Alfons van Marrewijk’s inaugural lecture on business anthropology
On 14 May, Alfons van Marrewijk, who has been guest blogger on CM during his recent stay in Sydney, gave his inaugural lecture at the Vrije Universiteit as the newly appointed Professor of Business Anthropology, Especially the Anthropology opf Cultural Interventions in Complex and Public/Private Networks. Such lectures are major public events with considerable pomp (I am already planning my own in November!), and the topic signifies a further step in the academic mainstreaming of business anthropology (although the VU has already been in a special situation, having both a social and cultural anthropology department and one that deals largely with organisational anthropology). The lecture broadly outlined the scope of business anthropology in Alfons’ own practice, in which I found particularly interesting the focus on material culture and spatial settings — from office spaces to project locations — which is close to the interests of one of our PhD students at Macquarie, Melanie Uy, who is doing her research in a small Chinese company.
Corporate anthropology as well as the anthropology of business is increasingly in the news in Europe as well, and the collapse of financial institutions may have given it a boost. The simple idea that managers do not always behave rationally suddenly does not need “selling.” Alfons mentioned that British anthropologist Gillian Tett’s book Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophy (a rather un-anthropological title, I must say) received the British Press Award. The book Gezocht: Antropoloog m/v (Required: Anthropologist [m/f]) and the organisation NAGA (Niet Academisch Gebonden Antropologen, Anthropologists Without Academic Affiliation) are testimony to the emergence of the trend in the Netherlands. Unlike in many other academic settings, at the VU, there is no animosity between academic and applied anthropologists, and the institutional conditions for a close interaction between them are at hand. Yet even here, the training of anthropology students (in either department) has not quite kept step with or been able to drive home the fact that anthropologists are in demand in the workplace — despite the fact that Alfons himself, together with another colleague in his department, runs an anthropology consultancy.