Sunday, March 6, 2011

Guest Post: On the Transition from Academic Anthropology to Commercial Ethnography - A Writer's Perspective

As an academically trained writer and former university instructor, I was quite interested in the opportunity to read and write about how other former academics had transitioned into the commercial world. When my university position—I was a term instructor at a state research university teaching Technical Writing to undergraduates—was defunded and my contract not renewed, I was forced to figure out how I could apply my academic talents to earn a steady paycheck. So far, despite my only having found success as freelancer, I've learned a lot about this transition, and much of it mirrors what I have read about the transition between academic anthropology to commercial ethnography. Academically trained writers and anthropologists often take with them, leave behind, and modify similar concepts and skills when making this transition.

In this interview with Gavin Johnson right here on EthnoSnacker, I found the subject illuminating and was impressed with how much Johnson's story described my own transition. He said, "Don't get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it's difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms—they simply don't speak the native tongue. Some, like myself, are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else."

These words, in my opinion, describe the transition process in three steps, and, although I was not trained as an anthropologist, I still went through a similarly rigorous academic program of study, and so I can see it at work even in my own life. The three steps of this process require an anthropologist to understand and appreciate the theoretical roots of his or her training, to learn a new language—in other words, they must develop a corporate literacy, and to modify that past theoretical training into a streamlined understanding of how it can be applied to business principles.

Look at the example Johnson gives when asked about his favorite insight: the story of telling Miller Brewing that taste was not important, but socializing equally is. In order to come to that conclusion, I'd wager that Johnson had to approach the case from whatever theoretical system he had found most viable while at university. He mentions structuralism, so no doubt he examined the system of signs prevalent among Miller Brewing's target audience. But he had to become corporate-literate in order to know how to modify his theoretical background on behalf of his client, which means he had to be able to understand the needs of his client, which they no doubt stated in corporate-based language: 'moving units,' 'paradox of consumer choice,' and so on. Notice how Johnson speaks in corporate language here: the phrases 'blue collar' and 'white collar' and 'sharing experiences' are the corporate equivalent of the anthropologist's notion of 'cross-subgroup social interaction.'

Ultimately, the interview helped encourage me, a former academic still in search of career stability in the business world. From Johnson's story I have learned that there are ways to make the transition. For example, my understanding of rhetoric as it applies to argumentative writing can be applied to creating web content that is search engine optimized. The principles are the similar—in both cases, I'm writing for an audience—even if the contexts are different. In the first case, I was writing and teaching within the walls of the university, in which my audience was made up of my students and fellow peers. In the second case, I was writing for an audience of clients, those who might give me freelance work, and their clients, those who might visit their websites for dynamic content. I no longer explicitly rely on my theoretical knowledge, and I've had to learn a whole new corporate language, and as a result, I've been able to bring the two together to create a meaningful career plan for myself.

This guest contribution was submitted by Jamie Davis, who specializes in writing about masters degree


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