Category: "corporate & business anthropology"
“When you write [for us], please remember to write in plain English”, the editors Brian Moeran (Copenhagen Business School) and Christina Garsten (Stockholm University) ask in their editorial of the first issue:
One thing that can be said about anthropology in general is that, as a discipline, it has been blessed in the past by good writing, and by anthropologists who have been good writers. This is by no means the case nowadays, when the monograph is being ousted by the journal article, and freedom of expression by all kinds of restrictions.
In spite of all appearances to the contrary in most academic journals, it is possible to express complex ideas in simple language. Theoretical musings can be intelligible, divested of jargon.
And articles in the JBA, unlike articles in most other journals, really ought to say something that is novel, exciting, stimulating and provocative. They ought to strive to reach across to a variety of audiences. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in publishing them in the first place – unless, of course, we are going to play the citation index game, which we’re not. So there!
The journal is not meant to be interesting for researchers only. According to their selfdescription the journal staff hopes the articles may “guide business practitioners in their day-to-day working lives”. A better understanding of organizational structures and interpersonal relations, they argue, “can help in the management of personnel, workplace design, and formulation of business strategies”.
Business is understood broadly, as they explain in the editorial: Business is done both on a Norwegian oil rig or, a Peruvian craft market, a tea plantation in the Himalayan foothills, a Bulgarian rose field or on a camel train in the Saudi Arabian desert. In all those places, people engage “in practices that form many of the building blocks of anthropological theory: material culture and technology; gifts, commodities and money; labour and other forms of social exchange; (fictive) kinship, patronage, quasi-groups, and networks; rituals, symbolism and power; the development and maintenance of taste; and so on.”
The Journal of Business Anthropology adopts “a critical stance towards the commercial exploitation of academic research through the publication of overpriced journals that take advantage of under-budgeted university and educational libraries”:
By adopting a multiple format approach, it also takes a stand against current administrative evaluations of ‘academic quality’. It does not believe in the value of, although it may be obliged to take part in, citation indices. It also makes its contents entirely free. Copyright for all material published on the journal’s Open Access website remains with its authors, who may use it elsewhere as they wish.
Multi-format means there will be both traditional articles (published in traditional issues at specific intervals - two issues in 2012) as well as case studies and field reports that will be published separately as they become available. They will also be supported by blogs to enable the journal’s readers to engage in ongoing dialogues about issues arising from these writings. They also intend to run a news and information section.
One of their aims is also to counter what they describe as an “unfortunate development in the discipline of anthropology” - US-centrism.
“During the past two to three decades”, the editors write, “it seems to us that American anthropology has turned in on itself; its proponents have talked mostly to themselves and often ignored the work of those who live and work elsewhere”:
It is our abiding impression that the anthropological study of business is an American development, and that the businesses studied are themselves either American or located in the United States.
But other anthropologists in other parts of the world have also been conducting research on different aspects of business relations: for example, Norwegian herring fleets (Barth 1966), labour migration in Uganda (Elkan 1960), family firms in the Lebanon (Khalaf and Schwayri 1966), and transnational mining and the ‘corporate gift’ (Rajak 2011).
Their aim in launching the JBA is “to bring together fragmented anthropologies”. In the future, they intend to include an essay on one national or regional anthropology in each of the early issues of the JBA. “It is not simply in its methodology, but in its general approach and attitude, that anthropology needs to be holistic”.
Articles in the first issue:
Among the case studies we find A Funky-Formal Fashion Collection: Struggling for a Creative Concept in HUGO BOSS (pdf) by Kasper Tang Vangkilde.
The book review section also contains an extensive bibliography.
So far, there has been little innovation in the field of open access journal publishing. Most of them are based on traditional paper thinking. One of the few exceptions is Anthropology Reviews: Dissent and Cultural Politics (ARDAC).
