The Reasons Why I Can’t Fix Your 3-Series: Car Factory, Continued.

The first:  supply chains.

For most of the history of the car industry, a car factory was the centre of a large industrial park, consisting of smaller companies, all of which produced different parts of the car (they would also produce other things, which is why Morris Motors had, for a while, a line in spinoff refrigerators). From about the seventies onwards, when the development of cheap container shipping and increasingly good tracking systems started to enable global markets, these industrial parks gradually shrank and died, as the companies producing different parts of the car were sourced in different parts of the world (one of the fun things at the car factory was when we’d occasionally get some weird Brazilian insect, bewildered from its journey, clinging to a component).

So, these days most of the car is built somewhere else. I just assembled it.

The second: how assembly lines work.

Which is sort of a more sophisticated and ergonomic version of the famous sequence from the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. No, we’re not assembling the same widget over and over mindlessly. However, it means that I’ve got a pretty limited range of understanding of how to build a car outside of testing the electrical system and sticking in the indicator lights.

So, unless you want me to stick in the indicator lights, and you happen to have an electrical systems testing unit handy, I’m not much good to you.

The third: computers.

These days, so much of a car is computerised that actual mechanics often can’t fix a car, and need to send out for components or direct you to a specialist. So what hope do I have?

This doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t useful in terms of understanding the basic ways cars work; sheer demystification means I can at least hold useful conversations with my mechanic about what’s wrong with my Smart. And I learned a lot due to having bought a  Mini Classic which was legally old enough to drive itself as my first car: it required constant maintenance just to keep on the right side of roadworthy, which teaches one good oil-changing habits and how to clean rust off electrical points with industrial vinegar.

But it does mean that anything I learned about fixing cars, I generally didn’t learn on the assembly line.


Really? Can You Fix My 3-Series? How I Wound Up Working On A Car Assembly Line

In 2002, I was knocking around the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, filling out grant application forms, submitting manuscripts, and feeling at a loss.

I’d just successfully defended my doctoral thesis, which had been a study of ethnic identity and transnationalism among German bankers in the City of London (it’s a book now, you can buy it here). The problem was, I’d been so busy focusing on that, beyond securing a post-doctoral place at the Said, I hadn’t given my future all that much more thought, and had no postdoc project to go with the place. So, while I had plenty to do, I didn’t have a new project.

A further problem was that, based on my experience in the City, companies generally expect your research to be something that helps them. And not many companies have an understanding of what an anthropologist can do. Even once I’d given them my elevator pitch on the subject, not many managers seemed that interested in having in-depth, first-person research which can uncover the problems that people don’t have the words to talk about. And even fewer were keen on the immersive nature of ethnography: to wit, of having a researcher literally around the company all day, ideally working in the same way the regular employees do.

So although I had lots of ideas for follow-up research, I had no place to do it.

Until one day my postdoc supervisor stuck her head round the office door. She’d been approached by the manager of an automobile MNC, which had recently changed its hands-off acquisition of the local car plant to a very, very hands-on one. They were also interested in engaging with the local community and making connections with university academics. They’d asked her if she had a project in mind to propose to the company. She’d said, “no, but I have this student…”

So, as quickly as possible, I wrote up a research proposal based on my thesis topic, polished my elevator pitch, got into my best suit, and went for a meeting with the general manager.

I pushed forward my proposal, I began my elevator pitch and…

The manager stopped me.

“We’d like to recruit more women,” he said. “We’ve been engaging in all sorts of hiring initiatives, mentoring, starting a crèche, but still we’re not recruiting them. And our exit interviews aren’t telling us why.”

“Oh,” I said.

“What we need is someone who can give us in-depth, first-person, data on what it’s like to be a woman on the assembly line. Who will spend a long period of time around the company, working in the same way as all the other employees. Who can identify the issues the assembly line workers aren’t able to tell us about….”

So there was nothing more for it, than to don a plant uniform, take a physical and mental proficiency test, and go out onto the assembly line.

Oh, and to answer the question I most often get asked after people find out what I did, no, I can’t fix your car. I’ll explain why in my next post on the Car Factory Adventure.