Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Class Warfare or a New Realm of 'Cultures?'

In an interesting post on Truth Dig, professor Juan Cole discusses the implications of the class warfare that has sparked the Occupy Movements, and how or why students in universities tend to be one of the major populations supporting the movements. There are a number of items that Professor Cole discusses, but the one of most interest to me is the dialectic Mr. Cole proposes that places academic institutions as in line with 'Big Business.'

The theme of Prof. Cole's premise that academia is being influenced by the culture of business to provide goods (i.e. students) that then have marketable (read: can make businesses more money) skills, has also been highlighted in recent times. Back in late October, Governor Rick Scott of Florida stating that

"We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job." (Courtesy the Marc Bernier show)

Needless to say, this comment caused a lot of stir among anthropologists who immediately came to the defense stating the benefits of anthropology. One of the more interesting items was an opinion article in the Economist, which illustrated the work of Ms. Gillian Tett, who has produced some amazing studies on the culture that preceeded the 2008 financial crisis.

For me, what I find interesting about all these articles is this dialectic that is set up between the 'soft' studies and those of a more technical nature. Much has been writtend on this in both the Chronicle of Higher Education, popular business magazines and more. However, what Ms. Tett alluded to in the economist article - that is that many foks regardless of their occupation are so mired in their own worlds that they fail to see what else is going on around them. I would argue that this is true both in the case of the students involved in OWS as well as Academic institutions and big banks. Everyone is looking through their own lens at a set of very complex interactions that help to define our world. Students do not fully understand the complexities of all the decisions being made - and often tend to demonize 'the man,' when in fact many of these organizations are made up of real people who are trying to do the best they can in a very odd world. Academia is also responding to some very real economic constraints (I don't think forced upon them by the banking institutions, but definitely helped), and are trying to figure how their institutions are going to survive over the next five, ten, fifteen, fifty or hundred years.  Now, granted, I don't think that institutions need to go as far as the Quebecois government has in increasing the tuition rates of its universities an exorbitant amount, but a school does need some basic funding to be able to function.

Business are trying to survive as well. The most common thing I hear in my job is the need for all employers (regardless of industry) to need "smart" people in their jobs. Often there is a misconception that this includes students from "the best" institutions - and in order to maintain top positions, these best institutions often tailor the emphasis of where their money is funded in order to help graduates obtain jobs (one of the measures utilized in college rankings). The business want folks who will help them achieve their mission to make money - and that is part of their culture. Part of their definition of who they are - just as an academic institutions mission is to educate for success (what ever that 'success' may mean).

In our culture today we face a very real fact that money drives everything; as illustrated in my post yesterday, even places and people which we deem 'sacred' are monetized.  For one, I think that it is about time we had another "Jesus moment," where he comes into the temple and upends the tables of all those selling goods and wares in His father's house.  By that, I mean that the only way we can fight against the system of everything needing to have dollars and cents aligned to it (whether business or academia) is to know the enemy, know how to use it, and know how to disprove it.  Gone are the days, for many, when the pursuit of higher education or meaningful careers can and should be pursued for the betterment of the person.  The impetus now lays directly on the shoulders of the said individual to prove how he or she, by way of finding fulfillment can be a better student, professor, worker, and member of society.  If you can show that in terms of efficiency, money, or time spent completing tasks - even better.  Ultimately I do believe that we are in a pendulum swing where money means everything, and I have no doubt the pendulum will swing the other way.  However, until that time I believe it behooves everyone to be able to understand the language of the 'other' and utilize new and different arguments to further expand your own.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Whose culture is it?

Over the weekend I was quite surprised to hear word that the Chinese government plans to build a Tibetan theme park outside the city of Lhasa, Tibet.  I first heard about the news via some Twitter feeds, and then proceeded to read some articles about the news online.

I must say that this move does not surprise me in the least.  When I was in Tibet in 2004, you could already observe a move such as this in the works.  There were "Traditional Villages" scattered throughout the Tibetan countryside, where busloads of Chinese tourists would pull up, and the local villagers would don their fine ceremonial garb and proceed to partake in shows and games to the delight of the audiences.  While the dances and games and shows the native villagers in the area displayed were not not authentic, it was more a matter of the timing and the manner in which they were displayed that bugged many in my group.  The dances or games were often items saved for a holiday, or a feast, and were not examples of "everyday" Tibetan life.

The display of Tibetan culture was also seen in the local clubs, or nangmas,  that are found all throughout Lhasa.  These night-clubs, frequented by both Tibetans, Chinese and tourists from around the world are perhaps one of the most bizarre scenes of cultural displays I have ever witnessed.  Picture this - 11pm at night you are sitting in a dark, crowded club with the music, the lights, the disco beats, when all of a sudden a young woman in traditional, colorful Tibetan clothing steps out on stage and begins to sing a traditional Tibetan love song, while the screen behind her flashes beautiful scenes of the countryside.  The club goes wild, everyone gets up to dance and enjoys a spectacle that I can only describe as modern Tibetan in its entirety.

A few years back, I published an article relating all these themes, and asked the questions "Whose culture is it to define?"  And this question has never been more relevant.  The comments in the Guardian piece I quoted above reflect a naivete on all parts - as the one voice missing from the conversation is that of local Tibetans.  It is true that the recent politics of the Chinese government can come under speculation and scrutiny - especially given the recent spate of self-immolation undertaken as a protest to Chinese rule.  Yet, it can also be said that what the Chinese are doing is not at all different from what the US did to Native Americans, or what the European colonies did to S. America and African nations.  The only difference in this time and age is that we are currently living in a consumerist society where everything (and I mean everything) takes on an identity of commodification.

As I concluded in my paper, and post again here,

"The exoticization of Tibet by China [and Western cultures] inadvertently cheapens its culture and prevents Tibetans from having the freedom to identify it for themselves and to lead their own lives freely.  The true reality of Tibetan culture, a rapidly changing and redefined identity, is then lost amidst the flashes of cameras and glimpes of a culture that existed long ago and no longer exists today."  

I, for one, do not think it wrong that people are alarmed by the idea of building a theme park when such a rich cultural tradition and artifacts already exist in Lhasa.  The Chinese government, for their part say that the purpose of the theme-park is to draw crowds away from these ancient structures so that the increasing footprint of the tourist does less harm to places such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, and nearby monasteries.  In fact, the Chinese tourist population alone dwarfs the rest of the world - and numbers of people who have travelled to Tibet despite restrictions on the part of Western tourists, have jumped dramatically.

Unfortunately though, we are all partners to this cultural commodification - we live in a consumerist society.  A society which China is quickly become a member of, if not a key driver in defining what has value, and what does not.  ANy time we travel and buy some item from a stall, or take a photo with a 'gladiator' posing outside the coliseum, we partake in this same commodification.  It is the way our world is.  For China to take advantage,while also promoting a culture is no different than what Walt Disney did when they created the Epcot Center.  Culture on display, and for sale.  Yet - at the same time many people's only interaction with these cultures is through a display like that in Epcot Center.  It is not truly authentic - but then what is?  Culture shifts so rapidly, and changes so frequently that we are not the ones to dictate what authenticity or tradition is.  All we can do is watch, observe, and speak the truth to our own experiences and our own culture.