Monday, March 14, 2011

What every applied anthropologist should learn about money!

In a recent question posed in the Systems Thinking World interest group on LinkedIn, I was struck by what I consider to be an area missing in the standard training of an applied anthropologist. This training gap applies specifically to a problem such quoted below.

On the surface this might be taken to a simple cross-cultural problem in a business context.The question is:
What should you do if you meet this situation when you are in a foreign-owned enterprise: A foreign home company set up a new brand company in China five years ago! However, till now, the Chinese brand company size was still same as before. Compared with the other similar company, this Chinese brand company never grew up. The profit that they earned has to submmit to the foreign home company by a kind of form call technical support cost.

My first questions to the reader are:
How would you attempt to address this question?
Is this a matter of cross cultural mis-communication?
Is it an example of foreign exploitation or even racism?
and, What theory or tools would you be using to assess the problem?

As I first read it. I thought about these questions and how I might have attempted to address one or the other. Maybe both. But then I paused and remembered my MBA training, especially accounting. In the world of business, accounting is the lingua franc. If you go to the site you can read my answer. Here is where the answer lay - it is a linguistic problem.

In this particular case, we have a common situation found in international business where a profit can be quickly transformed into an expense and even a loss for tax purposes. The situation is called, "transfer pricing" and is a little magical trick of removing a profit on the balance sheet and transferring it to a liability on the Income statement.

What I want to stress here is that every applied anthropologist should take a basic course in financial accounting, not to become an accountant, but to learn the language of money. Especially, the grammar of money and when to bring in an interpreter.

I am not attempting to justify exploitation such as described in the original question. What I am criticizing is that so much of the ideological criticism by anthropologists directed toward corporations and international businesses, attacking capitalism vs labor, etc. is based on the critic's linguistic ignorance of the language spoken by those they criticize. Traditional ethnography would require that the ethnographer have a basic understanding of the native language before attempting to interpret the alien culture.

What I am proposing is that any applied anthropologist who expects to influence a client who works in the real world should be familiar enough with the language of money to know when it is time to call in an accountant.

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