For the second time, Associated Press has engaged anthropologists in order to improve its services. The first research project, conducted by Context-Based Research Group, revealed that people - contrary to what AP believed - wanted more breadth and depth instead of short blasts of news. The new study shows that news consumers want a two-way conversation instead of one-way bombardment:
It is not just that people feel overloaded. As consumers, they long for a better way to communicate with information providers – news companies and advertisers alike. They want that communication to be two-way, transparent and honest. They seek a new relationship that is built on trust, not simply on the value of the content or advertising itself.
“You have to socialize the space before you can monetize it,” Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist for Context, concluded. “The solution is not just to create more engaging content, but to create better environments for engaging with content.”
In the report, Blinkoff used Victor Turner’s concept “Communitas” - something that APs Vice President Jim Kennedy Vice President called “an interesting bit of cultural theory":
He called Communitas a time of egalitarian information sharing which can be harnessed to rebuild trust between information providers and consumers. He likened Communitas to the social networking phenomenon online, where consumers feel comfortable engaging with information among their friends and peer groups. (…) With Communitas, there is no such thing as one-way communication. There are only two-way conversations that inspire loyalty and trust, and those are key ingredients with the power to cut through the clutter of the Internet.
Both studies are based on ethnographic research methods. The researchers tracked and analyzed the behavior of individuals in their work and home environments.
AP seems to be fascinated by anthropological methods. “One of the keys to understanding how to address the situation", AP writes, “has been the extraordinary insight enabled by the Context methodology":
Context does ethnographic research, meaning it studies small groups of people up close to get at the root of their behavior. That “Deep Structure,” as Context calls it, opens up a view of how companies can respond to cultural changes that aren’t so obvious on the surface.
I found one more report on Context’s website called Grounding the American Dream: An Ethnographic and Quantitative Study on the Future of Consumerism in a Changing Economy where they “portray a society and culture going through a “rite of passage” and moving into an era where we measure the quality of our lives in social terms before economic ones".
Most anthropologists work outside the university where they don’t enjoy academic freedom. These anthropologists must be better prepared for the perils of non-academic applied work, Brian McKenna writes in Counterpunch. For good applied anthropology is being troublesome:
He quotes Robert Lynd who in 1939 wrote:
[T]he role of the social sciences to be troublesome, to disconcert the habitual arrangements by which we manage to live along, and to demonstrate the possibility of change in more adequate directions . . . like that of a skilled surgeon, [social scientists need to] get us into immediate trouble in order to prevent our present troubles from becoming even more dangerous. In a culture in which power is normally held by the few and used offensively and defensively to bolster their instant advantage within the status quo, the role of such a constructive troublemaker is scarcely inviting.
Too often, applied anthropologists say “Yes, sir":
Some years back Harvard anthropologist Kris Heggenhougen argued that the strength of anthropology in collaborating with other disciplines lies in saying, “yes, but. . . and to critically examine the decisive factors affecting peoples’ health including power, dominance and exploitation.” (Heggenhougen 1993)
Yes, but. . . . while that sounds good, more needs to be said.
First of all, we spend much more time saying “yes, sir” than “yes, but” in paid employment. This is necessary if we wish to stay employed. The workplace is a not a democracy but a hierarchy in which academic freedom does not apply. (…) (A)pplied anthropologists have to be prepared to travel the road from “yes, but,” to “no, sir” in order to better serve the public interest.
Brian McKenna mentions several applied anthropologists who were “troublesome". One of them is Barbara Johnston who has worked with environmental justice. She warns about associated risks:
Environmental justice work “requires confronting, challenging and changing power structures.” When someone is involved in this work, says Johnston, “backlash is inevitable.” Because most anthropologists usually enter organizations as change agent s of some kind they need to be aware that they are especially at risk of being labeled a “troublemaker” at any time. If the label sticks it can lead not only to getting fired; it also can lead to a vicious form of bullying that can make one’s life unbearable.
According to Johnston, academic culture “trivializes the importance of this work,” while, at the same time, the engaged anthropologist struggles to find disciplinary support.
