Managing the margins: MBA training, international business, and “the value chain of culture”



Global capitalism requires a world of manageable differences. U.S. business schools train MBA students in the reckoning of international space as a field of risk and opportunity. Focusing particularly on the short-term study-abroad trips that have become a staple of MBA training in the past decade, I examine the role of international knowledge and experience as a constitutive part of the managerial selves contemporary capitalism is explicitly thought to require. Through these and other internationalizing experiences, I argue, MBAs learn to manage the margins: converting the risks and uncertainties of social and cultural differences into value.

In 2007, I accompanied a group of U.S. MBA students on a study-abroad trip to Mexico. We were hosted by an elite business school in Mexico City. Our hosts had developed a program around the theme of “Doing Business in Mexico,” combining a series of lectures presenting a narrative of recent Mexican political and economic history with more standard MBA curricular fare: case studies focused on Mexican businesses, corporate visits, and team exercises. For the team exercises, the U.S. MBAs were intermixed with their Mexican counterparts and assigned to undertake business analyses of a set of enterprises in Mexico City. These assignments all involved restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, so, for the U.S. participants, the “work” felt a bit like spring-break-party tourism, with young Mexican elites as guides and pals. The restaurant my team was assigned marketed itself as specializing in fresh, well-prepared seafood as well as a genre of bartending known as “free pour”: tableside bartending with rum or whisky poured until the customer says “when.” I still have the hat and polo shirt I received after our group's visit to and tour of the Corona brewery, where, in addition to sampling the product line, we saw a preview of an upcoming marketing campaign.

The classroom component of our trip was also memorable. In the course of an introductory lecture sketching the recent history of the Mexican economy and economic policy, one of our hosting professors reviewed the Mexican financial crisis of 1994 and the subsequent liberalization of the national banking system, one outcome of which was the increasing participation of European and U.S. banks in the Mexican retail banking market. Our professor observed that this was especially beneficial for the development of Mexican banking because banks like Citibank, for example, brought needed experience and expertise in assessing credit risks, enabling Mexican banks to expand their loan activities.

The timing of the presentation could hardly have been worse. In 2007, the global credit bubble was stretching to the breaking point but had not yet burst. With hindsight, it is clear that U.S. banks may not have been optimum sources of “best practices” in credit risk assessment. But it is equally clear that the Mexican business adepts were not really interested in Citibank's abilities to detect credit risk. They were interested, rather, in Citibank's efficiency in creating manageable risk by pushing out credit to as many people as possible (cf. Williams 2005). One of the case studies featured for the MBAs involved a small messenger service that had leveraged the reputation of its intrepid deliverymen—who, on bicycle, motorcycle, and horse, negotiated an illegible warren of back roads to make deliveries where no one else could—into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. A key part of the company's spectacular growth was that it had secured contracts with new retail banks to hand deliver shiny credit cards to legions of new users of consumer credit across the country.

In this article, I examine the story being told here about “doing business in Mexico” as part of a broader accounting of the internationalization of MBA training in the United States. Short-term study-abroad (STSA) trips like the one I joined have become an integral part of that training over the past decade. Business study-abroad experiences are especially potent because they provide an experiential “executive summary” of frontier spaces of capitalist potential while also shaping and ritualizing the alignment of the emergent selves of U.S. business professionals within a geography of business practices now seen inevitably to require such spaces. I am interested, then, in the ways U.S. MBAs learn to manage the margins: how they develop a transnational habitus of engaging with foreign professionals and negotiating foreign places and how they cultivate capacities of self that enhance the transiting of risk-bearing difference in ways that realize or create value. This alignment of mobile expert subjects within a landscape of value-adding places is at the core of contemporary global capitalism, the production of which is the business of business schools.

Fast subjects in need of difference

From the earliest articulations of the ethos of capitalism, space has appeared laden with the interlaced potentials 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 (e.g., Ricardo 1821; Smith 1994). The foundational texts also make clear that engagement with frontiers is an inexorable condition of capitalism's existence: “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).

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 Karl Marx's just-so story of homo faber, the first historical act is the production of new needs (Marx and Engels 1986:49). A corollary to that, crucial to the expansive ambitions of capital, concerns the production of new spaces: a development that has intensified under the localizing, niche-generating ethos of neoliberalism (e.g., Peck and Tickell 2002; Thrift 2006). 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).1 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 scalar chain binding the global to the local (e.g., Tsing 2000).

