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Hotel Tivoli

The Politics of Visibility: When Intel Hired Levi-Strauss, or So They Thought

by Rogério de Paula and Vanessa Empinotti

Originally published in the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings (2008:302–315).

Abstract: This paper examines the politics of visibility – the ways in which the work of ethnographers is positioned inside and outside organizations not only as means of unpacking the “real-world” but often as means to create business and marketing differentiation. We contend that the institutional embeddedness of ethnographic practices shapes “the where,” “the who,” “the what,” “the how,” and “the when” of doing ethnography. Thus, the choice of sites, who and what researchers choose to make ‘visible,’ the narratives about the field, and how and when they tell them are not without political and business weights. To examine visibility as this political question, we shifted our gaze from ethnography as a methodology and practice to ethnography as a part of a broader business and marketing discourse and strategy. Specifically, we explore a few particular encounters with the field and the organization that took place in course of two studies conducted in Brazil.

“While their functions and sources of authority as experts are quite different from journalists, anthropologists often function nowadays like the best and deepest journalists—certainly their experiences of other places, of sites of research and reporting, are similar today.” George Marcus (2008)


When asked whether the contemporary world with its oft-televised “clashes of cultures” needs more anthropologists, George Marcus (2008) responded positively. He nonetheless added that we do not necessarily need those “à la Malinowski or Boas” (or Lévi-Strauss, for that matter), for they most likely would not be prepared (epistemologically and methodologically) to adequately study and have significant insights about today’s world complexities. He goes on asserting that such a mode of ethnographic knowing and doing – journalistic of sorts (see above quote) – sets ethnographers to deliver their intimate views of the field, but not necessarily in a critical manner which questions and unearths the entanglements of doing ethnographic fieldwork. It has been over two decades since Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986) and Marcus and Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986) marked a turn toward a broader awareness of the representation problem, anthropologist’s authority, and fieldwork politics. However, we – the imagined ‘we’ of social scientists, designers, and related professionals doing ethnographic work in the industry that Nafus and Anderson trenchantly unsettled in their 2006 EPIC paper – still find ourselves presented with a predicament: while the (market and business) possibilities that ethnography can bring to bear to business still dazzle us, the full extent of ethnography’s entanglements has not been fully realized, let alone appreciated.

This idea challenges us to question that maybe our emblematic, unproblematic epistemic (and methodological) commitments of detangling, unpacking, unveiling “real people’s real needs and wants” – making the strange become familiar – are a myopic take on the role and value of ethnography. As Nafus and Anderson (2006) put it, such a discursive marker, which “we ourselves have created to persuade others to grant us positions that historically have seemed implausible” (p.244), has taken us thus far to a place where ethnography has been embraced and become a legitimate, common practice as well as part of a firm’s marketing repertoire of caring about and understanding “our clients.” At the same time, the reification of such a reductionist notion of ethnographic knowing and doing – “butterfly collecting” – risks limiting (and even hampering), on the one hand, the ways in which we can contribute to product development, marketing and business strategy, and on the other hand the kinds of ‘research’ work we are asked to perform and how.

However, we do not wish here to rehash this discussion vis-à-vis the meanings of ethnography in the industry, the ways in which ethnography has been constituted internally through discourses of “real people, real needs. The entanglements of ethnography knowing and doing have been discussed extensively elsewhere [e.g., in the context of research consultants and clients (Sunderland and Denny, 2007) and ethnographers in the organization (Nafus and Anderson, 2006, Baba 2005)]. Instead, we shift our attention to the ways in which the industry constructs notions of ethnography as a means to unveil new market opportunities and as part of its broader business and marketing discourses and strategies. In other words, as ethnography practices become part and parcel of current business “grand narratives” of understanding and addressing customers’ needs; they are in turn shaped by corporate practices, values, and discourses – they become institutionalized. This institutional embeddedness of ethnographic practices in turn shapes “the where,” “the who,” “the what,” “the how,” and “the when” of doing ethnography. The choice of sites, who and what researchers choose to make ‘visible,’ the narratives about the field, and how and when they are told are not without political and business weights. In other words, the choices of visibility become political and economic questions.

