times confrontational, and the oil spill has exacerbated this on-going relationship. Additionally to this, within the community and often within each person, the mixed boundaries of loyalty, necessity, despair and resignation with relation to the oil industry must be constantly negotiated and developed. This is also true of this geographically shared space which now sees an uncertain mixture of renewal, development and decay. This space sits at the boundaries of land and sea, dependence on oil men and autonomy in fishing boats, hope and despair, on the borders of corporations and community.
Marketing practice and product development: materializing commercial relationships and know-how
Making a ‘new’ product concept requires the reconfiguration of corporate ‘boundaries’. This paper examines how the development of seemingly stable and mundane technologies, such as oral care products, are destabilized and remade anew by the performance of organizational politics, relationships, and know-how.
Making a product concept requires the destabilization and reconfiguration of corporate 'boundaries'. Drawing upon participant observation of a marketing workshop at a multinational producer of everyday consumables, this paper examines the process of developing a 'new' product concept for the product category 'oral care'. Developing a product concept is a matter of cultural calculation whereby the relationships between products, practices, and actors (potential consumers and commercial competition) are destabilized and reconfigured into a 'new' product (Slater, 2002). Product concepts seek to mediate different socio-economic relationships (ibid). At the workshop, this entailed an analysis of existing markets and product categories; thinking about how to initiate new and competitive relations with commodities through the differentiation of a product's conceptual and material qualities. Developing a product concept also involved an exploration of the relations between competing goods and potential consumption practices. Through these investigations, it was believed that a 'new' commercially competitive product would emerge. The methodology appropriated within the workshop to examine these relationships borrowed from ethnographic methods, which sought to re-connect existing business knowledge to the lives of consumers. This paper discusses how the authority of the 'consumer', afforded by the ideals of ethnographic research and analysis, provided the workshop participants (advertisers, marketers, and scientists) an opportunity to assert their professional identities and know-how. The methodology adopted initiated a form of 'organizational learning' whereby professional differences (knowledge, practices, relationships) were managed and made familiar through the authority of 'the consumer'. Organizational politics, networks, and constraints materialized as the eventual product concept.
Material culture and strategies of identities
The paper explores issues that rise in the practice of anthropology in the corporate world. Drawing examples from ethnographic work, the presentation shows the multilayer of meanings that both consumers and corporation build around products, and how material products might become pivotal in the shaping of people’s identities.
This presentation focuses on ethnographic researches conducted in the field of consumer anthropology, and on the way corporations utilize information about behavior as strategies for branding and positioning their products. In the discussion of strategies of branding food products to Latinos in the US market, I bring up examples from projects in which I collaborated with corporations. My task in the ethnographic research was to reveal trends and choices among Latinos who have lived different number of years in the US and had different degrees of exposure to US culture. The goal was to explore ways in which Latinos relate to the brands to be marketed, and the meanings that they build around them. Interestingly, products become expressions of identities and way to define individuals' position in society. The study shows how food is often a privileged place to understand how people make choices according to their ties to traditions and countries of origin, and how they utilize certain products in order to carve a particular place within the social fabric.
From the point of view of corporations, food might just be a product that needs a particular consumer, but food is strictly interrelated with identity. Food, like identities, can be a tool to reinvent oneself.
Them & me - us - me & them
Corporate boundaries shape business anthropology research designs. Conducting an ethnography at a medium-sized corporation from 2009 – 2010 I'd like to share my experience of negotiating access, establishing rapport with informants across all hierarchy levels and the challenge of exiting after a long sojourn.
Boundaries of a corporation offer possible definitions of research fields and constitute a challenge of accessing it. Being aware that no single corporation acts isolated but just on the contrary is woven in a network of customers, competitors, co-operation partners and suppliers, corporations' boundaries present an empirical and analytical frame for cultural and social structures. Literature provides uncountable case studies of elaborate and long run negotiations or even failure - making research life difficult. Drawing from my experience at Wire Inc., I will share my empirical knowledge of how to negotiate terms and access, conducting research establishing rapport with informants across all hierarchy levels and the challenge of exiting after a long multi-entry sojourn. Wire Inc. is a medium-sized corporation where I spent 5 months within a period of 1.5 years (2009-2010). I engaged in different levels of participant observation and other qualitative research activities to gain insights into the corporate culture with a special focus on trust and trust relations.
