Sarah Muir on her new book, Routine Crisis

Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion, Muir

Interview by Kabir Tambar

Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?

Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.

Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?

Sarah Muir:  At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.

Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?

Sarah Muir:  Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.

Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?

Sarah Muir:  It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.

Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?

Sarah Muir:  I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.

Kimberly Chong on her new book, Best Practice

Best Practice

Interview by Johannes Lenhard

Johannes Lenhard: Your book is continuing a so far relatively short line of monographs in anthropology started by perhaps Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits, 2006), Bill Maurer (Mutual Life, 2005) and Karen Ho (Liquidated, 2009) tackling the wide sector of finance. What is your specific focus and intervention in the anthropology of finance with your study of management consultants in China? 

 Kimberly Chong: Although there is an established anthropological literature on high finance, by which I mean the work and expertise of finance professionals such as investment bankers, traders, and fund managers, rather less has been said about how financial value, financial logics and financial ideologies get transposed into non-financial spheres. In Best Practice I look to provide a corrective of sorts, by examining the work of financialization practiced by management consultants in China.

My research can be divided into two parts. Firstly, my book provides a close range analysis of how labour and work has been transformed under the aegis of financialization. I am interested in the forms of evaluation that management consultants instantiate in their clients, as part of their endeavour to create ‘high performance organizations,’ and which link notions of performance to financial value. Moreover, I explore how this linkage is circumscribed by practices of organizing and managing, and how it leads to the devaluation of certain kinds of labour. As well as being poorly paid, such labour is rendered precarious and vulnerable to outsourcing. Secondly, my book examines the specific instantiation of financializing a hitherto non-financial entity. The global management consultancy in which I carried out fieldwork was parachuted into Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to prepare them for initial public offering on international stock exchanges. It has been hired to install IT systems which are designed to operationalize ‘value-based management’, that is management with the overarching objective of creating shareholder value. Yet, as I demonstrate in the book, the way in which the consultants, most of whom are actually Chinese nationals, understand their work is not in terms of evangelising the gospel of shareholder value, but rather as a dream of state capitalism. They see their work as making SOEs, and by extension China, into a paradise – a place of modernity and development, on a par with advanced Western nations. This does not necessarily represent a weakening of, or disruption to, processes of financialization, rather I show that local structures of meaning can be appropriated to enact financialization.

Johannes Lenhard:-  You position your book squarely at the intersection of the anthropological study of ethics and the economy (closely related to Max Cam); what I would want to know more about is how you think about economic ethics (as opposed to ordinary ethics or the ethic of the ethical turn for instance)? What does ethics mean in the realm of the economy? 

Kimberly Chong: I carried out fieldwork during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2007/8 financial crisis. During that time I was disturbed by narratives, from the media and within academia, which suggested that the financial crisis was somehow causally linked to a kind of moral deviance. People were too greedy! We need more women in finance! The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they fail to recognise that the very system in which financiers are operating legitimate and circumscribe certain forms of action. As Janet Roitman has argued robustly, perhaps the financial crisis was not a crisis at all but rather the financial system working as it was intended. If that is so, then changing the people would not be the solution. Also, it would be very difficult for management consultants to do their jobs if they really thought they were perpetually creating harm, waste, or fraud. This became even clearer to me when, in another research project, I studied the decision-making of fund managers. For both management consultants and fund managers, it is important to have a belief that their actions are the right thing to do, or at the very least, have positive efficacy of sorts. I’m not saying that what they do is always right but having the belief that it is right or commendable in some way, is very important if management consultants are to stay management consultants. The way in which they claim moral righteousness or ethical legitimacy for their actions, may, of course, vary between different actors.

In terms of approach, I analyse how ethical coordinates for action are produced through systems which involve both people and things – documents, charts, IT interfaces – through which value is ascribed and produced. I show how economic value is always produced in concert with ethical values, the latter serving to legitimate the production of the former. As exemplified by the trope ‘best practice’, management consulting is the business of creating ethical injunctions through which their interventions are judged and valued, but then naturalized as value-free (in other words, ‘the best’).

Johannes Lenhard: Similar to Stein’s closely related monograph on consultants in Germany, you also have a strong focus on the idea of work. What kind of work is it that consultants are performing (also in relation to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’)? What’s the significance of that work particularly in the Chinese context and how do you see that work (and its impact) changing? 

Kimberly Chong: I start the book with a vignette which shows new consultants learning to face down the tricky question of what management consultants do. This is presented as almost unanswerable in part because of the rather particular nature of  management consulting which I argue is highly performative in character. By performative I mean, following the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Callon, that consultants are in the business of producing – performing – economic realities in which they can substantiate their claims to expertise, and thus the legitimacy of their interventions.

So what does that mean in practice? A lot of management consulting is about selling and instantiating systems of evaluation, or ‘performance management,’ which allow them to make claims about improving efficiency, and create imperatives to restructure, outsource or downsize. These systems generate a huge amount of work to run and maintain – there are people whose job it is to set up the system, others who monitor it, others who create policies to optimise performance within it. And for people whose performance is being measured, such systems significantly impact their experience of work which then becomes subordinated to the fulfilment of performance targets and legible measures of productivity.

