Levi and I (Deonnie) met when I was organizing a roundtable on management pedagogies for the 2021 American Academy of Religion conference. His coauthored article on the corporate form has been really generative for me as I embark upon a new project on religion in Indian business schools.


Deonnie Moodie: Levi, thanks for inviting me to join you in conversation about you and your coauthors’ intervention on religious studies and the corporate form. I found the piece to be extremely engaging and provocative for a whole host of reasons. I have some questions for you, but I’ll start here by pointing out something your article does that I think we need much, much more of in the study of religion. You suggest the use of a different and surprising category in your analysis. It is by now trite to say that “religion” is not a native term but a scholar’s term that ought not to be taken to be sui generis. Yet the word is there in the name of our discipline for all sorts of historical reasons (not the least of which is colonialism). As you point out, when we specify what we study when we study religion, we then create binaries with other I-promise-I-don’t-take-these-to-be-sui-generis categories like “art” or “the body” or “economy.” Then when we describe what we do, we tie ourselves in knots by using the word religion and then making sure to add all the appropriate caveats to ensure the listener that we know there is no such thing as religion (or art or the body or economy). You all ask the provocative question: What if we examined how human collectives rely on mythologies, inculcate values, and produce aspirations according to shared conceptions of transcendence? What if we worked to understand how and why humans created those collectives in places religious studies scholars don’t always pay attention to? You suggest that if we did so, we would see that there are a great number of parallels between, for example, the Catholic Church and Panasonic. We might therefore learn a great deal about one while studying the other. Moreover, you show that our training in religious studies qualifies us to study so much more than what is traditionally defined as religion.

On this point, I wondered throughout your article if there is something special about the “corporate” in “corporate form”? You make clear throughout that you are not referring merely to the limited liability business enterprises that shape so many aspects of human life today, but instead use “corporation” in a much broader and historical sense. Why not simply use the term “human collective”? Do you think we ought to be paying attention to those companies specifically? And/or is there a critique inherent in your analysis—something akin to what Rebecca Bartel and Lucia Hulsether provide in their coedited roundtable in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion?

My second question comes from reading your article alongside Kathryn Lofton’s chapter on corporate culture in Consuming Religion. Examining the intentional creation of corporate cultures in American business enterprises, on page 235 she asks, “What kind of a culture needs a culture? What kind of workplace asks for a culture, even designs a culture?” She concludes that a culture that needs a culture is one that seeks to—per Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion—inscribe moods and motivations upon workers that appear uniquely real and authentic in order to get them to do things. In your analysis, you argue that corporations always already have a culture and are always already seeking to produce particular kinds of subjects. Do you see anything new or unique about the kind of culture-creation projects Lofton is talking about? How might your focus on Japanese corporate forms add to or attenuate her analysis?

Levi McLaughlin: Deonnie, thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement with our article. Let me start with your first question, why “the corporate form?” Is there anything unique about the corporate, or corporations? And if there isn’t, why not simply discuss collective enterprises in a more general sense? We urge religious studies scholars to focus on the corporate form not because it is unique but because it seems to be everywhere. Things corporate, understood variously, are ubiquitous in the lives of people across the globe. No job, no education, no civic duty, and arguably no family role can escape evaluation that uses market-based indicators made manifest by corporate practices. Religious entities, however they are defined, adapt and propel these measures.

Perhaps most significantly for your culture-oriented queries, the corporate form clarifies ways collective enterprises make persons, an activity we suggest explaining with the handy Japanese term hitozukuri, which literally means “person-making.” I would direct readers to the work of our JAAR article coauthor Chika Watanabe, whose recent book unearths nitty-gritty realities that spring from utopian ideals that drive person-making endeavors. Thinking of the corporate form’s principal mission as one of hitozukuri makes sense of the fact that profit-seeking and nonprofit enterprises alike often feel similar despite their operation in legally or socially differentiated spheres. Corporate culture, as Katie Lofton describes it in the chapter you cited, tends to reward such cardinal virtues as conceiving of the company as an extended family and fostering the sense that one’s personal contributions, however modest, contribute to a glorious mission that exceeds the capacity of any individual. These are all qualities that can be easily described as religious.

This brings me to your question that draws on Consuming Religion. Lofton focuses on the 2008 economic meltdown and how regulators and others laid blame on traders’ attitudes. She notes that these pundits declared that “Future crises could be avoided through new cultural writing, better cultural strategies, and a stronger ethical culture.” In other words, traders triggered the financial crisis because they had not been given the right kind of acculturation. This suggests that a culture needs a culture when it confronts an existential threat, such as that which brought down Lehman Brothers. I cannot, however, help thinking that Lofton’s analysis would benefit from substituting the noun “culture” with a verb that does not appear in her essay: to cultivate. I would argue that corporations after 2008 didn’t seek “a culture,” per se. They sought better means of cultivating their employees to preserve and expand themselves.