The past two decades have been a boom time for the production of spatialized difference in the training of U.S. business adepts in MBA programs. These years mark a repositioning of international business (IB) studies in MBA curricula: from a distinct subfield of business studies to an orientation “infused” across all functional areas of business training (e.g., Buckley 2005; Daniels 2003; Robock 2003).2 This has been a moment, then, of profound routinization of a particular construction of global space as shaped by differences that are relatively enduring, potentially generative of (or threatening to) value, and unavoidable. And this process has gone hand in hand with the emergence of new business subjectivities required of managers by the “new economy” (Downey and Fisher 2006). Cast as a state of permanent emergency, the new economy requires the production of “fast” managerial subjects and spaces of particular intensity that serve in their production (Thrift 2000:675).

Business schools are sites par excellence of the production of business subjects. As culturally embedded institutions, part of the “cultural circuit of capital,” they participate in a dialectic of reflecting and remaking the world of business in every sense (Olds and Thrift 2008:270ff.; cf. Callon 2007; MacKenzie 2006). Focusing here on study-abroad experiences as a now ubiquitous component of MBA curricula, I argue that the MBA construction of global difference as an unavoidable challenge to business practice is constitutive of the state of emergency compelling new managerial subjects. The study-abroad experience crystallizes the coimplicated processes of producing difference and constructing managerial subjects. STSAs at once package places and constitute entrepreneurial selves as embodiments of claims about the state of global capitalism and the utility and necessity of managerial qualities that identify and extract value from a variegated global landscape.

Valuing the incommensurable

“Value” implies a meaningful cultural order. Expressions and experiences of value are inseparable from socially shared schemas that effect the commensuration of different features of the world. Commensuration is a ubiquitous and indispensable feature of human cognition. It is also an essentially social process (Espeland and Stevens 1998). With its reliance on a universal medium of exchange and the accountability of returns and results across time, and as a function of its expansive assimilation of new peoples and products, capitalism has been an engine of commensuration par excellence.

Yet habits of commensuration require the incommensurable, and it bears noting that incommensurability is no less socially produced. Things that escape or elude settled systems or habits of commensuration create new opportunities. I am interested here in the ways the current moment in the production of capitalism requires an evanescent incommensurablity—ceaselessly sited (and sighted) and overcome in the context of business practice. Business as usual is energized by the unusual. The internationalization of MBA curricula routinizes specific claims about a world of difference and about the qualities and habits necessary to its management. It routinizes a view of the world as what one study-abroad returnee described to me as “a value chain of culture.” Internationalizing MBA programs are in the business of producing business subjects with capacities to unlock the value chain and so manage the margins of commensurability.


In pursuing this project, I have managed a related margin of commensurability. I approached my time as an MBA student as an immersion in a different culture,3 requiring fluency in a new vocabulary and new conceptual categories. The simulated corporate energy and self-aware professionalism that suffuses the corridors and classrooms of the well-appointed business schools I studied contributed to an aura of difference that was palpable to me. In other ways, however, my MBA consultants and I were already familiar to one another: They conformed to a type of student I had encountered before; I was a shaggier version of the faculty they saw at the front of their classes, and, to MBA faculty, a colleague from another discipline engaged in research of interest to them.

Although some program administrators sought to limit my access to students and faculty—they were far “too busy” to talk with me, one dean told me, and I was not assigned to MBA project teams in the cohort I shadowed because I was not “competing” for a grade—this project has felt in many ways like a collaborative effort shaped by converging research interests (cf. Cefkin 2010). My curiosity about international content was legible to students and faculty, as, for all of them, this content was a salient facet of their program experience. As an anthropologist and Latin Americanist, I was an authorized interlocutor on these themes.

Yet, in other respects, as a participant-observer of MBA programs as sites of cultural production, I was not fully on their radar. The concern about my not competing for a grade was data. My participation in orientation activities for new MBAs, immersion in daily MBA life through class observations, time in business-school cafeterias and lounges, participation in extracurricular events, and time spent with project teams (the students let me tag along) all inform an ethnographic analysis of MBA education. In classic fieldwork style, these activities helped me build rapport and access that have enriched my study. I have also relied on another page from the methods of anthropological analysis by historicizing my object of study. Historicizing the MBA project, an endeavor presenting itself as the essence of instrumentality, distilling state-of-the-art techniques for managing the world of capitalism, helps illuminate the entanglement of MBA programs in the production of the world they mean to manage.

In the following sections, I examine the history of the internationalization of MBA curricula and detail the techniques of commensuration as taught in core MBA courses. I then turn more fully to the organization of STSA programs and the experiences and “take-aways” of MBA travelers to the margins. In conclusion, I reflect on the impact of the most recent financial crisis on MBA education in the United States and the role of MBA curricula in the production of the subjects of global capitalism.

