Saturday, December 21, 2013

Culture as Strategy, and the Relevance of Anthropology

The demand for anthropological knowledge is great. This might surprise many of my fellow anthropologists--there is growing lament about our irrelevance in big debates--and certainly all those graduate students looking at a bleak job market. But I almost daily I hear from colleagues in medicine, political science, business, and other fields how they try to incorporate notions of "culture" (our discipline's signature concept) into their work and business practice.

Most often, the ideas of culture thus borrowed would seem antiquated to a contemporary anthropologist. Treated as a static thing with clear boundaries, the notions of culture used in other fields most resemble early trait-list approaches. In current parlance, such views do representational violence to the folks they hope to describe. Today, we see culture as dynamic, creative, imbued with power, fluid: Arjun Appadurai argues that it should be used as an adjective (cultural) rather than a noun (culure).

In translating this into other fields, we might look at culture as strategy, intentional orientations toward the future that guide decisions but also depend on serendipity, adapting to changing circumstances, and shifting hopes and dreams. For development programs, public policy, and business, this means that being culturally "appropriate" isn't about handing your business card in just the right way or knowing dinner table etiquette, but taking seriously the aspirations of those with whom we collaborate, seeking common futures.

The Financial Times reports that the Swedish appliance maker Electrolux has started to take some strategic direction from emerging markets, essentially breaking down the walls for a division for poor places and another for rich ones, and that this has invigorated their growth in both markets.     
 We may also seek to orchestrate serendipity and cultural creativity through institutional and architectural arrangements.  Michael Soto reports on Institutionalizing Serendipity in a company environment, a model with much broader implications.  (And a conversation with Michael yesterday inspired this post.)     

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