The Third International Conference on Applications of Anthropology in Business

     It was my third time to participate in the annual International Conference on Applications of Anthropology in Business, organized by Robert Tian Guang and held at a venue in China, and my second time to visit Jishou University, which is located in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hunan Province in the west of China. The first two conferences were held in Guangzhou and Shanghai, and Jishou City is not only remote but also, by Chinese standards, small (in 2008 the population of Jishou County was only 291,000; now around 400,000). That may be why participation was smaller than in previous years. The result, however, was a happy one, a conference where everyone got to know each other, and the quality of both presentations and conversation was high. Next year's conference will be in Tianjin, a much larger and more accessible city. Everyone who has the opportunity should consider attending. 

     To me, the single most impressive event of this year's conference was the session devoted to celebrating the work of Professor Yang Tingshuo. A member of the Miao minority, Professor Yang is a native anthropologist, whose career as an economic and ecological anthropologist has been devoted to improving the standard of living as well as studying the cultures of the minority peoples of Southwest China. In China he is known for his development of a theoretical model based on the concept of xiangji (interphase), used to describe the situation of minority peoples in a time of transition, struggling to preserve indigenous cultures while becoming integrated in the nation and national economy. He has been a powerful critic of development programs, which, while successful on the plains of Eastern China's river deltas, have created ecological disasters in  the mountains where minorities like the Tujia and Miao live. I had never heard of Yang Tingshuo; but I should have. The respect and devotion of his students, now professors themselves, was profoundly moving.

      Unforgettable moments from the English side of the program included Russell Belk's introduction of the concept "singularization" to describe the antithesis of commodification: the process by which something becomes uniquely valuable to a particular individual, instead of having a single value, expressed as price, for all individuals. I was also struck by the skill with which Tomoko Hamada Conolly integrated anthropological insights into the SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) and PDCA (plan, do, check, adjust) frameworks found in management textbooks —which, I suspect, has a lot to do with her success as a business consultant as well as a professor of anthropology. But the most unforgettable memory of all, I owe to Gordon Bronitsky. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bronitsky is an archeologist turned impresario, who organizes tours and festivals for indigenous performers from the American southwest, Australia, and Mongolia and is constantly looking to expand his horizons. During the conference, he repeatedly returned to his favorite theme, "Indigenous performance is what indigenous performers do." To explain his point, he described a Navajo jazz trio, for whom he arranged a European tour. One politically self-conscious museum director with whom Bronitsky was negotiating asked, "Is it right to take these people out of their native context?" The reply from the leader of the trio was, "We don't do feathers."

     In conclusion, let me add a special word of thanks to Professor Luo Kanglong and his colleagues at Jishou University for hosting the conference, and especially to Wu Hexian, who bore the brunt of keeping everything running smoothly.

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