glossy anthropology

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:

They write:

“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]

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  • Maria Technosux  On 08/01/2007 at 4:04 pm


    Strike me down if this hasn’t been going on far far longer than the last ten years.

    According to my gang, De Groep Academici, at least as far as the Netherlands is concerned it must have begun in the 1970s. That was the first wave of lay-offs, plus the first warning that there were “too many graduates” – I hate it every time I write it down, how can there ever be bad that there are too many (what are supposed to be, in theory at least) “smart people”?


    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

    My current essay is about the military. Is there (all that) much difference between academics working for the military in 2007 and academics working for a mining company in the 1980s? Can we speak of a demise?

    and there was a dubious phrase coined to expose, or contain, the deals: remember ‘handmaidens of colonialism’ anyone?

    I like that term, let’s revive its use.


    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.

    Eeeh, wait a minute, hold it right there. “Rushing” is hardly what I’d call it. Lack of other viable alternatives, that’s the true story. I mean, if you wanna do

    (a) brainwork you’ve trained for (not to mention stuck yourself into heavy studies-related debt for; even you complained about your own accumulated debt in one of the footnotes of Critique of Exotica if I’m not mistaken)

    and

    (b) well paid brainwork (that allows you to repay said student-debt “so they drag you into that debt-economy”, as Andrea Fraser likes to stress)

    where else can you go (if the uni has shown you the door) but the big companies? Telephone marketing? Flipping burgers at McDonalds? Puhleez, that doesn’t pay the bill, certainly not the bills of academics requiring such luxury items as cars (I don’t have one) and computers (don’t have one) and fast online connections (nope, the 90 euros that requires per month is equal to my basic health insurance sans dental supplement).

    Oh, and if you think workfare is such fun, by all means join the line (as in chain-gang, “plucking asparagus” as the Dutch like to say). Any academic who’s spent a year in the workfare inferno would run into the arms of either a mining company or nowadays even/especially(< --- as in suicidal?) the military in a cold heartbeat.

    Tex.

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  • Maria Technosux  On 09/01/2007 at 4:41 pm

    I found this in my archive.

    Tex.

    Anarchist Prof at Yale Leaves Faculty

    David Graeber, an outspoken anarchist anthropologist was denied renewal of his contract for what he believes were unfair reasons due to his political activism. He’s decided to drop his appeal and try his chances at another university. Last spring I had an interview with Graeber that CounterPunch ran, in which Graeber analyzed his situation and its broader context.

    http://brickburner.blogs.com/my_weblog/2005/12/anarchist_prof_.html

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  • By The Queen’s duck « trinketization on 20/03/2008 at 4:34 pm

    [...] ‘unaccountable and irredeemably wicked shareholder of major corporations of the likes of Riotinto‘ (though that is spurious rumour of course). Well this week, while Riotinto reels under the [...]

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