Society for Latin American Anthropology

Contributing Editor, Gabriela Vargas Cetina, UADY

 

Corporate Anthropology in Costa Rica

By Brigitte Jordan, jordan@akamail.com

 

Last summer I carried out exploratory research at an Intel Assembly Test and Manufacturing (ATM) Plant in San Jose, Costa Rica, one of five such plants that Intel operates in developing countries. All of them function on a work week of two 12-hour shifts a day, with operators working a four-day-on, three-day-off cycle one week, and a three-day-on, four-day-off cycle the next.  Prior industrial engineering research had been conducted on this plant.  There was much information on machine performance and the characteristics of particular work processes, but my sponsors felt that a more holistic look at the factory might provide people- and workpractice-centered data regarding flows of information and materials.

 

I focused on the movement of “product” (that is, wafers, die, substrate, chips) across the floor and the transfer of information among the workforce. I was fascinated by the twice-daily shift changes when “the current state of the world” was negotiated, as the first shift briefed the second on how things stood and what needed to be done. This happened in meeting rooms, stand-around circles on the production floor, one-on-ones at work stations, and in the hallways, cafeterias, and parking lots. Planners, managers, shift leaders, supervisors and machine operators then reached compromises and workable solutions for the production process.

 

I soon realized that this plant’s operation needed to be compared to that of the other ATM so as to differentiate global issues common to all of these factories from local ones, requiring local solutions. I decided to recommend expanding such studies to similar factories.  It also became clear that I had to take into account the economic and political situation in Costa Rica, including its strong labor laws, forward looking educational system, and a less than well managed state monopoly on telephone and internet communication.  The periodic conference calls with my US sponsors, however, were a particular problem and sometimes resulted in farcical interactions, since in the remote area where I am based in Costa Rica, there are still no land telephone lines and only spotty cell phone connections, and we still lack reliable internet access. (So much for global connectivity!).  There are well-known places where you can get good reception in our area, like knee-deep in water when the tide is out, or, paradoxically, in the local mechanic’s pit.  But calling from my field office on the mountain worked reasonably well.

 

Fieldwork was interesting and fun.  On fieldwork days, I’d get up at 3am, drive Mulita, our 30-year old Toyota Land Cruiser to the closest landing strip, catch the 6:30am commuter flight (“the puddle jumper”) to San Jose, and  appear at the plant for an 8am meeting. I’d spend a day or two there every week, observing and interviewing people, to then return home to do the work of planning, organizing, tape transcribing and data analysis.  I finally presented my findings to Intel at a workshop in the United States.

 

There were some difficult aspects to this ‘probe’ (it wasn’t a full-blown study.)  For somebody like me who has worked in teams for many years, working alone again implied going back to the academic mode of many, many years ago. My sponsors, however, were extremely supportive. I had walked into a situation that was more alien to me than any jungle village could be, but they cheered me up each time and provided insightful information about the curious habits of that Intel tribe. In particular, Intel anthropologist John Sherry was a beacon, illuminating my path.  Automation engineer Kirk Smith kept assuring me that what I was seeing would be relevant to them.  May it be so.

 

Brigitte Jordan is a corporate anthropologist currently based in California and Costa Rica, who regularly publishes academic and practice-oriented papers related to her fieldwork in American and multi-national corporations.  She can be reached at jordan@akamail.com or through www.lifescapes.org.

 

Please send short pieces and information that could interest our readers to Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, Facultad de Ciencias Antropológicas.  Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán.  Mérida, Mexico 97000, or email them to gvargas@webtelmex.net.mx and gvcetina@tunku.uady.mx .