In his 2019 book, Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture, Andrew Orta delves into the world of the MBA education—one of the most prestigious of graduate programs in the United States and the world—to show how they engage with and incorporate culture in their professional practice. In revealing how MBAs convert unique cultural specificities into manageable risk factors, Orta also surveys the history of business education and critiques its streamlining disposition towards a complex world and its problems. In this piece, Nazli Azergun converses with Andrew Orta on navigating business settings as an anthropologist, delicacies of conducting ethnographies in organizations, dialogues across sub-fields of anthropology, and the current condition of universities under neoliberal governance regimes.
In your book, you define the managerial subject as someone who manages by translating unassimilable contextual differences into controllable risk components. What is your own stance regarding this subject position? Do you see any alterations to the managerial subject in the time since the book came out?
When I was preparing for this research, I was often told that MBAs do not learn anything in their programs, that they are just there for credentials and networks. This was unsettling to me because part of my original plan was to do a content analysis of what MBA students were learning about doing business outside of the United States. In many ways, those warnings were correct––MBA students do not develop a deep understanding of a particular place. However, during my research, I saw how MBAs are getting much more than they bargained for, as the curriculum and other features of the programs instill a specific orientation to time, to knowledge, and to selfhood. This cultivated predisposition privileges fast-paced decision-making and techniques of simplification that render a complex world into manageable problems. As such, MBA programs are rituals of subject formation, connecting this habitus of compression and commensuration to what are presented as timeless truths of capitalism: the time value of money, the magic of markets, and the calculus of risk and rewards. Along the way, they also pick up a sense of being extremely talented and hard-working. And this self-attribution of merit becomes an alibi for their compensation and class privilege. All considered, the MBA programs serve to create subjects with a knack for extraction of capitalist value and also to justify the elite status of these managerial subjects.
I think we all encounter the world through simplifying categories; so, in that sense, MBA students are no different than the rest of us. But the risk entailed by the managerial subject is twofold. First, these managerial subjects command high degrees of power and privilege, and their naturalization of value extraction and risk calculation serves the neoliberal project of economizing multiple facets of life – with social and political costs that we can see clearly. Second, these economistic simplifications of the world are frequently wrong, and when MBAs get it wrong, economic and social catastrophes often follow. One clear example is the 2008 financial crisis.
The Great Recession prompted a lot of reflection and some reforms of the MBA curriculum. And these responses were still unfolding when the pandemic struck—bringing additional challenges to MBA education and to the capitalist “brand” as all sorts of precarities and inequalities were laid bare by COVID-19’s impact. Many of the ways US programs are currently repositioning themselves are continuous with the changes underway after 2008: aggressively incorporating online education; reducing their dependence on international enrollment, which they will have to continue for the near future as the pandemic stalled the circulation of international students. Further, the propositions held by traditional MBA programs are too far removed from the more environmentally and socially engaged considerations of today’s corporate world––hence the trend toward combined programs that blend fields like engineering, technology design, data science, and medicine, with business education. This shift also brought forth an increased emphasis on social entrepreneurship, in place of a pipeline to finance and banking that was once so central to the MBA brand.
Elsewhere, I’ve described the resilience of MBA programs––weathering economic crises and scandals—as the “zombie MBA.” Applications may go down a couple of years in a row, spurring Op-Eds about the “death of the MBA,” but these programs are remarkably adept at repositioning themselves, always rising from the dead. As part of their current repositioning, they are responding to the overreliance on international enrollment, the protectionist trade policies of the Trump administration, the renewed emphasis on stakeholder capitalism, the rise of the data economy, and the shift towards hybrid workplaces. In one sense, this is the magic of MBA programs: they morph and adapt to reinvent and recast the fundamental extractive logics and mechanisms of capitalism. However, it is highly unlikely that they will offer a fundamental rethinking of the logic of capitalism. Neither should we expect this from MBA programs––the continued fetishization of the market as an omnipotent problem-solving device will always limit the possibilities of an otherwise. Nevertheless, there is a lot of well-meaning and impactful work being done through business schools and their alumni in areas like social entrepreneurship.
Business schools rely on a field-specific understanding of culture, which is radically different from an anthropological understanding. How did you feel navigating MBA programs as an anthropologist? Did you experience any tensions between you as the anthropologist and the MBA ‘natives?’
