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.