Navigating ethics

Navigation by Martin Fisch Creative Commons via Flickr
Navigation by Martin Fisch Creative Commons via Flickr

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to a forthcoming master’s thesis in anthropology which I am working on at the moment. This quasi-autoethnographic piece looks at why I am interested in ethics and ethnography in the context of management consulting. I’m sure this will see an iteration or two as I work through the larger paper, but it seems able to stand alone for the time being. I am always curious to hear from others in “business” about how they navigate the ethical silences and flare-ups they are caught up in.

* * *

I was a management consultant long before I became interested in anthropology. My professional world consists of providing advice to clients related to particular business problems. Giving advice for money is always an ambiguous activity: what exactly am I selling? And what are you buying?

When my clients ask me for advice, they are usually looking to pursue a particular business goal. They may want to change the structure of their organization, create a new product, or explore better ways to reach customers or other “stakeholders.” Whatever the goal is, reaching it is not what I actually sell. Instead, I sell them my time and attention which are meant to facilitate the achievement of the goal. Successfully arriving at the desired outcome always involves an unpredictable set of factors, a series of false starts, and frequently some disappointments and failures along the way. These habitual delays and detours suggest that every consulting project has an array of possible outcomes: there is no single solution to a business problem, and satisfactory results can take many forms. Consulting work is highly contingent.

My actual work activities, to someone unaccustomed to business consulting, may seem ambiguous and nonspecific too. In a typical consulting engagement, they may include interviewing and making notes; observing people’s activities and interactions; summarizing and articulating concepts visually and in writing; presenting to varied groups of managers and employees; conducting workshops; helping recruit new employees; coaching people; having informal “corridor conversations;” and “filling in” as an interim manager. This list is non-exhaustive, of course, but the common thread is that most of my consulting work is fundamentally social in some sense—even writing or drawing always has a social purpose (to capture, communicate, invite discussion, persuade, provoke or “make real”).

The simultaneously uncertain and social nature of organizational consulting continually raises ethical questions and challenges. “Right” and “wrong” are always present and—just like everything else in consulting—have no fixed values. Like other social environments, the world of business works very hard to put forward normative ideas about what is right and wrong, subtly encouraging businesspeople to stop asking questions when the answers become too contradictory. This is achieved by pointing back to the immediate “goods” created in the local context: earning an income is good; getting along with one’s colleagues and manager is good; working long hours is good; a company’s growth is good; being part of a successful industry is good. Beyond that, people are discouraged from asking too many questions. Whether their company’s product or service is good for consumers is rarely thought about (unless consumers fail to buy it). Whether a company’s actions in the market have a negative impact on society, the world or the environment is rarely explored. This limited-scope normative moral framework allows businesspeople to answer moral questions with certainty even if they suspect at some level that these may be the wrong answers. In recent years, most people have become aware that there is a marked increase in the polarization between wealth and poverty, and that capitalist business priorities are connected to this. For a variety of reasons, however, this knowledge remains “inactive” in most businesspeople. It is, of course, too “big” of an idea to act on in any practical sense. But it also suggests that businesspeople by and large seem to exist in two separate and distinct moral universes.

I had multiple reasons for starting my own independent consulting practice a few years ago. One of them was a growing unease about my own—apparently “natural”—compartmentalization between these moral universes. I wanted to feel justified in asking broader questions, in part to see if they would yield better or more interesting results in my consulting work. When I think about ethics in the context of my work, I can see a number of responsibilities, relationships and impacts that connect my immediate needs, priorities and views to my clients, to an industry, to the economy and society, and ultimately to a broader human and environmental context. The following diagram attempts to capture this idea:


Concentric circles of responsibilities, relationships and impacts
Figure 1: Concentric circles of responsibilities, relationships and impacts

Each circle is in a dynamic relationship with at least the ones immediately adjacent, animated by the actions and inactions of various actors. For example, my consulting advice directly impacts the client project I am working on, which may have a stabilizing or growth effect on the client’s business. This, in turn, may change the client’s industry and may cause one of the client’s competitors to experience a downturn in its fortunes, causing layoffs or other hardship. Similarly, and looking all the way to the outer layers of the diagram, a consulting intervention may result in a product that experiences great success in the market, causing an increase in its consumption, which may have long-term environmental impacts.

