Monday, April 25, 2011

Business Anthropology Is a Growing Field of Study

Business Anthropology Is a Growing Field of Study

 Harry Wels

     Business anthropology is a growing field of study and an emerging professional market as this interesting book ‘Readings in Business Anthropology” will explain in much detail in the various parts and chapters. In a sense, it could be argued that ‘anthropology’ itself has become business. This is not unique to anthropology, as nowadays almost all universities, and the scientists and scholars it houses, must show serious business-sense to be able to stay in academia. This implies in neo-liberal terms that ‘growth’ is a sine qua non for disciplinary sustainability. It could well be that without the adjective of ‘business’, anthropology will have difficulties to grow and sustain itself as an independent discipline in the university.

 I remember vividly that in the second half of the 1980’s anthropology in the Netherlands, and more specifically at VU University Amsterdam, was suffering from a steadily decreasing numbers of students. To “apply” or link anthropological theoretical and methodological perspectives to “organization and management” was considered a good strategy to acquire a growth market in order to turn the tide. And it did! The study “Culture, Organization and Management,” as we labeled what was basically and in terms of its curriculum a study in business anthropology, attracted hundreds of students already in its first few years, and actually “saved” the anthropology department from closure. In that sense “business anthropology” proved its point.

     To my mind, the 1980s have been very important for giving “culture talk,” a concept I borrow from Mahmood Mamdani, in organization, management and economics a decisive boost. It was a time that economic successes in Japan were explained by many by referring to its particular cultural make up (later followed and copied by similar explanations about other “Asian Tigers”). It was the same time and age that corporate successes were increasingly explained by referring to so-called “strong” organizational cultures: a “strong” culture would boost your business performance.

Business anthropology courses and approaches started to flourish around the globe. The various waves and large numbers of students that followed in the wake of this particular “cultural renaissance” have now all found their ways into society and business and as (older) university staff; we regularly come across our alumni in various places and positions in the global corporate world. It is interesting to observe how many of them are basically spreading the message of their intellectual upbringing in business anthropology even further around the world by proclaiming the message that this book also radiates: business anthropology is the way to go in this globalised world; developing cultural sensitivity is good (for) business!   
     This edited volume is timely as it perfectly captures the essence of the applied character of business anthropology in the 21st century and at the same time is able to contextualize business anthropology in relation to its roots in the anthropological discipline in the 20th century, and in the process recalibrating its orientation. I applaud the editors of this volume for their initiative and I dare to recommend the book especially to every businessperson who would like to learn more about the business advantages of building cultural sensitivity in this globalized corporate world.

                                                                        April 2011, VU University Amsterdam

Friday, April 15, 2011

General Business Anthropology, A Book Review by Dr. Mahesh Ranjan Debata

General Business Anthropology
Robert Guang Tian, Michael P. Lillis, and Alfons van Marrewijk
Miami, FL
pp.612 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-9828434-0-6
Key Words: Business Anthropology, Consumer Behavior, Ethnography, Organizational Culture, Product Design,
Anthropology, the study of humanity and human behavior, has evolved more of an applied study in the modern era by developing a wide array of qualitative tools and techniques in order to understand people and their behaviour, and thus can aptly be called as the most scientific among all branches of humanities. Business anthropology, an important segment of anthropology, is a domain of liberal arts which offers employers/businesspersons the skills such as oral communication, written communication, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, and critical thinking, so that many critical problems can be sorted out. It is in this context, the textbook of General Business Anthropology by Robert Guang Tian, Michael P. Lillis, and Alfons van Marrewijk, gives a thorough analysis of a subject like business anthropology, its contributions towards the society in general and the business world and the policy makers in particular. This well composed book consists of as many as 13 chapters covering almost all the issues related to business anthropology, besides providing key and basic information about business anthropology as well as synthesizing research on a particular prominent theme in business anthropology.


At the outset, the authors give a broad view of business anthropology, which is a rapidly growing branch of applied anthropology characterized by a qualitative methodology and cultural sensitivity. The evolution of this important subject, its growth, downfall and resurgence are elaborated in such a manner that the reader will be able to know the historical details of business anthropology. Though traditionally, business administrators banked heavily upon hard scientific methods in their business management and operation practice, in the recent era, being inspired by the qualitative tools of social and cultural anthropology, they apply more qualitative methods, such as ethnography and participant observation. Now the methods of Business anthropology offer global perspectives and are contemporary in nature. Ethnography is associated with the anthropological tradition and has been increasingly used by researchers in the domain of social sciences.

