Studies on the complex relations between large mining corporations and local communities are almost exclusively community-oriented. They tend to depict the mining corporation as a monolithic, homogenous, faceless entity, reinforcing the opacity of ‘corporate power’. Ethnographic research inside corporations can deepen our understanding of these seemingly all-powerful institutions, of their internal dynamics, interests, boundaries, ambiguities, and responsibilities. But the ethnographic study of corporations poses particular challenges.

I have recently returned from a year of fieldwork in Colombia, where I conducted a ‘corporate ethnography’ of a large mining corporation, with a focus on its interactions and entanglements with local communities. This endeavour took me from shiny boardrooms at the Bogotá headquarters to drilling platforms in the lush Andean mountains, and from rural community information meetings on the benefits of mining to large community mobilisations against mining.

In this talk, I will reflect on some of the challenges of studying the corporation. How do you acquire access to a mining corporation, considering corporations’ ‘notorious reluctance to expose themselves directly to ethnographic scrutiny’? [1]. How do you navigate the corporate hierarchy and engage with actors at all levels? What are the issues associated with embedding yourself in deeply polarised local settings? In such settings, how do you build trust relationships with informants who tend to heavily mistrust one another? I will draw on my recent fieldwork experiences to discuss these and other questions. I will also reflect on the multi-sited nature of the ethnographic study of corporations, and the flexibility, pragmatism and opportunism this often requires.

[1] C Ballard and G Banks, ‘Resource Wars: The Anthropology of Mining’ (2003) 32 Annual Review of Anthropology 287, 290.

This talk will be of particular interest to (socio-legal) students interested in doing fieldwork, especially when this involves engagement with elite actors, ethnographic work in institutions, ethnographic work in polarised settings, and/or multi-sited ethnography. Please bring your questions for a constructive discussion!

 

Anneloes Hoff is a DPhil Candidate at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. Her research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, explores the legal and moral norms and principles governing the relations between large mining corporations and local communities. Based on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia, the project examines the ambivalent boundaries between the corporation and the community, and the contested processes that determine how the social responsibilities of a mining corporation are understood. Prior to starting her doctorate, Anneloes completed an MSt in Socio-Legal Research at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. Her thesis was awarded the 2017 Thesis Prize of the Dutch-Flemish Association for Socio-Legal Studies.