Sometimes, even relationships that are in the same circle can be in conflict with one another, for example when my loyalties are divided between doing the best for the client’s business (e.g. recommending that a job be eliminated because my work suggests there is no further need for it) and looking out for the affected employee’s interests, someone I have gotten to know during my work and who I may now have a personal relationship with. In the “normal” course of business, the decision would be simple: eliminate the job, justify the decision with reference to the limited-scope normative moral framework of the business world, and move on. Yet years of experience can complicate matters. Over time, I became aware that there might be connections, however tentative and remote, between this naturalized compartmentalization and negative business outcomes. To stay with the example, eliminating the employee’s job and letting them go may cause an unspecified amount of important tacit knowledge to leave the organization; encourage other employees to look for work elsewhere; create a public “detractor” who will say negative things about the organization on the internet; or effectively “hand over” a talented employee to a competitor. Instead, thinking about the problem differently—by working to understand both parties’ contexts and negotiating their needs and priorities—may result in a future that is positive for both parties. In our example, this could mean adjusting a business process to “create” a new job opportunity for the employee, moving them into another workgroup where someone is about to retire, or something similar. The contingent nature of business consulting means that such outcomes can be “manufactured” because no situation is entirely predetermined. It takes being interested in how one’s immediate responsibilities and activities relate to those layers of the circle that are further away. The more I am able to contextualize my own and my client’s realities in broader patterns of interdependence, the more nuanced my consulting outcomes are becoming.

At the same time, the concentric circles diagram can also feel paralyzing. Once one routinely makes oneself aware of the effect and impact of one’s professional activities, it can become difficult to decide on a course of action at all. Where should we draw the line between what we consider in scope for these kinds of ethical deliberations, and what lies beyond? An awareness that “capitalism is destroying the environment” is too broad for most people to act on in any meaningful way, particularly when it needs to be weighed against their more immediate need to earn a living. When I reflect on what I have learned about businesspeople’s moral universes over the years—also thinking back to when I was a corporate employee myself—I realize that there can be no definitive or prescriptive answer to the question of where to “reasonably” draw the line. But I understand that “business” tries to confine the permissible moral universe as close to the middle of the circle as possible through a number of ideological procedures. And I also understand that better outcomes happen when we push outwards, towards contextualizing our actions in, and negotiating them with, the broader social world.

Underpinning business consulting with an ethnographic approach to discovery and an anthropological approach to contextual analysis facilitates this outward orientation. I sense that certain behaviours encouraged or required by ethnographic fieldwork also support a continual, iterative examination of the ethical implications of one’s discoveries and interventions. There are certain simple, routine ways of behaving “in the field” (e.g. listening more than speaking; approaching everyone with humility, courtesy and respect; asking for permission and help; learning the vernacular; treating everyone equally; etc.) that can serve to appropriately position a consultant in an unknown client environment, to “enter the field” and build rapport. More importantly, the contemporary social sciences—including anthropology—encourage reflexivity, the practice of examining and transparently discussing how “a researcher’s personal characteristics […] and their position in the field of research […] affects their research practice and their results” (Dean 2017, 2). This becomes a central idea for a business consulting practice that seeks more ethical outcomes by acknowledging and working with the broader social context.

I think of ethnographic discovery and anthropological interpretation as more than “productive enablers” for management consulting practice. In relation to my own work specifically, I have variously thought of ethnography and anthropology as remarkably similar to consulting in their patterns and open-ended orientation; as a kind of “antidote” to the routine and cynical narrowness of how business prefers me to think about its actions and effects on the world; and as a way to tack back and forth between the scene I find myself part of and its broader context. Increasingly conducting myself in an ethnographic way in my professional interactions—treating my consulting work “as if” it were fieldwork—has accelerated my ability to operationalize reflexivity, allowed me to better access and process contextual information, and enhanced my understanding of the closely connected personal and organizational dynamics that inform each situation. The rules of ethnographic engagement are equally suitable to many non-anthropological, non-academic contexts—and while this is not a new idea,1 it is also not one much discussed in mainstream anthropological theory, for a variety of historically specific disciplinary reasons. Yet even academic anthropology dreams of having an impact on the world (and this dreaming goes well beyond the current neoliberal demands that scholarship be relevant). Perhaps embracing ethnography’s enthusiastic adoption in other fields and choosing to face the “ethics of intervention” (Baba and Hill 2006, 189) head-on are the way forward.



  • Baba, Marietta L. 2006. “Anthropology and Business.” In Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. James Birx, 83–117. Thousand Oaks, London & New Delhi: SAGE.
  • Baba, Marietta L., and Carole E. Hill. 2006. “What’s in the Name ‘Applied Anthropology’? An Encounter with Global Practice.” NAPA Bulletin 25 (Encounters with Global Practice): 176–207. doi:10.1525/napa.2006.25.1.176
  • Dean, Jon. 2017. Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction. Bristol and Chicago: Policy Press.
  • Strathern, Marilyn. “Laudable Aims and Problematic Consequences, or: The ‘Flow’ of Knowledge Is Not Neutral.” Economy and Society 33, no. 4 (November 2004): 550–61. doi:10.1080/0308514042000285288.
  • Westbrook, David A. 2008. Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  1. For a thorough sketch of the “value” of ethnography to other disciplines and the world, see David Westbrook, Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters (2008). For a more pessimistic position about what the wider adoption of ethnography might come to mean for the discipline of anthropology, see Strathern (2004). 

Leave a comment