The First International Conference on Business Anthropology (China) — May 18-19, 2012

Marietta Baba

Allen Batteau
Ann Jordan
Tomoko Hamada
Mary McCabe
Alfons van Marrewijk
Brian Moeran
Patricia Sunderland
I wonder how many members of the Open Anthropological Cooperative know these names. All were featured speakers at the First International Conference on Business Anthropology (China) organized by Professors Robert Guang Tian and Daming Zhou and held May 18-19, 2012 at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. All are major figures in the rebirth of Business Anthropology as a distinct variety of Applied Anthropology since the 1980s.
I say "rebirth" because the involvement of anthropologists with business can be traced back to the early 19th century when the Court of Directors of the East India Company decided to acquire anthropological knowledge of India, which was deemed of great value in the administration of the country (Baba, 2006:1). In the Americas, an early highlight was W. Lloyd Warner's involvement in the Hawthorne Project, to which Warner, who had studied with Radcliffe-Brown, brought a structural perspective to a study whose earlier stages were dominated by psychological and economic models (Baba, 2006: 5). A rebirth was necessary because, like social network analysis, a field which also claims figures like Warner as among its progenitors (Freeman, 2004), the ethnographic study of  industrial and other large organizations that flourished before WWII was largely eclipsed by the positivistic, quantitative approach that Andrew Abbott labels Standard Causal Analysis (Abbott, 2004:19-21) from the 1950s to the 1970s. 
To participate in this conference was, even for this anthropologist with a long business career, an eye-opening experience.  Following up by searching the Internet for the works of the speakers and organizers whose names are mentioned above has revealed a wealth of business-related anthropological research, whose riches I have only begun to explore. The sources listed in the reference below are only entry points to a body of anthropological literature whose scale and sophistication was previously unknown to me. Here, then, I will only mention a few scattered thoughts I took away from the conference.
Marietta Baba's opening address was a genuine whack on the head to this anthropologist who had been assuming naively that anthropology and ethnography were inseparable Siamese twins. Baba observed that 19th century anthropology kept its distance from the messy business of actual contact with the peoples it theorized about, relying on reports by missionaries, traders, diplomats and explorers for the data on which its theories were based. In historical retrospect, moreover, the fusion of anthropology and ethnography exemplified by Malinowski in the Trobriands turns out to be an aberration. From Lévi-Straussian structuralism through postmodern interpretation, the participation and observation once proclaimed to be the paradigm of anthropological research has largely given way, at least in the academy, to theory based on anecdote and inward-directed self-reflection. As in the 19th century, anthropological attention is focused on textual interpretation divorced, I observe to myself, from the primary field experience, finding oneself an idiot with less local street smarts than the average two year-old and trying to figure out what the relevant questions are.
Meanwhile, however, the business world has embraced ethnography, now seen as quick and dirty qualitative method offered by specialists in a variety of business and academic disciplines. The outlook is dim for anthropologists who propose to sell themselves as ethnographers but expect to do leisurely studies aimed at holistic understanding instead of fresh, actionable insights. At the very least they may find themselves competing with other "ethnographers" whose stronger strategic focus and accommodation to short-term research give them an edge. Brian Moeran suggests that the business anthropologist's edge may be in anthropological theory—but what theory and how it should be applied remains unclear. Many papers presented at the conference appeared to be no more than standard business school case studies. 
There is broad consensus now that Business Anthropology comprises three subfields
  1. Organizational anthropology (the study of complex organizations to include their cultures, work processes, and change directives)
  2. Anthropology of marketing and consumer behavior, and
  3. Design anthropology (Jordan, 2011: 22)
Robert Guang Tian would add two additional subfields, the anthropology of competitive intelligence and knowledge management and the anthropology of international and cross-cultural business (2011:29), but these are not yet as strongly differentiated as the big three. Organizational anthropology is strong in Europe, particularly in Amsterdam, where Alfons van Marrewijk is a leading light. The anthropology of marketing and consumer behavior now has its own Consumer Culture Theory Conference, first held in 2006 when it was organized by John Sherry and Eric Arnould at Notre Dame University. Design anthropology has the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations) conference, supported by sponsors that include Microsoft, Intel and IBM. The issue is now how to hold the three subfields together under the umbrella of Business Anthropology. 
Ethics was another recurring theme, highlighted at the end of the conference by Patricia Sunderland's reflections on the problems of working in a field where respondents, recruiters, researchers and clients are all tempted to lie and not infrequently succumb to temptation, and Allen Batteau's reflection that true professionalization requires a higher calling than simply "Do no harm."
I couldn't help thinking as I participated in the conference about the way in which Business Anthropology is doubly stigmatized by Academic Anthropology, first because it is applied and not "pure" scholarship, and secondly because its applications involve business, an aspect of human life and social organization that contemporary theorists seem to regard as inherently evil. I thought about the people mentioned above and how with few exceptions they have been marginalized in academia but embraced by businesses who have found their research and counsel valuable. It was great fun meeting them and a pleasure to discover a whole new world of anthropology my academic training had simply ignored.
Andrew Abbott (2004) Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences
Marietta Baba (2006) "Anthropology and Business" in the Encyclopedia of Anthropology. H. James Birx, Ed. Sage Publications.
Lin Freeman (2004) The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Empirical Press.
Ann T. Jordan (2011) "The Importance of Business Anthropology: Its Unique Contributions" in Robert Guang Tian, Daming Zhou and Alfons van Marrewijk, eds. Advanced Readings in Business Anthropology. North American Business Press.
Robert Guang Tian (2011) "The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies: A Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology" in Robert Guang Tian, Daming Zhou and Alfons van Marrewijk, eds. Advanced Readings in Business Anthropology. North American Business Press.

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