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This business anthropology research paper is a historical overview of some of the influences of business upon the development of sociocultural anthropology and the consequences thereof, and a review of other major developments that shaped business anthropology over the past century. The paper also discusses the most prominent areas of inquiry and practice in business anthropology that have emerged recently and how these have contributed to the current status of the subfield.
- Anthropology and Business: Early Influences
- Perspectives on the Hawthorne Project
- Human Relations School
- British Social Anthropology
- Yankee City Study
- Business Anthropology Following World War II
- Major Areas of Inquiry and Practice
- Ethnographically Informed Design
- Organizational Cultures
- The Anthropology of Consumers, Marketing, and Advertising
- The Anthropology of Finance
Business anthropology is inquiry or practice in the business domain that is grounded in anthropological epistemology, methodology, or substantive knowledge. Business anthropology also may be viewed as a term of reference for the overarching field in which anthropology has forged much of its experience in the private sector. In its most general sense, business refers to the buying and selling of goods and services in the marketplace, and the organized economic activities attendant to those practices. Anthropologists have been engaged in the business domain since the early twentieth century as scholars, practitioners, and strategic consultants. From these encounters, numerous designations have emerged in anthropology: corporate, enterprise, organizational, design, finance (anthropology), and so on. The proliferation of alternative terms for the construct ‘business anthropology’ is a reflection of several historical currents, including tensions in the relationship between anthropology and business in the discipline, difficulties surrounding the early uses of anthropological knowledge in applied anthropology, and a lack of consensus surrounding efforts to institutionalize the study of business-related phenomena in anthropology.
The twentieth century was a turbulent period for the relationship of anthropology and business, encompassing both theoretically serious engagement through the Human Relations School and sharp criticism through Marxist and neo-Marxist studies of industry. The latter decades of the century saw more anthropologists in Europe, North America, and Asia entering into increasingly diversified relationships with businesses, including the absorption of anthropology and ethnography into the business realm and the commodification of ethnographic practice into the private sector. These developments have called for self-reflection with respect to anthropologists’ engagement in business, although, for the most part, the long-term consequences have not been confronted. The present situation is one of gradual institutionalization of business anthropology in society, with hundreds of anthropologists around the globe studying about and practicing in business, and the emergence of dedicated journals and conferences (e.g., Journal of Business Anthropology, International Journal of Business Anthropology, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference).
It is important not only to examine specific instances of anthropological engagement in business activity but also to explore the ways in which business has influenced anthropology. Not only is business influential in and formative of society, but as a field of study business is juxtaposed to other developments in social science that could be important to anthropology.
Anthropology and Business: Early Influences
A received view of anthropology’s relationship with business often places its origins in the Hawthorne Project of the Western Electric Corporation. While these events were unprecedented in shaping a dominant paradigm for social science in US industry, it is also important to examine the role of American business in financing anthropological research in the British colonies to grasp the dynamics underlying the relationship of anthropology and business.
The idea of social anthropology (i.e., empirically grounded, theoretically relevant studies of small-scale society) initially was not provided with much support by colonial governments in Europe. To obtain financing for field research, aspiring anthropologists found it necessary to ‘sell’ social anthropology to colonial administrators based on its practical relevance. Such approaches were not particularly effective: colonial administrators and anthropologists competed for the same professional niches; anthropologists were disinclined to undertake practical problem-solving tasks; and there was conflict between colonial policies and anthropologists’ views. It is not surprising that there were few funded chairs of social anthropology in the colonial empire, and there were no other significant sources of funding for anthropological research at the time.
Social anthropology may not have emerged in Europe at all had the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM, a branch of the Rockefeller Foundation) in the United States not set out to establish the social sciences as empirical fields that could strengthen the practical basis for social welfare. At the time, the rise of the natural sciences created pressure for a positivist approach for social science, which required funding for equipment and personnel. The financing strategy for this was devised by Beardsley Ruml, a psychology PhD from the University of Chicago who reconceptualized the social work agenda of the LSRM and distributed $21 million in grants between 1922 and 1929.
The 1920s was an era of ‘welfare capitalism’ in the United States, when corporations in the private sector provided benefits to employees to persuade them to draw closer to a management agenda and away from unionization. This approach halted the rise of unions but was expensive to firms and was implemented on an ad hoc basis. An empirical social science could provide a more systematic basis for social welfare policies, both public and private.