New economies and old area studies

For some time now, the concepts of “culture” and “regional difference” have been ascendant in the field of business. Business schools are increasingly interested in providing their students with “international” content to prepare them for a business climate that requires knowledge of and engagement with consumers, governments, investors, and business counterparts in other areas of the world. This conceptualization of international space is a cultural process, implicated with shifting regimes of transnational capitalism and entangled with an implicit vantage on the world of international business.

The early decades of the 20th century saw the systematic employment of regional specialists in the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce, as in the Commerce Department's “Special Agents Series,” which provided country- and region-level information about trade and investment opportunities and strategic advice about getting things done on the ground in specific countries (e.g., Halsey 1918; Shurz 1921). The department's special agents crossed between government and academic work; some, like William Lytle Shurz, wrote textbooks on their regions of expertise (e.g., Shurz 1941). Shurz, who went on to serve on the faculty of the Thunderbird School of Global Management soon after its founding in the wake of the Second World War, embodies the dovetailing of scholarly specialist area knowledge with the institutionalization of business training in the academy (e.g., Whitaker 1942).4

The transformation of the field of business training intensified in the decades after the war: from the rather vocational and déclassé sense of the enterprise in the early 20th century—focused on producing employees with functional competence in, say, accounting—to an increasing emphasis on the production of professional managerial leaders.5 The earliest IB concentrations in U.S. business schools date to the post–WWII years, with programs established at Columbia (1956), Indiana (1959), Harvard (1961), and NYU (1963; Robock 2003). As a component of the professionalization of U.S. business training, these programmatic developments reflect the geopolitics and political economy of the postwar period and the strategic interest of the United States in shaping the economic recovery of regions affected by the war. Initiatives such as the Economic Cooperation Authority, established under the Marshall Plan, facilitated interactions between European economists and U.S. business faculty and helped routinize and broaden international perspectives and expertise in U.S. business programs (Fayerweather 1994).

Another crucial initiative was the American Universities Field Service (AUFS) program. Established in 1951 as an extension of the work of the Institute of Current World Affairs, the AUFS was intended “to give young men of promise an opportunity to study, firsthand, foreign areas about which there is a general lack of knowledge in this country” (California Institute of Technology n.d.). With the participation of institutions such as Brown University, the California Institute of Technology, Carleton College, Harvard Business School, the University of Kansas, Stanford University, Tulane University, and the University of Washington, an early report announced,

The field staff is expected to be built up to a strength of some 20 men. These men will prepare regular reports for the staffs of cooperating institutions, and will be available for consultation by visiting professors and graduate students. Each man will return home every 2 years, and will visit the campus of each participating institution to take part in seminars, faculty discussions and conferences, give lectures and meet with local bankers, businessmen, and journalists. As the plan expands this will mean that four or five field men will be visiting each university each year, to expand and enrich the university's existing courses of instruction with their direct reports on conditions in various sections of the world. [California Institute of Technology n.d.]

AUFS reports were taken up in business-school classrooms, where they served as the basis for case studies (Fayerweather 1994:3).

The founding in 1958 of the Academy of International Business and the debut of the Journal of International Business Studies (1969) gave further scholarly coherence to the field, indexing an increasingly felt need for professionalized experts with international knowledge. As embodied by “special agents” like Schurz or the intrepid “field men” of the AUFS, this expertise stemmed from classical area-studies scholarship: that of “country hands” leveraging a detailed knowledge of place (including linguistic competence) to produce reports of strategic relevance for business practices. This was echoed in corporate organizational structures, in which international posts were typically staffed by managers with long-term connections to specific foreign countries. Although these posts are remembered today as dead-end middle-management positions, there was a sense that “our man in Buenos Aires” was an adept of the place, with deep knowledge deriving from long-term personal immersion.

CIBER-business and the global order

The push toward IB gained additional momentum in the 1980s, spurred—goes the story—by the challenges to U.S. international competitiveness posed by the rise of Japanese manufacturing. James P. Womack et al. (1990) report on a study, begun in 1984, of Japanese “lean production” techniques that cast them as revolutionizing global industry and concluded that the United States needed to learn the Japanese (or, at least, the Toyota) way if it wanted to avoid being left behind as a global competitor. IB textbooks similarly cast the period as one of an epochal shift in which the intensifying global economy exhausted settled patterns of international business behavior (Bartlett et al. 2004). The rise and consolidation during the 1980s of global “free market fundamentalism,” spurred by shifting policy priorities at the IMF and World Bank as well as by a series of “structural adjustment policies” implemented in developing nations, facilitated and in many ways compelled the increasingly routinized engagement of U.S. capital across the world (e.g., Harvey 2005; Stiglitz 2003). This emergent reframing of the international space of capitalism had the effect of establishing international engagement as an inevitable component of business practice and thereby created a new conceptualization of risk and a requirement for its management across physical and cultural space.

