Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We Need Business Anthropology Education

(Editorial Commentary)

The increasing attention and interest in business anthropology have not yet resulted in a clearer definition of business anthropologists as a distinctive professional group. In this volume of IJBA, Barry Bainton suggests the term “career anthropologist” to define a group of people occupying mixed positions between the traditional academic researcher, the business teacher, the private consultant practitioner, technical staff and other members of the business milieu. Clear boundaries of the professional group of business anthropologists are hard to give because of their multiple paradigms and perspectives. Business anthropologists tend to adapt to business and sector cultures, as there is a large variety of different fields, roles and positions (Serrie, 1984; Baba, 1986; Jordan 1994).

Clients do not always recognize the competences of the career anthropologist. In return, anthropologists often find it hard to sell their professional qualities to the business world. Anthropologists have been trained to both distance themselves from their own society and trained not to be fully assimilated in the local cultures which they take as the object of study. This dual position posits anthropologists in a privileged “in-between” position, in which they can serve a fundamental role for corporations as translators of local markets, expert on customers’ behavior and observers of culture at the work floor. On the other hand, greater distance from one’s own society also makes it harder for some anthropologists to strategically present their “in-between” position as a business asset. Paradoxically, praised competences of anthropologists such as emphatic understanding, flexibility, cultural sensitivity and knowledge of local culture and language seem not to come across the right way when anthropologists apply for jobs in business. In many cases, anthropologists trying to make it to the business world do not survive the rivalry with other professionals coming from organizational psychology, public service, economics etc. Anthropologists have difficulties aligning their competences with the needs of business organizations. In our opinion, we need to do much better than we have done so far in terms of preparing anthropologists for the business job market.
Business anthropologists working in academia are not extremely visible to the anthropological community at large, in part due to their infrequent writings in academic journals. There are different reasons for this, some being the shortage of practice-oriented journals, time/resource limits and company restrictions. There are other reasons why business anthropologists remain invisible as a professional group in the larger world of academia. Bainton observes a division between academically-oriented research anthropology and applied/practitioner research anthropology, shifting toward the creation of two separate disciplines. Here, the research practice of academic anthropologists and the research practice of business-oriented anthropologists seem to exist at cross-purposes. While the former is directed towards an academic audience and towards publication in higher-rank journals, the latter is pressed by clients and management to come up with practically oriented, prescriptive solutions that help the organization in its cultural problems.

We are still recruiting anthropology students with the idea of pursuing a traditional career in the academic world; however, an overwhelming majority of the students we recruited will not become academics but to find their way into business (e.g. Tett, 2005). Conversely, we do not train them to enter the labor market. We are training new generation of anthropologists in a rather traditional fashion at a time when market needs for innovation are higher than usual. Given the opportunities of a market seeking innovation more than usual, we argue that we need business anthropology education to support our students job-hunting in the world of business. We argue further that we can apply the theories and methods of anthropology into business practice and thus help business firms, large or small, domestic or international, to become more effective and profitable (Tian 2010).
The significance of business anthropology education has triggered many universities to launch new programs with business anthropology curricula. For instance, recently, the VU University in Amsterdam, one of many other universities and colleges in the U. S. and Europe to do so, began occupational training of business anthropologists. Such training concerns groups of anthropology students with a background in anthropology, organizational studies and marketing. For many of these students it was the first time that they understood how to use anthropology in a job application, while making genuine contributions with it. Unfortunately, for many years, we have told them that academic lectures should not mention jobs, as it was a common myth that someone trained in anthropology would never find a job at all. Such myth no longer holds water in contemporary times. Business anthropology education has gained a role of importance in business schools with many business faculty members currently applying an anthropological approach to their business education programs (Tian, Lillis, van Marrewijk, 2010).
In this new issue, we include seven papers show the unique augmentation of anthropology to business and the interesting interface of academia and practitioners. The first contribution is a clear example of the fruitful collaboration of academics and practitioners. Dr. Jaap de Heer of the VU University, Amsterdam, works closely together with Andrew Jenkins, a rural development specialist working at BRAC, a large development organization in Bangladesh. They share extended experience in Bangladesh in the fields of strategy development, organizational change and adaptive water governance. In their paper, they describe how local sustainable water management is being introduced in Southern Bangladesh to improve living conditions of Bangladeshi people by means of a revitalization process. Their case shows how Dutch-Bangladesh cross-cultural collaboration resulted in a hybridization of Dutch concepts of water managements mixed with Bengali practices. As a result of this hybridization, Bangladesh started a pilot project for the introduction of participatory water management.
The second contribution, entitled “Vitamin Practices and Ideologies of Health and the Body” is a very interesting example of the intersection between anthropology and medically based consumer behavior. In this article, Dr. Maryann McCabe and Antonella Fabri examine vitamin consumption practices among U.S. consumers in order to understand the cultural beliefs and values that motivate increased assimilation of vitamins into the national diet. Using anthropological insights of people like Malinowski and Frazier, who perceive vitamin consumption as a manifestation of a magical connection between the mind and the body, McCabe and Fabri reframe vitamin consumption as a matter of symbolic capital invested in the body.
In the third contribution, Dr. Pedro Oliveira advances an essay on the intersection of business anthropology, user-experience and design thinking. In his article, Oliveira joins a recent growing attention for space and spatial settings in matters of user-experience. Through an ethnographic account of his personal experience entering and living in Notting Hill, West London, he uncovers the importance of space and place in the construction of identity. He describes a process of growing gentrification in Notting Hill leading the new cultural elites to move to Ladbroke Grove, the adjacent area, considered the “new place” to identify with. By connecting place and class struggle, the author both sheds light on the London riots of 2011 while ending with a series of research lines for business anthropologists concerned with the intersection of place, space, design thinking and user experience.