To suggest a prominent Japanese example, when it faced the 2008 global economic meltdown and a series of high-profile mass vehicle recalls from 2009, Toyota delved into its foundational practices to emphasize the importance of person-making as the means to overcome crisis. A 2017 Toyota video retrospective reflects on how its founder Toyota Ki’ichirō established the Toyota Technical Skills Academy in 1938 to cultivate its employees. The video glosses over Toyota’s contributions to Japan’s mobilization for total war and complicity with the wartime imperialist regime to focus instead on how the company prevailed into the 2010s by fostering its human resources. It did this through regimented training, exemplified by the military-style drills profiled in the video at the Toyota Academy, which its instructors explain is rooted in the company’s “five precepts.” These include injunctions to always be studious and creative, to foster a family-like atmosphere in the company, and to offer thanks to “the kami [deities] and buddhas,” which Toyota’s English-language Corporate Creed translates as “respect for God.”

Hitozukuri, “person-making,” a chief priority in the organizations the JAAR article’s coauthors investigate, is arguably a synonym for “cultivation.” An enterprise is its people, which is the same thing as saying that an enterprise lives or dies depending on how its people are cultivated. Attention to cultivation rather than culture, a switching from nouns to verbs, from things to actions, might better enable us to keep up with the dynamism of the people and collectives we study. It cultivates (if you will) an active engagement with indigenous terms and suggests productive advances beyond clunky rubrics like “religion.”

Deonnie, I know that in your own research you bring much-needed attention to “corporate Hinduism.” Your recent article in Religion Compass introduces a complex interaction of companies, educational institutions, media outlets, and other enterprises. Your work certainly suggests exciting analytical applications of the corporate form. Which objectives and dispositions are cultivated in the sphere of corporate Hinduism, and who is doing the cultivating? Does the idea of hitozukuri potentially work in the Indian settings you investigate, or is there more suitable nomenclature that might also apply beyond Indian contexts? And does attention to verbs rather than nouns clarify or distract? Can you suggest a more nuanced approach?

DM: I absolutely think the idea of hitozukuri works in my setting. As I answer your question as to how, I want to think with your really helpful distinction between “cultivate” as a verb and “culture” as a noun. In the work that I am doing on corporate Hinduism, I see both as operative. That is to say that I see institutions (my current focus is business schools) seeking to cultivate particular kinds of qualities in people, and I also see people seeking very explicitly to create a culture—as a noun, and with hard edges at that. In elite management institutes across India, there are some very stark articulations of a Hindu business culture currently being made by certain management faculty (though they remain controversial). Its academic proponents locate that culture in ancient Hindu texts (most often the Mahābhārata, of which the Bhagavad Gitā is a part, and the Rāmāyana) that reflect the consciousness, discipline, and benevolence of their royal and martial protagonists, which lead to those protagonists’ accumulation of great profit for the wellbeing of society. These professors express a need to produce an alternative to global business practices that are steeped in—as they frame it—Western culture so that they might mitigate against its alienating and unethical effects. This Hindu culture does not result in the loss of profit, nor in a redistribution of power. It in fact reinforces and even sacralizes the underlying structure of an economic system in which wealth is accumulated by fewer and fewer people who (hopefully) redistribute a little of that wealth through charities. So even if the values being cultivated are similar or even the same, it is important to these academics I’m interested in that those values are cultivated within the framework and through the idiom of a very specific and “alternative” culture. This line of thinking is re/produced by industry leaders and religious leaders, as well.

But let me return to the verb. Something that I really like about “cultivate” much like “person-making” is that they call to mind Michel Foucault’s idea of subject formation that we are so familiar with in religious studies, and yet they imply more agency on the part of the subject. Cultivation in particular suggests that corporate entities lay the groundwork that encourages members/adherents/employees to grow in a particular direction or behave in a particular way, but whether it produces the subjects it wants is not determined. As I reflect on where the verb is operative in my project below, I’ll employ “person-making” with the awareness that there is no completely accurate English translation of hitozukuri. I’m curious to see if you think it works in this context.

The recognition that corporate forms are already engaged in person-making projects before any culture is imposed upon them is perhaps the most illuminating part of the work you are doing for my project. I see multiple person-making projects at work in business schools. In the first place, they are educational institutions, which are explicitly about producing certain kinds of graduates. They are furthermore sites of the discipline of management. As I read through management literature I find myself continually amazed there hasn’t been more attention paid to this discipline in religious studies (with notable exceptions including George Gonzalez and James Dennis LoRusso) because it is unabashedly about getting people to do things and moving humans—who are “resources”—around to achieve certain objectives. With all of our work on projects of world-making, subject formation, and self-mastery, it is a natural place to look.

