Spies like us

Will Davies, on his blog Potlatch, talks about the ‘performative contradictions’ of ‘sole author’ books about mass creativity, crowds and collaboration – noting that their form and claims are in direct tension with each other. This is a simple but compelling observation, one noted by the reviewer of Clay Shirky and Charlie Leadbeater’s new books.

His comments on who these books exist for are less obvious but perspicacious. Essentially, he’s suggesting that people engage with these sort of issues not because they want to embrace them but manage the threats that they might present:

So when a business person or policy-maker engages with futurology, chaos or complexity, they are not actually engaging with these things, but trying to locate the islands of stability on which they will avoid being overwhelmed by them. It’s not the polar ice-caps or the sea that Gordon Brown cares about, it’s the low-lying areas of South East England.  And it’s not emergent, irrational forces of innovation that executives care about, it’s how to sustain top-down, rational forces of conservation in amongst them. People who talk incessant turbulence generally do so in the hope that they don’t become victims of it.

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It strikes me that ethnography in business is doing something similar where, to adopt Will’s idiom, the ethnographer is the spy engaged in an act of espionage in which they

[travel] undercover into a dangerous world without hierachy, rules or money, and channels back information about what the status quo needs to understand about this world to survive. In this sense, the performative contradiction is necessary, just as the spy must adopt a paradoxical identity, at once loyal to their paymasters and native to the culture they are immersed in.

This seems to well summarise at least one of the roles of the corporate anthropologist – to provide understanding of the ‘world outside’ not merely (or, if ever ‘merely’) in its own right but to produce a form of understanding that is relevant in terms of the organisation they work for. In other words, the ethnography/er is employed not because of its/their ability to understand the messy reality of everyday life, or because the company really cares, but because it can be used to locate islands of ‘actionable understanding’ relevant for the organisation to act upon. The contradiction for the ethnographer is similar to that of the sole author on mass collaboration – we’re champions of the ‘real’ world in the world of ‘business’.