Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Renewing the Corporate Social Responsibility Agenda: What Is in the Corporate Toolkit for Social Change?


Business interests often claim that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is ‘the right thing to do’ and that acting responsibly is ‘good for business.’ Multinational firms have come together to create international conventions and business associations that establish and abide by audit standards for fair wages, safe working conditions, and they support the development and maintenance of public facilities and services necessitated by the additional local demands created by local operations. Out of an enlightened sense of self-interest, small and medium-size enterprises may also look out for their employees and suppliers, invest in their communities, protect the environment, and pave the way for a sustainable future.

Yet many skeptics place firms’ CSR activities in a broader historical and cultural context, and argue that these firms have prospered greatly in lax compliance regimes, where they have been singularly responsible for imposing local burdens while expropriating practically all the benefits. In this view, CSR activities are a way to soothe a guilty corporate conscience for not having done enough to oppose corrupt practices or licensing procedures until it became politically impossible to ignore. Moreover, in this view, CSR activities are regarded as a way to cloak the drive to accumulating more wealth and shareholder value, and to further subjugate the workers who bear the burden of difficult conditions and too little pay.

Ethnographic research does, and could be further mobilized to, help for-profit businesses become vehicles for social change (read the Call for Papers – Ethnography/CSR track!). Ethnography has demonstrated its potential to enable businesses and other organizations to:

  • Create a material positive impact on society and the environment
  • Expand their fiduciary duty to require consideration of non-financial interests when making decisions
  • Better report their overall social and environmental performance (using recognized third-party standards)
  • Better engage with policy and policy makers

Salvador Dali once said: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” If we are similarly ambitious and centered on building better business, social enterprise, and corporate policy, the question we should be asking ourselves is “How do we use business as a tool for social change?” And the answers we arrive at will almost certainly involve ways for harnessing the growing market demand for a “new” or “creative” capitalism, using an approach backed by benchmarks, promising practices, and perhaps even solid certification and standards.

We are curating the EPIC2016 paper track Ethnography/CSR to advance these ideas as a community (submit now!). We think the EPIC community has (or can find) instances where it is in fact good for business if privately held corporations create a material positive impact on society and the environment. Our community also can characterize the circumstances under which corporations expand their fiduciary duty to require consideration of non-financial interests when making decisions. We will all benefit from learning about the sorts of indicators or benchmarks that should be developed for monitoring performance, and the extent to which is there evidence that links the achievement of these benchmarks to the fulfillment of these commitments. Finally, we believe there is great utility in pointing out the audit opportunities for applied ethnographers, as well as the process improvement opportunities for guiding companies in their efforts to become more resource efficient and socially responsible.

We are especially interested in featuring accounts and critiques of:

  • Collaboration with industry KPIs (key performance indicators) that have successfully (or unsuccessfully) integrated with ethnographic research (guiding it, or using it for data points)
  • The extent to which existing ethnographic evidence can be (or has been) used to fulfill CSR commitments
  • The extent to which existing ethnographic evidence can be (or has been) used to motivate/mobilize internal organizational culture change
  • Experiences of evaluation and audit methodologies (for CSR or otherwise) employing applied ethnographers
  • Experiences of process improvement opportunities for guiding companies in their efforts to become more resource efficient and/or socially responsible (inside or outside of a “CSR” framework)

Send us your paper submissions for EPIC2016—and then, watch out Napoleon!

liebowEd Liebow is AAA’s executive director and an anthropologist with a history of environmental health and social policy research. In a previous incarnation, he served as EPIC’s treasurer and proceedings coordinator.

hitchEmilie Hitch is an applied anthropologist (Yale, LSE) whose work is rooted in the Common Good. From global agriculture corporations to Zambian smallholder farmers, modern philanthropists, Generation-Flux, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, she collaborates with people designing for social impact. She is also an MPA candidate at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs and a lecturer at the Carlson School of Business—both at the University of Minnesota—and an active board member for the Quetico-Superior Foundation and Eat for Equity.



Ed Liebow, American Anthropological Association

Emilie Hitch, Rabbit; EPIC2016 Papers Committee, Ethnography/CSR Curators