Book Review: Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter

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Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations - Edited by Melissa Cefkin

It is now safe to say that the introduction to the story of ethnographic and anthropological praxis within industry has been written. This fine book adds new layers to that story, and is itself bookended by significant essays, by the editor Melissa Cefkin, and by Michael Fischer, which tell the tale thus far, and gesture towards likely future twists in the story. Cefkin’s introduction shines fresh light on the development of the discipline in corporate settings from the 1970s and how this has tracked broader business trends such as ‘the experience economy’ or a focus on services rather than physical products.

Cefkin suggests that “researchers from deep within and as active participants in the engine of corporate and organizational life – offer a unique stance from which the discipline of anthropology and other intellectual traditions of social and cultural inquiry can learn as they strive to understand and advance their impact in the world” (pg. 9). One key strength of this volume, and a feature that should make it required reading for anyone interested in contemporary anthropology, is what it offers back to the discipline. Indeed, the activities recounted in this volume represent, Fischer argues, ‘stem cells for the regeneration of ethnographic life’. He ends his  stimulating essay by asking important questions about how anthropologists in academia can exploit the access some now have to the large organizations that shape our material, semiotic and economic life. His point, and it is one writ large in this volume as a whole, is that the numbers of anthropologists  now employed in industry settings make this a significant ‘destination’ for PhD students. Prior to the dot com bust of 2001,  Sapient, a ‘user experience’ consultancy employed 23 PhDs in anthropology and had over 120 staff members able to offer an ethnographically informed research capability. Through force of numbers alone industry located practitioners of anthropology cannot be ignored. 

However, as any anthropologist will tell you, numbers alone do not tell the whole story. There are a variety of other narratives about what they do, how it is (re)presented and theorised to be uncovered. Judged in these terms this volume makes a significant contribution to our understanding by detailing what it is that anthropologists in industry actually get up to, and how they tell the story of their work. This book is, to quote Fischer’s felicitous phrase, “an archive of situated experiences” (pg. 237) and its varied contributors produce, through their accounts, a continuation of the discipline’s long standing experimentation with genre. 

All the contributors provide answers to the question frequently posed to industry anthropologists – ‘So what do you actually do?’ Jordan and Lambert, for example, recount fieldwork in two microprocessor production sites of Intel, in Costa Rica and Malaysia. It is an account that illustrates well the twists and turns of projects in such settings, and touches on the methodological inventiveness and ingenuity that is required by work in such constrained settings. Nafus and anderson focus their gaze on the post-fieldwork work – the debriefing and ‘brainstorming’ meetings that are a mainstay of many projects in corporate settings. They  write, convincingly, about the staging and materiality of such knowledge production, and on the memory of large organisations.

Ethnography in such settings rarely produces quick results but rather is part of process of disseminating, or more accurately inculcating, ethnographic sensibilities to an organisation. As one recipient of ethnographic enlightenment within a large US healthcare organisation, the VA, put it, the process gave them an ‘opposable thumb’ . By this he meant an ‘externalised mis-en-scène that made it possible to create consensus for organisational change’ (see Darrouzet, Wild and Wilkinson, this volume)

The work of anthropologists in organisations, and those conducting consumer studies, requires the ideas and understandings that are generated to be reconciled with the worlds of those for whom the work is conducted. All the essays in this volume are very insightful in the way they account for such interactions. Donna Flynn explores how her research is mediated through the use of ‘personas’ to engage her internal customers. Martin Ortlieb discusses this negotiation through the lens of competing notions of culture at play within Yahoo! The focus on how research and knowledge plays out is important given that all the authors argue that the success of their research depends on their ability to align differentially positioned actors within often large and complex organisations. 

Ethnography has been warmly welcomed into corporations because it is seen as a “distinct modality for puzzling things out in situations of complexity” (Cefkin, pg. 10). None of the authors take that acceptance for granted. Their focus on how ethnography has gained that reputation and what visible, and invisible work, that requires, is hugely revealing.  The line from research to design, a  product or a rise in productivity is rarely a straight one. Talking about what they do, and what that does, is a significant element of the job. As Blomberg notes it is a “messy, engaged romp with uncertain outcomes” (pg. 216).

Corporate ethnographers do not, most of the time, write ethnographic monographs. As Fischer points out, more often they produce ‘ethnographically sensitive deliverables’. This is not because their research does not lend itself to, and they are not capable of, producing such standard academic output but because that is not what they are required to do. Books like Cefkin’s are therefore, to a large degree, more likely labours of love than requirements of employment. All the more reason to salute the achievement this volume represents.

‘Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter’ sets out to provide “original insights on corporate and organizational life, and renewed considerations of the negotiations of anthropological relations and knowledge” (pg. 23) and it succeeds, overwhelmingly. The motivating passion of many corporate ethnographers is to use their work to get their corporations to adopt a different relationships with their subjects – be they customers, markets or processes. This book succeeds in a similar way: it will, I am sure, be regarded as a vital contribution to the process of ongoing re-orientation by academia towards a not-so-new breed of practitioners within corporations. But it will also help inform the practice of corporate ethnographers already plying their trade in corporate jungles.

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Forthcoming in Anthropology in Action - download here

262 pages, 26 figs, bibliog., index

ISBN 978-1-84545-598-9 Hb $80.00/£50.00 Published (July 2009)

ISBN 978-1-84545-777-8 Pb $34.95/£21.00 Published (March 2010)