Another example is Ted Downing who worked for the World Bank. In 1995, he wrote about the potential social and environmental impacts a proposed World Bank dam project will have on Chile’s Pehuenche Indians. The result: The report was censored:
After his report was censored Downing demanded that the World Bank publicly disclose his findings. The Bank responded by threatening “a lawsuit garnering Downing’s assets, income and future salary if he disclosed the contents, findings and recommendations of his independent evaluation.” (Johnson and Garcia Downing). As a result of his whistleblowing, Downing was blacklisted from the World Bank after 13 years of consulting service.
In his case, “yes, but” didn’t work. He progressed, reluctantly, to “no, sir”:
In fact this happens to many applied anthropologists but most do not have the resources, support or disciplinary guidance to assist them in their struggles. They might become whistleblowers but their careers suffer. And their stories are untold. We do not have a good accounting of how often this happens to anthropologists, but we need to learn more about this. In any case, resisting censorship is, as Downing says, “good applied” anthropology.
She spent a year in Tajikistan during her PhD, looking after goats. Two years ago, she predicted the current financial crisis. “I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance,” anthropologist Gillian Tett, assistant editor at the Financial Times, says in an interview with The Guardian:
Firstly, you’re trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City (financial district of London) don’t do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.
But the other thing is, if you come from an anthropology background, you also try and put finance in a cultural context. Bankers like to imagine that money and the profit motive is as universal as gravity. They think it’s basically a given and they think it’s completely apersonal. And it’s not. What they do in finance is all about culture and interaction.
“(Anthropology is) a weird background to have. But it’s helped me in covering the financial crisis. Having seen the Japanese financial crisis, I’ve always known that banks can fall apart. We never imagined that the Soviet Union would break up. And then in Tajikistan there was a horrific civil war. So that whole experience taught me that extraordinarily unexpected things can happen.
Tett was Japan correspondent for the Financial Times during the country’s financial collapse, and wrote a book about it, “Saving the Sun”:
The behaviour and the psychological mood of the markets in late July was almost identical to what happened in the autumn of 1997 in Japan. I was busy cancelling holidays and things. But it came out of the blue for many people - investors, policymakers, bankers, our readers were suddenly completely at sea, at a loss to make sense of it. The financial system is so dysfunctional, so tribal, that people just don’t communicate with each other.
More non-economics should be interested in finance, she says:
People who come from a background of arts and humanities and social studies tend to think that money and the City is boring and somehow dirty. But if you don’t look at how money goes round the world you don’t actually understand the world at all. When you try and join up the dots about how money can be linked to politics, can be linked to culture, then it’s electrifying.
Some years ago, the researchers observed how people talked on the phone while watching the same TV show. Now Motorola-anthropologist Crysta Metcalf and her team are designing a Social TV, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The researchers designed a prototype and recruited friends of friends for the first phase of testing. “It looked like a PC attached to a television with a big microphone on a coffee table,” Metcalf says.
There are several publications by her and her team online, among others Ambient social tv: drawing people into a shared experience. There is also a pdf of a presentation at a conference by the Society of Applied Anthropology Investigating the Sharing Practices of Family & Friends to Inform Communication Technology Innovations
The number of young newspaper readers is declining. In order to better understand the behaviors of young readers, Associated Press commissioned a team of anthropologists to follow 18 young individuals around the world and examine their media habits, the Editors Weblog reports.
The Anthropologists found few major cultural differences. “The young digital consumers in Hyderabad were very similar to the ones in Silicon Valley in the United States", said Jim Kennedy from AP.
The researchers uncovered the social aspects of reading news: Almost all of their informants shared news with each other, through text messages, emails and social networks. “These young consumers are looking up to news as a form of social currency", Kennedy said.
Strangely enough, 16 of the 18 individuals consumed news through email, “a popular and powerful platform that often tends to be discounted by traditional media", according to the Editors Weblog.
The full results of the study will be presented at the 2008 World Editors Forum in Gothenburg, Sweden, to be held June 1-4.