This paper thus examines the politics of visibility – the ways in which the work of ethnographers is positioned inside and outside organizations not only as means of unpacking the “real-world,” but as means to create business and marketing differentiation. In particular, we explore the specific dynamics between research, field and organization using two specific examples from our own research during two separate studies conducted in Brazil. These examples underscore the dual nature of visibility – the visibility of ethnographers themselves and the visibility of their work, inside and outside the corporation – as well as the choice of which things to make visible. To analyze these situations, we utilize feminist notions of field positionality and reflexivity. We contend that the visibility of ethnographers is no longer just a matter of how they position themselves relative to the field, people, and local cultural practices and values, but how ethnographers are positioned (and their identity rendered) in the field as a result of complex interactions among business goals, people’s intents, and their research aims. In other words, in the field, ethnographers not only work for the company and do research, but they are subjectified by it (in Foucault’s language) where their visibility or invisibility reflects the images with which people and the business endow them.

Ethnographic (Business) Encounters

Central to the discussion of visibility is the positionality of ethnographers in doing fieldwork and analyzing their field experiences. In contrast to the classic ‘outsider’ framework, where an ethnographer is positioned in respect to and opposition to the ‘other’ (the insider), increasingly a more fluid notion of positionality is undertaken. As a ‘positioned subject’ (Hastrup, 1992), the ethnographer’s identity (and consequently his/her practices) is constituted and shaped through encounters with the business and the field that take place before, during, and after the fieldwork. For better or worse, the creation of this ethnographic brand by the industry (Nafus and Anderson, 2006) has in part rested on the auspice of “real people’s real problems” – a manifest marker of a firm’s interests in understanding their customers. This perspective positions us, ethnographers, as “the link” between the business and the outside reality, and consequently shapes the business expectations concerning what ethnographic research is all about as well as the types of deliverables and influences we are supposed to offer. On the other hand, our positionality in the field is shaped by the ways in which we perform and display our research and work relations, and in turn the perception of who we are (or what we represent) shapes how people (or subjects, or users) engage with us.

From the choices of sites, participants, and questions to the actual conducting of the ethnographic work, fieldwork is not without the influence of an economy of power relations1. Sunderland and Denny (2007) discuss the politics of segmentation when selecting ‘authentic’ subjects and researchers. They described the trajectory through which subjects and fieldwork were shaped by preconceived notions of race and ethnicity (in terms of skin color, native language, authentic culinary, (low!) income group, and other categories.) and authentic interactions (e.g., research conducted by researchers of the same ‘racial group’ as those researched). In doing research in the industry, particularly at a global scale, sites as well as ‘users’ are subject to business ‘interests’ and perceptions, which shape as well as limit the range and types of ethnographic possibilities. Geographies are contingent on and defined by business interests (i.e., possibilities of revenue growth) and categories (i.e., market segmentations), as the ‘classic’ division of the world market into the ‘US’ and the “rest of the world” categories (Nafus and Anderson, 2006).

In the politics of visibility, the strange and unique to be revealed is no longer ‘the local’ alone, but ethnographers themselves. They become the subject of and subject to inspection by their “local subjects” as well as marketing strategists. This by and large shifts researchers’ positionality in the field. In addition, our multi-sited ethnographic efforts do not simply follow the ‘issue,’ by means of a thread of established logical associations among sites, as defined by Marcus (1995) – as though research choices were devoid of power relations – but often follow the ‘business.’ In all these respects, the choices of what, who, and when to make visible (or invisible for that matter) is as much a research concern as an economic and political one.

On the other hand, when conducting fieldwork we often encounter situations in which our presence and interaction with informants impacted and was impacted by local power relations. These types of concerns are related to power differences between researchers and researched, thoroughly discussed by feminists and post-structural researchers in terms of reflexivity and positionality (England 1994; Wolf 1997; Crag 2005). The importance of reflexivity is not just that it contextualizes and deepens interpretations for exploring the politics of knowledge production and the social processes that knowledge produces, but that it also assists in questioning how things are conducted. In particular, reflexivity suggests that researchers diligently and systematically reveal their methods, encounters, and themselves as instrument of data generation and analysis. In addition, researchers must also reflect on the ways in which their choices (of data selection/representation, medium of communication, issue/subject visibility, for example) impact how their research audiences construct the meanings of the work (and draw conclusions thereof) and how those researched are in turn affected (or may be affected) by it [Sunderland and Denny (2007) discuss reflexivity based on Ruby’s work (2000)].

