Accepted paper:

Time, biography, memory, and the evasive vessel of place


Mitchell W Sedgwick (London School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers two decades of ethnography, on three continents, among members of a large corporation, as the collecting together of biographies. Time enhances the scope of research while allowing us to understand place, made evasive by time's passages, as temporary configurations of social relations.

Paper long abstract:

This paper considers the evolving biographies and ethnographic outcomes of fieldwork across the long term and, perhaps somewhat unusually, in widely dispersed places, based on two decades of research at a multinational corporation, at sites - factories, offices and their surrounding communities - on three continents. (Each site (in Japan, Thailand, France, and on the Tex-Mex border) was initially engaged through extended fieldwork, and has been multiply visited.) The paper reflects on the intersections between an anthropologist and his interlocutors as de facto alignments of our respective (life and career) pathways. With fieldwork punctuated by often-considerable time gaps, the production, diminishment, and reclamation (sometimes in entirely different places) of social relations collect together our biographies as special relationships deepened by intertwined experience. Meanwhile, shared and unshared time carves its own routes, enhancing the possibilities for research. The facts of life across time - changes in informants' relations to the corporation itself, from promotions to retirement, the closing of factories, natural disasters - turn both experience and, often, place itself into (mere?) memory. Reflections on shared pasts seem to sweeten the irretrievable, and biography itself. They also throw the fact of the fiction of 'the corporation' - or any institutional configuration, if not the meaning of 'place', tout court - into stark relief. With time, the ethnographer is reminded that the prospects for an 'anthropology of the corporation' have nothing to do with relations with the corporation, but only to do with the social relations constituting such a placement, and its anthropology.

panel P07
Reason and passion: the parallel worlds of ethnography and biography