Ruml’s mission was politically sensitive. John Rockefeller Jr. (who oversaw the LSRM) and the parent Rockefeller Foundation (RF) had to avoid the perception of private interests directing any of the Foundation’s subsidiaries. The political climate of the Progressive Era had stoked sharp criticism of the Rockefeller family by politicians and the media, particularly when the RF was used to support a study of industrial relations as a response to labor-management conflict at one of the companies controlled by the Rockefellers, after which the RF discontinued all social science research.
Thus, Ruml was careful to direct LSRM funding toward basic empirical social science research, with arms-length relationships between Rockefeller funds and the grantees. He also sought to ensure that such research led toward a positivist vision for the social sciences and social welfare aims. Ruml traveled the world, visiting institutions that met his criteria of excellence, and he met with prominent intellectuals and promising individuals. He provided block grants to outstanding institutions and allowed them to make awards to individuals. He also guided chosen individuals to institutions where funding already had been arranged.
Four major names in the history of anthropology were guided and funded by Ruml, the LSRM, and/or the RF: Bronislaw Malinowski, Elton Mayo, Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, and W. Lloyd Warner. In turn, these individuals influenced the relationship between anthropology and business through the Hawthorne Project, the Human Relations School, the Yankee City Series, and the intellectual ties of these programs with British social anthropology.
Perspectives on the Hawthorne Project
Ruml met the Australian psychologist Mayo early in his search for funding opportunities, and he was attracted to Mayo’s ideas about industrial management and a potential role for social science. Mayo believed that labor-management relations reproduced society-wide class relationships that generated hostility within industry and a form of class warfare. He blamed management for failing to consult employees in decision making, and he saw a role for the social sciences in bringing knowledge-based guidance to the relationship. Ruml placed Mayo at the University of Pennsylvania, using Rockefeller’s personal funds to support Mayo’s research in industry. At Penn, Mayo began to read anthropology, and he began to send Malinowski manuscripts for comment.
Progress on Mayo’s research at Penn and the strictures of that placement led Ruml to move Mayo to the Harvard Business School, where he was funded directly by the LSRM. At Harvard, Mayo began to meet corporate executives through Rockefeller’s networks, including the personnel director of Western Electric Corporation, who told him about their experiments on worker fatigue at the Hawthorne Plant in Cicero, Illinois (Gillespie, 1991).
Mayo had come to realize that the Hawthorne workers were not willing to be open with him regarding their private thoughts or to share details of their lives outside the plant, which were emerging as necessary requirements in Mayo’s empirical framework (Gillespie, 1991). From his reading of the literature, Mayo believed that an anthropologist might be able to access such information. The anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner came on to the scene when he was appointed as a tutor and then an assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard, and was scouting for someone to help him set up a community study in the United States where he could experiment with anthropological methods. At the same time, Mayo was interested in identifying an anthropologist who could initiate a community study in the neighborhood around Cicero, Illinois. Warner famously spent time at Hawthorne where he was involved in designing the final phase of the experiments, the Bank Wiring Observation Room (BWOR), which Warner did not carry out himself, but was conducted by Hawthorne researchers. The BWOR confirmed that workers and supervisors systematically restricted output, based upon an informal organization of the workforce (i.e., workers’ spontaneous social relationships). Though Warner declined to establish his own community study in Cicero, in designing the BWOR he developed a methodology with characteristics that approximate ethnography, including the synchronized collection and analysis of observational and interview data that create an empirical record of naturalistic behavior in the workplace, thereby establishing a standard for future ethnographic studies of work (Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939; Schwartzman, 1993).
Mayo and Warner differed sharply in their interpretations of data emerging from the BWOR. Warner and Hawthorne researchers interpreted the findings on output restriction as evidence of distrust between workers and managers based upon a dysfunctional industrial relations regime, where workers believed that if productivity increased management would cut the piece rate, so they had a disincentive to produce more per hour. Mayo rejected this view and insisted on a ‘psychopathological’ interpretation. According to Mayo, the ‘informal organization’ of the workforce could support or oppose management, and in this case, workers had developed an illogical, maladjusted perception of management that required intervention. Mayo’s close relationship with Western Electric’s top leadership enabled him to gain control over the Hawthorne data (which he moved to Harvard), and ultimately, his analysis of the data prevailed (Gillespie, 1991).
Human Relations School
With his interpretation of the data secure, Mayo launched a major counseling program at Hawthorne, to address industrial relations problems. This approach became the basis for the Human Relations School, which incorporated the leading works of anthropologists and psychologists to adjust labor-management relations in the name of ‘scientific knowledge.’
