Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture

Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture

by Andrew Orta

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A generation of aspiring business managers has been taught to see a world of difference as a world of opportunity. In Making Global MBAs, Andrew Orta examines the culture of contemporary business education, and the ways MBA programs participate in the production of global capitalism through the education of the business subjects who will be managing it.
Based on extensive field research in several leading US business schools, this groundbreaking ethnography exposes what the culture of MBA training says about contemporary understandings of capitalism in the context of globalization. Orta details the rituals of MBA life and the ways MBA curricula cultivate both habits of fast-paced technical competence and “softer” qualities and talents thought to be essential to unlocking the value of international cultural difference while managing its risks. Making Global MBAs provides an essential critique of neoliberal thinking for students and professionals in a wide variety of fields.

Editorial Reviews

Financial Times

"Orta brings a particular expertise to the analysis of cultures, honed in earlier ethnographic studies of relations between Catholic missionaries and the indigenous Aymara communities of the Bolivian highlands. He notably delves into the growth in “international business” teaching on MBA courses, transmitted through case studies and short-term study assignments abroad."

Anthropology Book Forum

"A fascinating cultural portrait of future middle and senior managers as key players in global business. . . . The book will be a valuable reference to anthropologists interested in education and business culture."


"Orta does a service in offering this contextual overview of the MBA as a construct that has provided the essential building blocks and managerial class to help create and advance global business and culture. In essence, Orta posits that global business managers are schooled to employ a cultural lens that helps them transform local variables into global business opportunities. These opportunities create a global business culture that interacts with local culture and coexists with the neoliberal political culture that both manages risk and unlocks opportunities. In terms of both education and implementation, this is a sweeping vision that sees the MBA as underpinning the current era of globalization and business development. . . . Recommended."

Financial Times

"Orta brings a particular expertise to the analysis of cultures, honed in earlier ethnographic studies of relations between Catholic missionaries and the indigenous Aymara communities of the Bolivian highlands. He notably delves into the growth in “international business” teaching on MBA courses, transmitted through case studies and short-term study assignments abroad."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520325401
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #47
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


Wall Street Goes to the Ends of the Earth

THE 2011 TITLE OF A SPECIAL "DealBook" section of the New York Times announces a new day in international business. "Three of the largest markets for initial public offerings last year were Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, China," reports the cover article.

Private equity firms focused on emerging markets raised $22.6 billion in the first half of 2011, compared with $23.5 billion for all of last year. And Chile, Ukraine and Thailand are among the fastest-growing markets for deals. Wall Street titans can truly claim the title of Masters of the Universe — or at least the World. (Sorkin 2011)

The full-page illustration on the front page of the section underscores the message. In the foreground, a man stands at the edge of a dock in a light-colored suit with a panama hat, his jacket slung over his shoulder, his foot on a well-traveled suitcase bearing stickers indexing multiple destinations. In the shade of a palm tree, he looks across a body of water as a container ship steams toward him. On the other side of the water, a waterfall and verdant hills recede toward more mountainous terrain. An imposing and dramatically shadowed peak, backed by sunlit golden clouds against a blue sky, completes the scene.

Within this stock setting of raw, fertile, mysterious, and perhaps dangerous potential, other details complicate the story. The container-laden ship is steaming toward the dock. The smokestacks of a factory are onshore just behind the ship. And, sweeping across the mid-range of the image, the verdant hills and craggy mountains are dotted with wind turbines, a cell tower, and the skyscrapers of a distant city. The titles of some of the other articles in the section underscore this moment ripe with global opportunities for those able to manage the risks: "Think Globally, Deal Locally," "Untapped and Growing, Frontier Markets Beckon," "Emerging Markets Offer Banks Profits, but Headaches Too" (New York Times 2011).

The image (by Dan Cosgrove) conveys a strong "retro" feel: the handled suitcase, the Panama hat, the ship. The palm-treed scene echoes cinematic presentations of exotic locales, and harks back to a time when "emerging markets" were the "Third World" or "the Orient." Indeed, much of the story is not new. The Andrew Ross Sorkin article notes that firms that would later become Citigroup opened turn-of-the-century outposts in Shanghai, Calcutta, Manila, and Buenos Aires. The arc of international business is a long one; the "ends of the earth" have been a frequent destination for US capital.

Yet, there is something new to the twenty-first-century story being told here. The volume and value of global business is part of it: the intensification of internationalization. So too is a concern with the increased risk and volatility ascribed to international locales, particularly in the wake of a catastrophic financial crisis triggered by (largely homemade) risk in 2008.

The story is new in another crucial way. The recycled tropes of exotic difference conjure a purposeful rediscovery of the foreign. A generation ago, to judge by the reigning literature of the time, from the vantage of US business, the world was getting smaller and flatter. The business literature of the 1980s heralded a future of global standardization, with products designed to shape and meet the converging needs of consumers around the world. The trend toward multinational mergers and acquisitions, the proliferation of offshore production, all pointed to a historical moment of economic integration (e.g., Levitt 1983). In a corollary to other discussions of the time declaring "the end of history" (Fukuyama 1992), global capitalism was heady with the verge of the end of difference.

