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Business Anthropology Is Dynamic and Growing

Business Anthropology Is Dynamic and Growing


Robert Guang Tian, Daming Zhou, and Alfons H. van Marrewijk



Anthropology is a discipline that over the last hundred or so years has developed a wide array of qualitative techniques for understanding people and their behavior.  For many years, practitioners in the business sector considered these analytic methods to be inferior to quantitative, so-called “rigorous scientific” methods.  However, recent organizational studies heavily criticize these positivistic methods (Bate 1994; Alvesson and Svenginson 2008). Business anthropologists all over the world have supported these critics (Aguilera 1996; Ferraro 1998; Jordon 2003).  It is widely recognized that business anthropology uses qualitative and ethnographic methods as an alternative to more formal methodologies (Jordan 2003, Ybema, Yanow, Wels, & Kamsteeg, 2009). Specific tools include participant observation, informal and structured interviews, and other “naturalistic”, informal, and face-to-face methods of investigation. Business anthropologists play a key role in developing culturally sensitive policies and strategies in a world that increasingly typified by cross-cultural contacts.

     We define business anthropology as a practically oriented scholastic field in which business anthropologists apply anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve real business problems in everyday life.  Business anthropologists include all those anthropologists who study the business fields of management, operations, marketing, consumer behavior, organizational culture, human resources management, international business, and so on through anthropological methods, particularly through ethnographic methods, such as participant observation, informal and structured interviews, and other anthropologically based research methods. Business anthropologists are able to play key roles in the business world by helping corporations develop culturally appropriate ways of doing business with suppliers, business partners or customers (Baba 2006; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010).

     We are very excited about the growth of business anthropology as a field of study, and we are very positive that this growing field will be employing more and more anthropologists in the future. Technological advances and globalization not only change the way people do business but also the way they think about business.  Business leaders must rethink what they can offer to their customers, how they can offer goods and services, with whom they will collaborate for these new products and services, what they say, what they do, and how they view the world.  Business anthropologists are in an excellent position to provide these kinds of insights through their unique methods and unique contributions.  We believe that in our globalized world there is a great need for anthropologists in business consulting, organizational behavior, human resources management, competitive intelligence, globalization, product design and development, marketing and consumer behavior studies (Jordan 2003, 2010; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010). 

     The anthropological perspective on business distinguishes itself from other perspectives as a method of fieldwork activity (the “doing” of ethnographic fieldwork by means of participant observation), as a paradigm (the “thinking” using anthropological concepts), and as a narrative style (the “writing”) (Bate 1997). In line with Bate, Dr. Ann Jordan stresses that business anthropologists tap various sources of information by getting to know the people within the organization (Jordan 2003). This emic perspective is central to the anthropological approach. Furthermore, business anthropologists take a “holistic” approach, which is to study human behavior within the social, historical, spatial and economical context. In this way, micro studies of employees and customers are connected to meso and macro societal levels. They assume the social construction of cultural differences, which can be used strategically in cultural collaboration in strategic alliances and mergers (van Marrewijk 2009). 

     A prominent example is the role of business anthropologists in the consumer industry.  In recent decades rapid technological developments have stimulated the growth of complex organizations in consumer industries.  These complex organizations face the challenge of accessing fragmented consumer markets, as traditional ways of doing business have become less effective. They must continuously improve their business models as well as consciously modify their existing products and services to satisfy their customers.  Consequently, interactions between producers and consumers have become more important than ever before in order to be profitable.  These changing conditions have created many opportunities for anthropologists who enable their knowledge and methods to play a distinctive role in today’s business world (Tian 2007, Tian and Walle 2009).

     Moreover, business anthropologists may work in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations (Jordan 2003; Pant and Alberti 1997). Based on our own personal and professional networks, we estimate that in today’s world there are several thousand well-qualified anthropologists working in business organizations of one sort or another. Increasingly, business anthropology is an appropriate approach for both scholars and business executives to understand why and how individuals around them do as they do, why and how organizations function in the ways that they function, as well as why and how consumers choose to purchase the goods and services that they prefer (Jordan 2003; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010). Because of this growing interest, more and more business anthropologists work as faculty members in universities and business schools from Asia to America, from Europe to Africa. 

     As a result, the time that anthropologists working in business organizations were “exotic” news in newspapers and business magazines is over. Now, serious newspaper and management articles show how American and European corporations increasingly hire anthropologists to design new technology, to learn to know their customers, and to improve their business (for example, see Cohen  and Sarphatie 2007, Corbett 2008, Davenport 2007, Gruener 2004, Miller 2005, Tett 2005). As larger groups of managers, marketers, engineers and designers read these articles the special qualities of business anthropologists are now better known.

     Not only practitioners are interested in business anthropology. Academics in organization studies, consumer behavior, marketing, public policy, product design, and international business studies increasingly include anthropological theories and methods in their research (Bate 1997). In addition, business educators can effectively apply anthropological theories and methods into their teaching practice, and in fact many business schools have started to redesign their curricula with the consideration of anthropological contributions (Tian & Walle 2009, Tian 2005). To support the growing interest in business anthropology, we all realized that we should create an academic journal to meet the needs of business anthropologists to publish and exchange their ideas.