In the fourth paper, Luo Youmin provides us a detailed ethnographic study with the focus on the process of searching for good life in a traditional industrial-commercial area in South China after 1949. She tries to unravel the dynamic process of how the “good life” pursued by state gradually alienated from local people’s expectation. Her findings suggest that the process of pursuit of good life reflects how to perceive, image, and to make the modernity by the people in the Southern China. She argues that people have to strive for good life by themselves. Cultural tradition and daily experience have become a greatly important drive to impel them in the pursuit of good life. She addresses that good life means not only food and clothes, but also individual emotion, community cohesion and sense of belonging. Therefore, material and intangible affluence are equally important for local people. Luo’s study is very significant for us to understand the modernization process in rural China from a business anthropological perspective.
In their contribution, Dr. Tian Guang and Dr. Luis Borges explore an anthropological approach to matters of social marketing. Largely, social marketing verses on how to improve the overall quality of life through adopting marketing strategies and skills, without a primary emphasis on profit. A highly effective example of social marketing is the attempted elimination of smoking through an effective combination of TV campaigns, advertisements, billboards, and governmental laws. Tian and Borges translate the “Four P’s” of the commercial marketing mix, namely product, price, place and promotion, to a social marketing case. Such an anthropological approach helps social marketers to be able to identify the social and/or cultural factors that influence the behavior targeted for change while contributing to strategy formation. They argue that social marketing is one of the main domains where business anthropologists can intervene.
In the sixth paper, Dr. Barry Bainton discusses the wide variety of ethical conflicts of anthropologists in the business context. He defines “career anthropologists” as a mix of traditional academic researchers, business teachers, private consultant practitioners, and technical staff members of business enterprises. Career-oriented anthropologists have different status and roles from academically research-oriented fellows. Taking a historical perspective, Bainton explains how Boasian rules and principles have become the normative ethic for future generations and how the anthropological establishment has traditionally been focused on the ethics of academic research anthropology over the needs of “career anthropologists”. He suggests the creation of a new anthropology brand to account for the current market potential of professional anthropological services in government and private sector.
Zoe Yi Zhu of the University of Hong Kong writes about her comparative study of the management strategies of French hypermarket Carrefour, and Japanese general merchandise store Ito-Yokado in China. To capture greater market share, Carrefour and Ito-Yokado engaged in a fierce competition around opening new shops, yet not without studying the reasons for greater success of the French hypermarket. According to Zhu, Carrefour’s success in China is due to its unique strategy for adapting to the local situation. HR strategy has a close connection with market entry strategy here. Zoe studied how Carrefour’s decentralized human resources strategy includes the selection and training of local Chinese employees, while the Japanese remain in control of the headquarters to maintain the high quality of services for which the company is rewarded by its Chinese customers.
Finally, we include an ethnographic study on a group of sex workers in South China by Yu Ding. In her study, Ding discusses how marriage and intimate relations exert a long-term ongoing influence on these women’s rural-urban migrations and work choices, and how the highly developed sex industry in the coastal region poses difficulties, as well as creates opportunities, for them to rethink what they want in their intimate relations. Ding stresses that the sex business is a “special” kind of business based on mutual monetary (material) exchange, and yet involves more non-monetary issues.
The quality and scope of the articles submitted show the need for connecting academics and practitioners in the field of Business Anthropology. Only by fostering this connection can we carry on pushing business anthropology further in the field of education, hence creating the conditions for greater dissemination of our knowledge and practices. 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 can be generalized. We encourage practitioners, students, community, 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 ijba@na-businesspress.com, or rgtian@yahoo.com (Robert G. Tian, Daming Zhou, and Alfons H. van Marrewijk).



  1. Hi Robert. I am an anthropology student from Sweden, writing my bachelor after the summer in consumer behaviour.
    Sadly the society as whole, don't really value theoretical knowledge compared to practical such. And so my institution have no money to expand, not even a program, only courses.
    Hardest for me is to know what other courses is relevant to build an anthropology bachelor degree on if you want a job, and it seems to me my teachers do not know either...
    I hope one day I can have a relevant job on a company but really I am quite scared of the future, but happy that there's friends out there fighting for our disciplines future in society.