Gwendolyn Gordon, Ph.D. Anthropology

Maori Acumen: Talking Business and Talking Culture in an Indigenously Owned Corporation

Thu, 01/24/2013
12:30 PM, 438 Robertson Hall
Event Category: 
Job Talk
Graduate Students

Please join us for a a practice job talk on Thursday, January 24, when Gwendolyn Gordon will discuss, "Maori Acumen: Talking Business and Talking Culture in an Indigenously Owned Corporation."

Abstract:  "The classic concept that capitalism erodes community and culture (Simmel 1990 [1907]) has been increasingly challenged in recent years (see, e.g., Keane 2008, Maurer 2005). Taking their cues from recent work on the quotidian and the small-scale in the study of finance (Maurer 2002, Miyazaki 2005, Miyazaki and Riles 2005), a number of researchers have endeavored to counter the characterization of the corporation as a seamless, inexorable force (Bose and Lyons 2009; Benson and Kirsch 2010; Welker et al 2011). In this regard, the ethnographic method has proved particularly valuable because of the way that it can illuminate the truly social lives of large institutions through attention to the ambivalent, the quotidian, and the technical (Fisher 2006; Holmes and Marcus 2005; Riles 2005, 2006; Strathern 2000). Through this work, one-dimensional stories of corporate harm or domination give way to alternative stories of corporate behavior. Despite this work, however, and despite some recent work on corporations owned by indigenous and other minority ethnic groups (Catellino 2008, 2011; Cook 2011; Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), neither the legal nor the anthropological literature has adequately addressed indigenous agentive engagement with corporate ownership – in all of its negatives and positives. In law and in anthropology, this oversight leads to an oversimplification of indigenous peoples and their struggles -- and of the corporation. Thus, much of the scholarship on corporations comes bundled with a set of moral assumptions regarding the corporate form; when the picture widens to include indigenous peoples' engagement with corporations those moral assumptions merge with other preconceptions about native subjects and modernity. The notion persists that the two are at some level incommensurable with one another; that the corporation is necessarily inimical to tradition; that money necessarily bleaches ethnicity. 

The texture of the engagement of my interlocutors -- managers and shareholders of an indigenously owned New Zealand corporation -- with the juxtaposition of the "tribal" and the "corporate" makes clear some of the gaps in this view of the relationship between the corporation and indigenous people. In this talk I will describe how my interlocutors selectively used discourses of indigenous ecological wisdom and closeness to land -- discourses that have been used fruitfully by indigenous groups to gain leverage regarding land claims, but which have also attracted popular backlash to indigenous claims --  to weave and cut a network that alternately included the tribes of its shareholders, the ranks of non-indigenously owned business organizations, the land that is the company's asset-base, and an imagined "global" customer. My interlocutors' register shifts served to emphasize the company's rationalization and business-sense while simultaneously retaining the distinction afforded by its indigenous ownership – blunting backlash, repositioning Maori as leaders in responsible business practices, and redefining the terms of debate over indigenous peoples' relationships to land. I will suggest that this articulation and disarticulation of relationships is an aspect of the corporate form itself; indeed, this process provides another way to theorize the nature of the firm and the bases of corporate social responsibility."

Gwendolyn Gordon is a lawyer and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. Her research concerns the intersections of land and corporate law with indigenous cultures. Her dissertation, based on her ethnographic research with an indigenously-owned corporation, focuses on the ways law affects and is affected by conceptions of ownership and management, stewardship and responsibility. Gwendolyn uses her work to theorize ownership, property, and indigenous social and economic rights. Other works in progress include an article on popular perceptions of indigeniety as they affect environmental regulation of indigenously-owned corporations, and an article considering indigenous engagements with corporate ownership and control in theorizing the corporate form. Gwendolyn holds a BA from Cornell University and a JD from Harvard Law School, where she focused on human rights issues for indigenous peoples. Before coming to Princeton, she worked as a corporate attorney at Shearman and Sterling LLP in New York, advising corporations as to compliance with the Investment Companies Act and the Investment Advisers Act.