An interesting anecdote is told by Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny in their work “Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research”. They were both contacted by an important fast food company requesting an ethnographic study. Due to the scope of the study, they decided to integrate graduate students to carry out part of the research and made use of their university contacts. Eventually, they received by mistake one of those crossed emails among students. The email was titled “Selling yourself to the devil for a few days”. Neither their close collaborators nor any student wanted to apply for that job.
The purpose of the research was to get the fast food company to develop healthier, better-cooked and much more thoughtful products. Coming from a large corporation, this idea was implausible even for both of them. Loaded with skepticism, they attended the meeting with the managers in Los Angeles and they surprisingly discovered that they were committed people who really cared to develop a healthy and sustainable diet that their own children and other people’s children consumed. “Cultures and people are complex and multifaceted” – they concluded.
This anecdote, or at least its beginning, should not surprise any upstart person in the social anthropology world. In a discipline where there is still a debate between “pure” and “applied” anthropologists, not without a certain intellectual disdain of the former towards the latter, to position oneself within the limits of corporate anthropology is like moving to the dark side, like being a “plagiarized disciplinarian.” Anthropologists working for companies? They are sellouts. Capitalists. Colonizers. Exploiters. Heretics. Traitors. I-would-never-sell-myself-out-to-the-system.
Selling your soul to the devil for a few days
There are many metaphors used to refer to the work carried out by corporate anthropologists, but the most interesting one, because it is the most loaded with meaning, is “Selling your soul to the devil for a few days”, quoted in the book written by Sunderland and Denny.
Firstly, because it assumes that there is something pure and crystalline in the “soul” of anthropology, a kind of disciplinary ethos that lifts us above the rest of mortals and that makes us morally superior. Because we understand human diversity and we are holistic, sensitive, inclusive, combative, we always always put ourselves on the side of the most vulnerable ones. We, the anthropologists, are a kind of corporeal and incorruptible divinity between Noam Chomsky and Emiliano Zapata. Despite the self-representation that we have of ourselves, I do not know why we have not won at least half a dozen Nobel Peaces.
Secondly, due to the metaphor of the devil and its immense binary charge. The devil, let us remember, is an evil and tempting angel who rebelled against God who currently reigns in the darkness and represents the moral filth of this world. He is related to betrayal, greed or avarice. So, I wonder, who is that Devil before whom we should avoid selling our anthropological soul? What if the Devil exists … who is the God opposing him?
The particular Lucifer of anthropology is called capitalism, and by extension, companies. Many large companies have been and are responsible for deforestation, displacement of indigenous people, pollution, precariousness, unhealthiness, exploitation of natural resources, coups and a host of practices that seem morally repugnant to us. But assuming that these practices represent the whole of a universe as heterogeneous as the “business world” seems an alarming simplicity to me, even more coming from a discipline that prides itself on understanding the complexity and diversity of the contexts. In its most basic unit, a company does stops being a group of people who, for profit, contribute capital or work to carry out a productive activity or provide a service. Based on that, there are as many models as there are companies. And even within large corporations there are groups that advocate and pressure for a more committed management with both people and the planet. Demonizing companies means not intervening in them, either for the better or for worse.
If companies are the devil, there can be no god but the academy. The academy is the main champion of hegemonic anthropology, which sets the rules of what is right and what is wrong. In social anthropology, the academy is the norm (see the kidnapping of anthropology). The walls of the university are an excellent refuge for an anthropology that in general declares itself openly anti-capitalist. This position, vindicating but certainly comfortable, has allowed the discipline to become intoxicated in the nectar of its own purity and has a certain arrogance with respect to its corporate counterparts.
We must remember, however, that the academy is a de facto imbricated agent in the capitalist rationales, sometimes even a capitalist corporation itself, such as the largest and most prestigious universities in the United States. In the case of public universities, it is worth remembering that they are financed with money collected by the government through taxes paid by people, companies or consumption. These collective funds support the entire university structure, including scholarships, research projects, teachers’ wages and other expenses necessary for their proper functioning. In addition, huge multinationals such as Thomson Scientific (JCR) or RELX Group (Elsevier) have managed to build an imbricated system of “research validation” within the universities through publications in important journals. All teachers must go through this system to promote their academic career or enjoy the paradoxical benefit of having to teach fewer teaching hours. In short, large corporations exercise monopolistic regimes over departments and, of course, also over the anthropology departments. The University looks more like a calf instead of a God.
