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Article: Anthropologists go native in the corporate village

26 June, 2007

Online magazine Fastcompany posted an article a little while ago on the growing trend of anthropologists working in corporate environments, which, they claim, has become an “explosion” in recent years.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Briody earned her PhD studying communities of Mexican-American farm workers and Catholic nuns. For the past 11 years, though, she’s been studying a different community — the men and women of General Motors. As GM’s “industrial anthropologist,” Briody explores the intricacies of life at the company. It’s not all that different from her previous work. “Anthropologists help elicit the cultural patterns of an organization,” she says. “What rules do people have about appropriate and inappropriate behavior? How do they learn those rules and pass them on to others?”

Cited amongst the attractions is anthropology’s “holistic” approach, which, interestingly, is said to mirror the changes and complexity in today’s workplace. An anthropologist who has become a Vice President of a Texas bank, Anita Ward, is quoted as arguing that anthropology brings the following insights:

The first was a respect for cultural differences within and between organizations. “Every culture is different,” she explains. “What works in Papua New Guinea is not likely to work in Thailand.” The second involved the “ability to quickly identify the core culture of the organization.” In the case of TCB, that meant recognizing that teams — not individuals — were the basic cultural building block, and that any change effort would have to revolve around teams. The third was an ability to recognize natural leaders. “The anthropologist can identify the true social leaders within an organization,” Ward says, and enlist them as the most effective champions of change.

Interestingly, it is one of the features of anthropology which has been most critiques over the last couple of decades — the privileging of the notion that “cultures” are bounded entities — which the corporate types are finding the most attractive. Consider the way “corporate cultures” are treated as bounded entities for the purposes of work design, just as “national cultures” are also treated as the basic units for culturally sensitive product design and marketing.

Original article

One Comment leave one →
  1. 27 June, 2007 12:04 am

    While I tend to agree that the view of culture as a bounded entity is particularly problematic for how many of these organizations view what is going on, I suspect (hope?) that those in those positions are more discerning. Having done my PhD fieldwork in corporate America (and India) (writing dissertation now), it was always interesting (uncomfortable) being asked about some of these very issues.

    It would be interesting to hear more from people doing corporate anthropology (they are frequently treated poorly at meetings/conferences) and ask how they reconcile these issues for themselves.

    It might also be fruitful to think about this in relation to the decline of available tenure track Anthropology jobs that I keep hearing about on mailing lists (damn political economy). If I’m going to be working for a “corpratized” university, I might just rather work for a corporation. The pay is certainly better.

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