Michael Prentice on his book, Supercorporate

Interview by Katherine Chen


Katherine Chen: Your book Supercorporate, an ethnography of a multi-conglomerate steel company that you call Sangdo, argues that we can study corporations to understand the societies that they are embedded in.  In this case, South Korean society has moved towards post-hierarchical organizations.  Positions and differential rewards are no longer assigned based on gendered ideals or number of years of service, but rather upon collaborative teamwork conducted in the workplace and in after-hours activities. The ethnography offers the term “supercorporate ideal” as “the broader promise of corporations to realize and channel post- hierarchical forms of both interpersonal distinction and positive social interactions” (5).  It argues that the human resources (HR) department had the difficult tasks of facilitating these distinctions.  These distinctions include job titles tailored to reflect people’s status as they advance up the ranks Can you talk more about the decision to use this term supercorporate?  What does the term build upon?

Michael Prentice: I derive “supercorporate” from the conventional term for domestic conglomerates in Korean, daegieop (literally “large corporation”). The term daegieop is defined by state regulators to designate more oversight to conglomerates of a certain size, but the term also exists at the top of a status hierarchy of cultural-economic prestige; to say one’s spouse or child works at a daegieop says something. During my fieldwork within a human resources (HR) team at the ‘Sangdo Group’ which was technically a daegieop, I was constantly made aware of the broader fields of distinction that employees and managers understood themselves to be within – the Sangdo tower literally hovered above a neighborhood of other medium and small companies. However, at the same time, employees often commented how they saw themselves far below the (imagined) prestige or power of other name-brand daegieop like Samsung or Hyundai. In this sense, I use “supercorporate” not simply as a descriptor of big company culture vis-à-vis other organizational entities, but to conceptualize the broader cultural-organizational fields of distinction (and their shifting categories) which is imminent within any analysis of local organizational action in South Korea. In the book I try to argue that the supercorporate ideal reflects an imaginary of a type of organization which might be able to provide opportunities for both individual distinction and democratic participation; whether such a corporation or organization exists that perfectly achieves both is not the point, but it always was on the horizon of possibility for workplace aspirations.

Katherine Chen: How might other readers use this supercorporate concept to understand their own organizations, especially in other societies? 

Michael Prentice: The book hopefully should appeal to different scholars and fields, but one of my hopes for it and the concept of the supercorporate ideal is to draw attention (back) to the dynamics of organizational life. Understandings of conglomerate life in South Korea have long been tied to conglomerates’ historical role in the (post-)developmental state. These discussions have been pegged to political debates and issues around conglomerates’ relationships with the state, the role of owning families, and the macro-dynamics of global capitalism. These discussions have been important, but in my eyes, they have often overlooked two things: the investment in middle-class society in corporations as end points of intense educational strivings and the complex politics or inner workings of organizational life itself. Regarding the first, corporations are not just creatures of capitalism; South Korean middle-class society creates certain aura around corporate work as a legible marker of biographic success. Regarding the second, the internal dynamics of even a relatively unknown industrial conglomerate like Sangdo are extremely complex in and of themselves. Managers and employees navigate complex relationships with coworkers, teams, part-time workers, managers in factories and overseas branches, and so on – all while trying to align with broader ideals about what modern labor is supposed to be in the twentieth century. The broader uptake of South Korean cases has often been pegged to the discourse on the country’s developmental pathway which has often situated it at the ‘lagging’ end of economic trends and overshadowed by Japan and China. In my eyes, studies of South Korean organizations could drive a variety of topics at the nexus of organizational studies, anthropology, and sociology.

In reflecting since finishing the book – and especially now residing outside the US – the ambiguity or tension around what corporations are supposed to embody or do (as imagined vehicles of distinction or participation) I have found useful for thinking on other kinds of institutions, such as American universities. Culturally, American universities are intense vehicles of distinction, but are also seen as enablers of wider socio-economic participation or social mobility (erasing age-old distinctions). Many American families seem to want both – in the same ways that South Korean employees wanted to be both distinguished and to have flat relations with their co-workers. I don’t know if I’d call the American system ‘supercorporate’ in the same way, but I hope it might find uptake for other scholars who don’t just work on ‘corporate-y’ things.