The edge of ethnography: engaging "collaborative complicity" at the boundaries of the corporation
Based on extensive studies of globally oriented corporate managers, the paper explores the "edge of ethnography" at the boundaries of the corporation. It advocates forms of “collaborative complicity”, where multiple engagements with counterparts afford anthropological reflection in corporate worlds.
The paper draws on the author's more than 10 years of experience in engaging anthropologically with management practices and rhetoric in diverse corporations, especially through multisited and multitemporal fieldwork in the "global" light metal solutions provider Hydro (Røyrvik 2011). The paper argues that an "edge of ethnography" in corporate worlds is an ethnography where multiple engagements with informants as collaborators and counterparts, positioned at and through corporate boundaries, form the modus operandi. Actively enacting diverse boundaries the opaque worlds of corporations might stand out, afford empiric observation, and be stitched together. This oblique ethnography is challenging in terms of access, entries and exits, yet offers novel research opportunities, and a potential to "push" the boundaries of both ethnography and the corporation. The classical "insider ethnography" and necessary interplay between "empathy and distancing" that sound fieldwork is premised upon, of gaining access by achieving good rapport, I suggest can be translated into notions of "collaborative complicity" (cf. Marcus 1998). To sustain productive working relationships in fieldwork in corporate worlds, forms of "collaborative complicity" can constructively be formed with the organizational actors who stand to gain or lose from the ethnographic projects. Seeking to transcend the apologetic mode of self-descriptive legitimation for doing ethnography in corporate worlds, the paper rather focuses on the challenges and opportunities these scenes of research afford. As part of this effort the paper seeks to free ethnography from its relegation as a form of method, and reaffirm the importance of theory and ontological reflection in ethnographic practice.
Stranger and friend: maintaining insider/outsider balance to keep research relevant
As an anthropologist working for the research arm of a large US property-casualty insurance company, I continually negotiate my insider/outsider status within the corporation. Differences in methodologies and agendas can forge us as insiders/outsiders and often impact how well research is received.
Anthropologists are continually negotiating their insider/outsider status with the people they study (Powdermaker 1966). They work with research participants to understand their daily life and are empathetic to their needs and obstacles. They simultaneously strive to be objective and neutral, removed from the consequences of actually being an insider. Anthropologists working in corporations who collaborate with internal partners constantly discover and help create the badges that mark us as having corporate insider or outsider status. Working for the research arm of a large US property-casualty insurance company, my team does a combination of self-initiated, open-ended research and research requested by internal clients. The research center is geographically removed from the rest of the company. This affords us the freedom to explore ideas that are future-looking and to conduct ethnographic research that is not bound to the quarterly time line. This same freedom alienates us from our counterparts in the corporate headquarters. It marks us as outsiders, and our partners from other departments within the organization sometimes cannot see how our work could be relevant to their daily obstacles and project time lines. This combined with our small size (approximately 40 fulltime employees) and remote location has been to our detriment, and our work is often insignificant or invisible. It is not enough to conduct sound, rigorous research, presented beautifully in slides and meetings. We must become insiders and friends across our own organizations by understanding personal agendas, incentives, others' 'turf' and ownership of ideas, and pace of work flows.
In the lion's den: the challenges of doing fieldwork in a financial institution
To anthropologists, corporations are a highly interesting, but also challenging research arena. In my paper, I will talk about the major issues I faced during 24 months of fieldwork inside a global financial institution.
What would Malinowski have said if the Trobriand Islanders had asked him to sign a seventy-page contract before studying them? Today, even though the method remains the same, the circumstances of doing fieldwork have changed significantly. Anthropologists who want to explore current social life often face severe issues, especially if they engage with corporations.
In my paper, I will examine the challenges I faced during my two years' fieldwork in a global financial institution. First, I will outline the compromises I had to make to be able to get access to the corporate world. Second, I will talk about the fact that while studying people and processes in a powerful corporation, my anthropological observations where constantly challenged by the dominant narratives of the corporation's stakeholders. Third, I will examine how I learned to deal with the fact that a corporation represents a very specific social arena in which people are constantly trying the present themselves as "good employees".
Based on my findings, I will conclude that due to the current omnipresence of corporations in everyday life, anthropologists need to rethink fieldwork practices in order to keep up with the social dynamics of today's world.
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.