In the Indian context, there are further layers of person-making involved. The elite institutions that are at present authorizing this production of Hindu culture were created in the 1960s as part of a nation-building project. In newly independent and socialist India, the state sought to produce a new class of managers to lead its state-run companies into the future. As models for management education were sought, America’s were deemed best, so they were based on the model of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Harvard Business School with Ford Foundation funding. And those corporate forms got involved with the explicit purpose of stemming the tide of communism. Leaders spoke of bolstering free markets and protecting American values abroad. India’s elite management institutions are therefore designed to make capitalist subjects who believe in the power of free enterprise. This is not what Jawaharlal Nehru had envisioned but this was part and parcel of the American business school model at the time, and still is. Throughout the history of the school, American textbooks and curricula have been employed. Today, most graduates aim to work in multinational corporations—often American ones as they are among the highest paid and most prestigious. Proponents of a Hindu business culture are pushing against all of this. And yet they must produce alumni who can be successful in this American-dominated habitus. They must seek to produce the next Bill Gates or Azim Premji because that is what theirsuccess as business schools relies on. So as much as they push against a so-framed alien culture, they must accept and reproduce a key aspect of its person-making project.

Considering all of this, I think what I would add to the conversation here is a focus on the dynamic interplay of varied and overlapping person-making projects that sometimes support one another and sometimes don’t, and yet still seem to converge on market objectives whether by design or necessity. You and your coauthors talk about this in the article when you write about the corporate form as “internally multiple” and I think this is a really good example of that. Very importantly, the cultures corporate forms produce and the person-making projects in which they engage are not only or always about certain leaders trying to maintain their power. There’s always a bit of that going on in any organization. But there are also projects that seek to effect some change in the world that reflect the desire to be good, care for others, and be proud of who one is. That such projects keep ending up reinforcing the need to create monetary profit I think reflects the shared context in which corporate forms are embedded rather than the corporate form itself.

I wonder what your own research on Soka Gakkai in Japan reveals about these kinds of overlapping projects of person-making. What kinds of projects are your interlocutors working alongside or pushing against? Do they see the creation of a particular kind of culture as important? And how does the fact that Gakkai institutions are religious inflect their engagement in hitozukuri? Do such projects need to be presented in a certain way—as ethical or national or perhaps as alternative in some way?

LM: I think a way to make sense of the overlapping projects of person-making (I really like this phrase you used) is to link the ultimate objective of person-making to a key topic you brought up in regard to your work: the importance of the nation. In my work on the Japan-based lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, and in my more recent ethnographic engagement with Japanese nationalists, there is no escaping the observation that person-making is, seemingly inexorably, nation-making.

One organization I’ve dedicated a significant amount of fieldwork to in recent years is Nippon Kaigi, or the “Japan Conference.” This is an unincorporated association that lobbies the Japanese government in pursuit of numerous nationalist aims. It has attracted significant media and scholarly attention, thanks largely to the fact that its signatories include Japan’s most influential conservative lawmakers, including prime ministers, as well as major figures in business, education, publishing, religion, and other spheres. The group’s stated objectives include constitutional revision, preserving traditional gender norms by preventing women from keeping their original family names when they marry, and ensuring that the patriline of Japan’s imperial house is preserved in law and that neither a woman nor a matrilineally descended man is crowned Empress or Emperor.

Insights from the corporate form apply well to understanding Nippon Kaigi. We can take one of its pre-Covid largescale events as evidence for this. Nippon Kaigi was a primary organizer of the November 9, 2019 “National People’s Ritual Celebration of the Emperor’s Enthronement,” which brought together an estimated forty-thousand celebrants who presented the Emperor and Empress with a parade of brass bands and portable Shinto shrines, a spectacular concert, and addresses from the prime minister and other VIPs. Nippon Kaigi cooperated with leaders of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) to organize the event, and the event advisors included leaders from Japan’s Olympic Committee, the Japan Buddhist Federation, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), and numerous other organizations. The prominent place of Japan’s most influential business lobby groups in the fluid mix of religious and other enterprises that realized this impressive undertaking suggests that a corporate form approach offers ways to make sense of how an event such as this comes about, and how its varied participants would be legible to one another.

But what motivates Nippon Kaigi’s participants? And how can we make sense of what can easily be called “a culture” they seek to define? It is one that exhibits sharp contours and exclusions, like the Hindu business culture you described in your work. And, as with the business training you’re investigating, we must return to the nation. Your work suggests that instead of thinking about “a culture,” or worrying about distinctions between culture and cultivation, maybe we should be thinking about nations and nation-making. We see this conflation of noun and verb on the splash page for Nippon Kaigi’s homepage. It features a shot of a cloud-enshrouded Mount Fuji next to the slogan “toward creating a nation with pride.” Nationalism’s utopian purity requires both the verb and the noun; it needs the promise of a utopian ideal and the means to get there.