Katherine Chen: The appendix describes your access to Sangdo.  You were able to connect via an alumni contact, and you were placed as an intern in the HR department.  You describe your placement as follows:

Team manager Jang was initially confused about what exactly I would do with the team. I was not put there as a researcher with an explicit plan that we had agreed on, nor was I particularly well qualified to do HR work. I was technically an intern, but not the typical university student studying business or economics with corporate aspirations. (In this sense, I am sure I was likely seen as a pure parachute by coworkers.) Nevertheless, on my first day, I explained to my coworkers in HR that I was an ethnographer who did research largely through observation and note-taking; everyone agreed to the basic informed consent protocol.  Likewise, I explained to everyone I met that I was also working on my PhD loosely around changes in office relations, technology, and communication in large companies. (p. 172-173)

How did your role change over time and in different settings, especially as you became involved in more “informal” activities?  In particular, you note how people may have felt obligated to include you in certain activities because of a perceived link with a leader, in the hopes that this inclusion would reflect well upon them and their unit.  In another area, you note how your lack of familiarity with McKinsey consulting firm approach of distinct, measurable categories made it difficult to complete an assigned slide presentation on categorizations.

Michael Prentice: The original manuscript did not originally have an appendix expressly discussing methods. I was glad that one of the reviewers suggested it and my editor was supportive of its inclusion. I found it useful to discuss how the shifting contours of presence and positionality at Sangdo as well as how my own interpretive lenses were shaped before and after formal fieldwork. At the company, the various intersections of identity categories were complex: my first entrée was through an alumni connection from the US. Accompanying that formal relationship co-existed forms of implicit prestige or aura around whiteness, Americanness, maleness, English-speaking, and education credentials that underlay many different interactions. At a practical level of working on the HR team, there was a noticeable transition from an unknown outsider to an insider that came with identifying myself as a member of the HR team, not just as a PhD student. In some ways that was a condition of possibility for certain kinds of access. But South Korean organizational life is good at finding new and emerging points of distinction to draw between yourself and others. For instance, despite a few years working in a marketing company prior to my PhD, my coworkers found my PowerPoint skills to be utterly lacking compared to another teammate who was called a ‘god of PPT’. I also came into awareness about the importance of higher-end consumer goods that are expected among white-collar office workers like monogrammed shirts, Rolex watches, and various golf accoutrements. One thing I perhaps did not expect was the way that one’s interactional footing constantly shifts at different organizational interfaces: within the team, I was the youngest intern with only a few responsibilities; outside of the team I was strongly pegged to HR and my team manager vis-à-vis other departments. Travelling to other floors, you then enact the identity of someone from the ‘upstairs’ holding company meeting a subsidiary. This reflects I think the basic dynamic of much of South Korean social life where one keeps close tabs on the different vectors of difference between oneself and many others.

Katherine Chen: The book also explicates how HR shrouds distinctions among employees and units in organizational secrecy, in the interests of preserving cooperation and cohesion:

One day in March 2014, the junior member of the HR team, Ki-ho, who sat adjacent to me printed out a large A3- sized spreadsheet and laid it across his desk. He was reviewing it with team manager Jang. Down the side of the spreadsheet were the names of each of the dozen subsidiaries of the Sangdo Group. Across the top of the spreadsheet were different categories: title system, promotion length time, average salary, annual bonus range, average vacation time, amount given for weddings and funerals, and a few others…. Its leak, even if inadvertent, could have wreaked havoc over the entire workforce of Sangdo. It was the only document of its kind that compared the discrepancies around personnel policies between subsidiaries. Distinctions between subsidiaries could be largely suspected or shared among employees, but an actual elaboration of the policies themselves was largely unknown. Revealing the document could throw off union negotiations, create competitions between subsidiaries, or lead to alienation if certain subsidiaries realized they were getting a different deal from others. (59-60)

Such secrecy also included not revealing survey results that might cause embarrassment for that unit.  Can you discuss more how secrecy can facilitate and obscure the development of a hierarchy based on differential resource allocations?