Given that hegemonic anthropology has been mostly built around anti-business positions, it is not surprising that in the expression “sell your soul to the devil“, the verb “to sell” causes a special urticaria because anthropology is totally against capitalist companies and even anthropologists themselves obtain greater economic benefits thanks to ethnographic activity, which in the end, is the reason why companies usually hire anthropologists. Profit, earnings or benefits are at the very base of the perpetuation of capitalism (Ladner, 2014), and this seems to create serious moral problems.
Some months ago, I had the chance to meet with the State Commission of the Degree in Anthropology to discuss issues related to professionalization. During the meeting, I suggested that the degrees in anthropology should include in their training offer techniques designed to undertake and “know how to sell” our discipline. The intention was that the recent graduates had a minimum idea on how to set up a consultancy, become autonomous or how to prepare a job interview. Establish sales arguments that help explain the immense added value that anthropology provides, both to companies and public entities or NGOs.
Needless to say, this proposal was not well received. Certain teachers of the commission understood that the degree in Anthropology was not the “convenient space” to carry out this type of training, a position that I deeply disagree with.
Before long, we were fortunate enough to be invited to the “And then what?” talks, organized by the Anthropology Department of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. After our presentation, some students approached to us in private and told us: “I want to earn money and live off anthropology, but that cannot be said here“. They even pointed out that in that faculty it was “frowned upon” to wear a shirt, since this attire is associated with “posh” or business contexts.
These two anecdotes help to understand how the suspicion towards the company and the profit is built from anthropology itself. A bourrage de crâne articulated around ideological positions, in my opinion quite simplistic, mainly promoted by a structure that believes itself detached from the markets reality (far be it from this case). This position, far from being “supportive”, promotes the precariousness of the graduates themselves. The discipline complains of “lack of exits” while premeditatedly turning its back on the corporate world, as diverse and heterogeneous as human nature itself.
Furthermore, I feel that the anti-business discourse promotes the intellectual impoverishment of anthropology itself. How has a discipline that prides itself on understanding human behavior and that inhabits a capitalist society been able to turn its back on consumption and the company? How to understand hyper individualized and hypermodern societies without specially emphasizing on consumer processes? In what kind of analytical indigence does the anti-business discourse place us?
Finally, and ending with the analysis of the expression “sell your soul to the devil for a few days” that headed the email received by Sunderland and Denny, it goes without saying that corporate anthropology is not a kind of prank carried out by anthropologists to be able to survive. The corporate anthropology is not an “a-few-days” discipline, but an important theoretical and methodological body that has been developing silently (mainly in countries like the USA, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Holland …) over a century of history.
Some conclusions on the moral issue in Corporate Anthropology.
In this article I have addressed the existing distrust in our discipline towards business and profit. These misgivings depend on moral issues, which are unethical. Ethics in corporate anthropology is a topic discussed in almost any book that promotes the inclusion of anthropology in corporate contexts, precisely because of the heated debates it generates.
For instance, a vegan anthropologist can conduct a perfectly ethical investigation for a company in the meat industry, and that this investigation is morally rejected precisely by the person who hired them. Once we had the pleasure of speaking with a prestigious female anthropologist who had rejected a very well-paid job with Danone because her own morality prevented her from working for this company, a position that we found very commendable. Anthropologists, both male and female, have in their hands the power to act or not to act, to work for certain types of companies and not for others. Morality is a purely individual and very necessary matter. But trying to impose a “collective morality” on an entire discipline verges on dogmatism, especially when this morality is constructed without having the slightest idea of the studies carried out and the ethical conflicts the corporate anthropology deals with. Ignorance has always been very daring.
Neither corporate anthropologists lack morality, nor is corporate anthropology per se an instrument of the devil. In Antropologia 2.0, we are working to break with this idea and generate a necessary debate about the discipline in which ethical issues will be surely include. It is necessary to build a deontology in relation to the corporate anthropology and to do so, ethical and moral experiences and opinions are required. And also launching into the void, enjoying the right to make mistakes, to rectify, to build, to polemicize. We must put an end to the simplicity and prejudice that has traditionally involved Ibero-American corporate anthropology, apply our knowledge to business contexts and, if possible, share those experiences in academic and non-academic spaces.
Only by doing so, will we build an open to debate, non-dogmatic, rigorous, truly ethical, pluralistic and professional discipline. A long way is ahead of us