Business Anthropology, the Future, and Pursuit of Theoretical Directions, Postscript by Maryann McCabe



Business Anthropology, the Future, and

Pursuit of Theoretical Directions


Maryann McCabe



This volume provides an excellent set of papers inspiring one to think about the past, present and future of business anthropology. What is exciting about the scholarly articles is they point a direction in which business anthropology needs to go. Those of us who have been working in the field know we apply anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve business problems. I have been a market researcher for over 20 years (and I say this to tell readers my comments come from better grasp of consumer behavior than organizational culture and user design or other subfields articulated by Robert Tian in Chapter 2). However, in addition to application of anthropology, this volume shows how business anthropology contributes to theory development.

     Theoretical knowledge production is the direction I think we need to pursue in the practice of business anthropology. The volume editors remind us in their Introduction that there is privilege and responsibility in being business anthropologists. In my view, one responsibility involves pushing our analyses beyond business solution to theory development in anthropology. In postscript, I discuss broad theoretical issues that business anthropology is poised to explore and the related issues of maintaining a critical stance and ethics.




The scholarship in this volume indicates that time is ripe for building theory based on ethnographic work in the area of business. The growth of business anthropology in the academy and the increasing number of anthropologists practicing in industry support the claim (Chapter 1) that the future for business anthropology is bright. There is now a Ph.D. program in business anthropology at Wayne State University and several Master’s programs in applied anthropology with a business focus including the program at the University of North Texas. I have found in my experience as an adjunct professor for over 10 years that students are enchanted intellectually with concepts in business anthropology and appreciate learning how their academic studies relate to the everyday business world. There is need to continue training students in theoretical perspectives growing out of praxis. Three related topics that business anthropology can examine further are agency, power and subjectivity. 



1. Agency


A theoretical thread of agency runs through this volume, sometimes articulated, sometimes assumed. The concept of agency has become ubiquitous in anthropology, and practice theory in anthropology and social science more generally (Bourdieu 1977, Giddens 1979, Ortner 1984) has paid insufficient attention to how social change occurs (Ahearn 2001). Because capitalism itself is changing (Fukuyama 2011), business anthropology provides a locus for nuanced studies on agency and microprocesses of social change.

     Ann Jordan’s discussion (Chapter 1) of organizational culture orients us to how beliefs and norms of group behavior form and transform. The ethnographic narratives in Chapters 8 and 12 about cybersecurity and mobile telephony specifically address the development of new forms of social relations and meanings that arise with adoption of new technology. These three chapters lead us to consider how capacity to act can occur at individual and group levels, thus moving away from the Western conception of agency in terms of the individual, and whether agency is internal or external. This more generally would go beyond use of dichotomies such as individual and group in analytical thinking about objects of material culture (Appadurai 1986). Whichever sub-field of business anthropology one pursues, emphasizing cultural influence on intention can expand insight about symbolic and strategic reasons for action in contradistinction to rational choice models espoused in business.    

     Of course, anthropological concern with agency is not new. It has been known under such guises as magic (Evans-Pritchard 1937, Malinowski 1948) and political strategy (Barth 1959, Bailey 1969). The current environment of global business economy provides opportunity to consider the role of agency in changing capitalistic forms. As Chapters 8 and 11 indicate, hybrid environments involving government and private industry and joint corporate enterprises based on collaboration offer opportunity to examine how agency is expressed in new contexts and what sociocultural factors and power dynamics cause or condition social change.


2. Power


Business anthropology deals with networks (people), things (products and services) and interactions between them. Power, a key component of these interactions, comes from various sources like money, resources, social capital and ideology. It may be easier to conceive sources of power in studies of organizational culture, but this aspect of social life comes to bear on consumer research and user design studies at least in terms of the use and meaning of things in everyday life as negotiated in the design, marketing and advertising of products and services (Malefyt and Moeran 2003, McCabe and Malefyt 2010). Drawing on theories of domination in anthropology, Levine (2011) brings attention to the role of agency in understanding power relations because the concept of resistance so popular in recent anthropological thought assumes that people are reactive in their capacity to produce outcomes in the world. For Levine, people are not only reactive but active. This places focus on practices and how people construct their own identities and histories. The work of business anthropologists can lead to theoretical development on this issue and how in the business setting interactions are motivated by cooperation and accommodation as well as resistance to achieve desired ends.

     Chapter 3 sets the stage for analyzing power relations in organizations in terms of diversity of viewpoints, instead of culture considered a monolithic norm, and therefore of engaging in situational and strategic analyses of action and meaning among stakeholders. This leads to understanding how meaning is co-constructed and managed by participants.  Chapter 9, for example, takes an interpretive anthropology route and uses ritual analysis to show how a change of power from one person to another is achieved and performed at a company event.

