The Davos summit is surrounded by air of seriousness and hype, but it is also something like a huge cocktail party. The Davos meeting is, in essence, a kind of human beehive, attracting and organizing a multitude of actors around its core, each contributing to the existence of the beehive community, and each disseminating its ideas and perspectives to the world at large. The WEF is essentially a social world of meetings – staged, circumvented, formal, organized meetings – and meetings to which access is tightly restricted. The annual Davos meeting, which is the showcase meeting of the WEF, is also a microcosm of the organization, set up in a small place and speaking to bigger issues: market regulations, financial crises, environmental risks, armed conflicts, and the like. The kinds of questions that arise out offieldwork in organizations such as this, but also more broadly, are to do with access, representation, validity, and the predicaments of doing ethnography in organized settings.
At a more general level, ethnographic fieldwork in organizations – such as corporations, state agencies, and international organizations – often entails that the ethnographer has to rely on meetings as the primary point of access. Oftentimes, this involves doing fieldwork in workshops, at ceremonies, and at other staged, formal events. In addition, such fieldwork tends to be multilocal, mobile, and discontinuous. It may not provide as much of a flavour of the different local sites and a sense of ‘being there’ as one would wish for. The tendency in anthropology to favour the informal, the ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ as well as the spontaneous, may leave one with a lingering feeling of having to make do with second- rate material, i.e. the formal, the superficial, and the organized. Fieldwork in meetings, and in meetings to which one may not get full access, may, from that angle, be problematic.
What, if anything, can we learn from doing ethnography in such a small, temporary meeting place, where we don not even have access to much of what goes on?
Meeting Ethnography, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 8-10 oktober 2015