Fighting Back

[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 “”.

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.


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on

6 thoughts on “Fighting Back

  1. Some things I think I’m thinking about

    1. I have concerns about moving towards the embrace of creating courses or even academic trajectories within existing departments for these emerging subdisciplines. I have seen the move towards the more practical, corporate/government jobs in both my undergraduate and graduate studies and I have to wonder what happens to the programs when these become more popular avenues for people not wanting to return to academia. I realize this is a bit of my own ‘selling out’ stigmata bleeding out onto my keyboard, but I have reservations about altering programs in this direction too much. Curricula will be changed around and institutions might pressure departments into hiring only professors for these subdisciplinary courses. Funding opportunities for incoming student (or returning students for that matter) might be shifted to accommodate larger numbers of the pragmatic applicants.

    2. I have to wonder if this stigma for ‘selling out’ is a positive or negative thing that academics hold on to. I’m currently a short-term sellout, editing for someone within the institution and wildly outside of my field. I have to wonder where the fields of the fear of selling out and the wish to do other things differentiate, or if they ever truly can. I think the best we can try to do as academics is to try to internalize that debate. Pasting the term sellout on various people isn’t going to help us move through this. We do all sell out. It’s more a matter of when, for how long, and who cares that becomes important.

    3. In the immortal words of Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out” (it’s play count has skyrocketed since these posts started):

    And I don’t think it’ll be so bad
    And I know it won’t be so bad
    ‘Cause the man said “That’s the way it is”
    And the man said “It don’t get better than this” no no no

  2. I, too, have really enjoyed reading about people’s experiences in and reflections on ethnography in corporate and military contexts. My thougths on extra-academic ethnography fall into two general categories: 1) ethics, and 2) professionalization.

    As to the first, I found Ben’s description of his military work extremely thoughtful and moving. His arguments about the possibility of change from within and maintaining one’s own ethical standards was really thought-provoking and convincing. That said, one reason I didn’t more strenuously pursue the market research work had to do with my own discomfort about some of the work, primarily the pharmaceutical campaigns. Ironically, the ethnographic work on these accounts was by far the most interesting to me–hearing how consumers thought and felt about wellness, their bodies, and illness was totally fascinating. But being part of campaigns to promote new brand-name drugs to offset profit loss from patent expiration (which is what so much of the direct-to-consumer pharma business is about) just felt too creepy, to put it colloquially.

    As to professionalization with an eye towrds applied work within graduate anthro programs: I agree with Nick’s comment that this could be tricky. On the one hand, Nate’s proposal of exposure to possible careers paths through guest speakers and colloquia, could be immensely helpful to grad students. On the other hand, full-out revision of curricula could lead to some very bad outcomes–both institutionally and in terms of disciplinary integrity. (I don’t think that’s what Nate is proposing above, but, still, something to think about.)

  3. Nate, enjoying this thread (and comments)–you’ve got me thinking about the concept of “selling out.” Typically I’d say the implication is the willful exchange of ethical principles or “remaining true to” something (a style, a canon, etc) specifically for material wealth or some similarly individual gain. I’m sure we can all agree this represents a multi-dimensional spectrum–few would consider runaway slaves stealing eggs from the local farmer as committing a transgression with much similarity to those of Bernie Madoff. That recognition would seem to bring us right back to the same old ethical conundrums: how to decide what constitutes a “need” and not just a “desire,” how to weigh long-term vs. short-term consequences, who should get to participate in such decisions, etc.

    So then doesn’t slapping the “selling out” label on anything entailing a departure from academia sap the real meaning from the term? Certainly it assumes that the struggle for an academic post is a moral imperative all on its own (and this may be part of the larger issue here). I think in actual fact, though, few non-delusional tenure-track academics would suggest they are somehow entirely above material concerns or that any real ethical quandaries are behind them (now that they’ve “succeeded” as academics). The question of selling out has to come back to some articulation of the principles at issue and the benefits for/risks to ourselves and others.