Mayo envisioned an ‘administrative elite’ that would carefully apply such knowledge to issues of social organization and control, echoing the interests of the RF and LSRM. A group of anthropologists (e.g., Conrad Arensberg, Eliot Chapple, Burleigh Gardner, F.L.W. Richardson, and W. Lloyd Warner) was sufficiently interested in the Human Relations School to warrant a launch of their own brand, with an emphasis on social structure, systems relationships, and human interactions rather than psychology (Schwartzman, 1993). When Warner moved from Harvard to the Department of Anthropology at Chicago and others joined him, this group was enabled to conduct research and consult in businesses from an anthropological perspective. The distinctive methodology employed by this group – the systematic sociology of small-scale groups, recording of behavioral interactions, and efforts to balance their focus upon workers and managers – became hallmarks of applied anthropology in industry in the United States (Partridge and Eddy, 1978) and could be traced to the intellectual tradition of British social anthropology and Warner’s methodological innovations in the Yankee City Series (see below).
Adherents of the Human Relations School embraced a functionalist theory of society, in which an equilibrium state (i.e., all parts interact to support the whole) was considered normal and conflict pathological. Functionalist theory was well known and accepted in Rockefeller circles, and it was supported by industrialists such as John Rockefeller Jr., who promoted it widely. Interventions recommended to corporate managers by members of the Human Relations School were perceived by their practitioners as advancing a ‘science of society’ while also contributing to human welfare (i.e., promoting industrial peace and prosperity), in keeping with the goals of the LSRM. These goals were of special relevance in the years leading up to and during World War II, when industrial productivity was important to the nation’s war effort.
Efforts to establish business anthropology in the United States were an integral aspect of a larger project to institutionalize applied anthropology in the United States led by pioneers of the discipline (e.g., Conrad Arensberg, Gregory Bateson, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, George Murdoch, Julian Steward, and others; Partridge and Eddy, 1978). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) declined to allow this group to establish its own section within the AAA, more than hinting at the marginalization of practical anthropology on both sides of the Atlantic, and helping to explain why the American group formed the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) at Harvard in 1941. The SfAA’s mission was to promote ‘scientific investigation’ of principles underlying human relationships and to encourage the ‘wide application of these principles to practical problems,’ a theme that resonated with the goals of the LSRM (see for discussion Baba and Hill, 2006).
British Social Anthropology
British social anthropology was a source of theoretical and methodological rigor and innovation whose fusion of theory and ethnographic method was financed by the LSRM. Ruml was the benefactor of the London School of Economics (LSE) in the early 1920s, providing $1.25M between 1924 and 1928 (Bulmer and Bulmer, 1981; Stocking, 1995). While some of these funds benefited Malinowski and his students through the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, the entrepreneurial Malinowski also sought funds directly from the RF. He wrote a proposal for systematic fieldwork on the tribal context of modern economic activities such as native mining, which was attuned to the RF’s interests in practical applications of knowledge and addressed interventionist strategies for the colonies (Mills, 2002). Malinowski was viewed with favor by the RF, which was growing impatient with the ‘lack of cooperation’ from anthropologists in the United States (Goody, 1995). When the RF voted to fund Malinowski directly, his protégés at the LSE were placed in a strategic position to receive continuing support from the Colonial Social Science Research Council, which took over funding of anthropological research in the colonies after the RF wound up its support at the end of the 1930s due to the financial stress of the Great Depression (Mills, 2002).
This development provided an opportunity for Malinowski and his students to attempt to effect policy-driven economic change within the colonial context and to recognize the complexities and fraught nature of such efforts, an irony that was not lost on historians of anthropology (Stocking, 1995). After these experiences, Malinowski’s enthusiasm for practical anthropology as an approach toward improvement of the colonial apparatus appears to have diminished, reinforcing the impression among some American anthropologists that practical applications in the policy realm were a risk-prone and ill-advised endeavor.
