In my first batch of Savage interviews I am focusing on anthropologists like Simon Sinek working in or with corporations (Barry Dornfeld and Grant McCracken, you out there and willing to talk?). I recently had the pleasure of talking with Melissa Cefkin, IBM anthropologist and editor of the recently published “Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations.”
We talked about what exactly she does, anthropology’s resistance to the corporate encounter, management and new media firms, pre-Internet bust corporate engagement with anthropology, and how students can go corporate. To warm up your mind to these ideas here is a supplemental question and answer you won’t hear on the audio. Here is the interview.
Fish: In many new media firms people are working 50-70 hours a week. One of the reasons I am investigating new media firms is because so much of human social energy is spent building corporations, services, and products. To miss how corporations influence socialization–usually because of anthropologist’s apprehension of multinational corporations–is to severely limit ones anthropological study. Do you agree?
Cefkin: Completely. People may spend 4 or 6 or 10 years in school, but then they carry on to work for another 30 or 40! Clearly a central domain, clearly a significant site for anthropological work. But the rub, I suppose, is in the “study” versus “do something in it/be a part of it”. As we grapple with in our volume (“Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations“), its not just that we are there, but we are there actively.
One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is how to ‘perform criticality’, if you like, in ways that aren’t signaled only through a dissenting and oppositional voice (which is, it seems to me, a dominant anthropological trope and one I fall back comfortably myself). Because frankly much of what passes as intended engaged/critical dialogue is not heard. Several months ago I was asked by some young anthropologists about the impact of some recent anthropological works (which I’ll not name, but were in the areas of global markets, corporations, new media, software and the like) on corporations or corporate actors. And I’ll admit that I was taken aback at what seemed to be a belief that such works are actually read by the powers that be in the corporate world. Of course there are exceptions, and I recognize that there are subtle chains of influence beyond the book itself through which such ideas and viewpoints can move, but more often then not, if those kinds of ideas get any airing at all its because there are already anthropologists within those domains who would direct their counter-parts to them.
I am not meaning to be disparaging of those works in any way at all (nor of those eager scholars who believe in the power of ideas!). But the thousands of middle managers I meet aren’t reading this stuff, most CEO’s and their advisors aren’t reading this stuff. Speaking about and being heard are two different things. We know this. Those pursuing a public anthropology know this. Despite how difficult and imperfect it is, for now I’d rather have a seat at the table at the point that there is a chance to reframe the questions being asked and assumptions getting made than to wait until things are done and then oppose them — even though that stance is in many ways, in my view, an easier stance. Putting myself into such contexts and trying to work from within is by no means always successful. But you know what? In some small ways in its own contexts, it often is.