(via Bits and Bytes) The true value of IT will come not from information or technology per se but from the social side. Therefore anthropologists and other social scientists will become more important to Information Technology (IT) Departments than IT itself, says IT analyst Tom Austin in an interview by Fast Company.
The interview does not deal with user centered design but with shaping a climate of creativity in the workplace in the Web 2.0 era with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis and other online social network tools:
A new species of Information Technologist is emerging from the primordial ooze of Web 2.0 – social scientists and humanists who focus on human behavior more than software code. (…) As computer systems become ever more automated and transparent, attention will shift to how to use these tools as social lubricants in the workplace.
MySpace or Facebook will become models for business interaction, Austin thinks:
Look at teenagers today. They’re teamagers. They work on projects as a group and think nothing of doing it that way. I expect to see that kind of thing percolate through the enterprise as an unstoppable force over the next two decades.
Austin tells about companies that are using websites like Facebook to help reinforce or build a social network inside the company to enhance collaboration and productivity:
They use a variety of tools where employees are encouraged to create a personal page where they share not only name, rank, and serial number but also information about prior jobs, interests, hobbies, other skills they may have, projects they’ve worked on, and so forth. That becomes a dynamic and important tool for navigating through the network of people inside the company to find others who may be able to help you.
In this world of the “ad hocracy” that we live in, where people get thrown into project after project, it helps to look at information and figure out, these three people I’m meeting with tomorrow who I’ve never met before. What are they like? Is there something we share in common – a hobby, a background, education, a boss we hated – that you can use to strike up a conversation?
The problem with IT today is there are too many engineers and not enough social scientists. Look at the numbers of features and controls we put on how things are done. That’s an engineer’s approach, versus some of the free form approach of Enterprise 2.0 and social networking.
There is another business anthropology story in the news: In the article Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?, New York Times author Sara Corbett writes about the work done by Nokia-researcher Jan Chipchase, a “human-behavior researcher” and “user-anthropologist” (but with a degree in design, not anthropology):
His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company — to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.
He works in a similar way as many design anthropologists:
Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company — loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be — the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner’s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they’re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.
The whole article in The New York Times is interesting but quite long. For a summary including comments see the post over at Neuroanthropology Cellphones Save The World. For more information, see Jan Chipchase’s blog
For an earlier entry on Jan Chipchase, see Capitalism and the problems of “High speed ethnographies”
UPDATE (14.4.08) Anthropologists are part of a research team that wants to find out how mobile phones might be used to allow people to share content with each other >> more information at The Engineer
Can anthropology help us to understand the current Wall Street crisis? Of course. Anthropologist Gillian Tett is an assistant editor of the Financial Times. “It is undoubtedly an unusual background for a financial journalist", she writes:
Indeed, whenever I reveal my strange past today, bankers usually either react with horror (what does she know about finance?) or incredulity (why would anyone spend years studying Tajik goat-herders?). But a decade later, my years in Tajikistan are suddenly starting to look a whole lot more useful.
For one thing that anthropology imparts is a healthy respect for the importance of micro-level incentives and political structures. And right now these issues are becoming critically important for Wall Street and the City, as the credit crunch deepens by the day.
One of the important issues is the culture of power:
(G)roups such as Citi or Merrill appear to have developed a more hierarchical pattern, in which the different business lines have existed like warring tribes, answerable only to the chief. Moreover, the most profitable tribe has invariably wielded the most power - and thus was untouchable and inscrutable to everyone else. Hence the fact that, in this tribal culture, nobody reined in the excesses of the structured finance teams at Citi and Merrill.
(W)hat is crystal clear is that if you want to understand which banks will emerge as winners from the current mess, it is no longer enough to look at their computer systems and balance sheets. Now, more than ever, investors need to understand a bank’s culture too - and the degree to which it is tribal. As I said, a training in Tajik anthropology is suddenly looking very useful.
Gillian Tett has also written Office Culture - good overview about corporate anthropology