A generation ago, then, the world of stickers on your luggage and intrepid business travelers steaming to remote locales in tropical-weight suits seemed a quaint image from a rapidly receding earlier moment in the history of capitalism. How did it become the future again?

* * *

This book is about the rediscovery of the world of international business; the reimagining of global space as a space of difference, risk, and opportunity; and the redesigning of business managers as the subjects best prepared to see and seize these opportunities by managing the margins of a rediscovered world of difference. My focus is on the key sites for the production of business culture in the United States — business schools, and especially MBA programs. MBA programs are an exceptionally responsive barometer of the culture of capitalism in the United States — they at once chase and lead the field. They lead the field by distilling best managerial practices and leveraging an analytic historical perspective on the missteps and trends in business to shape a cohort of business leaders who will be managing capitalism's futures. In the process, they are acutely reactive to the trends and crises of the day. They aim to supply what corporate recruiters want. And they are keenly attuned to the expectations and concerns of their high-tuition-paying students. Their curricula often follow the news of the day: MBA ethics programs, for instance, mushroomed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. As finance lost some of its luster in the wake of the 2008 crisis, MBA programs added new concentrations (social entrepreneurship, data sciences) or blended business with other professional degrees (medicine, engineering). And business programs have similarly led from behind in a drive to train a generation of MBAs prepared to manage a newly apprehended world of business: "masters of the world" if not "Masters of the Universe" in Sorkin's words.


The story of the complex return to the complex world is slyly condensed by the "Masters of the Universe" reference. The gesture is to Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, a dramatic depiction of high-flying Wall Street investment bankers in 1980s New York (Wolfe 1987). In this telling, Masters of the Universe are a younger generation of bankers whose soaring incomes reflect a new business environment pegged to a dramatic period of economic recovery in the United States. Wolfe's novel was one of a number of influential representations of the world of business during this time. That same year saw Michael Douglas's portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's film Wall Street. These and similar characterizations helped to crystallize an image of audacious and dazzlingly lucrative business deals reflecting a definitive end to the economic doldrums of the 1970s and, the cautions of Gekko's fate notwithstanding, a born-again energized faith in the transcendent potential of markets. This was the moment of the ascendance of neoliberalism: a set of interlaced economic and sociopolitical policies emerging since the 1930s and 1940s under the influence of economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and consolidated through political programs associated with Thatcherism and Reaganism. In the United States, the period was marked by a rise of financialization, a disruption of a mid-century status quo of business practices and aspirations as the intensification of mergers and acquisitions and a variety of creative and aggressive innovations in financial securities, fueled by accelerating deregulation, changed the terms and the players of the game.

I discuss this period as it figured in the development of US MBA programs in greater detail below. Here, I want to touch briefly on two features central to the story I aim to tell in this book. The first is that the arc from Wolfe's Masters of the Universe to Sorkin's "masters of the world" traces precisely this history: from the heady hubris of an early moment in globalization that saw a flat world aborning to the current rediscovery of a world of difference requiring the managerial talents embodied by the tropical-weight-suited man on the dock. The shift is from a faith in a standardized global market created by the triumph of capitalism to the recognition that the connection of places across the world, rather than a foregone conclusion, is always an object of ongoing work.

Fortunately, we have heroic figures ready to undertake this work. This is my second point. The moment documented by Wolfe's novel was marked by the ascendance of a new cultural type. Brash young business hotshots came to embody the successes and the excesses of the late capitalist gilded age, and they became closely associated with the degree that many of them held: the MBA. "The MBA" — the credential and the person — were quickly melded in a powerful sign of the times.


This Bonfire era was not the birth of the MBA degree, of business education, nor of the mythic figure of the "American" businessman. These had been around since the turn of the twentieth century, a time shaped by the ascendance of managerial capitalism in the United States (Chandler 1977; see chapter 3). Yet the late twentieth century marked a profound recasting of the cultural figure of the MBA — a recasting that reflects the changing texture of capitalism within the current moment of globalization. Aspiring Masters of the Universe looked to MBA programs for the training, credentials, and networks that would constitute their "golden passports" to a life of suspenders and power ties (cf. McDonald 2017; Van Maanen 1983). Elite programs remained the primary gateways to the pinnacles of power and prosperity: Wall Street investment banks (e.g., Ho 2009). But they now stood as the market leaders of a booming industry as MBA programs sprung up as if guided by an invisible hand to meet the growing demand across the country. Between 1970 and 2008, the number of MBA and other masters-level business degrees granted annually increased sixfold: from 21,561 to 150,211 (Datar, Garvin, and Cullen 2010, 18). In 2016, 188,834 masters-level business degrees were awarded, down slightly from a high of 191,606 conferred in 2012. Business remains the most popular field of graduate training in the United States; the number of masters-level business degrees conferred in 2016 exceeded the number of masters degrees awarded in education (145,781) and in health professions (110,384), as well as the total number of doctor's degrees awarded in all fields (177,867).