Ethnography, which is distinct from other applied qualitative and quantitative research techniques, is dealt in details in Chapter 6. Ethnographic research, the authors argue, can be widely applied in the business world and resolve business problems. As one of the basic, and perhaps the best tool for innovation, it provides limitless opportunity for continuous product improvements. It is these areas that the book tries to delve into, and carries the large mandate it sets for itself well. While talking about participant observation, one of the important tools business anthropology uses at regular basis, takes place when a person attempts to function within a social situation in order to intuitively understand what is going on. In addition, the seminal contributions that anthropologists have made and should make within the business world are also fairly discussed.

A couple of chapters have been devoted to the issue of culture, which is a vital cog in the wheel of society. The cultural aspects dealt with it are relative to the fast changing world and has significant effects on cultural changes.  The authors argue that culture is deeply rooted in the life of organizational members, it exerts tremendous influence on a variety of day-to-day activities; they opine that culture can have a profound impact on organizational performance. From a practical standpoint, building an awareness of both visible and invisible manifestations of culture is an important first step in determining how to manage people. Organizational culture has been the focus of many change and intervention programs in corporations, where cultural change strategies have been applied with varying success. Thus, the role and position of anthropologists in cultural change programs is crucial in achieving positive results.

Companies are always on the lookout to increase sales, increase their market share and increase their profits. One of the ways to accomplish all this is to improve their products. Marketing, consumer behavior and product design are the essential ingredients of any business program today. The authors have dilated upon these three critical issues in separate chapters (from chapter 7 to chapter 9). Anthropology,  as  a  social  science,  emphasizes  individual behavior within cultural contexts  and with  reference  to shared  values, beliefs and values. Anthropological methods are widely employed in international, cross-cultural and social marketing. Anthropology is positioned to create actionable recommendations and interpretations regarding target markets by accumulating and further processing detailed qualitative information and interpreting this evidence with culturally relevant insights and theories. Anthropology sheds light on consumer behavior.

Anthropological and qualitative akin to it techniques provide ecient ways to investigate why consumers respond in the way they do. The development of new products is critical. Design strategies involve multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration.  The challenges in today’s design industry provide good opportunities for anthropologists. A solitary chapter (Chapter 12) is devoted to entrepreneurship, which plays an increasingly important role in business and entrepreneurs are being dubbed as a major force to reckon with as far as the issues of innovation and change are concerned.    Anthropological   studies of entrepreneurship,   although relatively new, are making a significant contribution to anthropology,   business, policy science, leadership and economic   development. The unique perspectives and research methodologies of anthropologists, the authors argue, provide reliable and eective ways to study the process of entrepreneurship.

Since 1980s, the world has undergone spectacular changes due to technology advancement and an exponential increase in international travel and communication. International business provides profound opportunities for anthropologists with cultural sensitivity coupled with a strategic focus. The cultural implications of these transformations have compelled anthropologists to play their part, particularly during turbulent times. During this era of modernization, two vital issues competitive intelligence and knowledge management have assumed much significance. Competitive intelligence, which is a combination of secondary research and interviewing knowledgeable informants, have led to a better and thorough understanding of the various links and knowledge sources.  The authors have given a clarion call to business leaders and strategists to pay more attention to knowledge management, besides underscoring the need for the application of theories and methods of anthropology in the fields of competitive intelligence and knowledge management.

At the end, giving a discourse on business education and the future of business anthropology, the authors have concluded that while anthropology has made significant contributions to business world, they have not been as widely embraced by business. In an era when business executives increasingly view qualitative methods as legitimate, the authors expect that there will be a growing demand for business anthropologists from all kinds of business organizations. At large, human factors have been taken into account and a continuous research has been focused for the growth of business anthropology.

