What Anthropology Brings to Business
A Foreword for the Textbook General Business Anthropology (2nd edition)
Alex Stewart, Marquette University
Anthropology has a great deal to offer for business researchers, whether their research is applied and commercial or “pure” and foundational. Here are seven major advantages of an anthropological approach: patient participant observation, insider vistas, methodological versatility, relevant expertise, cross-cultural alertness, a bias for the underdog, and respectful collaboration.
1. Patient participant observation. Applied anthropologists face stricter deadlines than do their disciplinary colleagues (Aguilera, 1996). However, all anthropologists try to make long-term commitments to stick with it and learn a social and cultural setting in depth (Hamada Connolly, 2011; Tian, 2011). Their patience contrasts with most “qualitative” research in business schools, which pays more attention to supposedly theoretical elaborations than it does to data quality or to the basis of that quality in fieldwork duration, participant roles, and attention to context (Stewart, 1998).
2. Insider vistas. The reward for the anthropologist’s stints of immersion is access to insiders’ vistas: to actions, interactions, and expressions that typically are hidden from view (van Marrewijk, 2011). Impression management is a task of all organizations; organization scholars can be among the duped. Other levels and other units of the same organization may fail to see past facades (Kondo, 1990; Sayles, 1993; Weeks, 2004). For those business leaders who truly want to know what goes on in their terrains, anthropologists have the tools for the task (Jordan, 2011).
3. Methodological versatility. In fact they have many such tools, evidenced in Bernard’s (2011) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Even ethnography - the default tool - is far from standardized and comes in many configurations. Perhaps it is better thought of as a toolbox that holds many methods. Ethnography varies in the way that data are (so-called) collected: not just participant observation but also oral histories, life stories, and interviews designed to elicit the informant’s cultural world with minimal reactivity (Spradley, 1979). Modes of data collection (and presentation) also include visual methods such as photoethnography and ethnographic film (for a classic example, Bateson & Mead, 1942). Analysis of these data can incorporate mathematical techniques such as network analysis, with successful studies using highly sophisticated (White & Johansen, 2006) and homespun approaches (Kapferer, 1972).
Ethnography varies also in the scope of its purview, ranging from studies of global impacts on localities (Meisch, 2002), through clusters of firms in an industry (Yanagisako, 2002), to individual people - including the self as the informant (that is, autoethnography, McClendon, 2011). Even the types of subjects observed may vary, and include not only people (of course) but also material culture in visual culture research (Curasi, Price, & Arnould, 2004; van Marrewijk, 2011). Moreover, anthropologists can take as their data the prior ethnographic record, seeking qualitative or quantitative syntheses of its findings. Within anthropology, the best known such approach is hypothesis testing using the dataset of the Human Relations Area Files (Ember & Ember, 2009), although this approach remains underutilized in business research. An alternative approach that seeks the best of both qualitative and quantitative synthesis is Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis or QCA (Ragin, 2008). An example of the use of QCA in business is Rosigno and Hodson’s (2004) study of worker resistance to management.
4. Relevant expertise. As the Rosigno and Hodson study illustrates, ethnographies have explored topics of immediate interest to business. Moreover, anthropologists have developed expertise in fundamental concerns such as “culture” (Batteau, 2011), with a depth well beyond that of “folk ethnography” (that is, the views of practicing managers; Weeks, 2004; van Marrewijk, 2011). Kinship studies is another example of expertise that is relevant to the majority of businesses world-wide, as these are in some sense “family firms” (Gao, 2011; Stewart, 2010). Perusing just the table of contents of recent introductions to the discipline will uncover many other topics of relevance to business. A few examples: “contested norms and social control... property and tenure” (Hendry, 2008); and “rebels and innovators”, and “the changing nature of consumption” (Rosman, Rubel, & Weisgrau, 2009).
5. Cross-cultural alertness. The relevance of anthropological concerns can be missed if we attend only to the apparent (and real) exoticism of its specific subject matter. For example, the Rosman et al. text contains a randomly picked photograph with the caption “Hijras in India are born male but live as women, enacting social and religious rituals...” (p. 148). Yet this apparent exoticism is an anthropological strength. Business anthropologists remind us that, in our globalizing world, cross-cultural alertness ought to be valued; ethnocentrism ought not (Jordan, 2011; Tian, Zhou & van Marrewijk, 2011).
The discipline has treated any and all human experience as equally worthy of our understanding.
6. Bias for the underdog. Related to its regard for lesser known cultures is a bias in favor of support for the less well off and powerful. Certainly, anthropologists have studied formal, “modern” organizations, such as banks (Rohlen, 1974; Weeks, 2004). However, most anthropological studies of commerce have focused on small scale entrepreneurs (Stewart, 1991). As an illustration of concern for the underdog, protection of the intellectual property of indigenous peoples can be and has been a business anthropologist’s mission (Walle, 2011). This bias might seem to be a detriment for a business anthropology, but I will argue the opposite. Anthropologists have the tools to study the same organizations as other students of business. Even here, their attention to the less obvious corners of organizational life can reveal what managers miss. However, they also have the tools, and a comparative advantage, in the study of the great majority of the globe’s businesses and entrepreneurs. As such, they are uniquely positioned to contribute to the economic advance of what Prahalad in his recent (2010) book has called “the bottom of the pyramid”.
7. Respectful collaboration. Examples of studies of female, small scale and micro entrepreneurs are the books by Behar (1993) and Simon (2003). I adduce these as examples to illustrate another well honed skill in anthropology: the collaboration between researcher and researched in the creation of the text. Both books report with relatively little filtering the words and life stories of the protagonists. Business anthropologists, like all ethnographers, face challenges in reporting for the wider scientific community while also respecting confidences of particular individuals who, despite the use of pseudonyms, may be identified by others in their circles (Weeks, 2004, p. 29). One of the solutions is what Van Maanen (2011, pp. 136-138) terms the “jointly told tale” in which scholars and practitioners collaborate in the write-up.
This approach has been advocated for business anthropology (Aguilera, 1996), although - like the use of multiple ethnographies as data - it offers much room for further exploration. “Room for further exploration”: this expression serves as my summary statement for business anthropologists. Clearly they face exciting possibilities, when they combine a love for the scholarly world with an entrepreneurial willingness to craft their own careers. Doing so may seem a daunting prospect, but this is the prospect for everyone now: there are few if any settled, secure “job ladders” to be climbed (as Lane, 2011, reports in a tale jointly told with high tech job seekers). Therefore, those who have read this far are fortunate to have this book as a resource, that can help you explore how you, in your own fashion, can combine both worlds of business and anthropology.
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Poster’s Note: The textbook General Business Anthropology is authored by Robert Guang Tian, Michael Lillis, Alfons van Marrewijk, which is published by the North America Business Press in 2010 (1st edition), and the 2nd edition will be published in 2013.