Virtuality and corporations

Mike Prentice

November 2018

Every once taken-for-granted domain in anthropology—family, religion, nature, time—has become subject to epistemological or ontological re-evaluation, and with good measure.  Strangely, the business corporation has remained an enduring analytical fixture on the anthropological landscape.

Even as virtual organizations and paper companies have widened our view of the form corporations take, the profit-minded, capital-bearing, super-human image of the corporation still persists, if only as an ideal-type. Yet we might apply the same questions of knowing to an entity that is, after all, a relatively recent legal fiction and organizational invention.

This might seem a trite theoretical digression in an era when global corporations are becoming simultaneously more visible but harder to pin down, through advents in shareholder capitalism, sophisticated branding, transnational management, multi-layered ownership structures, and obscure debates around corporate entityhood. Yet it is precisely these new qualities – distributed, deterritorialized, and increasingly digitized—that should prompt us ask what corporations are in the first place. More importantly, we might ask how actors tangentially connected to corporations come to know and see them. In my own research on Korean conglomerates (so-called chaebol), it was common for employees and social critics alike to treat them as singular bodies or cultures, even though conglomerates themselves exist largely as social fictions.

We have now passed the era of what Gerald Davis has called the “the Berle and Means corporation.”[i] This conception of corporations saw them as singular economic forces and powerful administrative and social institutions that seemed to exist in perpetuity beyond the life of their members. Corporations of today are much different of course, nevertheless the ideal type persists. Yet where anthropologists could once complicate Western assumptions through cases where it is otherwise (e.g., the Korean corporation or the Norwegian corporation), we still need to be careful about reifying even non-Western corporations as trans-cultural objects.

We might ask instead how is it that corporations as entities, objects, or agents appear to citizens, communities, employees, shareholders, and analysts. That is, where do people see corporations? Perhaps equally importantly, where do they not see corporations? My students are often surprised to hear that not-for-profits, churches, and universities are legal corporations even though they don’t appear to make money.

While once-heated debates about the reality and virtuality of economic models and markets have cooled off,[ii] the increasingly fractional ways we encounter corporations may provide new fruit for reigniting such conversations. In the meantime, for anthropologists seeking to broaden their own encounters with corporations, here are five readings that I have found useful in re-animating how I come to know and see corporations.

Anteby, Michel. 2003. “The ‘Moralities’ of Poaching: Manufacturing Personal Artifacts on the Factory Floor.” Ethnography 4(2):217-239.

Anteby, a sociologist conducting work like an anthropologist while working out of a business school, shows us a different kind of moral ambiguity at work than we normally expect in corporate-employee encounters. Employees at a French aerospace factory “illegally” make things at work for their personal use, a practice known as “poaching.” Factory workers are not interested in overt resistance to corporate authority, but exercise their own sub rosa economy over things made at work, suggesting that employees also partake of corporate property for private and social ends.

Ciepley, David. 2013. “Beyond Public and Private: Toward a Political Theory of the Corporation.”  The American Political Science Review 107 (1):139-158.

Ciepley’s article provides a concise description of how we can conceptualize corporations in terms of political theory. In identifying four core aspects of modern corporate personhood, his account may tell us as much about what corporations are not as much as what they are. That is, we should recognize what marks corporate personhood as a unique set of rights (having a status separate from its members, the ability to enter contracts, for instance) while recognizing that other dimensions that we commonly associate with corporations are simply part of a wider corporate register (marketing, PR, human resources) that have become pervasive across organizational types. Thus to speak of “corporatization” should have us delineate between the spread of corporate-originated technologies and actual incorporation as a legal person.

Giskeødegård, Marte. 2016. “O Organization, Where Art Thou? Tracing the Multiple Layers of Ambiguous and Shifting Boundary Processes in a Formal Organization.” Journal of Business Anthropology 5 (1): 116-136.

Giskeødegård’s account of a transnational Norwegian company’s operations in Argentina points to the difficulty of locating corporate-organizational boundaries, especially within a single multinational entity. The article points not to lines as distinguishing features of borders (as organization charts would suggest) or even national borders (à la legal theory), but of objects that mediate relationships amongst organizational actors, such as computer systems, business cards, and even company t-shirts.

Iwai, Katsuhito. 1999. “Persons, things and corporations: The corporate personality controversy and comparative corporate governance.”  American Journal of Comparative Law 47 (4):583-632.

Iwai points to a basic metaphysical conundrum at the heart of corporate legal theory: corporations appear as both persons and things (a corporation can buy a corporation, for instance). For Iwai, this is not a mistake, but a misrecognition of the fact that corporations beget a double ownership relation: shareholders as owners of a corporation, and the corporation as owners of assets. If anything, Iwai’s article reminds us that legal debates are not just about entrenched ideological positions, but that jurists themselves continue to “discover” aspects of corporations buried in plain sight.

Rogers, Douglas. 2012. “The materiality of the corporation: Oil, gas, and corporate social technologies in the remaking of a Russian region.” American Ethnologist 39(2):284-296.

How do corporate registers, or other assemblages of meaning, borrow from other material regimes? Rogers’ article suggests that state corporations in Russia do not partake of a uniform or global corporate register but also draw alignments through a post-socialist cultural register. Corporations partake of the same cultural semiotics that animate politics of state and society.

[i] Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means were the authors of a widely influential book on the evolution of corporations in the United States, The Modern Corporation and Private Property. See Gerald Davis, “The Twilight of the Berle and Means Corporation,” Seattle Law Review 2011, 34(4) 1121-1134.

[ii] See Daniel Miller, “Turning Callon the right way up,” Economy & Society 2002, 31(2) 218-233, and Michel Callon, “Why virtualism paves the way to political impotence: A reply to Daniel Miller’s critique of ‘The laws of the market’” Economic Sociology: European Electronic Newsletter 2005, 6(2) 3-20.