MBAs obviously have a more streamlined approach to culture than anthropologists, and this approach shifts in coordination with changes in global capitalism. Along the way, there are important engagements with the relevant anthropological literature, such as the influence of Edward T. Hall on the MBA way of teaching culture. Over the post-WWII decades, “culture” was widely acknowledged in the business literature as a useful tool of management. The sort of competence encouraged back then took the quality of regional specialty for the purpose of undertaking business there––namely, MBA programs boasted of “[their] man in Cairo.” However, there has been a shift towards a more universal cultural competence, the idea that any business leader should be able to work anywhere.
This sort of universal cultural competence requires a certain degree of standardization of how we understand cultural difference. The most important contributor here is undoubtedly the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who developed a quantified representation of cultural distance along a set of dimensions like “individualism” or “power-distance.” Of course, this is far from an adequate engagement with culture, it just measures the variation of the means of responses to different survey questions. And as an anthropologist, I am almost required by union regulation to be offended by this reductive approach to culture. And this is one of the difficult things about anthropology: hearing so many people talk about culture in a way that does not really align with what anthropology imagines culture to be. But I think we should recognize that this particular culture talk is native to the world of business, and we should try to understand it as it is. This is also part of a broader challenge for anthropology, as we continue to rethink and critique our ideas about culture, we should not box ourselves into a corner where we are not able to engage with ideas from other fields. In this regard, we can begin by recognizing the important work of anthropologists of business, who are mostly outside of academic settings, such as Genevieve Bell, Ken Anderson, Grant McCracken, Rita Denny, and Gillian Tett.
All this being said, I see a stark difference regarding PhD-level teaching and research in business and the MBA curriculum. Many MBA faculty are doing research that they feel is much more nuanced than they are able to convey in their MBA classes. They teach their most sophisticated insights to their PhD students and then they teach a streamlined version of that to undergraduates and MBAs, who are moving very quickly and can only get a narrow slice of that academic knowledge. So, I think there are indeed MBA faculty who roll their eyes when they talk about Hofstede’s dimensions of difference. However, as aligned with the managerial subject, this approach to culture becomes a useful shorthand that is good enough for managing resources and employees.
There is also some faculty and student pushback around the whiteness of MBA programs and classrooms. During my fieldwork, students of color remarked that they heard little talk about race in their classes. Some international students chafed at the ways that they were perceived by their classmates. International faculty and faculty of color similarly were often aware of the ways they were being deployed as ambassadors of diversity within their programs.
Surely, there is some pushback against the reduction of cultural complexity but there is also a commonly shared understanding that this is a good enough version of cultural complexity that can be used in the market. I suspect that most MBAs think this is an imperfect, yet relatively effective way of doing what they want to achieve.
Your book is also a wonderful example of building dialogue across different sub-fields of anthropology. Could you tell me more about your approach?
I have always thought of the different sub-fields of anthropology as presenting opportunities for conversations, and sociocultural and linguistic anthropology have a long history of being entangled, especially regarding the integration of language and culture. I think this connection has been integral to my training in anthropology, and I should mention the influence of Nancy Munn’s work in particular. There are a number of vital studies on the interchange between linguistic and cultural analysis focused on economics, like the works of the late David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins where “value” comes to the forefront. When a term like “value” seems to bear so much weight, and yet can be construed in so many different ways, we should look more closely and ethnographically at the cultural work of making claims of value. Methodologically, we need to do more than take what people say or write at face value. I think we should look at what people are doing as they are saying, writing, or communicating in any other medium. Such an analysis can help us examine how specific acts of reference and ways of characterizing the world are made to seem plausible, authoritative, effective, and so forth. Turning to my own work on MBA programs, I show that one of the attributes of the managerial subject is the capacity to see and talk about the world in particular ways––ways that are shaped by framings of contemporary global capitalism and reinforced by MBA curricula, ways that also participate in the making and remaking of the global capitalist order as a function of the authority of the MBA and related business elite.
Having conducted a successful organizational ethnography, do you have any recommendations for novices? How did you choose and enter your field site? How did you build familiarity with your interlocutors?
Considering this work also as an ethnography of the contemporary U.S. university, I can say I benefited from my own professional life as a participant in this setting. Of course, this is both a benefit and a privilege that few can access. For me this meant I had some quasi-insider sense of institutional cultural logics and practices, and it made me more legible when I reached out to students, faculty, and administrators to recruit them as participants in the research. I regard this project not as an ethnography of a particular organization, that is, a specific MBA program at a specific institution, but as an ethnography of MBA education at a series of programs reflective of a particular institutional moment. In one sense, I work through a sample of MBA programs identified for their explicit incorporation of “global” business themes in their curriculum, their rankings among the top few dozen MBA programs in the U.S, and my ability to negotiate entrée to the program. Keeping the problem-focus of the project in view was crucial to anchoring the research across the various programs in my sample. That is a benefit or a weakness of the project depending on what you are after. This is not an ethnography of a single business school – which would be a great project, but would also be partial.
