Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Marietta Baba, May 23, 2007

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Business anthropology and its sub-fields

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Partial Transcript: Okay, this is an interview with Dr. Marietta Baba conducted by Keri Brondo on May 23rd, 2007.

Segment Synopsis: After giving an introduction, Brondo asks Baba how to define the field of business organizational anthropology, how the field has evolved over time, and what the difference between business and organizational anthropology is. Baba begins by expressing her desire to define the term business anthropology as one of the major domains within applied anthropology. Baba distinguishes organizational anthropology from business anthropology by describing organizational anthropology as a more theoretical/academic area of study. Baba states that if she is the "founding mother" of anything, it is of the academic side of business anthropology rather than organizational anthropology, mentioning that there are a number of other academic women, naming Helen Schwartzman and Tomoko Hamada, who have been involved in bringing about a resurgence in anthropology in studies of organization. However, Baba believes that she was the first academic woman to create a teaching and research program in business anthropology. Baba discusses teaching her first class in business anthropology at Wayne State University, stating that it was the first university in the U.S. to have a PhD program in business anthropology by 1984. Baba describes three sub-areas and their origins within business anthropology: management, external firm markets, and firm relations with its consumers through product design. Baba explains that you need a broad spectrum of knowledge in different fields, such as sociology and psychology, if you want to fully understand these different academic fields concerning business anthropology. Brondo refers back to the three areas that Baba mentioned, asking which of those that she sees herself in. Baba answers that she has tried to be conversant in all three sub-areas so that she could present them to her students by studying academic literature on them. However, Baba acknowledges that no one can possibly be an expert on all three, stating that her area of expertise is in the organizational management sub-field. Baba explains that she tries to not only be a practitioner, but also tries to contribute to the academic literature of the field.

Keywords: Business anthropology; Contractors; Design anthropology; Governance models; Government contractors; Helen B. Schwartzman; Helen Schwartzman; Hybrid anthropologists; Logistics; Marketing; Organizational anthropology; Pasteur's quadrants; Practicing anthropology; Tomoko Hamada; Wayne State University; Wayne State University, Detroit (Mich.); Wayne State University, Michigan

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Contractors.; Government contractors; Logistics.; Marketing.; Society for Applied Anthropology; Wayne State University

00:17:36 - Influence of family and spiritual background

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Partial Transcript: The next question I wanted to ask you was, um, about your career development. You began as a physical anthropologist.

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba about how she ended up in anthropology and business anthropology. Baba explains that this can best be explained by her family background. Baba discusses how her family is ethnically Assyrian and how the Assyrian community faced issues as immigrants in the U.S. She explains that her parents wanted their children to be Americanized, but Assyrian beliefs still shaped the family dynamic and influenced her development. Baba discusses the importance of having a male heir, the lack of value given to higher education, and the high importance given to religious matters in Assyrian families. She discusses how she acted as a surrogate son for her father and how this early experience heavily shaped her as a person. However, Baba explains that she became displaced in adolescence because of the birth of her brother. Baba brings up the importance that being Pentecostal had upon her development, along with her simultaneous love of science that caused a spiritual crisis for her. Baba felt betrayed by her religion for not being given answers. Baba discusses how she had to get married so that she could go to college because her father did not want his daughter to go to college and her mother wasn't able to save up enough money for her. Baba recounts how her first physical anthropology class finally answered her questions and she decided that she was going to get a PhD in the subject and become a professor.

Keywords: Anthropology; Assyria; Assyrian genocide; Assyrian immigrants; Assyrian-Americans; Assyrians; Detroit (Mich.); Evolution; Family; Family background; Gender discrimination; Influences; Methodology; Pentecostal; Pentecostal Christianity; Pentecostal Christians; Physical anthropology; Religiosity; Spiritual crisis

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Assyrians; Business anthropology.; Methodology.; Pentecostalism.; Physical anthropology.; Society for Applied Anthropology

00:29:12 - Graduate education--Interdisciplinary teaching

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Partial Transcript: The department of anthropology at Wayne State University offered me an MDEA title for fellowship which was the thing that came out after Sputnik.

