[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan's prior posts: post 1 & post 2]
As my friend and co-blogger Lane responded to my Facebook posts about selling out, “I prefer to think of myself as a virus, any prospective employer as a host. ‘Selling out’ is somewhere in that hazy zone between keeping your host (and yourself) alive and promoting the best environment for others of your species!” It would seem to me that many readers of this blog would agree, even in the most difficult and ethically compromised of research environments. After all, if we – as academically trained anthropologists and ethnographers – do not move to change the kinds of problematic research practices that serve to produce the feeling of “selling out,” it is somewhat unlikely that anyone else will.
Two recent posts here on Savage Minds describe examples of doing that viral work that I think deserve particular mention. First, one of Laurel’s blog posts provided a great discussion of what it’s like to enter into a particular variety of market ethnography. Second, in response to my last post Ben commented on his work as a military ethnographer, and the various pressures and constraints he has faced in such a role. Keeping Lane’s statement in mind, it seems to me that individuals like Laurel, Ben, Gottlieb, and John deserve more attention within academia. As a student, I was rarely exposed to anyone who had chosen to leave academia after finishing their degrees. Thinking back to the process of inviting speakers for colloquia and various departmental events, names of those who had pursued other career trajectories simply never came up. I can only recall one instance in which one such individual – a former graduate of our department turned consultant – came to address us, and even then, there was absolutely no discussion of how or why he came into his new role.
As Gottlieb and John point out, for many, the desire to be connected to the academic community does not simply vanish after taking up careers outside academia. Arguably, we could do much to resist the stigma of selling out, while simultaneously keeping a line out to those who may not hold academic positions, simply through more early doctoral student exposure to graduates who have pursued non-academic careers. In addition to serving to resist the stigma, such exposure would provide Ph.D. students with the professional contact networks they need to more easily find corporate and government work, along with providing a much needed glimpse of potential career routes. There is clearly enough demand for this kind of information, as a number of former academics have made careers for themselves guiding recent grads and struggling academics to non-academic jobs – one such site is actually entitled “Selloutyoursoul.com”.
Both Laurel and Ben allude to another consideration for anyone moving to “infect” a host employer. To extend Lane’s metaphor (perhaps too far), it should be expected that said hosts have something of an immune system, one which will work on the virus just as the virus works on the host. Along these lines, I think Laurel’s discussion about exactly what kind of ethnography her work entailed deserves a little more attention, particularly in light of Gottlieb’s comment on my earlier post and my own experiences with searching for jobs. Following the boom of corporate and military interest in anthropology and ethnographic methods, it appears as if emerging subdisciplines are starting to form as ethnographic practice runs up against the realities of institutional deadlines, cultures, and funding constraints. Arguably, you can see hints of the developing boundary lines in the way Laurel placed the term “deliverables” in quotation marks, Ben’s acronymization of human subjects protection (HSP), and in the discussions of compressed timelines and different modes of ethnographic practice (“video ethnography”).
Here again, I think doctoral programs could do a better job of preparing students for this kind of subdisciplinary transition. There are real differences between academic, corporate, political, and military research practices, and increasingly those differences matter to employers. Recently, I applied to a corporate and political research consulting firm. While they were interested in my experience and training, and the research position I was applying for required only a Masters degree, ultimately they wanted someone who had experience with qualitative research in a consulting role. I asked my contact there what it was about my experience that did not match up with what they were looking for, and she too described the compressed timeline, the ability to handle clients, and an understanding of research culture outside of academia.
There is, however, one remaining point concerning selling out I have yet to address – and that is the central problem of supporting the work of institutions engaged in fundamentally problematic or potentially harmful pursuits. It’s there in Laurel’s mention of supporting the work of pharmaceutical sales, and again implicitly in Ben’s military work. In cases like these, I’m not sure there should be a move to completely resist the stigma of selling out – as scholars who are more than familiar with the harm such companies and institutions are capable of, we probably should feel at least some discomfort at the prospect of collaborating with them.
That said, Amy mentioned that the academy is certainly not without fault, and I would agree that choosing to pursue or remain in a career in academia increasingly involves a degree of selling out. Much has been said about the privatization of higher education in other places. For me, it speaks volumes that we are encouraged to refer to students as “clients”. I myself have often ruminated on the similarities between my own adjunct work and that of a “scab”/strikebreaker – if I only refused to take the job, maybe the university would begin to recognize how problematic it is to hire adjuncts in place of tenure-track faculty. Sure, and then I could go broke and burn an influential segment of my academic network, all while allowing another recent grad to take my place. One way or another, we all sell out, and none of us should be criticized for making the decision to support themselves or their family.