Since the authors of this book have presented useful information from various national and international sources, this book is one of the finest volumes available until date on business anthropology for a wide audience. This well documented volume would definitely cater to the needs of not only the policy makers, but also the students, researchers and academics working on business anthropology. The authors have done commendable job in bringing out this volume, particularly in the field of still neglected business anthropology studies.  We should work together to strengthen the study of business anthropology in the contemporary world given the importance of the subject.
Reviewed by Dr. Mahesh Ranjan Debata, Assistant Professor, Central Asian Studies Program, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India – 110067.

Friday, April 8, 2011

International Journal of Business Anthropology Vol. 2 (2)

Subscribe to businessanthropologist

Volume 2(2)
International Journal of
Business Anthropology
Table of Contents

Editorial Commentary


Geographically DistributedCross Cultural Management:   Hybridization of Dutch – Indian Work Practices in  IT Projects

Alfons van Marrewijk

Creating a Culture of Enterprise Cybersecurity

Allen W. Batteau

Organizational and Leadership Practice of Micro Ethnic Entrepreneurship in Multicultural Context: A Structural Reproduction Analysis

Xiaohua Lin, Jian Guan, and J. David Knottnerus

Business Anthropology and the Technology Company

Catherine Forsman and Daisy Rojas

The Predicament of Specialized Villages and Its Solutions: A Case Study of Zhe-Village

Zhijun Liu and Jiansheng Chen

The Economic Implications of Kinship: Petty Entrepreneurs in Guangzhou Garment Industry

Chong Gao

Social Capital and Corporate Cultures: The Case of Bulgaria
Adelina Milanova

Editorial Commentary

The Growth and Future of Business Anthropology
     Varieties of surveys have indicated that employers look for the skills that undergraduate training in anthropology provides. The subject matter of anthropology is intrinsically fascinating; as such, it offers valuable preparation for careers in journalism, politics, public relations, or public administration, fields that involve investigative skills and working with diverse groups. Today, many students use anthropology as the liberal arts foundation for professions such as law, education, medicine, social work, and counseling.

     The ever-fast advanced technologies along with the globalization of the world’s economic systems in particular have changed the world we are living.  The new trends of technology advance and globalization have been deeply influenced everything in the world b.  Anthropology as a social science field of study by no means can get rid of the influence of these new trends.  In such a background, when we discuss the future of anthropology in general, and the future of business anthropology in particular, we must think in broader terms of global political economy, local demographic trends, prevailing cultural preferences, and the social and ethnic backgrounds of consumers. After this complex series of considerations we have to rethink, how we might fit if we want this discipline to continue as a practice oriented entity. 
     John Gordon, an Australian applied anthropologist, presents a brief history of early, industrial, private practice anthropology in the United States and argues that the development of applied anthropology can be linked to the opportunities of the day for student anthropologists to do real fieldwork.  According to Gordon, applied anthropology has flourished in the past decades and created many job opportunities for the graduates with anthropology degrees. We will argue that applied anthropology will further flourish in the future with the more applications of anthropological methods in the business world. 
     Gordon suggests that the future of Australian anthropology may well lie in its reinvention of the work in a form suitable for the global economy of the twenty-first century.  According to him, by the end of the twentieth century, one of the fastest growing areas within Australian social science is applied anthropology.  In Australia the recent demand for applied anthropologists is, in part, due to the consequences of the Native Title Act and the need for anthropological advice to support land claim submissions. It is also a consequence of Australia’s geographic location in Asia and the substantial demand for consultant social scientists in this rapidly developing region of the world. In considering applied anthropology and its future, however, it is important neither to focus exclusively on the present nor to lose sight of a global perspective (Gordon, 2008).
     Currently, corporate anthropology as well as the anthropology of business is increasingly in the news, and the collapse of financial institutions in the fall of 2008 boosted business anthropology in a higher point to draw attentions forms the business world. The simple idea that managers do not always behave rationally suddenly becomes an easy acceptable concept.  For instance, British anthropologist Gillian Tett, an assistant editor of the Financial Times and oversees the global coverage of the financial markets, identified danger of the over abused financial system in the West and was warning about the looming credit crisis over two years before it happened.  There is no doubt that her background as a social anthropologist having alerted her to the danger in ahead of the tragedy. 
     In March 2009, Gillian Tett was named Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards. In 2007, she was awarded the Wincott prize, the premier British award for financial journalism, for her capital markets coverage. She was named British Business Journalist of the Year in 2008. We are very proud of our colleague Gillian Tett, who, as an anthropologist, first identified the serious financial crisis and warned the world to prepare for it. Her outstanding performance demonstrates that anthropologists, due to their unique training, are able to make great contributions to the business world. It is easy for us to predict that, in the near future, the business anthropology as a field of study will become a good career for young professionals and will keep growing to be hot. 

