I returned yesterday from China, where I participated in the Fourth International Conference on Business Anthropology (May 22-25), held at Tianjin University of Finance and Economics in Tianjin China. The fourth in a series of conferences initiated by Robert Tian Guang and organized this time by Lu Zhengying, Assistant Dean in charge of the university’s continuing education program, this conference was, like its predecessors, enjoyable, interesting and informative. In this brief review my focus is the overall character of the conference and what it may tell us about the future of anthropology and business anthropology in particular, in China and India.
This was very much an applied anthropology conference. Founded in 1958, Tianjin University of Finance and Economics was one of the earliest universities in China to provide specialized higher education in the two fields mentioned in its name, finance and economics. Today this school boasts one of China’s most highly regarded accounting programs. Most of the scholars participating in the conference were Chinese and came from other other business schools. Their teaching and research specializations ranged from tourism and heritage management to banking and branding. The foreign scholars who participated might all be described as renegades by those involved in pure, academic anthropology. Two have had successful academic careers in business schools. Two have part-time connections with universities while engaging in applied anthropology in business or other contexts. One, myself, is an independent scholar whose day job is English-language translation and copywriting for Japanese clients.
Russell Belk is Professor of Marketing in the Schulich School of Business at York University. His web page describes his interests as follows:
My research involves the meanings of possessions, collecting, gift-giving, sharing, and materialism. This work is often cultural, visual, qualitative, and interpretive. By understanding what our possessions mean to us after we acquire them, how different cultures, past and present, regard consumption, and how we relate to each other through possessions, it is my belief that we learn something more profound and practical than simply asking how we evaluate alternative marketplace offerings. In a consumer society, our ideas about ourselves are often bound up or represented in what we desire, what we own, and how we use these things.
Annamma Joy is Professor of Marketing at the University of British columbia. The bio on her web page describes her as follows:
Dr. Joy is a Professor of Marketing at UBC, Kelowna campus. Before assuming her position in January 2008, she was Professor of Marketing at Concordia University in Montreal. Her research interests are primarily in the area of consumer behaviour and branding with a special focus on luxury brands, fashion brand experiences, consumer behaviour in the People's Republic of China (PRC), and aesthetic consumption. She has been a visiting scholar at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, China-Europe International Business School and at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, SDA Bocconi, Milan, the Helsinki School of Economics and Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland.
She told me that when she got her Ph.D. in anthropology the outlook for academic employment was grim. Her fellow anthropologists regarded her as a traitor when she did an MBA and the course work for a Ph.D. in business and found a career teaching in business schools.
A.H.Walle has a part-time appointment at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska. The author of numerous books, he has written widely on tourism, heritage promotion and qualitative research. A forthcoming volume on tribal management is based on his consulting work with Inuit and Athabaskan peoples in Alaska.
Mary Reisel is an applied anthropologist who currently divides her time between teaching at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and consulting at Rakuten, Japan’s largest e-commerce company. Her experience includes projects for Apple as well as other Western firms seeking opportunities for market entry in Japan.
Of particular and striking importance was the participation in this conference of Professor N.U. Khan, head of the Department of Social Work at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. Professor Khan, a Life Member of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the Delhi Management Association, the National Human Resource Development Network, the National Association of Professional Social Workers in India, and the Indian Association for Social Sciences and Health. To hear him give a powerful endorsement of the need for anthropological perspectives in public administration and delivery of social services, especially in India, which, he reminded us, is a multilingual, multicultural world in itself, was a clear indicator that the value of anthropology is being recognized outside of its usual academic contexts.
Among the keynote presentations in Chinese one I found particularly absorbing was that by Luo Yong-tai, a central figure in the city of Tianjin’s efforts to preserve its 19th-century heritage as one of China’s major treaty ports as a way to attract tourists and business to the city. Here the anthropological focus was historical and ethnographic research to better understand the spirit of the places being preserved as part of planning that might include either renovation or reconstruction or integration with new construction required to provide services to tourists visiting the sites. Each site has to be considered separately, paying close attention to its significance for local residents as well as the city as a whole. This presentation dovetailed nicely with Robert Tian Guang's celebration of the work of Jishou University Professor Yang Tingshuo whose Xiangji (Interphase) model provides a practical as well as theoretical scheme for development of minority areas in western China, incorporating the nurturing of indigenous cultures in national plans for economic development. (An English-language article on this topic can be found here.)