Michael Prentice: There are lots of aspects around secrecy and security in South Korean corporate life that I’ve written about recently; however, at the Sangdo holding company one thing that was always interesting was that employees and managers were aware of the difference between their cultural and organizational points of distinction vis-à-vis other offices (the people in the holding company certainly had more legible credentials than others), but from an information or resource point of view they were not bestowed with a panoptic view that others might have imagined they had. Holding companies in South Korea are sometimes categorized as modern versions of secretariats or control towers where the most important secretive information in a conglomerate is stored and all the power is held. At the holding company, many of the teams had just been formed and their cultural credentials outweighed their organizational powers. I describe in the book for instance how they often had to rely on handmade Excel sheets rather than powerful ERP programs for storing information. The perception of this fact – that the holding company perhaps was not as all powerful as its floor position indicated – was something that HR managers and others actively managed as they worked with individual subsidiaries. This gave me a new way of looking at fairly standard genres like an employee survey to think about what kinds of information asymmetries they were attempting to create and why people in high-up offices rely on those kinds of genres rather than others, like master plans or direct orders for instance. In some ways, then, there were always two secrets kept – one about the perceived content of various forms (which individually might be powerful) but also about the larger secret of the holding company’s (lack of) relative power at the time, at least in comparison to the image of distinction such putatively elite labor was imagined to have.

Katherine Chen: In another chapter, your book describes the phenomena of chonghoe-ggun or “meeting extortionists.” These stockholders attempt to disrupt meetings through asking questions at public meetings, in the hopes of getting pay-outs.   In the US, we might characterize this question-asking as shareholder activism instead.  What does their attempts to smooth over these stakeholders’ claims say about corporate capacity to deal with such public confrontations?

Michael Prentice: Shareholder activism is certainly popular and dynamic in South Korea. What I found interesting about the form of shareholder meetings is that there are many different actors who take an interest in corporate meetings who all must pass through the strange format of the shareholder meeting itself which still embodies a kind of 19th century parliamentary norm. This norm sets the conditions for a particular kind of democratic participation that are helpful for thinking about what we mean by workplace democracy. Ethnographically, I was able to see how employees changed their everyday roles to help run the event and sometimes participate in it (as actual shareholders). In this context, chonghoe-ggun are extortionists who take advantage of the right to speak that comes with an ownership share. As shareholders themselves, they can raise questions of directors and are protected by law as long as they follow the meeting rules. (This is not unprecedented in the US where Evelyn Davis used provocative outfits and colorful language for similar purposes for many decades). As I’ve researched the general phenomenon through news reports and discussions with different finance managers in South Korea, the goal of extortionists is not necessarily to gain a meaningful change in corporate oversight like an activist might but to generate enough annoyance that a company might find it easier to pay them off. What this says about broader attempts at corporate takeovers via shareholder meetings I can’t say, but I do find shareholder meetings to be a quite radical genre compared to other aspects of everyday organizational life; they break down and re-present corporations as gradated ownership interests who have protected speaking rights, not necessarily as unified entities. Even though chonghoe-ggun are disliked by many (including sincere minority shareholders), they nevertheless have a right to claim a part of the pie, so to speak, which sometimes looks like activism.

Katherine Chen: In the US, the on-going pandemic has reduced in-person contact at some organizations.  Some professionals are working from home, perhaps indefinitely in the case of the tech sector.  How have companies such as Sangdo fared? What are the implications for how workers grapple with ggondaeryeok (old-man power) of overwork and forced conviviality? 

Michael Prentice: In the time since my fieldwork ended in 2015, lots has changed in South Korean work life. Most recently, of course, the ongoing pandemic has forced many people to work from home which was unheard of when I was there; all work was done at the office and it was almost unthinkable to take documents or computers out of the building. Even before the pandemic, though other regulations have come into effect: on gift-giving and entertainment limits with public officials (the Kim Young-Ran Act of 2016) and on maximum work time 2018 (maximum weekly working hours was capped at 52 in 2018). Yet many of the big challenges are framed in similar terms: as I discuss in the third chapter of the book, attempts at purifying offices implicitly address a male-dominated and hierarchical culture which is supposed to be an object of the past, but seems to keep hindering the progress of South Korean work culture. ‘Generation talk’ (sedaeron) in South Korea is particularly productive for explaining these where the older and outdated one is holding back the newer generation – just this past month even the chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce promised to get rid of “old man” culture and improve communication with a number of large corporations signing on. Given the intense concentration around corporate work, pressures around teamwork and tenure, and the way ranks are stratified in many ways, however, I don’t know if all problems can be explained by simply generational conflict. In 2019, the Workplace Harassment Act was passed and over 10,000 cases have been reported to a harassment help line since then, according to one report. I suspect the pandemic may have removed some of the more iconic forms of workplace harassment, but the dependence on digital connections may have created new issues of their own. For my next research, I am curious how new private worker messaging platforms are affording new kinds of open discussion but also leading to other kinds of interpersonal hazards.

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