The MIT ethnography course: my “pilot fish” model

Mit_ethno_lecture_slide_iiEditorial note: blast and damnation, this post was written yesterday for posting yesterday.  But I saved it in TypePad as a "draft" and not a "publish now."  Here it is as a "publish now."

I am working on my notes for the MIT ethnography course that begins tonight.  Here’s one of the slides I’ll be using.

Most of this I have done before in one form or another.  I’ve done ethnography training for the Marketing Science Institute, the Coca-Cola Company, Campbell Soup, Merck, and Kimberly Clark.  So I have a handle on this, I guess you’d say.

The first rule of rhetoric (and marketing): know your audience.  And in this case, I am not talking to managers and marketers.  I am talking to MIT students in the 20s and 30s.  People on the verge of making career choices.

For this group, I have additional arguments to make.  First, I want to suggest that ethnography can be a great day job, the thing you do to earn enough money to do something else.  This might be filmmaking, poetry, fine art collecting.  In my case, I do it to fund my anthropology.

And, as I have argued here before, it consulting serves in a couple of ways.  It pays me well enough to free up chunks of the year for research.  But it also gives me data and understandings that work their way into my research. 

I have to be careful not to violate my confidentiality agreements and I take these seriously.  The moment the corporation believes you are "reselling" its data, that’s the end of your career as a consultant.  The corporation is right to be vigilant on this point, but it is smart enough to see that I represent a peculiar bargain.  Because I spend half the year doing my own anthropology they actually get two days for the price of one, the day they pay for, and the day I have spend working on my own.  That anthropological research is frequently the source of the insight they most prize.     Two-for-one, it’s a bargain.  And it is a distinctly better deal than hiring a consultant who does not ever engage in intellectual development but instead exhausts his or her resources by taking on too much work. 

I like to think of myself as a pilot fish.  When I work for the corporation, I share it’s interests.  No, actually, to do good work, I believe I am obliged to identify deeply with the interests and objectives of the corporation and then to cease doing so when the study is over.  It’s a little like being an actor.  For the run of the play, you are that character.  The moment it’s over, you’re not. 

Pilot fish, unless I am mistaken, are fish that attach themselves to sharks, feeding as they feed.  And that’s what I am doing as a corporate consultant.  I am directed by corporate intentions.  I am consonant with corporate objectives.  And if I get this right, I feed as the corporation feeds.  But I am, at any given moment, a free standing entity,  capable of independence, of navigating on my own.

I am beginning to think that I am a pilot fish not just in my consulting life, but in the academic world as well.  Because 20 years of living outside the academic world, no longer a full time and tenured member of staff, this has caused me to rethink what I think, how I think and the objectives of my thinking.  I have fallen out of step with most anthropologists.  This pleases them, no doubt, because the majority of them think commercial work is done at the bidding of the devil.  This is their "take" on what I do. 

I have to say, as my little career pulls away from the world that is academic anthropology, more and more I find myself staring at a community of extraordinarily confining orthodoxy.  There are a couple of verities for clan anthropology, and pity the poor bastard (that would be me) who departs from them.  And I am left with a puzzle: how can a social science committed to a honest, open discourse manage to produce so little intellectual variety? It looks very much as if the experts on orthodoxy are actually the victims of orthodoxy.  And it does no good to say, anthropologist, heal thyself.  They would if they could but they can’t, apparently.  A culture has taken them captive.

So if I have something new (for me) to bring to this course, it is my opportunity to encourage these students to think about ethnography consulting.  As I way to fund their own ethnography, or that career in kite construction they have always hankered after.  Ok, got to go.  I am trying to think of a way of putting more of the course on line.  If anyone knows how to import powerpoint presentations into a TypePad blog, please let me know. 

2 thoughts on “The MIT ethnography course: my “pilot fish” model

  1. peter

    “And I am left with a puzzle: how can a social science committed to a honest, open discourse manage to produce so little intellectual variety?”

    The reason is academic peer review, which rewards the pedantic and micro-incremental at the expense of the bold and the original.

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