The web has connected the world, making it is easer to investigate how global trends manifest in different geographic regions.
Advancements in communication technologies have rendered distances irrelevant.
Proximity between two places is now measured through the time taken to communicate between them, not the distance.
But this ‘annihilation of space by time’ (to quote Marx) works both ways.
We are compelled to interrogate our own personal world in the light of what we discover about other parts of the planet.
In short: we need new ethics for changing worlds.
Improve your research ethics
We should be careful when making claims about another culture. We risk spreading damaging stereotypes and reinforcing lazy tropes.
We must also be aware of cultural appropriation: using aspects of other cultures without showing due respect.
Below are some ethical reflections to guide you:
- Understand the culture of other countries as something ‘in process’ as opposed to something that is static and fixed
- Work closely with local people and allow them to tell their own story in their own way
- Improve your skills in empathetic conversation benevolent listening and careful and observation
- Work with a diverse team to ensure that your findings are suitably interrogated
- Start by looking for similarities, then focus on differences
- Beware of the ornamentality of cultures - reducing rich cultures to stereotypical units of clothing or decoration e.g. using saris as a stand-in for Indian culture
Strategy: ethical considerations aren't a hinderance to innovation, they are an accelerator. Think about how you can craft and embed new ethical frameworks
The emergence of corporate ethnography
The terms 'corporate' and 'anthropology' may seem incongruous. After all, one summons images of sleek, open-plan offices; and the other conjures remote, far-away lands.
But this collision isn't a new concept.
One of the earliest convergences of anthropology and the corporate realm occurred in the United States in 2009 with the publication of American anthropologist Karen Ho’s ethnographic study of Wall Street.
Ho’s work uncovered deep-seated links between the behaviours of bankers in the workplace and the corresponding impact on the wider economy.
So, the study of human behaviour, whether it's conducted in a tribal village in Massai or a bustling bank in Manhattan, reveals deep insights into how people interact in social relationships and how these interactions shape societies.
Contemporary novelists on contemporary ethnography
The figure of the corporate ethnographer is currently subject to literary scrutiny by contemporary novelists. We can compare these representations to glean insight into the craft of insight.
In 'Satin Island', by Tom McCarthy, the ethnographer, simply called 'U', is male. He became renowned for his field research into rave culture. He is hired by an elite consultancy that works with companies and cities to contextualize, nuance and brand their identity, services and products.
In Deborah Levy's 'Hot Milk', the ethnographer, called Sofia, is female. She began writing her PhD thesis on memory, however was soon forced to abandon it due to her mother's illness. She works in a coffeeshop that provides artisan espresso, offers free wi-fi, and has renovated church pews as tables.
Both novels are as dense as poetry, and full of powerful tensions. Sophia is torn between a commercial world that wants her to use her rich skillset to help 'sell more washing machines'. Whilst U is expected to write the 'great report' into the human condition for a profit making machine.
Strategy: One theme uniting both of these novels is an exploration of modern forms of anxiety, suggesting this as a useful insight trajectory for corporate anthropology
Selling out culture
In Satin Island, U's job as corporate ethnographer is to prise structures of kinship, exchange, gift, rituals, rhythms and all the other 'stuff' out of a culture. He rips them from their context, creates behavioural blueprints, and then feeds these insights into a process made to create commercial value for whichever client is paying the bill.
This type of cultural insight can only be done ethically if there is authentic relationship between the researchers and the culture under observation. This means continually reminding ourselves of Octavia Butler’s dictum:
‘All that you touch.
All that you Change.
There needs to be mutual respect. A way of working needs to evolve that embraces the complex intersectionality of people's identities, adopts a long-term strategy of community engagement, and focuses on the broader cultural ecosystem.
Collectively, we believe that you should be kept awake at night worrying that you’re ‘selling out’ the people and energies that you are representing. Otherwise, it’s unlikely that you are doing your job properly.
Strategy: Spend time working through the tensions and contradictions of this process
A quick way to capture insight from around the world is to recruit people from to take pictures/videos of their environment and share their reflections.
You are asking people to conduct serious noticing, and you will be communicating with them to help them with prompts and missions.
This is a deeply collaborative approach which requires embracing a horizontal approach over a hierarchical one.
Strategy: motivate collaborators by crafting a cool story around the project and giving them research identities such as 'trend hunter'
Interview questions to prompt thinking about 'globe':
Tell me about some of the countries you have visited. How do they differ, and how are they the same?
How much of your identity has been shaped by the culture that you grew up in?
Interrogate your own notion of ‘common sense’. Can you pick a familiar belief and defamiliarize it (i.e. make it strange)?