Thursday, September 6, 2012

Business Anthropology in China

Business Anthropology in China

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Patricia Sunderland
Maryann McCabe
Timothy de Waal Malefyt

We are pleased to report on the First International Conference of Business Anthropology held at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou (Guangdong province, southern China), May 17–20, 2012. This was a bold international initiative, bringing together roughly 100 academic, practitioner and student anthropologists from the US, Europe, Japan, India, Korea and China. The co-chairs were Marietta Baba, Brian Moeran, Allen Batteau, Alfons van Marrewijk and Tian Guang, and speakers included the co-chairs plus Ann Jordan, Patricia Sunderland, Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Mahesh Ranjan Debata, Gang Chen, Zoe Zhu, Daming Zhou, John McCreery, Dan Trotter, Yu Chenpu, Lan Xuehau, Maryann McCabe, Shriram Venkatraman, Lin Xiaoyan, Ewa Anna Jagiello, Tian Quian, Zhang Jianyin, Dominique Desjeux, Pedro Oliveira, Cheng Yu, Li Cuiling, Wang Tianjin, Yang Xiaoliu, Bamei Chang, Dixon Wong, Pan Jie, Shi Ling, Qi Xiaoguang, Liu Zhijun, Stephanie Krawinkler, Wen Jiayun, Tomoko Hamada Connolly, Shi Hui, Gustav Peebles, Gao Chong, Liu Shibo, Wang Yifan, Leah Liu.
The purpose of the conference was to facilitate exchange and build a bridge between practitioners and the academic world; provide a vehicle for communication among practitioners in which to share issues, concerns and thoughts on future directions; encourage educators in adopting pedagogical approaches to teaching anthropological theory, methods and business practices for academic programs. The conference accomplished these goals within a cordial and lively atmosphere that fostered much good will. Traditional Chinese hospitality made everyone feel welcome. There was plenty of food, drink and thoughtful exchanges among new and familiar colleagues. Many thanks go to professor Tian Guang at Shantou University for organizing the conference, professor Daming Zhou at Sun Yat-Sen University for hosting it, and for the assistance of Lin Xiang and Guo Linyan, PhD students at Sun Yat-Sen University.

A New Cultural Experience

The conference setting in Guangzhou itself reflected a curious combination of formality and tradition with an air of friendliness and casual ease. The formality of elaborate wreaths of flowers at the podium and signage of proper titles everywhere contrasted with attendees’ casual clothing and relaxed discussions; established professors of the university mixed comfortably with graduate student presenters. On campus, large signs posted in English and Chinese announced the conference to all. At the dinner table, many of us needed to learn the ‘rules’ of eating a proper Chinese meal. Food served is placed on a large central disk, which is spun typically in clockwise direction, and ‘lands’ at honored stops (it is the host who usually controls the rotation and stops). Chuckles arose when some Westerners fumbled at chopstick use. Wine served in wine glasses is only slightly filled, so that toasts can be made generously and frequently in a ritual order that follows social hierarchy. One night a singing contest followed these ritual toasts. We participated in song and enjoyed the sense of belonging to an international community of scholars that the contest brought to the fore. Solidarity among Chinese women was in evidence as we observed female students strolling arm-in-arm across campus and as we experienced female students holding the arms and hands of visiting Western female anthropologists out of respect and sense of solidarity and support among women.
After the conference in Guangzhou, several of us headed north to Beijing, where we again exchanged ideas with eager students and established scholars in the anthropology and economics departments at Mitzu University. This ‘second’ conference was also well attended by over 100 students and professors in the university. Clearly, the interest in Business Anthropology is evident and thriving in China, and we can look towards its continued growth in this part of the world. Our thanks to anthropology professors Wang Jianmin of Mitzu University and Zhao Zudong and Zhang Hui of Renmin University, which co-hosted the event, and for making it an insightful exchange.

Emergence of a New Discipline

It is curious that the term “Business Anthropology” has emerged to describe the varied practices and scholarly studies of anthropologists in consumer research, marketing and advertising, design studies and corporate culture work. Many of us at the conference noted that term seems to have resonated powerfully and is spreading. There are now two new academic journals that use this titlethe International Journal of Business Anthropology and the Journal of Business Anthropology. There are a few programs in US and European universities that enlist this term (Copenhagen Business School, Wayne State University, University of North Texas). We shall see how this term is further extended among anthropologists as the practice has numerous advocates in similar conferences such as SfAA and EPIC.
Chinese scholars have become quite interested in modernity, market societies and contributing to anthropological theory on consumption. As China ascends the global economic ladder, scholars want to expand their traditional fieldwork focus on village life among its rural communities and ethnic minority populations. Chinese students are already conducting research on issues such as maternal and child health, AIDS and drug use, the one-child policy and the environment. We anticipate informed perspectives on the social life of things in state capitalism as Chinese scholars make comparisons to practices in neoliberal capitalism of the West and broaden theoretical conceptions of consumption.

West learns from the East

Notably, the initiative for the first business anthropology conference was generated, not in the West where we might have expected since many anthropological practitioners are situated here, the community of anthropologists appears largest and the anthropological discipline is well established. Rather, China has emerged as a setting most eager to embrace this hybrid approach and advance a new way of understanding the growing relationship between consumption, industrialization and the desire for material possessions and services. Indeed, the country has a long tradition of using applied anthropological approaches in attempts to unify diverse populations and modernize a mostly rural nation. Perhaps, the West is poised to adapt a new disciplinary situation from the East.
As the popular attendance of this conference and the cordial exchange among acquainted colleagues and new scholars indicated, Business Anthropology appears off to a vibrant start. We are pleased that the discipline of anthropology has a new branch that can honestly offer interested students and transitioning anthropologists a new outlook for academic studies and employment opportunities.
This entry was posted in Academic Affairs, July.