     Since the notion of agency in social science has been conceived in relation to structure, actor-centered approaches tend to address how actors are constrained by yet able to overcome norms, ideology and other sources of power; de Certeau (1984), for example, speaks of tactics. Given recent critique of theories of power that present ideology as a total or impenetrable force such as the work of Marx and Foucault (Ahearn 2001, Levine 2011), it is not surprising that anthropologists have become concerned with unpacking topics such as creativity, imagination and entrepreneurism (Hallam and Ingold 2007). These topics may seem to be renegades from constraint but, as Chapter 4 shows, constraints can inhibit and enable creative processes. In this chapter, Brian Moeran’s analysis of the social world in which creativity takes place suggests that collaboration allows individuals and groups to recognize each other’s expertise and let go of structural or hierarchical distinctions that would impede creative thought and action. Business anthropology can contribute to theoretical knowledge of power by looking at the social dimensions of creative, imaginative and entrepreneurial events in terms of wider processes in which they are enmeshed.


3. Subjectivity


Organizational and consumer practices reflect aspects of subjectivity. When people make decisions about their lives in the context of broader social, economic and political processes, they reveal something about their subjectivity or how they perceive themselves as social beings in the world. Analysis of subjectivities provides insight into social trends and changes (Krause 2009). In this volume, Chapter 10 compares younger and older Chinese workers who have migrated from rural to urban areas so that we understand why they have different identities, aspirations and adaptations to urban life.

     The concept of subjectivity provides means to study the individual, emotion, motivation and morality. It gives access to tensions, conflicts and contradictions in social settings because the sense of self varies not only over time and space and but also among groups within a society (Desjarlais 1999). Like culture itself, subjectivity is not normative. As capitalistic forms and practices change, business anthropologists who are narrating lived experience can gain insight into how people perceive their own actions, attribute responsibility and make sense of what is happening around them. Chapter 11 explains a failed enterprise based on the subjectivities of different groups of people who participated in a geo-information exchange endeavor. Because of different motivations and goals, they were unable reach consensus, create group identity and sustain joint effort. 

     Business anthropologists typically straddle several cultural divides in working with clients. In this sense, they are cultural brokers who bridge ways of knowing the world. This is of course the forte of anthropologists. Timothy Malefyt and Robert Morais (Chapter 7) speak of convergence when they suggest that anthropologists doing consumer research combine anthropological and psychological methods and theories in order to communicate better with clients who privilege psychology and in order to more fully understand consumer choices. Need for crossing boundaries in business anthropology will only increase in the future with, on one hand, continuing movement and mixture of people around the globe and, on the other hand, increasing collaboration across disciplines and fields in the business world. Business anthropologists will be able to contribute to theoretical understanding of subjectivity in this more diverse nexus of interaction where subjectivities collide. This would follow the tradition of anthropologists who have emphasized multiculturalism and the use of other disciplines as a way to enrich their teaching and their practice.




Allan Batteau speaks of taking a critical view of organizational culture (Chapter 8), a concept that applies to all subfields of business anthropology. Perhaps this hardly bears saying given the commitment of anthropology to human rights and social justice, but since business anthropologists work directly in a capitalist milieu, not unknown for infringement on human rights and social justice, we need to be willing to bring to light any such infringement we encounter in studying people and processes. In this volume, Chapter 6 looks at social justice and ecological sustainability practices in a Brazilian mine, and Chapter 13 takes on infringement against the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples. Even if telling the story of encroachment on the rights of others might raise worry over the anthropologist’s livelihood, maintaining a critical view is important. 




Given the historical background on business anthropology provided in this volume, it is interesting to think about periods when there was concern in the academy about anthropologists being co-opted. These periods are times of U.S. involvement in war (World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, especially with Human Terrain System). The American Anthropological Association has rightly been concerned about issues surrounding proprietary control and use of research findings. This slice of history brings to the surface the idea of transparency. Chapter 5, referring to methodological accountability, serves as a reminder to us to be clear in our writing about methods employed in business anthropology and to make transparent any ethical issues that may arise in practice.




I want to thank the authors for their contributions to this volume and to the field of business anthropology. The book evokes the sentiment of belonging to a community of scholars including academics and ‘practitioner-scholars’ (borrowing a term from Wasson 2006). In Chapter 3, volume editor Alfons van Marrewijk underscores the importance of connection among business anthropologists. I hope that business anthropologists around the world will continue to share as they draw out the implications of their ethnographic accounts for theory development in anthropology.






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