Lynch on Gordon, “The Contingent Corporation”

On March 23, 2018 Professor Gwendolyn Gordon of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania spoke at the fourth public event of the Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law.  Professor Gordon addressed her 2016 law review article, Culture in Corporate Law or: A Black Corporation, a Christian Corporation, and a Maori Corporation Walk into a Bar.  She also spoke about a draft article she is working on entitled The Contingent Corporation: Network and the Nature of the Firm.


Professor Gordon began her talk with a brief soliloquy about her works where she explained that, while there are lots of ways of thinking about a firm (or corporation), she is attempting to apply an anthropological method to how we think about a firm.  Her hope is that by doing so she can open new avenues of thought about corporations that will allow us to better understand them and their role in society.  Professor Gordon described her research and attempts to apply this method to the “Maori Corporation” in New Zealand.  She laid out some of the history of the Maori and settlers in New Zealand and described the background of the statute that allows for Maori incorporation, which was intended as a way for Maori to hold communal land collectively.


A particularly interesting point in Professor Gordon’s research was the insight she gained into how the Maori themselves view the ability to incorporate and how the so-called “indigenous corporation” interacts with other business entities.  Professor Gordon stated that, while some outsiders may view the Maori incorporation statute as a means of re-colonization through law, the Maori themselves do not view it this way.  Rather, the Maori have always seen themselves as businessmen and view incorporation as a tool that they will currently use to preserve the tribe.  In Professor Gordon’s words, to the Maori the tribe existed before incorporation and will continue to exist after, incorporation is a present-day means that will allow this existence to continue and help the tribe to prosper.  Professor Gordon also presented an interesting point that, because of its status as an indigenous corporation, social understandings within the members of the community about how an indigenous corporation should behave and function can affect its actions as much as legal rules.


Responding to a question from the audience, Professor Gordon was careful to point out that her case studies of the Maori corporation was not meant as an example to the West of a better way of conducting business.  In fact, she made clear that the Maori she spoke with and studied did not want her project to be viewed in this manner either.  Rather, Professor Gordon stated that she hoped her project would be understood as an attempt to take apart how we view the corporation and its role by offering an example of a very different type of corporation.  Professor Gordon acknowledge that New Zealand (and by extension the Maori Corporation) is highly idiosyncratic and is hard to apply as a concrete example to the rest of the world.


Professor Gordon concluded her talk, in response to a question, with a cautionary note.  She stated that while it is fascinating to view the corporation as a person (rather than as a society or something else) anthropologically she sees some danger in taking this view too far.  Professor Gordon was careful to point out that she was only trying to introduce a different way of viewing or thinking about the corporation as an avenue to more creative thought about the corporation in general.

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