Conference in Kunming, China

I organized a panel entitled “Identity Construction and Management: Implication from Asia” and plan to present a paper “Doing Ethnography in Business: Identity Manipulation and its Implications” at the 8th International Conference on Business Anthropology (June 6-8).

Doing Ethnography in Business:

Identity Manipulation and its Implications

Yi Zhu

 This presentation is an autoethnography of my experiences conducting participant observation in a business organization aiming to examine an ethnographer’s manipulations of identity in the field, its connection to the meaning of Hong Kong society, and its implications on actual business. This presentation analyzes, from the lens of the presenter who was born in Mainland China and educated both in Mainland China and Japan, the process of identity manipulation based on one-and-a-half years of fieldwork in a Japanese multinational retailer in Hong Kong. During my participation in the retail shops as full-time intern, I assumed multiple identities related to nationality, ethnicity and social class, and sometimes I felt necessity to manipulate these identities aiming to build up trustful relationship to get data I needed.

First, I avoided actively promoting my nationality as Mainland Chinese to local employees because I was aware some of them had anti-Mainland sentiment. Data I collected through fieldwork as well as online social network communication showed a glance of the complex identity politics in Hong Kong after the handover. Second, some of my behaviors have confused local employees to identify my ethnic identity. Being educated in Japan for primary school and higher education, some of my behaviors, such as the way of speech and make-ups, inherited various cultural traits from Japan, and this made local employees to identify me as Japanese. On the other hand, since I am also capable of speaking fluent Mandarin with Southern accent, some would identify me as Taiwanese. In some occasions, I tried to strengthen their identification by emphasizing the image they have as Japanese or Taiwanese. Third, I change my social class according to whom I am talking to. Sharing my stories being a post-graduate student at one of the prestige universities in Hong Kong allows me to become friends with management trainees who felt privileged in the company by possessing university degrees. In a meanwhile, when communicating with high school graduates and associate degree students who had grudge against management trainees for feeling inferior, I intended to show I am in fact non-privileged.

This presentation shows the process of identity manipulation and implies that ethnographers sometimes might have to manipulate their identities according to the unique context of the field or to be neutral to avoid workplace politics. Researchers may also need to make good use of their identities as academic fieldworkers to proactively pursue their needs for better research outcomes. This case has several implications for training ethnographers in business. First, an ethnographer needs to be a silent listener. An ethnographer needs to not only avoid getting in the middle of workplace politics, but also to build a trustful relationship with different parties. Second, an ethnographer needs to be neutral in opinion. It is expected for an ethnographer to be “blank” before and while in the field. Third, an ethnographer needs to be less emotionally attached to the organization they are investigating to remain objectivity.


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