Meanwhile, Radcliffe-Brown was establishing an empirical basis for the study of kinship among the indigenous people of Australia, based on funding received from the RF through the Australian National Research Council. Radcliffe-Brown viewed society as a ‘natural system,’ with social structure a primary explanatory variable in relation to similarities and differences across cultures. Although the RF approved of his approach, the Australian establishment became irritated by his ersatz aristocratic and outré lifestyle and chafed at his criticism of their colonial policies. When Radcliffe-Brown tried to bypass the Australian authorities to receive funding directly from the RF near the end of his 5-year term as chair, the resulting crisis in the colony was resolved by his decision to accept an offer of employment from the University of Chicago. While at Chicago (1931–37), Radcliffe-Brown outlined his theory of structural functionalism, and he was influential in the debate between the scientific and historical forces within anthropology, swaying a new generation away from history and toward the social sciences, the direction promoted by the RF. Significantly, however, Radcliffe-Brown did not agree with Malinowski regarding the application of anthropology to policy questions. He was a firm advocate of maintaining the primacy of theoretical questions in anthropology and leaving policy to administrators. Thus, his views were aligned with those of many academic anthropologists in the United States during the middle and late twentieth century.
The ‘scientific’ direction of American sociocultural anthropology strengthened by Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism became a driving force within the nascent movement of applied anthropology in the United States as it gathered momentum during World War II. Adherence to science and policy as orienting frames of reference have been features that distinguish practical anthropology in America, and they suggest the intellectual foundations of its eventual association with business anthropology.
Yankee City Study
- Lloyd Warner, Radcliffe-Brown’s protégé in Australia and a former student of Malinowski at Berkeley, modernized the foundational theory and methods of British social anthropology in his own version of small-scale society research in the Yankee City Series. In this 5-year project supported by the RF, Warner and his research group developed an innovative methodology for assigning individual subjects to social classes, ranks, and statuses, and examining interactions among members of social classes within various associations (e.g., families, cliques) through interviews and ethnographic observations. This project defined the standard American social class hierarchy of lower, middle, and upper, each with a lower and upper tier (Warner and Lunt, 1941). From his complex matrix of social interaction data, Warner was able to make observations about relationships among social class and other phenomena, such as the relocation of capital outside of small towns, shifts in alliances across social classes and resentment against the wealthy, unprecedented strikes in local factories and the formation of industrial unions, and the development of support for strikers among town folk (Warner and Low, 1947).
The conceptual and methodological advances of the Yankee City Series, whose first volume was published the same year the SfAA was established (1941), grounded and legitimized applied anthropology in the United States. Ironically, the Human Relations School with which Warner was associated met its demise due to the rise of organized labor and its practices of ritualized conflict, leading to the fall of functional equilibrium theory. Critics of the Human Relations School claimed that its theory and methods failed to acknowledge unequal power relationships within corporations and upheld these relationships through manipulative interventions (Burawoy, 1979). Whether such criticism is fair is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, it is likely that this critique was a factor in the lag between the fall of this School in the 1950s and the time when business anthropology was accepted as a domain of application much later in the twentieth century.
Business Anthropology Following World War II
The academic discipline of anthropology expanded in the United States following World War II, tracing the expansion of American business into international markets. American anthropology already had shown tendencies to resist business influences, and its members’ encounters with multinational corporations abroad were not always framed in mutually beneficial terms; the companies’ actions sometimes threatened or harmed the well-being of peoples that anthropologists cared about (Sherry, 1983). It may have been overseas encounters that accelerated a process through which businesses were categorized as ‘harm industries’ even beyond the technical definition of that term (Benson and Kirsch, 2010).
Business management also tended to be cast in critical terms during mid-twentieth century, sometimes represented as proponents of schemes that would bring dire consequences to anthropological subjects (e.g., deskilling; Lamphere, 1979). A strong inflection toward Marxian theory in American anthropology after the 1960s, together with a Vietnam-era ethics code in the AAA that forbade proprietary research, created a chilly atmosphere for research or practice in/of/for businesses.
Nevertheless, several developments in the last quarter of the twentieth century brought anthropology together with business subjects in unexpected ways. A prominent impetus for change emerged from the discipline itself. One potent force was the ‘crisis of representation’ emerging from the critical and postmodernist movements, and the resulting diaspora of anthropologists into new venues, seeking experiences that responded to the crisis (e.g., avoidance of former colonies, entering nontraditional venues, experiments in methodology, and ‘studying up’). Anthropologists learned from other fields and became hybridized, creating the institutional anthropologies (e.g., medical, legal, and educational). Some of these hybrids discovered career paths beyond the academy, finding that globally integrated forms of capitalism readily incorporate anthropological and ethnographic knowledge(s) and techniques (see Cefkin, 2009). At the same time, the discipline of anthropology became more inclusive, more involved in public interest and urgent anthropology, and less alienating of applied and practicing anthropology. Lines between academic and applied anthropology blurred as academia reached out toward partnerships with other types of institutions.