One index of the perceived critical need for the retooling of U.S. business training in view of a new landscape of global capitalism was the addition of U.S. federal funding in support of IB education. By the late 1980s, U.S. business schools were competing for federal support to establish CIBERs: Centers for International Business Education and Research dedicated to fostering international business competitiveness. The CIBER program was constituted in 1988 through an amendment to Title VI, Part B of the Higher Education Act of 1965: that is, as a component of the congressional act that also provides National Resource Center and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding. With average annual awards of $386,000 supporting faculty and curriculum development, international business research, and outreach to U.S. businesses at more than 30 centers around the country, the CIBER program constitutes a significant effort to routinize the production and application of international knowledge in business training and practice.

That the institutional “slot” for this initiative is the administrative home for the federal area-studies project—itself an effort to harness the production and circulation of knowledge about international spaces to the perceived national interests of the United States—is telling. The alignment of IB training with area studies certainly reflects the earlier characteristics of international business knowledge concentrated in country hands. However, over the course of the 1980s, the texture of international expertise was changing under the ascendant frame of “globalization.” Here the development of international business knowledge mirrors the vicissitudes of area studies within a self-consciously global order (cf. Dirlik 1999; Escobar 1995; Guyer 2004; Pletsch 1981; Rafael 1994; Szanton 2004).

An influential 1983 Harvard Business Review article by Theodore Levitt, called “The Globalization of Markets,” is representative of the discussion at the time. Levitt saw the rapid juxtaposition and transformation of cultures and, in language that echoes research in the social sciences, identified a dawning ecumenical modernity in which successful firms would develop and market products standardized to emerging global norms. The challenge to business was to think beyond national frameworks and innovate for a global market.

Two decades later, this vision of global standardization (like the envisioned ecumene of some of the social science literature of globalization) is widely considered to be inadequate (e.g., Bartlett et al. 2004). Spurred, I suspect, by a combination of three factors (the standardized vision of the world was empirically limited to start with; the business opportunities for the standardized model predicted by Levitt were quickly limited by expanding competition and narrowing margins; and the shape of neoliberal capitalism emergent in the 1980s and 1990s created new kinds of flexibility facilitating localization), focus is intensifying on regional and cultural differences and on the need to balance standardization with localization in international business endeavors.

The details of the shift are cast with different nuances by different scholars. Pankaj Ghemawat (2007) writes of semiglobalization; Alan M. Rugman and Alain Verbeke (2004) argue that regional units of analysis (defined by geographical and cultural proximity), rather than “globalization,” better fit the actual business activities of multinational enterprises. Christopher A. Bartlett et al. (2004) suggest four “evolving” stages of internationalization: “international mentality,” “multinational mentality,” “global mentality” (here they reference Levitt), and “transnational mentality.” This current business mentality is a strategic response to “countervailing forces of localization” and reassertions of “national preferences” that emerged in response to the powerful threat of global homogenization made patent over the 1980s (Bartlett et al. 2004:10ff.). But all of these discussions in IB reflect a growing preoccupation with international difference of a finer grain than the imagined ecumene of the late 20th-century globalization literature. The theme of the 2007 Annual Meetings of the Academy of International Business reflected this: “Bringing the Country Back In.”

Of course, in the context of MBA education, especially, this is not a return to the in-depth local knowledge of the classic area hands. The Shurz of the 21st century is meeting a different need than his or her predecessor. The challenge, as Bartlett et al. frame it, is “for companies to become more responsive to local needs while retaining their global efficiency … In such companies, key activities and resources are neither centralized in the parent company, nor decentralized so that each subsidiary can carry out its own tasks on a local-for-local basis” (2004:12).

This magical middle ground, balancing standardization with the nuances and niches of localization, is familiar from other discussions of the neoliberal moment. And this literature has shown that the world of such a “transnational mentality” is made rather than found (e.g., Ho 2005; Lee and LiPuma 2002; Tsing 2004, 2000; Wilk 1995). Indeed, much as the very idea of “the global” requires the cultural constitution of specific places and their scalar connections to national, regional, and global circuits of capital (Ho 2005; Tsing 2000), the renaissance of place and region in global business thinking is a blueprint as much as a map. The study-abroad experiences of the MBA curriculum are at once productive of this world and of the “mentality” required to manage it.