Although Graeber doesn’t mention management consultants specifically, it is probably not unreasonable to say that they have fundamentally changed the nature of work, especially given the scale of their influence – there are few large organizations that haven’t hired a management consultancy at some point. Certainly, consultants have helped to produce jobs whose value is so tightly hewed to the production of certain kinds of representations – such as ‘best practice’, ‘high performance’ – that the content of these jobs becomes hollowed out of meaning.

In China the emphasis on performance marks a shift away from organizations run by principles of hierarchy and political or social connections. Many of my interlocutors told me they wanted to work in a global consultancy because they deemed it to be fairer, more meritocratic, and they explicitly linked these claims to performance management. In many ways they pose an interesting counterpart to the ‘bullshit jobs’ view; although many of them did question impact of their work on their clients, the meaning of their jobs came from the broader frames of value in which they were inscribed. As well as being more meritocratic, some Chinese consultants appreciated consulting as a way of honing their professionalism and expertise. Denigrated under socialism, expertise has been rehabilitated in the post-Mao era, and the fortifying of one’s professional capacities, even if this is done in a global company rather than domestic one, is seen as a means of contributing to the nation and China’s strength.

Johannes Lenhard:- I am also curious about documents in the consultants’ jobs. They use PowerPoint slides (both electronically and in print-outs) a lot.  How do people talk about expertise in relationship to these slides?  Were some people considered more skilled than others with PowerPoint, and how did people assess that skill? And given that these slides were so ubiquitous, how did these documents function to shape the work day and flow of information? 

Kimberly Chong: One cannot overstate the importance of PowerPoint! It was the main medium of written communication, not just with clients, but also within the consultancy. This meant that everyone developed their skill in using PowerPoint– support staff like HR, as well as consultants. Moreover, the legitimacy of one’s expertise was tightly linked to the use of PowerPoint, and this included my own expertise – in the book I mention how I had to present my own pitches for access and research collaboration through PowerPoint. So yes it was ubiquitous. At the same time, some PowerPoints are more important than others, an obvious example is the proposals for new business, which are very slick. Although within academia it’s fashionable to talk down PowerPoint, my time in consulting has meant I have seen what can be achieved with this technology. Or rather despite this technology. PowerPoint is not a graphic design software, which makes it very hard to make visually spectacular documents. It was not uncommon to have slide decks with over one hundred overlaid images – tiny arrows, shapes, lines – which would comprise intricate diagrams, flow charts, graphical representations. This is meticulous work and requires painstaking attention to detail.

One might wonder how useful it is to have highly educated employees spending so much time doing what is essentially intricate formatting work. However, these documents were crucial to performing and enacting economic realities. As I show in the book, PowerPoint diagrams such as ‘Change Tracking Map’ constitute a kind of epistemological intervention through which consultants substantiate certain claims about their expertise. Other PowerPoints play an important role in training consultants and socialising them into particular ideas of their own control and potency in conditions of uncertainty. For example, in training they are exposed to slides that contain charts and graphs which model the delicate matter of client relations in a pseudo-scientific manner.

Johannes Lenhard: Finishing with a methodological question, let’s talk about elites. You had issues with access which is nothing new when ‘studying up.’ Continuing an ongoing debate re-invigorated by among others Souleles, what were your specific issues with accessing your informants? What did you do about them and what were you still not able to do and study? 

Kimberly Chong: There were many challenges. I networked tirelessly for six months before I obtained access to a global management consultancy and my problems didn’t end once I had my entry pass. As all ethnographers of organizations know, access has to be continually negotiated and renegotiated during fieldwork, and at all levels of the hierarchy. Second, there was the challenge of studying an extremely large organization, which at the time, had over 4000 employees in its China arm. Third, how do you get people to talk to you in an environment where confidentiality is highly prized and where people come and go all the time (as consultants ‘roll on and off’ client projects)? I felt strongly that I needed ‘legitimacy’ – a position within the organization that allowed my interlocutors to make sense of me, and thus feel comfortable talking to me about their work.

The way I managed these multiple challenges was by collaborating with the consultancy. I become a member of its Human Capital Strategy Programme which was described to me as an initiative of ‘corporate culture’, hence certain employees felt that, as an anthropologist, I’d be well suited to joining. But this did not solve all my problems. Although I was able to obtain access to their ‘client sites’ which is where consultants actually spend most of their time, I was never allowed to speak to their clients and ask them what they thought about the interventions that were being prescribed to them. This was perhaps inevitable, given I was dependent on the management consultancy, and thus would not be allowed to do anything that could potentially compromise their relationship with clients. But having restricted or partial access is, to some extent, the same for all anthropological research. We can never have as much access as I we would like, and often one’s positionality has a big effect on what we can see and participate in. I don’t see this as a problem, as long we are clear about this in our writing.

Lastly, I want to mention something that isn’t often written about and that is the pace of fieldwork when your interlocutors are very busy people working under intense pressure. Because I could almost blend in with my interlocutors – I was a similar age, ethnicity, and educational background – I did. At one point I had worked four months with not one day off, like many management consultants do, and was still writing fieldnotes in the evening. In the end I paid the price with my own health – both in terms of physical and mental health. Looking back, I realise that in some ways the ethnographic method isn’t suited to this kind of fieldsite, and this is something that we should be cognisant of, and we should modify our methods accordingly. For me, I think taking regular breaks from the field, and not feeling like I should stay as long as possible, would have been helpful.