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Crowd-questioning Corporate Ethnographers

We have the honor of interviewing business anthros Grant McCracken and Barry Dornfeld. By we I mean you.

Barry wrote a groundbreaking text in the anthropology of media production: Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture. Twelve years after its publication, Dornfeld’s book remains the deepest description of television production and the tense conflicts that happen when do-gooder social science meets a ruthless profit motive. If you’ve ever been frustrated with how nonfiction TV networks (Discovery, Nat Geo, Travel, Animal Planet) take our scientific issues and make them into titillating edutainment then this young classic should find itself tattered and dog-eared on your desk. Today he is a corporate anthropologist at the Center for Applied Research.

Grant is the foremost anthropologist theorizing the role of culture in corporate practices. He shows how many corporations struggle along with anthropologists to define culture. Some CEOs get it. Others don’t. In his book Chief Culture Officer, Grant argues that the future of corporate profit–and social relevance–is dependent upon executives being anthropological in their executing. The corporate capitalization of the culture concept is far from politically neutral and Grant seems like one ready to defend his position against any would-be anti-corporate anthro-activist. Grant is presently a member of MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium.

The theme of this batch of Savage Interviews is corporate anthropology and in the frictionless outsourcing style of multinational corporations we give this job to you. No this is not exploitative labor. I don’t get paid and neither will you. We are creating knowledge and value together, for the discipline, for free, for fun, for the open-source corporation WordPress. So graciously give up your private dreams, ideas, and questions about corporate anthropology just like you do on Facebook. What should I ask these guys? Post your questions as comments below or send them to me as emails. Later listen to the posed and the answered queries.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

4 thoughts on “Crowd-questioning Corporate Ethnographers

  1. I’d be interested in Grant McCracken’s reflections on (1) his work as a museum person and material culture studies scholar and (2) on his transition out of that world and into his current work in culture of/in/for corporations. Graduate students in my department are more likely to be reading his book Big Hair or his essay in Material Anthropology than they are to know about Chief Culture Officer. I have tried to follow the line of progression and to keep his work in the mix by seeking reviews of his more recent books for Museum Anthropology Review. I saw his exhibition on Toronto youth culture at the Royal Ontario Museum during his time there and felt that it was very innovative. Museum anthropology would certainly be more interesting today if he were still involved.

  2. I would really like to hear your impressions and characterizations of the changing perceptions and receptions of anthropologists in the business world over the course of the last decade. In particular, I’m wondering what your sense is that ethnography could be perceived as more than just the latest or most interesting data collection methodology, but could actually play a role in making decisions and possibly even changing the way decisions are made. In my experience, even companies that claim to be “innovative” tend to constantly fall back on the same ways of thinking that are tried and true. Grant, I know creating the “chief culture officer” position hopes to put anthropology-informed thinking in such a role, so I’d be curious to hear what kinds of reception you have had so far–are there any concrete plans to actually establish a CCO role in any companies out there?

  3. I would want to know how he chooses a Chief Cultural Officer, and if he chooses anthropologists, or simply MBAs with a certain level of training.
    Does he choose from among people in his own personal network, or is there a place that acts as a clearing house for anthros to go and submit their resumes. I looked on his website and I couldn’t find such a place.

  4. I’d be interested in their views on the attempts of producer groups from Least Developed Countries (to use an industry term) to own, manage, and benefit from intangible assets. It is clear that in the corporate worlds, intellectual capital in all its legal and non-legal property form (trademarks, trade dress, trade design, patents, distribution agreements, licenses, company culture, etc.) is what it’s all about. Less than 10% of what we pay for goes into covering production costs. Yet, most exporting producers say, in Sub-Saharan Africa, compete for the diminishing producer margins. So, even when exporting highly distinguishable products that command high prices in Western retail, when in other words “value-added” has already occurred, export income is capped at production cost margins, 5-10% of retail value.

    What would their advice be in approaching corporations on behalf producers whose intellectual assets are core of the corporate strategy? Whether in form brand identity (such as use of words and images), product (such as Ethiopian coffee growers asking Starbucks to use Ethiopian coffee brands under license), or knowledge (such as pharma companies basing product development on indigenous knowledge).

    I understand this may be not quite clear enough. But in case it does make sense, I will be grateful to hear the subject come up in the podcast. Even without it, I look forward to them.

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