Coordinated with this development, then, is a change in the sort of business subject required to work in this newly apprehended global environment. Of particular note is a change in the status of the expatriate manager. The position is still crucial, but it is no longer considered a dead-end career move, nor is it considered the exclusive organizational locus of international knowledge. The trend, instead, is for a saturation of international competencies across the management hierarchy. Alongside CEOs, “parachuting in” to close deals and evaluate performance, and in place of highly specialized expatriate managers, a wide range of mid- and lower-level managers are increasingly expected to be involved in international activities in a range of places. In this view, all business is international, and the core competencies of any MBA ought to include the ability to work as part of business teams that span borders and cultures.

This view is matched by changes in MBA curricula: away from a pedagogy in which business fundamentals are presented in a set of core classes to which international business issues are appended as an elective or as additional themes for the final week of the course and toward a curriculum in which international themes are taught as the basic, unmarked condition of business practice. IB specialists, of course, frame this shift differently: as a tension between teaching IB as a specialized field and a dilution of specialized knowledge and intellectual integrity.6 This tension is played out within the shifting historical field I have just outlined. MBA curricula, at any given point in time, crystallize a particular reading of the exigencies of contemporary capitalism: the managerial subjects required and the curricular subjects and methods adequate to produce them. In the current moment, they are calibrated to the production of standardized international competencies adaptable to multiple local contexts. I turn here to these fundamental competencies as perceived through my participant-observation in MBA classrooms.

The art and science of management: Techniques of commensuration

A common refrain among former MBA students and many of the executives that hire them holds that students attend MBA programs merely to build a network and be credentialed for lucrative employment and that they really learn their profession on the job. These sorts of claims often come wrapped with disdain for the classroom and the insulated eggheads who teach there, who burden budding entrepreneurs with their abstracted theoretical views of the world. There is some truth to this (cf. Ho 2009). But MBA students get much more than they bargained for during their two years of training.

It is productive to look at this disdain for the academic aspects of MBA education as part of a ritual of emerging MBA subjectivity. MBAs are trained to be impatient with theory, rarely interested in contextual details of a case, and eager to pounce on the key facts, the nub of a problem that will inform and enable a business decision. The patience of scholarship, the exhaustive search for missing information, is the inverse of real-time business practice, which, MBAs are frequently reminded, requires decisions that risk resources on the basis of always partial and imperfect information. Thrift (1999) has written perceptively about this bent toward “practical theory” and the conceptualization of “problem spaces” requiring prompt action. MBA curricula, through case-method teaching and other techniques, require and encourage students to develop precisely these skills.

MBA programs, then, do more than provide technical information (or entrée to elite networks). They instill habits that shape the ways future managers assimilate and act on that information. Indeed, they constitute the very idea of a manager as the embodiment of a particular orientation enabling a practical engagement with fast-paced complexity. This idea is a claim about the world and how best to manage it; the fluent embodiment of this worldview is a key emic marker of the MBA “culture of expertise” (Holmes and Marcus 2008).7 In orientation sessions celebrating the boot camp–like intensity of the curriculum, new MBA students are challenged to prepare themselves to “drink from a fire hose”: to assimilate an overwhelming flow of information. The real challenge, they learn later, is avoiding the “paralysis of analysis” (business schools have a fondness for pithy turns of phrase)—to be able to select only the details relevant to decision and action. This has particular implications for the engagement with international difference and the routinized discernment of which differences make a difference.

This hazing of excessive curricular content, 100-hour workweeks, and hyperscheduled days of classes, team projects, meetings with recruiters, and obligatory extracurricular activities aptly marks this liminal moment in budding managerial lives. MBA programs promise to simulate in crystalline form the truths of business practices. They are the molds for MBA subjects, who emerge as the authorized agents of the production of the world the programs aim to approximate.

MBAs are told repeatedly that they are preparing themselves for a profession in which they will be called on to make recommendations for future action on the basis of imperfect information. The models they work with are inadequate to the messy complexities of the real world, but they are good models insofar as following them yields positive results more often than not. “It's like high school Newtonian physics,” suggested one professor. “That's not how the world really works, but the issue is not whether it is real or not, it is whether it is useful or not. Don't prejudge based upon whether it seems realistic to you.” The development of such fictive but efficacious models, he added, is “part science and part art.”

