An Anthropologist Studied MBAs. The Results Were Mixed.

“Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture.” author Andrew Orta

A new book by a University of Illinois anthropologist studies the culture of contemporary business education – in particular, the MBA degree – and how it’s been shaped by the modern global economy.

The book – “Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture” – is a study of “what MBAs learn about culture, and what that can tell us about contemporary global capitalism,” said Andrew Orta, a professor of anthropology at Illinois and the book’s author.

The book focuses on how MBAs are trained in the U.S. – “in particular, how MBAs are trained to think about international and cultural differences,” Orta said.

“MBAs get both more and less than they bargained for,” he said. “Students get more because, despite the knock on MBA programs that students learn little and are there only for the credential and the networking opportunities, MBA curricula systematically shape habits of fast-paced decision-making based on limited knowledge about the world. But they get less because when these habits are applied to international business contexts, they add up to a very narrow global vision.”

Orta approached MBA students and business school faculty as subjects for anthropological study.

“I spent time with them, doing what they do,” said Orta, also the interim director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and an affiliate of the Center for Global Studies at Illinois. “Instead of joining in a potato harvest or observing community meetings or dancing at a festival, as I’ve done in my research with Bolivian Aymara communities, I was attending classes, working on team assignments and case studies, and traveling on an international study-abroad trip.”

In addition to sitting in on classes, Orta shadowed cohorts, interviewed dozens of MBA students and faculty, and observed professional meetings of MBA administrators.

“Over years of observation in many different MBA programs, I had countless informal opportunities to ask questions, as well as conduct formal recorded interviews,” he said. “But it was the time spent participating in the MBA experience itself that was most important because, as anthropologists know, it’s usually what’s not said that turns out to be most illuminating.”

In examining the history of MBA programs since their founding in the early 20th century, Orta found that both the program and the degree are products of their place and time.

“I examined the changes in the curriculum and in the ways that international and cross-cultural business themes have been taught,” he said. “Approaching MBA programs and business practices not as eternal truths or natural facts, but as shaped by the various social, cultural, historical, political and economic contexts, gives us a chance to see a very influential part of contemporary society in a new kind of way.”

Orta said the approach adopted in U.S. MBA programs in recent decades “reflects a very particular moment in the history of capitalism and globalization.”

“The trend over much of the second half of the 20th century was to imagine globalization as a force creating a more homogenous world, that it was going to erase cultural and national differences,” he said. “By the end of the century, however, it was increasingly clear that differences were not going away, and that globalization was even producing new kinds of difference around the world. Business schools were quick to move on this, and many programs in the U.S. developed curricula promising to prepare MBAs to work in this culturally complicated global environment.”

According to Orta, results of the increased focus on globalization were a simplified understanding of “difference” as adopted for a global business worldview and a new understanding of the MBA leader as someone possessing “innate talents, instincts and sensitivities necessary to be effective in global business.”

“Part of what MBA programs are selling is the opportunity to discover and develop these talents,” he said. “An important feature of contemporary global capitalism is to identify and manage differences, turning potential risks into business opportunities. By presenting a world of simplified differences to MBAs, these programs are in the business of framing a world of manageable complexity and producing the sort of talented business leaders required to manage it.”

Critics periodically lament the death of the MBA, but reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated, Orta said.

“The MBA has been declared dead many, many times over the last 50-60 years. The reality is, MBA programs have proved extremely resilient and able to adapt to changing business climates and economic landscapes,” he said.

The current downturn in MBA applications that has led some programs to close seems to reflect not only the ongoing impact of the Great Recession, but also the longer-term overcapacity of MBA programs in the U.S., Orta said.

“For decades, those extra MBA seats were filled by increasing demand from international students, many of whom are now opting not to study in the U.S.,” he said. “There are very few programs not impacted in some way by these current challenges, but if the resilient past of the U.S. MBA is any guidance, it seems unlikely that we are witnessing its death.”

Orta’s research was supported by grants from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board; the Center for International Business Education and Research; and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

The book was published by the University of California Press.

Ben Ready
Ben Ready founded MBA News in 2014 and is the Managing Editor. He is a former business and finance journalist with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Dow Jones Newswires in London. Ben completed his MBA in 2012 and was awarded the QUT GMAA Entrepreneurship Prize. He is also the founder and Managing Director of RGC Media & Mktng (