Collaborating with Corporations?

Long-time Savage Minds commentator John McCreery has a question for our readership:

The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography by Luke Eric Lassiter is a powerful, persuasive, and, to me, deeply troubling book. It’s thesis is summarized (p. 16) as follows.

“Collaborative ethnography invites commentary from our consultants and seeks to make that commentary overtly part of the ethnographic text as it develops. In turn, this negotiation is reintegrated back into the fieldwork process itself. Importantly, the process yields texts that are co-conceived and co-written with local communities of collaborators and consider multiple audiences outside the confines of academic discourse, including local constituencies.”

As the end of a story that begins with the colonial anthropologist writing about anonymous others surveyed with the God-like gaze, confident that they will never read what he has written, the steps prescribed in this passage sound like steps forward. But what, I ask myself, if the collaborators in question work for large corporations or government agencies and co-writing requires clearance from their employers’ PR departments?

6 thoughts on “Collaborating with Corporations?

  1. It’s a very provocative question in that context, and although it resonates in a number of ways with the research I’m doing now I’m not sure exactly where to begin… I’m currently in Chile, studying forest certification as an expanding form of environmental regulation that uses (possibly imaginary) market incentives rather than state enforcement to improve the management of forests. I’m interested in the way that participants define their terms, how scientific knowledge and political interests inform the ways in which they speak about ‘scientific credibility,’ ‘sustainability,’ and even ‘forest.’

    So my study population consists of conservation biologists, environmental activists, forestry engineers, timber company PR people, gov’t officials from the forestry and agriculture ministries, and indigenous and labor advocates. It’s a thoroughly heterogeneous mix, in terms of the types of knowledge they deploy as well as the large differential in power and resources. This poses a number of problems for me methodologically and in terms of the relationship ethics this post brings up. I generally situate my research somewhere in the spectrum of ‘studying-up,’ but it’s not straightforward by any means. I’m interested in troubling my own authorial voice, in keeping with the ideas of collaborative work and the whole ‘Writing Culture’ school of ethnography, but how? Some of my subjects are in direct conflict with each other, and my own interests and subjectivity (as foreigner, environmentalist, etc) don’t fit clearly with any part of the whole complex ecology.

    Generally, I’ve been re-reading Kim Fortun’s awesome _Advocacy After Bhopal_ as some kind of model. The text includes big chunks of dialog with the victim’s advocates who she studies, reproductions of the documents that Dow Chemical and various rights organizations put out, and other sort of extra-textual devices. So that helps resolve the issue of authorial voice and all, but so far as participatory elements of planning the reserach itself, not so much…

    I’m waiting for the issue of corporate accountability and PR clearance and etc to come up – I’ve only started the part of my research that deals with corporate interests. As it does, though, I’m curious to see whether anyone cares about my attempts to make my situatedness transparent, or what…

  2. “Anthropologists” working for corporations or producing writings to be comsumed by corporations against the public are occupying the exact same position of EE Evans-Pritchard and today’s as yet un-named CIA anthropologists. They have ignored their ethical responsibilities and put their own careers above the interests of those they study.

  3. this is a great question, and the short answer is just that Lassiter’s book is a nostalgic cry for a form of anthropology as advocacy– an anthropology in which injustice is black and white and the only ethical response is to fight for the rights of the repressed, the under-represented, the exploited or the disappearing; it is based on a renunciation of the history of serving colonial masters, which is all too easy to denounce in hindsight as the result of a mis-recognition of the relations of production of national subjects to which unwitting CIA agent anthropologists were duped. (btw, Blanket denunciations of anthropologists who work for corporations are not appreciated here–some of my best firends are running dog lackeys of the capitalist elite).

    The long answer, however, like the discussion of Tsing’s Friction, goes to the heart of problem of adequately constructing a conceptual vocabulary around the multiple and conflicting subjects present in even the most basic fieldwork today (and Adam’s example sounds like a particualrly rich example here).

    The problem is also hardly restricted to PR departments demanding oversight– it includes IRBs demanding artificial ethics and absurd standards of documentation; it includes issues of copyright/trademark control; it includes issues of (accusations of) corporate espionage; it includes profesional issues akin to attorney client privilege, or journalist-source secrecy; the list could go on. In short, the idea that there is some simple way in which we write “with” our informants in order to better their lot rests on a model of ethnography in which groups of people are easily identified and represented– precisely the kind of myth that is beaten out of every graduate anthropology student in the country in semester one. Or rather, can now thankfully be beaten out of them thanks to the Military Detainee Act of 2006.

  4. Thanks both to Kerim Friedman, who arranged to have my question posted on SM and to Adam and Ckelty for two thoughtful and very useful replies. In the interests of transparency, let me note that what has made the meaning of collaboration an issue for me is an invitation to participate in a conference at Academia Sinica in Taipei in mid-December, for which I submitted the following proposal.

    Beyond the Ivory Tower: Collaborations with Business Folk
    by John L. McCreery

    “Collaboration” is a term that points in many directions. For Professor Huang Shu-min, the organizer of this conference, it points to the possibility of “interdisciplinary research, either currently or in the past, especially projects involving humanists/social scientists and natural scientists.” For Luke Eric Lassiter, the author of “Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology” (Current Anthropology Volume 46, Number 1, February 2005, and The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, University of Chicago Press, 2005), the issue is collaboration between anthropologists and the people whose lives they study. In Science and Technology Studies, these two themes converge; natural scientists appear both as subjects of study and collaborators whose assistance is required to achieve the goals of research.

    These, however, are familiar domains. This paper addresses yet another possibility—collaborations with business folk, who live and work outside the academy. By reflecting on the collaborations that make possible my own research on Japanese consumers and Japanese advertising, I want to suggest that this type of collaboration is potentially very fruitful. To harvest that potential, we must,
    however, carefully negotiate moral minefields. On the one hand there is access to research on a scale that modest academic resources can rarely, if ever, afford. On the other there is the slippery slope to work controlled more by corporate than academic goals. My final purpose here is to offer some thoughts on how to access corporate research while maintaining a firm footing in academic integrity.

    Any additional thoughts that anyone here might have on this topic would be most welcome.

    To Adam and Ckelty, in particular, I ask permission to cite you and how, if I do cite the remarks you have made above, how you would like to be cited.

  5. re: citing blog comments, I think you should say “Personal Communication, Internets, 2006” 😉

    I have no objection to you citing me, but I think you should probablu just say that it comes from conversation on…

  6. Right, is it a personal communication or a website such that you have to cite the URL? Oh, the complications. Yes, please feel free to quote my comment if it’s helpful.

    I’d also refer you to a couple of citations that might be relevant — my advisor Peter Brosius (1999, “Analyses and interventions; anthropological engagements with environmentalism” Current Anthropology 40[3]) freely available online at
    and Andrew Herod’s 1999 “Reflections on interviewing foreign elites: praxis, positionality, validity, and the cult of the insider” Geoforum 30(4).

    Could you tell us, John, a little more about the presentation you’re planning to make that brought this all up? Sounds interesting.

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