This combination of science and art and of technique and talent is constituted as essential to managerial competence. MBAs are taught that international business compels a specific blending of these qualities. As I elaborate below, the rhetorical space between “science” and “art” marks the margins of commensurability of international experiences. Insofar as they must embody the blending of the habits of effective commensuration with the artful assimilation of the incommensurable, contemporary managers realize these margins as a space of potential value.

One habit of commensuration that saturates the business school experience is the scaling down of complexity, linked to an MBA communicative habitus emphasizing brevity and the controlled distillation of key points to motivate sufficiently informed action. Through one-page “executive summaries” or 30-second “elevator pitches,” aspiring capitalists are encouraged to create an optic of cut-and-dried essentiality. These exercises in brevity conjure a professional setting: You have been asked by your boss for your opinion and you have the duration of the elevator ride to present your case; you have prepared a detailed report and now must convey your findings in the one page that a busy CEO will have time and patience to read.

MBA programs are thus rituals of simulation: Class presentations are staged as presentations to a board of directors or stockholders; team assignments claim to replicate the fast pace and high pressure of a business environment. These are the training grounds for the managerial distillation of complexity. Some programs make use of a capstone exercise in which MBA teams manage computer-simulated firms, taking them through a set of decisions linked to quarterly reports that convey the results of previous decisions. Over the week of the simulation, the intensity of the quarterly decision cycle is stepped up: the three-hour window for the earliest team decision is gradually reduced until the teams have only an hour and 30 minutes.

Alongside these more practical features of MBA training, the conceptual tool kit of contemporary business theory is generative of other techniques of commensuration. The ‘ur concept of “market,” of course, is premised on (and makes conceivable) the potential exchangeability of all human activities and relationships. Two other conceptual engines of commensuration that figure in MBA training and in the MBA experience of study-abroad are “marginal analysis” and “value-chain analysis.”

Margin is a multiply resonant term in “business speak.”8 For traders, margin can refer to borrowed capital used in an investment or an account of personal funds deposited as a guarantee of a percentage of the value being traded through securities. Margin is also a synonym for profit—the space between a selling price and the cost of production. In all of these cases, the margin is a space of pure risk and potential—it is a measure of “skin in the game” while it also points to the anticipated, but unknowable, future state of a market transaction.

In this regard, consider “marginal analysis.” A fundamental calculus of capitalist thought, marginal analysis presumes to calculate the cost and profit potential of the n + 1 item in a series of actions currently containing n moves. It is a way of reckoning incremental change. What is the cost or the benefit of producing one more pair of shoes or one more circuit board? As a maximizing decision-making strategy, marginal analysis is a tool for managing the spaces between the singularity of a given moment of production or decision point and the seriality produced by previous moments and decisions.

Perhaps the most familiar sense of “margin” has to do with the edges of legibility and convention: the unknowable, the unusual, the foreign. Think of marginalia, the emendations at the edges of a text or a ledger book that point to meanings that escape the systematicity or commensurability of the main body of writing, or of an area that reflects the notes and calculations that transform the raw data into entries in the ledger. In all of these senses, margins mark and manage the space between incommensurable singularity and the serial commensurations of capitalism.

“Value-chain analysis” is a comparable process of decomposition, creating and revaluing singularities in the construction of commensurability and incommensurability. A value chain is a rendering of a productive activity as a set of potentially discrete processes: from research and development, through product design and manufacturing, to marketing, distribution, retailing, and after-sales service. The rationale for value-chain analysis is that firms should examine which of these activities are points of strength or competitive advantage and also assess the marginal benefits of activities at each link of the chain. Few firms do everything well, and value-chain analysis is a technique enabling firms to determine where their competencies fall and where maximizing opportunities lie.

I am interested in the concept of a value chain as it analytically decomposes what may be a more integrated productive process. Realignments of business activities may include selling or acquiring part of a business, redirecting efforts away from low-margin areas of the chain (like assembly plants) toward activities that “create more value”—research and development, patenting new technology, and so on—with consequences that may include closing factories or outsourcing activities. The trope of a value chain opens up spaces for disintegration, facilitating the conceptualization of articulated, but potentially discrete, activities often mapped on the transnational space of international business practices (Bartlett and Ghoshal 2000).

Alongside this emphasis on commensurative practices in MBA training runs the contrapuntal theme of the “art” of management. For many MBA students, who typically think at the margin, calculating the opportunity costs of two additional years of high-priced schooling, this art is the added value they seek. MBA programs market this value quite clearly, offering training in the ineffable: the management habitus that routinizes the seizing of singularity at the margins. In this, they enact the cutting edge of management literature stressing the need to cultivate talent and creativity and capitalize on the intuitive insights of managers (Kahneman and Klein 2010).

