In the introduction to their edited volume Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy”, Greg Downey and Melissa Fisher speculate a little on corporate compromise on the part of social scientists:
“During the past decade an unprecedented number of cultural anthropologists have been hired by companies to work as consultants in consumer design, and workplace research”
And then they ask:
“How can we begin to account for the migration of anthropologists out of academia into business? Has the increasing demise of tenure-track jobs in the discipline forced academics to look elsewhere for employment?” (2006:18)
Strike me down if this hasn’t been going on far far longer than the last ten years. Few jobs, lousy pay, and a lack of political direction in what’s often been a deeply conservative discipline. I had a go at exposing corporate buy-outs of anthropologists in the late 1980s. The mining company Rio Tinto Zinc has a long and dubious history of recruiting anthropologists to its schemes: among several examples, their hire of graduates in the discipline to act as information-gatherers spying on pro-Bougainville campaigners at La Trobe University; and lets not forget the dirty subsidiary money they off-loaded via Monash’s Khan in 1991 for work on the ‘creation of community’ around a mine-site in Kalimantan (‘community’ here seemingly a rephrasing of what was in fact a Suharto-regime transmigration programme); and not just rio tinto, later in the mid-1990s there was the involvement of a certain Jerome Rousseau with the Bakun Hydro-Electric scheme [see Left Curve vol 23]. But a cosy relationship between anthropology and capital was already old news even then, and there was a dubious phrase coined to expose, or contain, the deals: remember ‘handmaidens of colonialism’ anyone? That old argument was rehearsed over and over, but now seems to be forgotten again as anthropologists rush to become the hand-holders of neo-liberalism.
The corporate anthropology Downey and Fisher have in mind is the take up of ethnographic research as culture machine for marketing, product testing, sales profiling and the like, but capital interest in having anthropologists broker access to the entire planet goes further than newfangled market research strategies (but see Saatchi and Saatchi’s strange culture vulture effort here). I’m dismayed to hear of mining companies still making efforts to recruit the best and brightest to their ‘social responsibility’ spin-mongering.
I remember that Riotinto were particularly concerned to proclaim their environmental credentials a few years ago – crowing about how they were protecting rainforest frogs and had set up a crocodile park. Keeping in mind their many years of plunder of Aboriginal land, rights, livelihoods, responsibility for the Bougainville war etc etc (see Roger Moody’s book Plunder or any issue of Partizans) such corporate do-gooder deeds are particularly despicable, even in a world that spins to their tune more and more. At least the price of copper is falling – though I bet the Riotinto Board still got massive end of year bonuses.
[The pictures in this post are all taken from the brochures that Riotinto produce to alibi their profiteering - I've been collecting these quite a while and there are many more howlers. Frogs, bad jokes about the dispossessed, Rachel as mining-boy's-own fantasy. See sidebar topics for more. Just have to call this glossy anthropology - it takes the shine off the pursuit of knowledge]