tommy.jensen@sbs.su.se johan.sandstrom@ltu.se

Engaged organization studies: response from Stuart Kirsch


Dear Johan and Tommy @ organizingrocks.org, I’d be happy to hit the ball back over the net. Thanks for blogging about Engaged Anthropology, and for continuing to host a very congenial interdisciplinary space to discuss questions about research in general, and positionality vis-à-vis the mining industry more specifically.

Here’s your first question:

  • Stuart, how do you (besides suggesting they should read your book) answer the type of critique we’ve mentioned above?

Constructive criticism is essential to academic scholarship, as are a diversity of perspectives, so I have no objection to the fact that fellow scholars might report on their disagreements and differences of opinion. Johan and Tommy present the following concerns raised by my critics— who, it is worth noting, were referring to my earlier book, Mining Capitalism, rather than Engaged Anthropology, although it is appropriate to consider their comments in relation to the new work as well: 

  • being dogmatic,
  • not robust enough, 
  • lacking symmetry [in its treatment of] different actors, 
  • not levelling stakeholders on equal footing
  • more activism than science etc.

Essentially these comments boil down to one thing, that in most of the eight case studies examined in Engaged Anthropology, I elected to align myself with one side of an ongoing conflict or dispute. So, for example: With the people affected by pollution from the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. In support of West Papuans seeking independence from Indonesia. In recognition of the loss and damage to persons and property caused by nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands. And in favor of states fulfilling their international obligations to indigenous peoples in the Amazon by recognizing their land rights, etc.

However, one of the chapters in the new book discusses a conflict between Native Americans and the museum of archaeology at my university over the disposition of human remains in its collections in which I tried to identify the common ground between the disputants rather than taking sides. It is ironic that this was the case for which the personal repercussions associated with my intervention were the greatest, not the interactions in which I supported one side in a conflict over the others.

But let me reply succinctly to each of the criticisms raised here: 

On being dogmatic: Chapter one of Engaged Anthropology, which reflects on my extended participation in the campaign against the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea, addresses this concern head on. This includes discussions left out of my earlier work due to their potential to harm my informants, a decision that is not unique to engaged anthropology but rather a concern that is widely shared among scientific researchers. The chapter also explains the value of articulating a legitimate perspective or point of view that has been excluded from the public domain. In addition, I do try to recognize competing points of view in my writing, even if only by way of critique. But in this chapter I also argue that it pays to revisit some topics later, when they no longer pose a risk to our informants.  

On being insufficiently robust: No single text can answer all of the questions it is possible to raise in relation to a given subject. So we have to prioritize. If academic work encourages others to ask new or excluded questions, that should count as a success rather than a shortcoming or failure. I’d rather write a text that prompts additional questions than one that closes down further discussion. 

On treating subjects asymmetrically: I must have been home sick from school on the day we were taught to treat all actors and their interests equally. Many potential research subjects already have the capacity to tell their own stories. This is especially true when we study corporations, as Johan and Tommy point out. With respect to the indigenous people I write about in my first book, Reverse Anthropology, I used to think about my work as a kind of ‘amplification’, referring to sharing the views of those with whom we work with larger audiences, which sometimes includes translating their perspectives into terms that make them comprehensible across cultural and linguistic divides. 

But in defense of Mining Capitalism, I do devote considerable space to allowing the mining company and its representatives to speak for themselves. One of the primary arguments in the book is that it is valuable to study how corporations engage with their critics. For this, one doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘embedded’ within the corporation. I acknowledge that other researchers elect to work from within the ‘belly of the beast’, although they need to be mindful of the powerful disciplining effects that corporations exert on their employees and researchers who chose this strategy, which can affect their representations and limit their access to other interested parties. 

On not levelling stakeholders on equal footing: This refers to treating all stakeholders evenly, whereas I would start out by questioning the concept of stakeholders, which assumes that all of the parties have commensurate interests in the matter. Mining companies want to extract valuable ore at low cost; communities may want employment and economic development, but they often have other interests as well, including the protection of their environments and health. 

On more activism than science: One of the arguments in the book, which I try to illustrate through the case study method, is that insights derived from engaged anthropology have the capacity to travel beyond the original context or research agenda rather than being limited to it. This, I think, speaks to the broader goal of science, which is to produce generalizable knowledge or insights. 

Now, on to your second question: 

  • Knowing that you want to destabilise the dichotomy between academic and engaged forms of research, we still need to ask: Can basic (phenomenon-driven, no idea of a solution etc.) and engaged research be a happy marriage?

No doubt we all agree that keeping an open mind about what we are studying is essential to good research. This becomes harder to do the more one knows about a particular topic. But in another sense, this may free up the researcher to ask other questions. 

Consequently, I would argue that there is adequate space in the academy for basic as well as engaged research projects. One shouldn’t have to pick and choose. Studying a new topic may throw you back into basic research mode; continuing to study that subject in new contexts will allow you to test and advance what you’ve learned before. As I suggest in the book, engaged anthropology always builds on prior research, and should also contribute back to scholarly debates.

Thanks again for the provocative questions and the opportunity to respond! 

cheers, Stuart