The art of management is the marginal quality of leadership that separates midlevel managers from their superiors: Senior managers require an intuitive grasp of problems and solutions that is not reducible to the quantitative “plugging and chugging” of middle-management decision making (Hayashi 2001). In one management course I attended, the professor referenced the sports experience of “being in the zone” to illustrate a sense of unconscious competency: a heightened functional state that transcends rational or reflective knowledge. Some management texts present this state as an alternative to a dominant rational mode of thought and action in Western cultures. Embracing your full management potential may prepare you to manage in an international business environment. Conversely, getting in touch with business in other cultural contexts may awaken a broader range of management talents than are typically cultivated in Western settings (cf. Dane and Pratt 2007). I take this explicit emphasis on personal qualities and the need to complement the inevitably inadequate models asserting straightforward commensurability as an index of the particular, flexible nature of capitalism today. MBA programs strive to locate in the managerial subject a competent nimbleness enabling capitalist action across variegated global space.

Short-term study abroad

The internationalization of business curricula takes a number of forms, from courses devoted specifically to IB themes to the inclusion of international cases in standard functional courses. Most programs also leverage the fact that international students compose a high percentage of MBA cohorts to claim that they offer a virtual international experience for U.S.-born MBAs—something of a Noah's ark of international capitalism.9 International students are urged to be ambassadors of their cultures and to help contextualize IB discussions by sharing their experiences in their home countries.

The STSA format has also become a core component of MBA curricula. STSA experiences take two forms. The first is a trip of a week or two, sometimes hosted by a foreign business school. These trips combine classroom activities abroad with visits to local corporations and “cultural” experiences of a more touristy variety. The second model ties a trip of similar duration (usually taken during an intersession) to a regular course that meets during the preceding term and is devoted to the study of the country or region to be visited. The topics of study range from broad contextual regional knowledge (history, religion, “culture” [in the sense of local arts: say, tango in Argentina]) to more detailed information about specific industries or companies in the country, characteristics of the banking system, and so forth.

Faculty for these courses often work alongside a team of two student leaders, who have a hand in shaping the study-abroad experience. In one program I examined, students compete for the position of team leader by submitting proposals containing ideas and itineraries for scheduled study-abroad courses to be offered in the coming term. In another program, the student role is even more entrepreneurial: a team of two students develops a proposal for a study tour and recruits a faculty member to lead the class. Team leaders recruit other students to the class, they work to set up many of the corporate visits and other activities to be undertaken in-country, and they coordinate communications with the travel agent.

The planning of the course is itself a performance of business subjectivity. Student leaders I spoke with seemed to take some pleasure from the competitive, entrepreneurial experience of forming a successful partnership and winning the leadership positions. One man, who had been part of a successful team organizing a trip to South Africa, noted that he and his partner had been selected over another team that included a woman with an area-studies background focused on the region as well as knowledge of a local language. Although many details of the course are standardized from year to year—particularly when the same faculty member is involved—many students experience the course as an emergent team project reflecting their interests and expertise. Most of the STSA teaching faculty I interviewed told me they have a few set presentations of their own and a list of invited speakers they draw on.10 However, the bulk of the preparatory meetings are devoted to student presentations on specific themes, ranging from contextual information to reports on specific industry sectors or on particular corporations. Like so many other MBA presentations, they are extremely condensed communications, supplemented with PowerPoint slides. Students reported that they conducted most of their research online, and the presentations I observed were, typically, compilations of data already reduced to tabular form. In some cases, the presentations are further compiled into a “briefing binder” for the aspiring executives to take on their trip. Study-abroad students also have a chance to flex their networking prowess. Corporate visits often involve mobilizing networks of MBA alumni as well as family and professional connections of current MBA students.

For program administrators, the array of courses offered in any term is a function of the perceived relevance of the country or region to IB education, the program's relative success in terms of enrollment in previous trip offerings, and concerns about providing a range of options for students. Questions of market segmentation often arise: Should Argentina and Brazil be two separate trips or one? What about Japan and China? Students also participate in this double life of the study-abroad course as educational experience and marketed product. Some programs hold study-abroad fairs at which student leaders from competing trips staff booths marketing their courses. Information about potential itineraries and business opportunities in, say, India are accompanied by music, food, posters, and slickly produced videos showing experiences from previous years. Students similarly cast their decisions regarding a course and their participation in it in terms of market metaphors. Often surprised by how “academic” the coursework is, most make sense of this hard work less in terms of assimilating information about another place than as an index of their personal investment in the experience—they speak of “buying in” and gaining a sense of “ownership” in the trip.

