A Corporate Anthropologist Walks Into a Blog…

There are two kinds of corporate anthropologists. First, the kind that works for corporations and gets paid. I’m the other kind.

The first kind works for and with corporations to increase worker productivity, advise what color greeting card to send a Chinese executive, or figure out how to sell personal hygiene products to Mayan grandmothers. In school we used to call it how-to-sell-Coca-Cola-to-the-natives. A subset would be how to keep the natives from getting restless.

It often involves finding non-confrontational stealth “solutions” to management-defined problems. This would include designing lobby benches that can’t be slept on, or sandpaper-covered toilet seats to discourage secretaries with too much time on their hands from hiding in stalls reading bodice-rippers.

It would not include ways of preventing non-corporate geese from defecating around fountain-fed corporate ponds. (That would require a corporate ornithologist, I guess.)

The second kind of corporate anthropologist, the kind I am, uses anthropological methods to study corporations or corporate culture. The core anthropological research method is participant observation, which basically means living there, or if it’s a setting like a factory or school, working there or attending—hanging out in some way.

I’m a corporate anthropologist because my “tribe,” the one I studied, was a powerful quasi-public utility company. It was by following this utility through scores of permits and hearings, in nearly as many regulatory agencies and courts, that I got my training in regulatory agencies. My dissertation was over 700 pages long and contained thirteen appendices, partly because I feared a lawsuit.

This sort of thing is called “studying up” because unlike the historic anthropological project of sending someone from an empire to study oppressed people in the colonies (“studying down”), you have someone studying up at powerful people, groups, or institutions, often in their own society.

One of the reasons it’s not more popular is that there’s no money in it. In my own case, I was encouraged to study (down at) environmental groups or citizen activists instead of (up at) the Big Utility. Corporations and other powerful institutions have always been happy to fund studies that reveal the inner workings and weaknesses of groups that suffer from their practices.

Since the 1960s, UC-Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader (yes, Ralph’s sister) has been encouraging students to “study up” at everything from regulatory commissions to dentist conventions. Her work was an inspiration and model for my own.

If you want to hear more about my utility tribe, you can read a sidebar on it here, or follow the links in “About JAM” to a biographical sketch on the Society of Midland Authors site.

So, a corporate anthropologist walks into a blog……says…. Happy Solstice, see you in 2015. jam