Segment Synopsis: Baba discusses how she was able to get her PhD after being given and MDEA fellowship at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Baba discusses her initial interest in primates and animal behavior, explaining that she was suspicious of cultural anthropology at the time, viewing it as pretentious. She explains that she felt animal behavior was a more modest object of study, not being as ambitious as a study of human society. Baba lists out the courses she took and her experience at Emory University. Baba discusses the difficulties she faced while conducting her PhD dissertation, followed by her work with Morris Goodman and the molecular clock. Baba states that the same scenario played out throughout her career: start in something with no experience with it and work hard until you've learned how to do it. Baba explains that she wanted to get a tenure track job after obtaining her PhD, finding herself at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State on a tenure track. Baba emphasizes the influence that her experience in Morris Goodman's lab had upon how she studied organizations in the future and her methodology.

Keywords: Animal behavior; Anthropology; Business and organizational anthropology; Business anthropology; College of Interdisciplinary Studies; Computer modelling; Computer science; Cultural anthropology; Detroit (Mich.); Emory University; Emory University, Atlanta (Ga.); Emory University, Georgia; Evolution; Interdisciplinary studies; Methodologies; Molecular clock; Morris Goodman; New world primates; Organizational anthropology; Physical anthropology; Social and behavioral science methodologies; Wayne State University; Wayne State University, Detroit (Mich.); Wayne State University, Michigan

Subjects: Animal behavior.; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Computer science.; Evolution.; Physical anthropology.; Primates; Society for Applied Anthropology; Wayne State University

00:45:11 - Move to Wayne State Anthropology Department--Developing a business anthropology course

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Partial Transcript: So, um, I will jump over to, um--now I'm going to jump to the place where it changed over from, um, primates to, uh, urbanization.

Segment Synopsis: Baba addresses the shift in her interest from primates to urbanization. She discusses how she ended up feeling stuck in teaching everything but physical anthropology at the interdisciplinary college. Baba began working in the college administration partly to begin something new and because she liked the purpose of the position she was offered. Baba discusses the effects of the early 1980s recession on Wayne State University and the increase in volunteer work conducted by university faculty in the local community. Baba describes the development of the business incubator center at Wayne State, and being appointed head of it. She explains she had to learn about how businesses work and think. Baba explains that she didn't plan to be involved in the world of business, but found herself heavily involved in organizations through the incubator center. Baba states the transition from an unconscious observer in business to a conscious participant was through the help of weak ties with another faculty member, helping to co-author a book about the rise and decline of businesses. Baba explains that the anthropology department at Wayne State reached out to her after hearing about her work and asked her to teach a business anthropology class. Baba explains that she knew nothing about industrial/organizational anthropology at the time, but she offered to teach the class in exchange for her tenure being transferred from the interdisciplinary college to the anthropology department. After being transferred to the anthropology department, Baba describes the process of creating the business anthropology class and its subsequent success.

Keywords: 1980s recession; Anthropology departments; Bernard P. Zeigler; Bernard Zeigler; Bernie Zeigler; Business anthropology; Community colleges; Early 1980s recession; Faculty tenure; Incubator centers; Organizational decline; Social systems; Tenure; Wayne State University; Wayne State University, Detroit (Mich.); Wayne State University, Michigan

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Incubator (Firm); Recessions.; Social systems.; Society for Applied Anthropology; Wayne State University

00:59:01 - Gender identity

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Partial Transcript: I want to thank you for sharing your story. I would like to follow up on some of the things that you just said.

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba to elaborate on how gender discrimination and her ethnicity affected her development as a business anthropologist. Baba explains how her time as acting as her father's surrogate son later caused gender identity confusion for her. She elaborates that she prefers the company of men and finds it hard to play a traditional female role, citing this as a possible reason for the failure of multiple marriages of hers. Baba discusses how her research interests fall into domains dominated by men and attributes her attitude to her work to her being raised as a, in her own words, "boy-girl."

Keywords: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology; Cultural climate; Gender discrimination; Gender expression; Gender identity

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Gender expression.; Gender identity.; Society for Applied Anthropology

01:02:59 - American automobile industry crisis in the 1980s

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to move questions then.