These changes have given rise to a suite of new subfields of inquiry and practice that are affiliated with the business domain, each situated somewhat differently with respect to institutions and literature, but all contributing to the knowledge of business from an anthropological perspective.
Major Areas of Inquiry and Practice
Ethnographically Informed Design
One of the first alternative field sites to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a destination for anthropologists seeking to ‘study up’ and experiment with new research subjects and methods was the high technology geographic center of Silicon Valley. Large corporate research venues such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) provided locations where enterprising anthropologists could explore intriguing ideas such as the ‘paperless office’ while also observing the ‘up’ of management and corporate life in situ.
An early pioneer was Lucy Suchman, a graduate student in anthropology at Berkeley who drew upon Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology to inspire a new approach to the study of human–computer interaction. She introduced videotaping and frame-by-frame analytic comparisons of human–human and human–machine interactions to reveal inadequacies of machine design at Xerox (Suchman, 1987). Xerox was sufficiently impressed with Suchman’s work that the company changed the design of its copier machines and ultimately modified its product development process.
Suchman formed her own research group with Jeanette Blomberg, Julian Orr, and others at the Institute for Research on Learning. They became known around the world for their innovative integration of anthropology and ethnography into the product development stream of major corporations, opening up cognate areas for anthropology and ethnography in business (e.g., communities of practice, knowledge management).
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Suchman and her team collaborated with the Doblin Group of Chicago in a long-term project focused on the workplace of the future for Steelcase, known as the Workplace Project. One member of the team was Rick Robinson of Doblin, who went on to found the entrepreneurial consulting firm E-Lab (E-Lab was purchased by Sapient in 1999), a design-oriented boutique whose ethos integrated design and ethnographic methods (Squires and Byrne, 2002). The goal of the practice was to acquire nuanced, visually based, contextualized knowledge of the user’s or consumer’s behaviors, and to know both what the user is doing and why he or she is doing it. E-Lab introduced ethnography to the fields of product design and development, and competitors followed suit, initiating a process of hybridization between ethnography and design that has created the ethnographically informed design that may be found in corporate venues across North America, Europe, and Asia. This hybrid field grounds the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, which now incorporates many other disciplines.
Suchman’s group at Xerox PARC, which initially enjoyed significant autonomy, was eventually pressured to focus on the company’s priorities. When tensions between the research group and management could not be resolved to mutual satisfaction, the group elected to disband. Suchman’s group at Xerox PARC was perhaps one of the most significant influences on business since the Human Relations School of the early twentieth century. On the other hand, an emphasis on ethnomethodology in design initiated at Xerox could have inadvertently exposed a vulnerability to the representation of ethnography as methodology per se, which now may be manifesting itself in the commodification of ethnography in the market.
Management consultants did not invent the idea that organizations may resemble the cultures of societies, but they did discover that this concept was marketable if presented as a variable that their clients could influence, and they found ready markets in the West where Asian firms had unleashed competition in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Particularly appealing was the notion that organizational outcomes could be enhanced by a ‘strong culture’ that was consistent or integrated in its mission, goals, members’ beliefs, values, and behavioral practices, and that such a culture could be achieved by an entrepreneur’s intervention (Schein, 1985/ 1992). For example, an entrepreneur could imprint an organization with his or her values, and these might come to shape the learning experiences of a founding group and persist over time.
Academic anthropologists were challenged to respond to the idea of organizational culture in the 1980s, and it was in the technology-based firms of Silicon Valley, Route 128, and the heart of the manufacturing zone that anthropologists found an opportunity to establish authority on the subject. What emerged was a methodological and theoretical sophistication contributing to the literature on occupations and professions in complex institutions (e.g., Gregory, 1983; Dubinskas, 1988), correcting the early notion of ‘strong culture’ by demonstrating that organizational culture(s) in business firms may differentiate as well as integrate.
The critical and postmodern movements of the late twentieth century brought many different individual voices and points of view into anthropologists’ studies of organizations (e.g., Kondo, 1990; Hamada, 1995). Fragmentation is one way to describe the perspective on organizational cultures that emerged from this period. However, it is also possible to understand this work as part of a transition toward a more nuanced view of organizations as institutional actors within larger social, economic, and technological contexts, with this phase acknowledging the agency of individuals and organizational subgroups or quasigroups and the potency of their interests in organizations. A fuller transition to neoinstitutionalism requires not only multivocalism but also historical and regional/global contextualization of organizations, so they are no longer viewed as isolates. For example, if a founder can imprint an organization (i.e., infuse it with values beyond its technical purpose, as Selznick theorized), then one might expect to find such organizations in regions where founders’ influences continue over long periods of time (e.g., in Europe, where businesses often are family-run). And it is in Europe where ethnographic studies of organizational culture remain of interest today.
