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Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Sep 25 / Allen Batteau

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Sep 20 / Allen Batteau

Leading Issue

Our lead objective is to critically examine the concept of Business Anthropology, recognizing that the terms “enterprise,” “business” and “anthropology” have multiple complex connotations for different audiences. To elaborate on each of these, first of all the more generic “enterprise,” or even moreso, “commerce,”) has a depth of centuries, and can refer to any activity involved in producing or buying and selling goods and services; “business,” by contrast, sometimes has a nationalistic tinge in the US (“The business of America is business,” according to Calvin Coolidge), and is definitely more oriented toward private goods rather than public goods. From a more neutral perspective (Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: A critical account, perhaps), the difference between a public and a private enterprise is less a function of what they do, and more a function of the larger régime or institutional environment. Thus “business anthropology” in a larger perspective moves forward with at least an implicit interrogation of our civilization and the institutional environment. (See Nakamaki, Hioki, Mitsui, and Takeuchi, eds., Enterprise as an Instrument of Civilization: An Anthropological Approach to Business Administration.) (There are substantial theoretical issues here that we should at least be cognizant of.)

Similarly, “anthropology” has an historical and institutional legacy, coming out of 19th century colonialism. Although we might claim Herodotus as the first anthropologist, in fact the lineage of contemporary anthropology traces back to the colonial expansion of European and New World powers. In different national contexts, “anthropology” has a different tinge, the unifying threads all having to do with interrogating national identity. In the 20th century anthropology can claim a proud legacy of undermining racism (Boas, Race, Language, and Culture) and promoting a greater awareness of the situations of marginalized populations.

What import does this have for Business Anthropology? In some quarters, Business Anthropology is interpreted as a newer and cleverer set of tools for understanding consumers, motivating managers, or creating products. However, at its best, Anthropology – Business or otherwise – draws on some deep understandings of culture, civilization, and history, reframing business far more expansively. Although we rarely articulate these with our clients, they are there in the back of our minds, informing our work, enabling us to imagine other possibilities. When Business Anthropology enables executives and managers and workers and consumers to think more expansively, beyond the short term and parochial immediacy, it performs a valuable service for the society, for business, and the profession as a whole.