Friday, February 7, 2014

The Rise of Business Anthropology in China

The Rise of Business Anthropology in China

Business anthropology, as a subfield of applied anthropology, applies anthropological
theories and methods in exploring and solving problems in the real business world. It studies
how to improve business efficiency and work processes by observing how people perform in
their workplace. It can help business people to understand the culture of an organization by
studying group behavior. It helps managers dealing with issues of organizational change due to
the merge of companies. Business anthropologists can provide suggestions on marketing
strategies by studying consumer behavior, they can help in product design by discovering what
consumers want and assist multinational corporations understand the cultures of the many
countries in which they operate in the trend of globalization and diversity that has involved the
business world (Jordan, 2010).
China has undergone tremendous economic and social change since it launched economic
reform in the late 1970s. It gradually abandoned its closed centralized economic planning system
and bringing China into a world market-oriented economy. Today, after over thirty years of
development, China has become a locomotive in the world economy and a manufacture base of
consumer goods in the world. Measured on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis that adjusts for
price differences, China in 2012 stood as the second-largest economy in the world after the US
(Central Intelligence Agency, 2012). China’s products can be seen in all corners of the world and
Chinese businesspersons are now going out of China to do business in all continents of the world.
However, China lacks in-depth research on globalized market, business organization and
cultural factors of other countries. Chinese businesspersons have faced many problems in foreign
countries. Their products were even confiscated or burned down in some countries, bringing
tremendous loss to Chinese companies. Inside China, the transition to market economy has
affected business strategies across a wide range of industries in order to meet international
market needs. Chinese business leaders now realize that to better market their products and
services internationally, they must have a better understanding of the international market
environments from a cross-cultural perspective (Paliwoda and Ryans, 2008; Yu et al., 2006).
It is at this critical period in China’s economic development that business anthropology, as a
subfield of anthropology, was introduced and promoted in Chinese universities. Since 2005, Tian
Guang, a business anthropologist trained in USA, has run seminars on business anthropology at
Peking University, Minzu University, Fudan University, among many others. He visited Business
School of Shantou University in 2011 and later was appointed as a foreign expert professor to
offer business anthropology courses to both graduate and undergraduate students at the school. In
May 2012, Tian Guang and Zhou Daming edited a textbook of Business Anthropology, which
was published by Ningxia Renmin Publishing House. On May 17, 2012, the Sun Yat-Sen
University in Guangdong, one of the most prestigious universities in China, held the first
International Journal of Business Anthropology vol. 4(1) 2013 11
international conference on business anthropology in China. At the same time, Minzu University
and Renmin University of China, another two most prestigious universities, jointly hosted a
conference on business anthropology in Beijing. Well-known European and American business
anthropologists, such as Marietta Baba, Allen Batteau, Dominique Desjeux, Ann Jordan, Timothy
Malefyt, Alfons van Marrewijk, Maryann McCabe, Brain Moeran, Patricia Sunderland, among
many others, attended the conferences.
It was at these two conferences, some Chinese scholars pointed out that in the near future
many companies would have to set up a new senior management position together with other
senior executives, which can be entitled Chief Anthropologist, to give advice and suggestions for
the long-term development of the company. The Chief Anthropologist could be the best
candidate for promoting harmony among the internal staffs of the company in order to improve
the working efficiency of employees (Wu, 2012; Zhong and Liu, 2012). The two conferences
were widely reported by the mainstream public media in China. Their influence is far reaching.
Since then, lectures on business anthropology have been given in universities across China.
Shantou University is offering business anthropology training to its students enrolled in Business
School. Yunnan University is going to have a graduate program in business anthropology starts
from September, 2013. Sun Yat-Sen University, North Minzu University, South-Central Minzu
University, Ningxia University, Jishou University, Yunan Financial and Economic University,
among some others, have planned to offer business anthropology courses at the undergraduate
and graduate levels. At the same time, more and more research projects, papers and books related
to business anthropology are coming out in China.
In September 2012, two groups of applied anthropologists run two sessions at the national
conference of anthropology in Lanzhou, Gansu Province. The East China University of Science
and Technology in Shanghai planned to host the international conference on applications of
anthropology in business on May 18-20, 2013; following the conference, the College of History
and Culture at Jishou University planned to run a senior level international forum of applied
anthropologists, among them many are business anthropologists, on May 21-22, 2013. All these
events stated above show that business anthropology has a bright future in China and will soon
boom in China as an academic discipline as China’s social and economic development continues
at a fast speed.
In this new issue, we include seven papers selected from large submissions. In the first
contribution, entitled “Boundary (re-)Constructions as Human-Nonhuman Intra- Actions within
the Workplace”, Dr. W. David Holford of University of Quebec at Montreal puts forward the
concept of boundary (re-)constructions within workplace. He studies this concept through a case
analysis that involves interactions within as well as between two workgroups in an aircraft
engine manufacturer. He reframes boundary (re-)constructions as intra-action (as opposed to