Segment Synopsis: Brondo then asks what the cultural climate of anthropology was like when business anthropology was born. Baba answers by explaining the modern resurgence of business and organizational anthropology occurred sometime in the early 1980s when the US economy was being challenged by European and Asian countries who were beginning to recover from the effects of WWII. Baba describes the challenge that international competition that hit the American automobile industry and sent ripples through other sectors of the economy. Baba clarifies that none of this was being acknowledged in anthropology, but she was very aware of these effects from living in Detroit. Baba explains that all of this coincided with a need from industries for social scientists and a lack of jobs for anthropologists in academia.

Keywords: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Automobile industry; Business anthropology; Consumer culture; Cultural climate; Detroit (Mich.); Detroit automakers

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Automobile industry and trade.; Business anthropology.; Detroit (Mich.); Society for Applied Anthropology

01:08:45 - Advent of the American Anthropological Association sections

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Partial Transcript: Okay then, so how did anthropology respond, then, to these new area--or, or the birth of business anthropology?

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba how anthropology responded to the birth of business anthropology. Baba explains that there was a coincidence at the same time within the AAA [American Anthropological Association] where outside societies were being integrated with it because of the IRS questioning its non-profit status since it handled the finances of these other societies for a fee. Baba describes the creation of sections within AAA, why the SfAA didn't join, and how the SfAA and NAPA [National Association for the Practice of Anthropology] developed to complement one another rather than be redundant duplicates of one another. Baba states that these sections largely allowed for productive interaction between anthropologists from different backgrounds. However, Baba describes some of the negative feelings towards business anthropology within the AAA as well. Baba explains that, when challenged over ethics at the time, she would connect her work to the traditional anthropological work of the 1950s. Baba states that her response to ethical concerns has evolved since then, however.

Keywords: AAA sections; AAA sub-sections; American Anthropological Association (AAA); American Anthropological Association sections; American Anthropological Association sub-sections; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Barbara Pillsbury; Business anthropology; Ed Lehman; Edward J. Lehman; Edward Lehman; Helen B. Schwartzman; Helen Schwartzman; National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA); Practicing anthropology; Provisional Steering Committee; Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA); Triple A

Subjects: American Anthropological Association.; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (U.S.); Society for Applied Anthropology

01:21:00 - Other influences on Marietta Baba

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Partial Transcript: The other, the other thing I wanted to follow up on was earlier you spoke of Morris Goodman as a key early influence. Were there others who were central in your career development?

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba if there were other people who were key influences in her development. In response, Baba first discusses Cal Stevens who acted as her role model as a researcher and a practitioner. Baba recalls that Stevens was very supportive of business anthropology, encouraging her to sponsor a reception at the AAA to give visibility to business anthropology. Baba mentions that she met the recruiter for General Motors at the reception she hosted at the AAA, noting that this was part of a twenty year relationship with General Motors and the beginning of her collaboration with Elizabeth Briody. Baba discusses her collaboration with Briody and how she learned a lot about social science methodology from her. The third person Baba mentions is Dave Hill, the key executive from General Motors at Wayne State University. Baba states that Hill offered her and a colleague $600,000 to conduct a research project at General Motors. Baba describes her first experience in leading as the head social scientist on a project.

Keywords: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology; Cal Stevens; Calvin L. Stevens; Calvin Stevens; Dave Hill; David Hill; Elizabeth Briody; General Motors; Methodologies; Methodology; Organizational anthropology; Wayne State University; Wayne State University, Detroit (Mich.); Wayne State University, Michigan

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; General Motors Corporation.; Methodology.; Society for Applied Anthropology; Wayne State University

01:29:22 - Bridging the gap between theory and practice

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Partial Transcript: I do have a question on ethics, though I'll return to that at the--at the end of, of our time.