     Although business journals are increasingly open to anthropological methods and ethnographic writing, many of us have difficulties publishing research findings in mainstream business journals. On the other hand, existing anthropological academic journals are devoted to publishing various aspects of scholastic works by anthropologists in different fields all over the world;  most of these journals favor traditional anthropological studies such as culture, ethnicity, kinship and economic organization, political relations, ethnic mobilization, networks, magic, ritual, symbolism and so on. Some of these journals are prepared to consider articles by anthropologists on newer themes related to the production and consumption of media forms, the Internet and so forth. However, few journals publish articles related to business anthropology.

     It is therefore necessary to create a platform to develop anthropological theories for practical use, to develop new theories from empirical data and to present ethnographic accounts of business organizations, as well as to provide a forum for work concerned with qualitative business analysis inspired by anthropological theory and methods.  With this idea in mind, we started to work on creating the International Journal of Business Anthropology (IJBA) in the winter of 2008. We determined that the mission of the journal would be to offer an academic platform for business anthropologists.  We named it the International Journal of Business Anthropology, which provides a vehicle of communication for anthropologists working with and within the practitioner world of business organizations. The goal of the journal is to generate an exchange of ideas between scholars, practitioners and industry specialists in the field of applied and business anthropology. The authorship and readership that make up our troops are included, but not limited to, all scholars and practitioners in different countries who use anthropological theories and methods to study and to solve real business problems in the real business world.

     Our troops are growing along with the expansion of the business world; the future development of globalized business will amplify the relevance and reach of business anthropology. We support the call for bridge building between practitioners and academics, a difficult request so long heard in the field of business studies (Bartunek 1993). Worrisome is the growing separation of practitioners and academies. The daily practices of anthropologists working in or for business corporations deviate from anthropologists in academic institutions studying business organizations. The latter are occupied with teaching, publishing, obtaining research grants, and dealing with internal university politics, which leaves little time and energy to be involved in business organizations. By contrast, business anthropologists working in or for business corporations have to acquire contracts, adapt to business requirements, come up with quick responses, and produce products, which leaves little time and energy for reading academic journals and for publication. The joint creation of new knowledge in the IJBA can support a real bridge building (Rojas et al., 2010).

     The IJBA is in the process of becoming a useful and important platform for both professional practitioners and academic scholars in the field of Business Anthropology. We hope our readers like the theoretical explorations, the case studies, the practical applications of anthropological theories and the personal reflections selected. We think the contributions are informative and invigorating and, perhaps more importantly, drawing the attention of the business community. Increasingly, they recognize the great value of anthropological study for a better understanding of human experience and behavior in business. The formal acknowledgement of the merger of anthropology and business, as demonstrated by the IJBA, validates what both fields have known for many years: that a symbiotic relationship is necessary for the sustenance of each (Rojas et al., 2010).

     We would like IJBA to bridge the gap between academic research and applied research by professionals. Increasingly, there is a plea for bringing practitioners and academics together in order to develop knowledge and apply the knowledge in the field of organization and management and vice versa. For those who are actively involved in the academic and the consultancy world, the appeal to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners is very challenging. This will not be easy as on the one hand, practical application of academic research drifts away from the pursuit of publications in academic journals. On the other hand, academic standards and theoretical implications of applied research by professionals are sometimes limited due to time pressure (Rojas et al., 2010).

     Consequently, some anthropologists feel they function at a crossroads: forced to decide between investigative academic research and professional applied research. However, we think that practitioners turned into academics (pracademics) and academics turned into practitioners (acaditoners), together with the education of business anthropology students, provide an avenue for theory to interact with “lived experiences”. The bold decision to forge ahead with our dedication to further develop a cultural understanding of business, and the belief that we can pass that knowledge on to members of other disciplines, is the reason the International Journal of Business Anthropology will become an invaluable tool (Rojas et al., 2010).

     Increasingly, we see academic experts being actively involved in management topics and helping organisations to solve problems. These experts help management in distinct roles such as researcher-consultant, change advisor, cross-cultural specialist or cultural broker. They obtain, apart from financial support, access to interesting fields of study and data for publication. Insight in boardrooms, organisation politics and informal gatherings will result in a deeper understanding. “Armchair” academic scientists will not be able to provide such a view. The downside is also clear; in accepting financial and logistical support experts run the risk of being limited in their ethnographic research and publications, and of the misuse of their research results. Remembering our origins came out of traditional anthropology, it seems that a fear of misuse clings to the ideas surrounding the field of applied anthropology. As applied anthropologists seek to work within communities, organizations and business networks, misuse of research results could happen. Therefore, we expect IJBA to look for new opportunities and solutions to ethical difficulties in terms of dealing with non-academic but for profit issues, which can be fostered through the open dialogue created by publications such as IJBA. If we have taken our early lessons to heart, we hope that both academic and business worlds can use our work in appropriate ways. To have a vehicle for disseminating information and sharing new research among applied anthropologists will assist in maintaining ethical principles for all members of the discipline (Rojas et al., 2010).

