Introduction to International Journal of Business Anthropology Vol. 5 (2) by Alex Stewart

Introduction to International Journal of Business Anthropology Vol. 5 (2)


Alex Stewart


       When they study businesses, anthropologists bring a great deal of value to the table, but they also confront obstacles as they seek to apply their knowledge and their methods in this terrain. As a result, business anthropology faces the challenge of adapting, in order to overcome the obstacles, while maintaining the distinctive advantages of the root discipline. These challenges and some of the resolutions to these challenges are evidenced in this issue of the International Journal of Business Anthropology.

       Howard Aldrich, a sociologist who is prominent in management studies, and I have recently written about the obstacles and opportunities for greater collaboration between anthropologists and management scholars (Stewart & Aldrich, forthcoming). Our article is directed to management scholars. More recently, I wrote a companion article directed to anthropologists (Stewart, 2014). In this introduction, I refer to the eight potential obstacles that we introduced in those two papers.

       The first apparent obstacle is that anthropologists specialize in so-called “exotic” cultures at the expense of knowledge of modern, capitalist societies. However, the knowledge of diverse cultures can itself be a strength, and anthropological methods have helped field researchers to gain real business expertise. In this issue, we see evidence of the study of pressing business and social issues, such as training for long-term elderly care (the article by Wang and Chen). We also see evidence of useful deliverables for managers (the article by Oliveira).

       A second potential obstacle is sympathy for the powerless and the poor and, in many cases, a left-wing bias against business. We argue that sympathy for peoples outside of the business mainstream can be a strength, and one that resonates with some business people and scholars. In this issue, we find an example of this commendable concern in Harrington’s article. Moreover, there is no evidence of an anti-business bias. This might seem to be inevitable in a “business anthropology” journal, but management journals themselves are not immune from left-wing ideology.

       A third potential obstacle is exclusive reliance on ethnographic method, and in particular on the solo fieldworker as the one research instrument, working in one supposedly bound-off research site. In this issue, to the contrary, we see if anything the potential for an over-reaction against ethnography. Many other methods are used here, as in fact they are in most anthropological practice. For example, Harrington’s article is an historical synthesis, Wang and Chen’s article is an analysis of educational courses, and He’s article is a popular culture study. Torsello’s article and the article by Wang and Ip are based on interviews.

       So far so good. However, we can ask just how far anthropology can deviate from intensive field study and still be anthropology. It is not clear that the interviews in these articles are “ethnographic” in Spradley’s (1979) sense. They are certainly mainstream by business school standards. So too is the article by Davis and Jai. In fact, this study could be part of a study that is anthropological as a whole, but is not in itself anthropological. It is based on the structural equation modeling analysis of “an online survey” of undergraduate students. It cites no works from anthropology. From a marketing perspective, the research is well executed. It is not a weakness of the study to note that it draws into relief the challenge of retaining anthropological strengths in research on business.

       A fourth potential obstacle is sufficiently deep access into business firms for anthropologically oriented fieldwork. Such fieldwork is intrusive to some extent, regardless of the skills of the ethnographer, and if it is carried out well it uncovers more than the managers studied may care for. As a result, many anthropological studies of businesses have been carried out at the level of industry clusters, networks, or professions rather than individual firms. An example in this issue is Torsello’s article on compliance officers, which raises interesting points about sensitive data, within the firms as well as without for publication.

       A fifth potential obstacle is the duration required for anthropological fieldwork. Among the resolutions found in applied and business anthropology are insider-outsider teams and the various approaches in the rapid appraisal toolkit. Not surprisingly, the fieldwork duration of the studies in this issue is brief. Oliveira interviewed and observed for two weeks and Wang and Ip interviewed for one week. In this regard, these articles are similar to those in business journals. Duration will continue to be a challenge for business anthropologists.

       A sixth potential obstacle is the pattern of solo-authored works in anthropology. This runs counter to the increasing trend towards multiple-authored works, which dominate in citation counts. Solo authorships are less prevalent in applied rather than purely “academic” anthropology. In this issue, three of the seven articles are jointly authored. Moreover, anthropologists of all descriptions often conduct their work more collaboratively than the authorships make apparent. As an example, in the work for his article, Oliveira collaborated with a “co-researcher in the field (a designer)”.

       A seventh potential obstacle is the nature of anthropological findings. They are relatively more complex and contextually specified than the findings of economics, psychology, or even sociology. Of course this reflects a strength of anthropology. The real world is complex and contextual. In this issue, such a strength is evidenced in Torsello’s sensitivity to the Hungarian context. For example, he notes the tainted image of whistle blowers in a country with a totalitarian history. This strength, unfortunately, also makes findings potentially harder for decision makers to quickly digest. The challenge for business anthropologists is to find ways to present their results that resonate with managers. In this issue, we see an example in Oliveira’s use of “a pie chart [as] part of our final deliverable.”

       An eighth potential obstacle is that complex and contextualized findings are best expressed in scholarly books rather popular books, which could reach a managerial readership, or articles, which are more likely to reach a business school readership. However, the very presence of this journal demonstrates that this is scarcely an insurmountable challenge. We now have the International Journal of Business Anthropology, and the Journal of Business Anthropology, as well as more general applied journals such as Human Organization. Moreover, I have suggested (Stewart, 2014) that management journals - and I would add marketing journals - are likely to be receptive to well-done fieldwork based submissions. The weakness of most so-called “qualitative” research in business can best be remedied by the manifold strengths of anthropological method (Alex Stewart).




Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Stewart, Alex, and Aldrich, Howard E. (forthcoming) Collaboration between management and anthropology researchers: Obstacles and opportunities. Academy of Management Perspectives. (accepted 01/10/14.)

Stewart, Alex. (2014). Too rare to be a token: An anthropologist in a business school. Journal of Business Anthropology, 3(2) (pp. TBD). This paper is being translated for the Chinese Journal of Applied Anthropology

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