Nation-making even functions as a means to understand groups that stand in opposition to nationalist organizations like Nippon Kaigi. In my work on the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, I have suggested that the best way to make sense of its expansive range of institutions and practices is to characterize it as a “mimetic nation-state.” To carry out its own version of person-making—and Soka Gakkai leaders consistently urge adherents to expand its “human resources” (jinzai)—the group constructed a sophisticated administration that resembles a civil service, cultivates doctrinal knowledge and other programs through the conventions of standardized education, steeps its believers in a massive published corpus that functions like a national literature, instituted a donation practice called “finances” akin to annual taxation, maintains de facto sovereign territory over which its members fly the Gakkai’s tricolor flag, controls access to its facilities with trained cadres, along with many other features that are best explained with reference to the nation. And its adherents are cultivated to foster an ethic of the indivisibility of mentor and disciple in their singular reverence for their eternal mentor Ikeda Daisaku, Soka Gakkai’s Honorary President.

Nippon Kaigi and its bitter rival Soka Gakkai, along with many other entities, compete with one another for hegemony over the populace. They vie for the loyalty of the same people to carry out their ideal version of person-making. In all cases, the nation functions as a gravitational center. I do believe that the corporate form is a promising means to access the inner workings of their cultivation processes. But I think the corporate form is only a starting point for moving beyond hidebound religion-definition-polishing conventions.

How should we extend the corporate form, Deonnie? How might researchers riff on the ideas in our article to expand religious studies inquiry?

DM: Your turn to the collective of the nation as another way of extending the corporate form is quite productive. I would add the importance of attention to the ways that such collectives are evoked alongside evocations of the individual or the universal.

Raising the idea of the nation as the gravitational center of the groups we are studying raises an interesting paradox in a world dominated by what Daromir Rudnyckyj calls “geoeconomics.” In Beyond Debt, Rudnyckyj argues that economic networks of capital constitute “the primary frame of international action” in the twenty-first century. Indeed, one of the reasons that corporate entities are such an important object of study is the increasing power they have over our world—more so than nation-states. Even as companies like Panasonic or Tata are very much bound up in the national images of Japan and India, respectively, they are in fact nodes in global flows of capital and labor. At the same time, nation-states are no longer held responsible for citizens’ well-being. As Rudnyckyj argues in his earlier book Spiritual Economies, “this duty is transferred to citizens themselves, who are empowered to become individually responsible for bringing about the kind of economic growth that the nation-state has become unable to guarantee.” To use Adam Ferguson’s phrase, individuals become “responsibilized.” The persistence of the nation as both an institutional model (especially in your work) and an ideal to which individuals aspire (in both of our work) would seem an oddity under these circumstances. And yet it persists. I think we have to ask: Why? And under what circumstances?

Here I actually want to return to and reiterate the importance of culture as a noun. In my work, I see Andrew Sartori’s notion of the culture concept reanimated by these global flows of capital and labor as individuals seek ways to imagine and then to express who they are—not as individuals, but as collectives. Conjuring the nation with the claim: “I am not merely a standalone individual nor an individual cog in a global wheel dominated by Western hegemony, but a member of an ancient culture that has something important to offer that hegemony” is a way to produce a collective identity one can be proud of. Just like conjuring the corporate form, “I am part of an organization that is doing good things in the world,” is another way to achieve the same objective. Both are important examples of neoliberal rationality reducing—as Achille Mbembe argues—culture to heritage and identity to difference. In the case of India, current national boundaries stand in as the geographical demarcation of where this culture is imagined to have always resided.

I am also struck by how little faculty at American business schools like MIT and HBS seem to care about a thing called “culture” or “nation” in a world-cultures or national-cultures sense. Instead, it is simply assumed that the management wisdom they produce is universal in its relevance and application. The misrecognition of the provinciality of their approaches is the privilege of their hegemony.

Without repeating what has come before, I will take the liberty here of summing up some of the major lines of inquiry that your article and our conversation open up. Rather than leaning on categories historically associated with religion, religious studies scholars ought to seek out categories that cut across various kinds of collectives. Thinking with “corporate form” and “nation” alongside “culture” brings to the fore institutional forms, hierarchies, orthodoxies, strategies for managing people and materials, and forms of cultivation. All of these are incredibly generative ways of looking at our objects of study anew, or maybe bringing into our purview objects of study we might not have yet considered. As we forge ahead with these new frames of analysis, we would do well to pay attention to the multiple competing and overlapping projects of person-making at work in each. When we recognize the partial, forgotten, erased, and only dreamed-of nature of those projects, we find agents actively seeking to create their own worlds, but on terms they did not set—at least not by themselves.