     Realizing that there is an increasing demand for reading materials and case studies of business anthropology from business and academic worlds alike, we decided to edit this book by selecting relevant articles from the first few issues of our published IJBA.  The articles selected reflect our best understanding of the theories and practice needs of business anthropology.  We have planned to edit a continuous series of books from the published articles in IJBA as a means of promoting business anthropology as a field of study.  This is the first volume of the series, which consists of four parts.

     The first part comprises general reviews of business anthropology. Dr. Ann Jordan’s article summarizes the importance of business anthropology and the unique contributions anthropologists have made to the business world. Dr. Robert Guang Tian’s article presents a concise overview of the applications of business anthropology. He stresses that by using specially developed research methods, such as ethnographic study, anthropologists can help business management to improve performance and profitability in various ways.  Dr. Alfons H. van Marrewijk’s article outlines the process of the historical development of business anthropology in Europe, highlighting special cases and events worthy of continuous study.

     The second part includes three articles concerning business anthropological perspectives and methodology.  In his article, Dr. Brian Moeran displays a considerable knowledge about the processes of cultural production, exploring and delineating the effects of a range of constraints on what he terms “creativity.” He argues that the concept of creativity now has a certain cache, given the rise of “creative hubs” and “creative cities,” but that it is taken for granted by actors in creative industries as well as by social scientists studying these industries. Dr. Pedro Oliveira explores the validity of ethnographic findings in business anthropology. He argues that ethnographic work is as methodologically valid as the scientific production of other disciplines. He suggests that business anthropology should be a field marked by greater methodological accountability, an argument that has been strongly supported with case analysis and logical discussions. Dr. Fernanda Duarte uses the concept of organizational culture to understand the culture of corporate social responsibility in a Brazilian mining corporation and provides a theoretical underpinning followed by a detailed description of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in practice. Dr. Duarte enhances our understanding of how CSR is manifested culturally, and the analysis can be extended to other types of companies, both those that succeed and fail at implementing CSR.

     The third part of the book focuses on practical issues and studies.  Dr. Morais and Dr. Malefyt predict a bright future for anthropologists in the financial services industry, and they believe that there is intrinsic worth in broadening the typical anthropological approach to incorporate additional theories and methods from other social and behavioral sciences.   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. Tomoko Hamada Connolly’s article demonstrates that symbolic readings of ritual analysis can be used to analyze how corporate ceremonies shed light on the structure of business organizations as a whole. Dr. Connolly argues that we can analyze corporate activities as ritual, and that through a detailed ritual analysis from an anthropological perspective we can better understand corporate activities.

     In their contribution, Dr. Daming Zhou and Dr. Xiaoyun Sun look at group differences among nongmingong (peasants turned urban industrial workers), a unique social economic phenomenon in modern China, and they suggest that business leaders must be aware of the group differences in everyday business management operations. Henk Koerten and Dr. Marcel Veenswijk reveal that the inter-organizational geo-data exchange has become a predominant public concern over the last decade, leading to organizational outgrowth between not-for-profit and governmental settings. They advocate that narrative analysis can be used to clarify where geo-data exchange stands at present and shed light on ethnographic material obtained through the study of organizations involved in geo-data exchange.  In his article, Dr. Hsain Ilahiane explores ways in which urban micro-entrepreneurs use the mobile phone as a tool to organize a newly networked work life.  He argues that mobile phone use expands the productive opportunities of certain types of activities by enhancing social networks, reducing risks associated with employment seeking, and enabling bricolage or freelance service work, leading to higher incomes. 

     The fourth part includes three articles that illustrate and demonstrate business anthropologists at work in real business world.  Dr. Alf Walle probes the role that business anthropologists can have in facilitating the intellectual rights of indigenous people.  He suggests that anthropologists working in the capacity of business anthropologists can have a substantial role in ensuring that indigenous peoples’ systems of intellectual ownership are respected and considered side by side with mainstream intellectual regimes.  In his life story essay, Dr. Gordon Bronitsky makes some good points about the transition from academia to business and shares his experiences about applying anthropological tools and practices to support a business. By using a life story approach, David McClendon offers us an autoethnographic case study about his family business. He claims that many small business owners may apply anthropology in their daily operations unconsciously, and that business anthropology has a role in understanding and enhancing small business as much as it does for large corporations.  

     In short, the articles included in this first volume concern meaningful issues that present and are pressing in our own lives, as well as those of many others seeking knowledge from our discipline.  In many ways, the work of applied anthropology will come to fruition through this publication and its consequences. Yet, with privilege comes responsibility. Those practitioners and scholars who recognize the value of this resource will also know the need we have to maintain a high level of variety, innovation and critical commentary. With thanks to the high quality work of our authors, it is our honor to have this opportunity to serve the business anthropology community and meet the needs of business anthropologists by publishing in IJBA their academic work with strong practical value.  It is our duty to build such a platform for our colleagues to share their thoughts, findings and ideas. It is our obligation to promote business anthropology as a special field in the disciplines of business and anthropology. It is our hope that in the near future business anthropology as a special field will be able to draw more and more attention from the academic world and business world alike.  We are quite confident about the success of business anthropology in the world today as well as the future (Rojas et al., 2010). 





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