I tried to be upfront with my interlocutors and myself, in terms of the focus of the work I was doing at each site. I benefitted from the fact that MBA faculty found the organizing question of the research interesting. And I think this is true for any ethnographic work, if the questions you are asking strike the people as interesting or meaningful, that helps a lot. It helps a lot in terms of building rapport, extending your network, and collaborating.
That being said, administrators in some MBA programs were reluctant to endorse my project. Faculty were too busy, they said, and students were occupied competing against one another. And they were also likely concerned with protecting their brand––wary of an “inside Disney” exposé as one faculty member suggested. Some were, of course, supportive and it certainly helped a lot in shadowing an MBA cohort or visiting classrooms. But I often did not need the administrators as gateways because I had already built rapport with faculty and students and I was able to visit classes, hang out in lounges, etc. As it turns out, in most cases all you need to do is ask, and you can do lots of things that way. So, an all-encompassing advice for students embarking on research in organizational settings would be to tell everyone what your project is and begin to form your networks. While these might be loose connections in the beginning, the people who know people who know other people can introduce you to your research contacts or give you entrées into the field site. Of course, this may feel daunting at times. But as long as you can make yourself legible to folks you are working with and talk to them about what you are interested in, that can be helpful. I would also recommend being very intentional with your sampling. It is important to get a sense of the lay of the land first and know which sites are important to focus on within an organization.
Finally, I would advise students to recognize that ethnography is always a kind of iterative process. You can have a refined map of what it is you are trying to learn about and how you can go about learning that as you begin. However, as with any ethnography, I think it is crucial to be flexible and pursue your leads and opportunities as they emerge.
My final question is rather a provoking one. As I was reading this book and learning about the fast-paced, high-stakes, intense educational environment of business schools, I was just thinking about the experiences of graduate students and precarious faculty in social sciences and humanities. Graduate students and early career faculty are working against very strict timelines and budgetary restraints, and they have so little time and opportunity to show themselves as worthy of employment with decent and stable conditions. Of course, the prospects for MBAs and PhDs in social sciences and humanities differ greatly but I also feel like in terms of the stress that is being felt, there might be a similar pattern there. How would you compare the experiences of MBAs and PhDs?
That is a provocative question! MBA programs and the intensity of MBA programs are interesting because the intensity is fetishized in ways that are foundational to the rationale of the MBA degree. But, you know, MBA students are tuition-paying students, who are constantly calculating their opportunity costs of coming back for their degree. And as paying students, they have a different kind of leverage with their institutions. The MBA model is also different in that most students pursue an MBA for accessing the network of recruiters, which is something that most PhD programs in social sciences cannot offer. And there is also a remarkable infrastructure of ranking MBA programs and naturalizing the sense of competition for the most selective programs, which is then reproduced within the programs. So, in these ways, they are different worlds.
But at the same time, some issues and pressures are similar. A reviewer of my book, who is in the business field, commented that it was interesting to have an anthropologist in an MBA program, but maybe MBAs should have come and analyzed anthropology programs too. And I responded, I think that has been ongoing for about 20 or 30 years now as programs across the university have been subject to assessments grounded in criteria of competition and efficiency normalized and authorized in business schools. The kind of trends in business and business education that I discuss in the book have gripped all of academia and shaped the ways that universities work, not just in the sense of enacting a neoliberal business model of universities or the rhetoric of investing in talent and managing institutional brands, but also in terms of routinizing ways of talking about globalization, internationalization, and diversity. In some ways, this book is the product of my own frustration with these trends.
I think a challenge going forward will be the ways in which universities can move out of some of the silos that were produced and reproduced through the corporatization of universities. And it has to do with the competitive silo-ization of disciplines too. It is crucial for anthropology departments as well as other departments to push back against crowding within specific disciplinary boundaries and other university taxonomies and extend collaborative, interdisciplinary, and even anti-disciplinary discussions. And finally, it has to do with silos of campus versus community, and how we do community engagement. And I think there’s some interesting trends for those kinds of conversations, that is, recognizing community engagement and so-called service work as forms of scholarly activity.
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