Segment Synopsis: In response to Brondo's question about how to connect theory and practice, Baba explains that the process is very difficult and there is no intellectual bridge between anthropology and business. Baba provides an example of the gap between anthropology and business. She describes how Bob Galvin sought to create an anthropological advisory board for the Motorola Company since the company needed assistance in integrating itself into Japanese culture. Baba explains that the board only met once because the board meeting was a disaster since the anthropologists could not discuss the problems and instead argued over much more broad subjects. Baba explains that another problem is that the nature of business anthropology is very opportunistic. She elaborates that this is a problem because of intellectual sprawl; your experiences don't give you depth but only general knowledge across a lot of areas. Baba states that it is very difficult to force depth as a practitioner. Baba states another issue: organizational anthropology is not thriving like other areas because it is hard to deliver negative feedback to management because they don't want to hear it. Baba explains that there are not many people in managerial positions willing to accept bad news and work with it. Baba provides a story about presenting recommendations to a general in the military who immediately handed them out as orders without seeking other opinions within the military's organizational structure. Baba notes that one of the things that happens when working in organizations is that you make mistakes and have to be willing to make them. Baba states that another issue is interdisciplinary issues, elaborating that gaining a perspective from other disciplines give your work more depth and help interact with people from other disciplines more easily and efficiently. Baba provides a story about taking engineers into the field where she asked people questions, but it was always one of the engineers who would answer it before the people she was asking could answer. She provides another example of being verbally attacked by someone from another discipline who thought her work wasn't important. Baba describes the issues of unity between theory and practice. Baba brings up her collaboration with Gary Heisey at the National Science Foundation and at the company Proctor and Gamble. She describes the joys of working with Heisey, but also the trials they faced working at Proctor and Gamble. Baba discusses how to grapple with the fact that most of your work doesn't get implemented by companies and businesses.

Keywords: Anthropological theory; Anthropology; Anthropology and business; Applied anthropology; Bob Galvin; Business anthropology; Cooperation; Gary Heisey; Intellectual sprawl; Interdisciplinary issues; Interdisciplinary problems; Making mistakes; Methodologies; Methodology; Mistakes; Motorola; National Science Foundation (NSF); Organizational anthropology; Participant observation; Practicing anthropology; Practitioners; Presenting recommendations; Procter & Gamble; Procter and Gamble; Theory; Unexpected circumstances; Unimplemented work

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Cooperation.; Methodology.; Motorola, Inc.; National Science Foundation (U.S.); Participant observation.; Society for Applied Anthropology

01:54:39 - Baba's key contributions to business anthropology

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Partial Transcript: Well, can you tell me--or can you give me some specifics about building that knowledge base?

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba what she believes her key contributions to the field are. Baba explains that her focus in her research to produce practical research that contributes to theory and legitimize the study of business in anthropology are some of her key contributions. Baba lists a few academic papers that she says support her previous points and then discusses what each of them are about.

Keywords: Academic articles; Academic papers; Anthropological methodologies; Anthropological methodology; Anthropological methods; Anthropological theory; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology; Cultural ecology; General Motors; Impacts; Influential work; Influential works; Key strategic problems; Legitimization; Methodologies; Methodology; Natural history; Organizational anthropology; Pasteur's quadrant; Private sector; Private sector corporations; Theory

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Society for Applied Anthropology

02:03:32 - Questions of ethics in business anthropology and beyond

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Partial Transcript: I--I'm going to ask, now, that we, um, we move to a new topic.

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba about what kind of ethical issues she has faced and how she has addressed them. Baba explains that the question is complicated. Baba expresses that ethical dilemmas, such as the possibility of being manipulated by powerful figures, are challenges faced in all disciplines. The second problem that Baba addresses is the prejudice/bias against business organizations and anyone that works with them. Baba explains that some anthropologists may think that a business has done something wrong, coming to the conclusion that all businesses are guilty of immoral conduct and condemning anyone who then works with them. The third issue that Baba addresses is the nature of professional ethics itself. Baba explains that the term "ethics" can mean different things, depending on the context, and there's a question of how they apply to the type of research that you conduct. Baba presents the question of whether ethics are acquired and learned intellectually or if they are culturally acquired. Brondo asks Baba to talk a bit more about the ethical areas that she just discussed. Baba replies that she'll make an attempt to provide a response to each of the three areas that she outlined. Baba states that working with powerful clients presents unique risks because they have the potential to damage many more people and the anthropologist themselves. Baba explains that a business may demand information in exchange for access to their business, potentially causing damage to others. Baba provides an example of a political struggle she found herself in within a business and an intelligence agent who ordered, and then stole, her interview transcripts. Baba explains that these examples represent isolated experiences across her twenty-five year career in the field and that most organizations respect the need for confidentiality and informed consent. Baba disagrees with the black-and-white philosophy she encounters such as "business is bad so anyone who works with them is too" or "this business is bad so all business is bad." She explains that business is a part of our world and we are a part of their world; without each other, there would be chaos. Baba then addresses the question of what we mean by "ethics." She explains that she thinks ethics are an idealized code of ethics held by professionals. Baba presents the example of academic anthropology where morality centers around the pursuit of knowledge, so protecting your informants is the most important tenet in the ethical code since they provide knowledge. Baba states that ethical codes are products of their cultural environment, then discussing how students come second to research subjects in the code of the AAA. Baba discusses how this reflects in business anthropology, utilizing the example of protecting a CEO after finding a lot of negative information about their company.

