Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Salvage Ethnography never ends

One of the chief motivators for the development of ethnography, in the American experience, has been the desire to record the histories of non-literate societies before those societies and their cultures became extinct. In the 19th century, this concern was due to the incursions of western civilization and the affects of acculturation on these societies. Today, such a noble enterprise is seen as passe, especially in the light of globalization. Besides, except for New Guinea and the Amazon Basin, where are we going to find a "primitive” tribe to study?

But are we missing the point of our scientific purpose?

I live in Rhode Island, the home of industrialization in the United States where, in the 19th century, the power of the Blackstone river

provided the energy to build fortunes, and transform an agriculturally based local economy into a national and international powerhouse of manufacturing. And with this this development came its concomitant impact on the socio-economic-cultural life in the northeast United States.

The first influx of labor to staff the textile mills came from the farms changing the social structure of the country side. Later they came from French Canada, England, and Ireland. Craftsmen from Italy, and southern Europe came to man the emerging jewelery factories and related industrial complex. Germans and eastern Europeans immigrated drawn by the jobs in the machine tool industry. Each has left its mark on the landscape, yet their stories go largely untold.

Today I am surrounded by the artifacts and architectural remains of that era. In my life time, I have witnessed the decline of such great industrial giants as Brown & Shape Manufacturing, Nicolson File, Gorham Silver as well as the many smaller firms that fed, and fed off these companies and industries. Today many of these businesses no longer exist as Rhode Island's economy, like many other states, has been transformed into a largely service economy as manufacturing moved south and then off shore.

Much of this transformation has taken place over the past 40 years. Today there are many older workers and retirees who participated in that manufacturing culture. But like the survivors and veterans of WWII, these workers are dying off. And with them an insight into this important period in American culture history is being lost. Except for a few business historians, no one to my knowledge, especially ethnographers, is systematically engaged in salvaging this great period in American cultural evolution.

In my applied ethnography career as a consultant and business coach I have often found myself engaged in a process of salvage ethnography. Much of the history of small firms, and especially family owned firms, is not documented. I found that I had to first document the business traditions in order to get a handle on the client's socio-cultural dynamic before we can address the client's immediate concern.

As any good consultant knows, the client's presenting problem is rarely their real problem. Instead, it is just the final step in a process that has been going for some time. Getting a handle on the real problem is a process of uncovering the past and how it has created their present.

Over the past twenty some odd years as part of my consulting assignment, I have collected data from my business firm and non-profit clients. In many cases, I have written up a mini-ethnography or ethno-history for them as part of the final report. Many of these studies document the changing socio-cultural environment to which they have had to adapt to over their life time.

As I am approaching the end of my career, I wonder what will happen to these materials and the living and extinct institutions they represent. I have not seen any anthropological interest in these dying institutions nor their cultures. Neither have I found an appropriate outlet for publishing, disseminating, or archiving this type of material.

In our rapidly changing global economy with its impact on business firms, local communities, and industries, I feel that it is imperative for anthropologist to recognize the importance of conducting salvage ethnographic research. In order to document this phase of our culture history before its become lost to some future archaeologist's trowel, we need to collect the undocumented oral histories of these dying institutions before it is lost forever.

My question is: Has any anthropologist/ethnographer looked into this fruitful area of research? Are there others out there who feel the same about salvaging these dying institutions?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems you have identified two opportunities:
1. Publishing, disseminating, or archiving mini-ethnographies/ethno-histories.
2. Conducting salvage ethnographic research in order to document this phase of our culture history before it becomes lost.
If you could solve the first, it might draw attention to and show the value of the second. Would just getting the materials on the web suffice for that dissemination? That would at least make your materials accessible and the concept (from your examples) more concrete.