Complicit Positioning: Anthropological Knowledge and Problems of ‘Studying Up’ for Ethnographer-Employees of Corporations


  • Mitchell W Sedgwick London School of Economics, Department of Anthropology



Corporate ethnography, anthropology of business, positionality, ‘studying up’, ‘culture(s) of secrecy’, crisis of representation, complicity, para-ethnography


Contemporary work by ‘corporate ethnographers’, as employees of businesses, offers a refreshing perspective on Anthropology’s ‘crisis of representation’ and its extensions—from neo-colonial concerns and reflexivity, to para-ethnographic and recursive approaches—that are increasingly characterized by complicit relations between ethnographers and their informants/‘collaborators’. This article focusses on the history and politics of ethnographers’ positionality in field research and the analytic products of, and audiences for, their work. It contrasts the often confounded labor of ‘anthropologists of business’ with that of ‘corporate ethnographers’, who work for businesses, while highlighting that, for both, the ‘studying up’ (Nader 1974 [1969]) methodology required for research at business sites disrupts assumptions surrounding the politics of traditional ethnographic fieldwork. Tracing shifts in core interests across general Anthropology, it is argued that close attention to new sitings and circumstances of fieldwork—including studying up in businesses—could productively drive reconsiderations of methodology, ethics and, therefore, epistemology in Anthropology.

In this context, corporate ethnographers, who are often formally trained in Anthropology, are specifically encouraged to analytically engage with the problematics of their perhaps-awkward complicities with their employers. It is suggested that, alongside the work of anthropologists of business, corporate ethnographers—should they choose to do so—are well-positioned to assist in exposing the black box of the culture(s) of secrecy through which the work of corporations intimately penetrates modern life.

Author Biography

Mitchell W Sedgwick, London School of Economics, Department of Anthropology

Mitchell W Sedgwick has conducted fieldwork among minorities, the aged, and in rural communities in Japan but, from the early 1990s, has focused ethnographically on Japanese multinational corporations’ headquarters and subsidiaries in Japan and abroad, including long term projects in Thailand, France, and on the US-Mexican border. Current fieldwork includes a factory community’s ‘recovery’ from Japan’s March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. More broadly, Mitch engages anthropological theory and methodology in relation to the study of formal organizations. He holds a BA and a PhD in Anthropology, respectively, from UCSC and the University of Cambridge, where he was attached to King’s College, and has an MALD from The Fletcher School, Tufts.  Mitch has held positions at Harvard, University of Tokyo, Cambridge, and Oxford Brookes University, and had an earlier career as an organizational anthropologist at The World Bank. He is currently Senior Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the LSE.