Keywords: Anthropological ethics; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology; Business ethics; Code of ethics; Ethical codes; Ethical dilemmas; Ethical issues; Ethics; Morality; Morals; Organization anthropology; Organizational anthropology; Pasteur's quadrant; Professional morals

Subjects: Anthropological ethics.; Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Business ethics.; Ethics.; Professional ethics.; Professional practice; Society for Applied Anthropology

02:25:27 - The dangers and opportunities in hybrid anthropology

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Partial Transcript: You, you once gave a talk at the Applied meeting, I think it was in 2005, um, about anthropological hybrids. I'd like you to take some time to talk about what are hybrids? Why are they important?

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba to discuss anthropological hybrids. Baba begins by explaining that hybrid anthropology and anthropologists have the potential to bring anthropology into the 21st century, but also risk furthering the identity crisis of anthropology itself. Baba discusses how hybrid anthropology began to come into being after applied anthropologists began to respond to academic critiques of their work. Baba explains that anthropology has a lot of catching up to do to with other disciplines to make itself more marketable by developing more background in other areas of study. Baba discusses how anthropology is unique for being able to blend with other disciplines, but this also changes its identity. Baba describes the risks of hybridity to individuals, first explaining the difficulties with maintaining boundaries within your identity and how you lose your professional edge/competitiveness if you don't keep up intellectual backgrounds. Baba discusses the pressure facing a hybrid anthropologist at home and the workplace. Baba describes the dangers of both alienating hybrids and of embracing them too much. Baba then discusses the opportunities brought to anthropology by hybrids in the modern study of global issues rather than small-scale anthropology. Baba explains the importance of linking theory and practice in order to preserve social science in anthropology.

Keywords: Hybrid anthropologists; Hybrid anthropology; Hybrid professionals; Institutional anthropology; Interdisciplinary anthropologists; Interdisciplinary anthropology; Interdisciplinary professionals; Interdisciplinary work; Intersectionality; Pure anthropology; Purist anthropology; Santa Fe (N.M.); Santa Fe, New Mexico; Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA)

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Society for Applied Anthropology

02:48:20 - Advice for young professionals in anthropology

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Partial Transcript: Thank you for that. Well, why don't we end then. I think this is a nice transition into asking you if you have any words of wisdom for junior colleagues who are considering applied work or, we can rephrase that into practicing anthropology.

Segment Synopsis: Brondo asks Baba if she has any advice to give to junior colleagues. Baba reflects that the previous discussion over hybrids provides insight into hybrid anthropology being where all the action is, primarily made up of young people. Baba states that young hybrid anthropologists are just as likely to discover important things as any pure anthropologists. She acknowledges that the reality of the world is changing along with the lines between theory and practice. Baba expresses that the way forward is to train in experience; becoming hybrid is a great way to form identity and get rid of walls between theorists and practitioners. Baba states that young professionals should look for ways to expand their identities, look for new knowledge, how to get connected to colleagues in the field, and how to train their students so that they are prepared to go into the field.

Keywords: Anthropological theorists; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology; Developing identity; Expanding knowledge; Practicing anthropology; Practitioner anthropologists; Preparing students; Training students; Young professionals

Subjects: Anthropology; Applied anthropology; Business anthropology.; Cooperation.; Experience.; Identity; Society for Applied Anthropology