     It is our suggestion that today business schools and anthropology departments should work together to prepare more qualified business anthropologists for the future to meet the needs from firms for business anthropologists.  The future of business anthropology should be very bright and promising as anthropological approach is applicable in all business functions.  We expect that in the near future a new job title, chief anthropologist, at senior levels in large corporations will be widely appeared in the classified advertising job section, we also expect that a new MBA (Master of Business Anthropology) programs will be widely hosted by both business schools and anthropology departments.  This new MBA program will distinguish itself from the traditional MBA program by offering more practice-oriented courses, which in turn will enable the students gain more hands-on skills to be job ready (Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk, 2010).  

     In this new issue, we include seven articles selected from large submissions. We feel very sorry that some good articles could not be included in this issue due to the space limitation. In his article, Dr. Alfons van Marrewijk argues that business anthropologists can play an important role in the debate on cross-cultural management. He studies the cross-cultural management issues through a case analysis about projects that involve Dutch and Indian teams. His findings suggest that all companies formally strive for synergy but in the daily cooperation between the project teams, power struggles and ethnocentric strategies dominate. The new cultural practices that emerge are a reflection of these power struggles between the different ethnic groups involved in the project teams.

     Dr. Allen Batteau in his article describes the fundamental dimensions of a security culture on the experience of “safety culture” in several high-hazard industries. His discussion focuses on issues of trust, identification and authentication in complex environments, as they become more challenging in virtual environments. Dr. Xiaohua Lin, Dr. Jian Guan, and Dr. J. David Knottnerus in their article focus on direct selling organizations led by ethnic entrepreneurs of Chinese immigrants, explore the time-honored issues of immigrant economic adaptation in a contemporary, multicultural context. Their findings are widely applicable in industry and public policy decision processes. 

     In their article Catherine Forsman and Daisy Rojas argue that technological devices and information structures change the world we live in, which in turn opens a field of inquiry for anthropologists to study the development of technology and its uses. They probe both the technology industry’s use of anthropological insights and the potential changes to the discipline of anthropology driven by the application of these methods in engineering projects. Dr. Zhijun Liu and Dr. Jiansheng Chen study the competition and conflicts inside specialized villages in rural China. They find traditional measures of reconciliation to be fundamentally divergent from the economic aim of specialized villages, hence the limited effectiveness. They suggest that specialized villages need rules of market competition, government support and updated knowledge.

     Dr. Chong Gao, in his article, looks into why, how and to what extent kinship is involved in concrete and ongoing business processes by summarizing his case study in Guang Zhou city.  He explores how the mobilization of kinship brings competitive advantages for small entrepreneurs. His findings demonstrate that the businesspersons tend to re-conceptualize kinship with reference to economic rationality and to exploit the economic potential of kinship purposefully. Dr. Adelina Milanova studies the interconnections between corporate culture and social capital based on theoretical analysis and hypotheses tested in the Bulgarian economic realities. She argues that there is confirmed main role of the business maturity, exactly in the manifestation of this kind of relationship. Her findings suggest that the successes of business firms depend on the basic elements constituting corporate culture and social capital.

Once more, the quality of the articles submitted and the sophistication of theoretical analysis may already indicate overcoming the division between academia and applied anthropology cross culturally. We leave the readers to determine this, for this issue and following issues. We continuously seek articles by anthropologically oriented scholars and practitioners on topics such as general business anthropology theories and methods, marketing, consumer behavior, organization culture, human resources management, cross cultural management etc. Regionally focused contributions are welcome, especially when their findings are generally applicable. We encourage practitioners, professionals, business community leaders, and faculty members to submit theoretical articles, case studies, commentaries, and reviews. Please send manuscripts, news notes, and correspondence to: Dr. Robert Guang Tian, Editor, IJBA, via e-mail to, or  (Robert G. Tian, Daming Zhou, and Alfons H. van Marrewijk)


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Become a Business Anthropologist?