inter-actions) between humans and objects, which involve shifting boundaries or ‘cuts’
depending on the context, point of views and configurations at hand. Finally, he proposes
specific managerial practices, which may help towards enabling effective boundary constructions
within the workplace.
The second contribution, entitled “Human Resource Outsourcing: Challenges and Emerging
Trends in Human Resource Management”, discusses the evolution of HR outsourcing and how it
has varied overtime. In this article, Dr. Sigamani P and Dr. Shweta Malhotra point out that the
old approach of exclusively delivering services restricted to their domain has been done away
with and HR professionals now strive for improving and corroborating the decisive capabilities
of the firm that drive business strategy. They try to illustrate the instrumentality of HR
12 International Journal of Business Anthropology vol. 4(1) 2013
outsourcing and how different organizations have utilized this tool of strategic HR as an asset to
increase their value. They find that every organization has its own way of exploiting the options
available in an outsourcing agreement, but it depends on the organization to evaluate and select
the best way which serves best the organization’s interest.
In the third contribution, Rima Higa provides us with a detailed ethnographic account of his
personal fieldwork experience at a pig farm and at a marketplace situated in mainland Okinawa,
studying the commoditization of pigs and pork products in industrialized Okinawa, Japan. She
explores the linkages between commercial value and somatic values apprehended by the sense;
that is attributes such as colors, scents and textures. By connecting aesthetic-economic value
with socio-cultural relationships, the author’s research brings insight to questions recently raised
in the field of “Anthropology of the senses”. Her findings suggest that adding sensory values to a
commodity leads to a cultural reproduction and the differentiation of goods not propelled by
market forces but by a localized cultural code.
The fourth contribution provides useful lessons on the limits of corporate social
responsibility initiatives. With 15 years of experience as advisors to international hydrocarbon
companies, Robert Wasserstrom and Susan M. Reider present two case studies highlighting
common challenges faced by social scientists in the oil and gas industry in Ecuador and Nigeria
and efforts to address these challenges. Those challenges range from how to win “broad
community support” to how to provide real, long-term community benefits, as well as how to
avoid paternalism. They argue that anthropologists can help companies design strategies that are
more effective.
Dr. M. Romesh Singh, in his paper “Cultural Paradigm of High Performing Organizations:
An Ethnographic Study in India Context”, examines the cultural paradigm of high performing
organizations in India through ethnographic study. His findings indicate that each aspect of
organizational culture can be seen as an important environmental condition affecting systems and
sub-systems. He proposes that that organizational culture reflects the personality of organizations.
It comprises of the assumption, values, norms and tangible signs of organization members and
their behavior. He argues that the role of culture is increasingly recognized as an important
variable in understanding behavior in organizations. Culture can affect managerial attitudes,
managerial ideology, business governmental relations and technology transfer, etc. Therefore,
understanding the cultural characteristics of high performing organizations has become more
crucial than ever before.
In the sixth article, Hengameh Hosseini points out that one of the foremost global challenges
faced today is global health. The health of people everywhere must be a growing concern for
those involved in the study and practice of health care, thus spurring the emergence of a variety
of globally inclined health related programs and courses across institutions of higher learning in
the United States. After discussing cultural issues relevant to global health and reasons students
need to learn about global health, the author uses his own teaching experience to prove that
global health course can be enhanced by emphasizing anthropological and cultural dimensions of
healthcare, and by utilizing new media technology.
In the last contribution, Emile Kok-Kheng Yeoh from University of Malaya examines the
various theoretical and empirical aspects of ethnic relations and public policy in Malaysia since
the 1969 racial riots. Dr. Yeoh illustrates the historical development of politics and ethnic
relations in Malaysia, the size and strength of ethnic groups, impacts of the New Economic
Policy launched in the 1970s on ethnic relations, and ethnic segregation in the school system. He
points out that economic situations play an important role in interethnic conflict. Dr. Yeoh
International Journal of Business Anthropology vol. 4(1) 2013 13
believes that though the population of Malaysia consists of three major ethnic communities in
terms of intergroup power relationships, Malaysia has always been recognized as a bi-ethnic
state with dual segmentation that entails a constant tension. He concludes that while ethnic
relations have probably improved in Malaysia since the turbulent days of the late-1960s, it is
apparent that much still needs to be done in the years to come.
The papers selected cover diverse topics and countries. 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, or (Gang Chen and Daming Zhou).


Central Intelligence Agency (2010). The World Fact Book. Retrieved in March. 2013 from
Jordan, A. (2010). The Importance of Business Anthropology: Its Unique Contributions.
International Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1): 3-14.
Paliwoda, Stanley J. and John K. Ryans (2008). International Business vs. International
Marketing. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Wu, Yan (2012). China Needs Business Anthropology. China Minzu Newspaper, June 28, 2012:
Yu, LiAnne, Cynthia Chan, and Christopher Ireland (2006). China’s New Culture of Cool:
Understanding the World’s Fastest-Growing Market. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press.
Zhong, Zhe and Liu, Ning (2012). Business Anthropology Expending the Study Scope of
Anthropology. China Newspaper of Social Science, July 20, 2012.
14 International


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