  4. Enjoying this post and comments, too–but I want to add yet another dimension, building on Lane’s observations. Indeed, the academic post is an imperative (often imbued with rather too smug a sense of its own ethics)–and “selling out” is a question of degree, both within and without the academy. It’s also, I want to add, a question of research: as both process and product. “Selling out” can be redeemed if it produces a valuable positioning, which otherwise would not have been accessible, and which make good the otherwise ethically suspect endeavor. [Or so we sometimes tell ourselves, rather reinforcing notions of “pure research” which are moving targets to begin with–and assuming we have the luxuries of reflexivity to begin with.] Even more important, to my mind, however, are increased (financial, institutional) pressures to do things we wouldn’t otherwise have, in ways we wouldn’t otherwise have (ie testing our ethico-moral limits, or demanding methods and end-products that seem insufficient, instrumental etc.) — which define the sorts of questions we can then legitimately ask. From a graduate training that took me to women’s NGOs, would I start to think about how to pitch-patch a paper from the “cultural detritus” of snacks and widgets–or outdoor apparel? or the detergent using habits and preferences of Indian housewives? I just might, even though all my training has taught me to be more bored than interested by such phenomena. Both because it’s off-beaten-path quirky, teaches one to look in new ways, and because it’s likely to be lucrative: immediate cash and long-term establishing that I, too, know my client’s business. But then, do I get the brownie points – is there the room to make good my extra-academic forays in ways that academically count? In other words: does the space of ethnography get cordoned off, into, say, an inaccessible body of corporate-funded, corporate-owned knowledge that cannot be reflexively examined—because other ethical/intellectual property strictures govern? Or, do these “video ethnographies” of which Laurel speaks and such like become new databases in their own right—open to more conventional ethnographic collation, comment, and critique? I’m posing two separate questions really, that could be rolled together thus: If the ethnographic research process, in other words, is increasingly defined by the pressure to, or the reality of, selling out, then what happens to the products?

  5. @Lane:
    To clarify a little more, I suppose my use of the term “selling out” really signifies the feeling one gets when leaving academia – regardless of whether or not that feeling is grounded in pressures from colleagues and mentors. As such, the sense of “selling out” is stronger given some career choices over others, and at least for me, just about any career choice outside of academia would invoke that feeling, at least to some degree…

  6. Thanks, Nate, for continuing to explore this topic thoughtfully. Like Laurel, I have also worked in pharmaceuticals, as my expertise is in healthcare. My first job coincided with Atul Gawande’s excellent piece in the New Yorker in 2010 about hospice care versus aggressive cancer treatments that only prolong life for an extra few months on average. The article made me cry, as my work was specifically working in oncology market research. Our qualitative research around what motivates physicians to prescribe new treatments was devoid of the real challenges of healthcare practice or the nuances of offering people at the end of their lives a choice between a shred of hope and the reality of treatment odds. The sorts of questions we asked didn’t engage with these problems and framed the decision making process as more of a “Product A or Product B” problem, disguising the challenges of oncology practice and the people whose lives were being affected by these treatments.

    I have stayed working in healthcare, though in a slightly less fraught (for me) area. The flip side of this kind of selling out is that I believe it can really enhance work in the future. Maybe I’m making a self-interested choice, but I believe my understanding of pharma is so much richer now that I have actually worked with the industry in a variety of capacities. This long-winded anecdote is to suggest that perhaps the tenuous positions one may find oneself in, outside of academia, may have longer term benefits to one’s understanding of an industry or in one’s research, should one return to an academic environment. While I could not participate in the Human Terrain program, and I think many of us feel that there are ethical limits and boundaries to professional choices, there may be some grey areas that allow for deeper understanding, that you simply can’t gain in academia. The chance to gain a better understanding of capital flows, business priorities and practices to enrich one’s intellectual inquiry may be a real benefit of working outside of academia.

    I think that expanding the notion of what constitutes a career as an anthropologist is called for, as I would argue that what I am doing now has the potential to be great fodder for fieldwork/research material in the long term. Certainly the meetings with the pharma oncology clients really enlightened me to how pharma people talk about their patients, about new indications, and market opportunities. Do I feel a little sick when I think about some of what I heard? Yes. But I also think I have gained a more balanced perception of them, as well, instead of portraying pharma people as clearly evil. I know Savage Minds has mentioned them in the past, but I think Genevieve Bell and Gillian Tett are two examples of anthropologists who have left academia and surely have made their industries richer, as a result. Regardless of whether I return to academia or not, I find their accomplishments admirable.

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