Against this backdrop of the rapid expansion of MBA education over the late twentieth century, this book examines the production of MBAs in the United States in the first decades of the twenty-first century, a moment marked by a refiguring of the international space of global capitalism. The boom in MBA production over the past generation connects in interesting ways with this latest moment of internationalization. For the MBA industry overplayed their hand. The growth in MBA programs over the 1980s and 1990s resulted in an overcapacity of the industry. This was compounded by periodic downturns in domestic demand related to moments of financial crises or scandal such as the dot-com bubble, Enron and WorldCom, and the Great Recession of 2008. As a result, seats in many MBA programs in the United States have been increasingly filled by applicants from abroad (e.g., AACSB 2011; Lieber 2016). Indeed, in convergence with the global hegemony of US business culture, demand for US MBA training soared around the world.

It is a particular irony of this convergence that as international applicants swarmed toward the global standard of business practice, US business programs became increasingly attuned to the intractable cultural and national differences that complicate the world of global capitalism. And it was not long before US MBA programs came to see the growing internationalization of the MBA cohorts (with international students composing nearly half of a given class in some programs) as a forward-looking strength rather than an inheritance of the irrational exuberance of the 1980s. Today MBA programs market themselves to domestic students as simulated international spaces — petting zoos of global capitalism, where aspiring MBAs will work closely with peers from China, India, Brazil, and so forth. It is now settled conventional wisdom that a manager of twenty-first-century capitalism will necessarily engage a world at once rife and rich with difference. Contemporary MBA programs are in the business of providing the corresponding worldview, along with a "starter kit" of international colleagues and experiences, the first of what are anticipated to be many stickers on the suitcases of aspiring managers of twenty-first-century capitalism.

The Necessity of the Foreign

Michael Porter, a professor of strategy at Harvard Business School, is among a select group of business school faculty whose research has at once helped set the terms of discussion in business school curricula and also helped to shape business practices "in the real world." Writing in 1990, Porter called attention to the increasing significance of national and local frameworks for global business.

In a world of increasingly global competition, nations have become more, not less, important. As the basis of competition has shifted more and more to the creation and assimilation of knowledge, the role of the nation has grown. Competitive advantage is created and sustained through a highly localized process. Differences in national values, culture, economic structures, institutions and histories all contribute to competitive success. There are striking differences in the patterns of competitiveness in every country; no nation can or will be competitive in every, or even most industries. Ultimately, nations succeed in particular industries because their home environment is the most forward-looking, dynamic, and challenging. (Porter 1990)

Porter's essay, "The Competitive Advantage of Nations," harks back to David Ricardo's discussion of the comparative advantage of nations in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). Advocating for the benefits of free international trade, and against protectionist mercantilist policies, Ricardo argued that national interests were better served by focusing on those industries in which they could produce commodities (say, corn) at the lowest cost relative to other nations, and trading with other nations for those commodities (say, wool) for which expanding production would be at a higher cost than importing them from other nations. Ricardo's foundational discussion extends the acquisitive pecuniary logic of capitalism across international space, scaling up Adam Smith's sense in On the Wealth of Nations ([1776] 1994) of the natural human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

This propensity is an outwardly focused and social characteristic of Smith's homo economicus and it is a component of a broader expansive orientation toward space evident in these earliest articulations of the ethos of capitalism. Space appears laden with the interlaced potential of risk and opportunity: from the comparative advantages and salubrious effects of regional or national competitive differences to the promises of materials and markets in more distant colonies. The foundational texts also make clear that engagement with frontiers is an inexorable condition of capitalism's existence. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed, "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere" (Marx and Engels 1977, 224). In this light, global business is not only not new, it is inevitable.

Such expansion is an iterative process; as a cultural system, capitalism is ceaselessly productive of the very differences it struggles to transcend and realize as value. In Marx and Engel's just-so story of homo faber, the first historical act is the production of new needs (Marx and Engels 1970, 49). A corollary to that, crucial to the expansive ambitions of capital, concerns the production of new spaces: a development that has been energized under neoliberalism, which weds a universalizing faith in capitalist free markets with a localizing, niche-generating commitment to decentralization (e.g., Peck and Tickell 2002; Thrift 2006; cf. Orta 2013). As Nigel Thrift points out, "capitalism is not a fixed and unforgiving force. Rather, it is a heterogeneous and continually dynamic process of increasingly global connection — often made through awkward and makeshift links — and those links can be surprising, not least because they often produce unexpected spatial formations which can themselves have force" (2006, 280). Quite distinct from the flattening of global space posited by some discussions of globalized capitalism, what is at stake here is a limitless need for difference, "mystery," and "risk" as part of a chain binding the global to the local.


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