Reflexivity suggests a critical analysis of the ways in which different identities are endowed to researchers during fieldwork as well as the political and power natures of researcher’s relationships with their informants and those researched [Landes (1994) and Goldstein (2003) for rich accounts of the complex nature of such relationships]. Elsewhere, Empinotti (2007) discusses how the use of multi-sited ethnography allowed her to work with different informants and to meet many research subjects, and consequently created the opportunity to observe how these interactions influenced data collection. In order to understand the processes of differentiation between researcher and researched, Empinotti discussed positionality in three circumstances: how she, as a researcher, became part of the social structures of power present in the sites where she conducted her fieldwork; how the interviewees’ expectations toward the impact of her work in their lives influenced their answers; and how the recognition of commonalities between herself (as a Brazilian woman) and the researched influenced their answers. In a somewhat similar fashion, Halstead (2001) describes the fluidity of her positionality (and her ‘self’) in the field as dynamically and contingently constructed and negotiated by those researched according to their own interests. Both studies significantly demonstrated how being an ethnographic subject (i.e., the focus of outside interests – “why would someone care about us?”) was appropriated by those researched (and informants for that matter) as a manifest means to perform and confer status and power, locally.

People are not ‘blind’ to who we are as researchers (and industry representatives), what we do (or should do from their perspective), and how it impacts (or should impact) their lives. In fact, informants actively manage and negotiate our work in the field, for instance, they organize the research settings (select subjects or sites) according to their perception of the impact of the research on, say, their power relations (or status) with the local community in question, or on the community in general. After the third site visit, working with the same informant as part of an ongoing research project in Salvador, Brazil, de Paula’s informant told him that one of the reasons he chose to bring the research team to that particularly poor community was in the hope that by doing so ‘the outside world’ would become aware of this community’s everyday reality and “do something about it.” He was rather surprised when the mother of those interviewed, who at that time was living in a “palafita” (a slum shack hanging over the water), blatantly told de Paula that he should only return after he had something to give them (she was categorical on saying something to “give” as opposed to “offering”). By making his choices public, this informant in fact greatly influenced the interpretation of the research and analyses.

Recruiting can also be subject to political choices, both at organization and local arenas. The economics of the market segment determines which groups will be counted as research subjects. That is to say, the ways in which organizations class people according to business interests, strategies, and technologies, socio-demographic and market indicators, and broader socio-economic discourses influence what and who to be rendered visible or invisible. For instance, almost half of the world’s population turned visible to businesses as their category shifted from ‘the poor’ to consumers. As a result, new business strategies and new technologies were devised to address the new market opportunities, which in turn demanded more research to understand this newly ‘emerging’ category. On the other hand, the local choices of participants are also subject to local politics – power hierarchies and strategies. Time and again the difficulties in reaching participants beyond key stakeholders have to do with local power strategies, for instance, stakeholders wielding power by controlling the access to as well as selecting participants (Empinotti, 2007).

In deconstructing ethnographic encounters – prior, during, and after fieldwork – we do not attempt here to make any assertion of the validity of ethnographic work, nor of the merits of academic ethnographic work over those in the industry. Instead, we are interested in reflecting upon and investigating the entanglements of ethnographic doings and knowing (see Sunderland and Denny, 2007) for a reflexive and honest discussion of common realities and dilemmas of fieldwork. In what follows, we will narrate and discuss two particular experiences of researchers being made subjects – “positioned subjects” – in the field. In one study, we explore the ways in which the company’s PR created a “media hit” by exposing to the press de Paula’s ethnographic work of during “Campus Party” – a week-long event where “geeks” of all sorts camp, network, blog, crack codes, share war-stories, and the like. The ethnographic work was taken and dealt with as a business differentiation that spurred media attention, and curiosity of sorts, and create “free PR.” In the other study, we explore Empinotti’s positionality as a result of people’s attitudes and expectations toward the organization for which she was working as a consultant. Particularly, we were struck by the ways in which the ethnographic work was rendered visible or invisible as ethnographers positioned themselves either as a company’s representative or as a researcher. In the end, the work was deemed interesting to the extent that it represented a possibility of business relationships.

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