Corporate Lives: New Perspectives on the Social Life of the Corporate Form


Thursday, August 21–Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In August 2008, as the economy’s tectonic plates were shifting in unprecedented ways, the changing role of the corporation and its relationships with a dramatically changing world came under the scrutiny of more than 20 scholars, corporate leaders, financial planners, shareholder activists, environmental and labor advocates, and consultants for nongovernmental organizations. “This symposium, a pioneering collaboration between the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAR, emerged from our interests in the way corporations are increasingly taking on roles typically associated with nation-states, shaping governance, and managing daily life,” wrote the organizers. “Over six days of intense discussion and informal debate, it became clear that older concepts such as public sphere, private sector, and state and civil society are inadequate to understand the nongovernmental organization, corporate, nation-state, and community connections that are progressively shaping contemporary lives.”

Keenly aware that the global economic meltdown was having enormous effects on people everywhere—and noting the intimate personal tales of hardship and agonizing decisions that come with job loss and evaporating retirement savings—the group felt its task take on more urgency. “We were interested in developing an intellectual tool kit that attended not only to these shifts related to global financial markets and corporate formations but also to our personal and bodily investments in them,” said the organizers.

In sessions on autobiographical insights, genealogies of corporate forms, reinventions of corporations, long-range governance, and volatility, the participants identified key directions for anthropological contributions to the study of corporate forms. They examined the spread of these forms, as well as collaborations, alternatives, and movements of opposition. Their discussions yielded sometimes surprising insights, such as the realization that “although corporations have an air of immortality…most are short-lived.” Participants challenged one another to explain terms that did not easily translate from one language of specialization to another, highlighting the need for a “precise and conceptually powerful language” for understanding corporate phenomena.

“We aimed to break open the concept of the corporation by always keeping in sight the fact that corporate forms are imperfect social institutions, full of internal contradictions and competing agendas, rather than monolithic, rational, coherent, fully self-present and self-knowing actors,” the organizers wrote. “We hope this will be the beginning of an open-ended, critically engaged, and far-ranging discussion.”

Papers from this symposium will be published in a special issue of the journal Current Anthropology.


Leslie C. Aiello, Wenner-Gren Foundation (USA)
Steven J. Bohlin, School for Advanced Research (USA)
James F. Brooks, School for Advanced Research (USA)
Bená Burda, Maggie's Organics/Clean Clothes, Inc. (USA)
Jessica R. Cattelino, U. California, Los Angeles (USA)
John Conley, U. North Carolina (USA)
Susan E. Cook, Royal Bafokeng Nation Phokeng, (South Africa)
Catherine Coumans, Mining Watch (Canada)
Krista Gulla, U. Michigan (USA)
Jane Guyer, Johns Hopkins U. (USA)
Rebecca D. Hardin, U. Michigan (USA)
Sarah Lochlann Jain, Stanford U. (USA)
Jane Lynch, U. Michigan (USA)
Sally Engle Merry, New York U. (USA)
Thabo Mokgatlha, Royal Bafokeng Nation, Phokeng (South Africa)
Robert A. G. Monks, Lens Governance Advisors (USA)
Damani Partridge, U. Michigan (USA)
Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, U. Autonoma de Yucatan (Mexico)
Marina Welker, Cornell U. (USA)
David Carrico Wood, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship (USA)
Michael Woodard, Jubilee House Community (Nicaragua)

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation and Dobkin Family Foundation

Follow us: