DOING BUSINESS: The Anthropology of Striving, Thriving and Beating Out the Competition by Olivia Vlahos

DOING BUSINESS: The Anthropology of Striving, Thriving and Beating Out the Competition

Email this review


With young adults flocking into the corporate fold (and their own ventures) at record rates, commerce would appear to have finally achieved an enviable measure of acceptance among its severest critics. As the author of this provocative, informed survey makes clear, however, no millenium is apt to be at hand for business. ""Society did not then and does not now much appreciate the capacity to jump whichever way the wind blows,"" she warns in a commentary on the opportunism displayed by traders throughout history. Vlahos casts the knowing eye of a trained anthropologist on a wealth of business practices--entrepreneurship, barter, salesmanship, mediums of exchange, and the like. She also relates enterprise to such bedrock institutions as the family, class distinctions, religion, and politics. Among other things, the author observes that through the ages trade has been a prime mover of civilization (though scholars dislike conceding the fact); likewise, bookkeeping preceded writing (and hence poetry) in virtually all ancient cultures (including Mesopotamia's). Many primitive languages (in West Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere) feature explicit connections between currency and the diety, she notes, and the West does not lack for fiscal anthropology--e.g., temples (banks, stock exchanges), totemic beings (bulls, bears), theological idioms (almighty dollar, GNP, prime rate), and competitive clergy (FRB governors, monetarists, supply-siders). Having taken the reader far afield and way back, the author effectively narrows her focus to the still ambiguous status of business in today's US. On the one hand, she finds the general public looking to enterprise for responsible innovation that includes support for education, the arts, and other nonprofit programs. On the other, Vlahos sees--and critiques--the venal image of business people routinely purveyed by network TV. Perhaps, she suggests, there are cyclical aspects to society's typically ambivalent and invariably inconsistent attitudes toward its merchant princes and managerial eminences. Vlahos concludes that members of the younger generation are learning to appreciate the fact that business offers them an excellent opportunity ""to do their own thing."" The self-conscious urge to both well and good, the author reminds, is a ""frontier that has sustained earlier travel,"" notably by Ida M. Tarbell, whose New Ideals in Business (1917) remains overshadowed by her muckraking classic, History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). In sum, informed and delightfully different perspectives on the wide and deep world of commerce.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Watts