The Anthropology of Consumers, Marketing, and Advertising
Intensifying economic competition among global corporations in the late twentieth century was accompanied by a need to understand diverse consumers across the regions of the world. One consequence was that Cold War-era views of consumers as rational, information-driven, and utility-maximizing beings were modified to accommodate notions of the customer as contextually embedded, emotional subjects whose lives require interpretation. With this shift, the dominant positivist standards in consumer research were adjusted to assimilate naturalistic methods such as ethnography and ethnomethodology.
An important development in anthropology that supported these changes was the acknowledgment of consumption (Miller, 1995) as the local idiom through which cultural forms express their creativity and diversity. This opened the door to more creative exchanges between anthropology and marketing. An interdisciplinary theory of consumer culture (CCT) emerged, which is a family of theoretical perspectives that define the relationships among consumer behavior, cultural meaning, and the market. Anthropologists have been central to the development of CCT. From this perspective, material goods and services are involved in the definition of the self and a coherent sense of identity, even if fragmented. Consumption is seen as integral to identity in the West, where individualism is prevalent, and much about the individual is ambiguous at birth. Consumers are not passive adopters, but culturally constituted actors who express sociocultural meanings, and act as creative agents, resisting, mutilating, and reconfiguring what they find in the market as patterns for action and reinterpretation.
These ideas were prevalent in business schools and marketing through the turn of the twenty-first century, as an alternative to the dominant scientific norm. Even so, some anthropologists were uneasy about marketing and advertising practices that might bring harm to consumers and/or harmful consequences to society over the long term. Marketing and advertising may not always be comfortable places for anthropologists, so close to the mechanisms by which consumption is produced in a capitalist society (Malefyt and Moeran, 2003).
Within the first decade of the new century, doubts began to emerge about the role of anthropology in consumer research and marketing. Ethnography has remained popular in these fields, but the meaning of the method is contested. Ever more practitioners claim to offer ‘ethnography’ to businesses as a service, with ever widening conceptions of the craft. Some boutique firms offer consumer research services but do not believe anthropology is necessary or even desirable; perhaps anthropology is only a ‘middleman’ introducing extraneous interpretations, while the corporate clients desire the unvarnished consumer (Malefyt, 2009). Ethnography may mean no more than videotaping consumer behavior and/or using various brands of digital technology to facilitate customer self-documentation and transmission of recordings direct to corporate clients. Such ‘technoethnography’ could be faster and less expensive than anthropological ethnography or rapid ethnographic methods. As in an earlier era of industrialization, the skilled work of ethnography could be in jeopardy unless anthropologists are able to explain and/or enact its strategic significance with clients.
The Anthropology of Finance
Twenty-first-century society has fostered a new subfield of business anthropology, focused on the professional cultures and gendered landscapes of finance and their intersection with the larger society. The modern financial crisis was first reported in the Financial Times by anthropologist Gillian Tett (2009) who understood the role of exotic banking practices (e.g., derivatives). Recent ethnographies of financial professionals reunite anthropology with a century-long tradition of inquiry focused on social institutions – the shared rules, norms, and cognitive constructs that enable both continuity and resilience in complex societies. Anthropologists have been creative in approaches to understanding financial institutions, apprenticing to future traders as a means to discover the rules of market discipline in a technology-mediated environment (Caitlin Zaloom, 2006); learning how disbanded members of a Japanese securities firm apply the metaphor of arbitrage trading (which rests upon a very specific construction of time) to areas of life that fall outside the market (Hirokazu Miyazaki, 2003); accessing investment bankers’ experiences with job loss to learn how they reproduce corporate downsizing as a result of their own embodied experiences (Karen Ho, 2009); and developing innovative methodologies to study the first generation of women on Wall Street and their navigation of the masculine world of finance through networking organizations dedicated to women’s advancement (Melissa Fisher, 2012). Such studies have placed the anthropology of finance at the forefront of understanding the relationships among professional knowledge and expertise, technological change, and social institutions, and continue to suggest the potency of anthropology as a contributor to research on business and society.
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