This is the Foreword that Dr. Stewart wrote for the book Advanced Readings in Business Anthropology to be published by North American Business Press in this year.

 Why Become a Business Anthropologist?
Why become a business anthropologist?  The first reason is obvious: it beats being unemployed.  This answer, however, evades important questions.  How do you get to be a business anthropologist?  You will not see many want ads designed for this career.  And how would you like the job if you got it?  How would you feel about the impacts of your efforts?

If these questions interest you, this book is for you.  Its chapters offer many insights about the likely challenges and the possible contributions of business anthropology.  As I summarize both, I will not be citing the particular chapters below.  When I started to cite them this Foreword bogged down in lengthy parentheses, because my themes are further developed throughout the chapters of this interesting volume.
As for the challenges, the first has already been mentioned: you have to craft an idiosyncratic job.  To do this you will need some familiarity with the world of business, a world you may not have encountered as a student.  How would you gain the necessary knowledge, or at least an acquaintance with its widely used terms and concepts?  It clearly can be done.  Many non-business graduates find themselves hired by businesses and once there they do learn the ropes.  Much of their learning is firm-specific.  For would-be business anthropologists to find parallel success, they will need to find a business context where the peculiarities of technology, environment and so forth can be mastered.  Their entry will likely be opportunistic, but of course it helps to find a context that matches their personal passions, whether positive or, I suppose, negative.

The fieldworker in business settings needs to understand both the local idiom and generic business concepts, such as overhead, channels, and cost of capital.  The generic knowledge can also aid in gaining access to the field.  For purposes of both knowledge and of access, anthropology students with an interest in business avenues could consider taking a minor in business.  If they graduate without such a minor an MBA would be helpful but it might not be worth the time and the expense.  As an alternative, trade books and internet offerings could prove to be worthwhile.  Non-business graduates in business have to get up to speed somehow and a small industry has emerged to help them out.  The problem with these options is that their value is hard to evaluate in advance.  (I took the MBA route.  A warning to others who try this: business school will send you into culture shock for the first semester or longer.)

Business anthropologists need to understand business language in order to interpret the speech and other acts around them.  In this they are no different than any others in their need to know the language of their sites.  Some of their other challenges are shared with other applied anthropologists but not typically with less applied anthropologists.  One of these is the need for speed and the attendant need for a well defined focus in their studies.  Another is the tendency for applied anthropologists to work in cross-disciplinary teams.  This is an added source of frictions in itself but especially so as anthropologists are often expected to defer to colleagues from other disciplines, particularly economics and psychology.  Moreover, the secondary role that anthropologists may find themselves in can lead to less influence over decisions about research design, report content, and ethical conundrums.  The dominance of these other fields is also a reason that useful findings by anthropologists have often failed to be implemented (as the early business anthropologist Len Sayles and I have written: Sayles & Stewart, 1995).

On the downside, then, business anthropologists face the frustrations of the politics and micro-cultures of applied research.  On the upside, depending on their career paths, they may be able to avoid the frustrations of the politics and micro-cultures of academic departments.  Signs of the benefits of this avoidance are evident throughout this volume.  The writing is straightforward.  The academic jargon is minimal.  Concern with research method, by contrast, is much in evidence; more so than, I believe, is typical of recent cultural or social anthropology.  This can only be good, if one’s goals include approximating truth as best one can and having the findings taken seriously by practical people.

Business anthropologists will not always have the impact they aspire to.  However, evidence-based research, clearly presented, can succeed in having an impact in the world at large.  This potential is one reason to become business anthropologists.  They can, and they have, improved the design of work processes and flows and the design of goods or services thus produced.  By “studying up” (Nader, 1969) rather than studying only the less powerful, they have also improved our understanding of elites who affect much of life in complex societies.  They have also been able to offer their help not only to large established firms, but also to entrepreneurs who build up wealth for the poor.  In all of these endeavors they can take pride for taking their place in a most distinguished tradition that began with “industrial ethnology” and continues to grow with the multiple branches of “business anthropology”.

Milwaukee, April 2011