where are all the anthropologists who do management research?

Alex Stewart and Howard Aldrich have published a thought-provoking piece about anthropologists and ethnography in management research.   In “Collaboration Between Management and Anthropology Researchers: Obstacles and Opportunities” in Academy of Management Perspectives, the authors discuss several ethnographies and the institutional environment of the business school.

While anthropologists are employed at corporations, the authors claim that anthropologists are underrepresented among management researchers:

“To document the limited business school market, we examined the doctoral disciplines of faculty in “top” business schools. We found 751 tenure track faculty members in management in the 44 schools that are listed in the “top 25” by at least one of Business Week, The Economist, Financial Times, or U.S. News. Of these faculty members, about 60% obtained their doctorate in management; 16 % did so in psychology; 10 % in economics; and 7 % in sociology; but only 0.1% — one person — in anthropology.” (174)

The authors posit 8 barriers to the inclusion of anthropologists:

“To explore the possible reasons for anthropology’s surprisingly small impact, we draw on recent writings on applied anthropology and the emerging fields of business anthropology and practicing anthropology. Scholars in these fields work on the boundary between management and anthropology and experience the benefits and challenges of an anthropological approach. On the basis of these readings, we identify eight properties of anthropological scholarship that might limit anthropology’s integration into management scholarship. These are: (1) expertise about the remote and exotic, (2) sympathy for the remote and the less powerful, (3) ethnography as a primary data source, (4) challenges of fieldwork access, (5) lengthy fieldwork duration, (6) a tendency to solo authorship, (7) complex, contextualized findings, and (8) a higher value placed on monographs than on journal articles.” (175)

In explaining each barrier, Stewart and Aldrich discuss several ethnographies conducted by anthropologists.  For example, they note the lengthy duration and timespans involved in producing these works:

“Anthropologists believe that the process of discovery cannot be rushed (Stewart,
1998). Thus, many anthropologists spend exceptionally long periods at the same site over their careers. Among the Otavalo studies, Meisch (2002) spent over three decades on site; Colloredo-Mansfield spent 15 years by the time of his 2009 book, and 17 months over six years in his (2009) article with Antrosio. Among the social studies of finance scholars, the times spent are shorter but still rather intimidating by management standards.  L’epinay (2011) spent 18 months in a major French bank; Riles (2010, 2011) spent 17 months in a legal back office, with other visits over seven years; and Miyazaki (2013) was in the field for 13 years.” (179)

The authors also note how anthropologists’ propensity for rich detail and refusal to dispense sound-bites of advice will discourage certain readers.  However, anthropologists’ abilities to translate difficulties of one society to another site mean that they can cut to the heart of a puzzle:

“In writing for management scholars, anthropologists face the challenge of showing that their comparisons are appropriate and revealing. For example, Strang (2009, p. 114) reported on a business anthropologist who was better prepared to understand “people’s difficulties in dealing with incomprehensible technology systems” in a high-tech firm after having worked with Ecuadorian shrimpers and witnessing their puzzlement with top-down regulations.” (182)

Since ethnographic works usually appear as monographs rather than articles, the authors argue that business schools need to reward a wider variety of publications and intellectual trajectories, rather than just articles in “leading” business journals.  The authors end with a cautiously optimistic note, citing the presence of anthropologists in business schools, including Eric Arnould, Russ Belk, and John Sherry in marketing departments, and “John Van Maanen and his former doctoral students Steve Barley, Deborah Dougherty, and Leslie Perlow.”

Here’s the full abstract:

“Management scholarship is built on a foundation imported from older disciplines, particularly economics, psychology, and sociology. Anthropology also once played an important role in the history of management thought, and currently includes many “practicing” anthropologists who work in the private sector. Yet anthropology now has a demonstrably marginal influence. Why is this so? What is the potential for greater collaboration with anthropology? Pursuing these questions, we draw on recent writings in applied, business, and practicing anthropology. On this basis, we identify eight properties of anthropology that affect the potential for collaboration. For each property, we consider the extent to which it presents obstacles for management scholars to work together with practicing anthropologists. We find that with patience and preparation, these impediments can largely be overcome, and we offer suggestions for greater collaboration.”

Written by katherinechen

July 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm

One Response

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  1. Katherine, thanks for the summary. As a reminder, I’ve previously argued that one barrier to field workers getting their due is the tendency for many people doing ethnography to label themselves in ways that imply they’re not doing “real science”:

    Fight that tendency!


    Howard Aldrich

    July 18, 2015 at 10:12 pm

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