More than a few students set their experience against other study-abroad courses (often courses in which friends in other MBA programs participate), seen as “vacations for credit.” Their skepticism of trips to Anglophone countries or of trips that include tropical beach locales sets in relief the sober professional value of their own experience. The calculus that many MBAs reported involved assessing a destination as both a plausible IB location and one that was remote or otherwise challenging enough that they could not imagine going there outside of the structured STSA context. Indeed, the value added of the study-abroad experience, in the accounts I have collected, was a shift in the boundary of competence.

One student, who traveled to India, told me, “I might go to Brazil for a vacation but not to India.” She had gone to business school after working for a large consulting firm, where she saw an increasing number of professional activities moved to offices in India. “You expect to see this in the service sector or manufacturing,” she told me, “but these were accountants and actuaries.” She mentioned repeatedly that this offshoring had created bad feelings among professionals in her U.S. office and that part of her motivation to go to India was to “see the other side of it. I was getting a very American picture and didn't have the opportunity to talk to my Indian counterparts about it.”

Another student (who went to Brazil) told me of his experiences at the STSA fair.

My initial take: this is a glorified field trip. You see the Cuba booth and you think, I'm going to be smoking cigars and drinking mojitos on the beach. It was exciting, but I felt I really want to do something. I'm making a huge upfront cost to go back to school. I want to have something that I can at least use in a story. I thought South America was a fairly strong story because I believe that's where tech is going.

This student had worked in the computer industry before going to business school. He had been through some turbulent ups and downs at the end of the dot-com bubble. Although his situation prior to entering the MBA program sounded good to me (“I had achieved my goal of hitting six figures by the time I was 30”), he experienced his position as precarious. “I was nonbillable,” he told me. “Not being billable is a second-class citizen. They are the first to get cut.” Business-school training was a way “to attach myself back to revenue.”

In these comments, we find a reckoning of a distinctive sort, rooted in the relentless unease of managerial subjects in the new economy (Thrift 2000). The first student, threatened by outsourcing and troubled by the anger she experienced in her office, feels compelled to expand her “American” view of the economy. The second student, having experienced “cratered” dot-coms, seeks the credentials that will give him a structurally more secure position as well as an informed sense of the future of the tech marketplace, which, he has come to believe, lies to the south. With the market here “tapped out,” he told me, the BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) offer the most potential for growth in the technology industry. His trip to South America, he felt, was “an opportunity to jump in and see where the market was going to be … maybe not in five years, but ten years down the line.” In this regard, the study-abroad experience serves to mitigate risk, affording students a glimpse of the business future and supplying them with “outside,” rather than “inside,” information. Presupposed in all of this is the expansive nature of capital, converting unaccounted risky singularity at the margins into manageable future value.

The international milieu of MBA student life is another factor shaping MBAs’ motivations to study abroad. Some students spoke positively about the presence of international students on campus as an inspiration to undertake a study-abroad class. Others, however, read the large numbers of MBA students from India, China, or Korea as effectively closing off those areas of the world as regions where a U.S. student might gain a competitive advantage. As one MBA student put it, “There are so many people here already who are Chinese or Indian. They are fluent in English and have work experience. They bring more value to the table.” Because there were fewer Latin American students at his program, he concluded there would be “more opportunity for me” to pursue a study-abroad trip to Argentina.

Even as he recognized international students as adepts of international business, whose competence he could only hope to approximate in a different regional niche, this same student raised reservations about the ability of those students to convey to U.S. students the local cultural flavor of business in their home countries.

I don't think you get as good a feel unless you're immersed in it. Walking down the street, seeing how people talk and interact, going to restaurants. So much of it is—I don't want to say soft skill—it is something you just have to experience. In terms of students who come here, day-to-day interactions at school don't give you that great of a feel for how things work in a country. And what you hear [is] very stereotypical.

Perhaps as an index of “being there,” many of the STSA experiences I learned about were cloaked in an aura of danger. An information session for a trip to Mexico focused almost exclusively on the grave dangers students would face from the moment they exited customs until they were ensconced in their swank hotel. Fears of crime and of intestinal instability loomed large for students preparing for other trips as well. Warnings about avoiding unofficial taxis, not traveling at night, or not wearing jewelry on the street are good advice, and certainly necessary for many U.S. MBAs, who have little international travel experience, according to my sample. Still, I was struck by the ways danger seemed to be the defining frame of the trip. This is poor marketing, I thought. Or maybe not. While most of these trips offer comfortable and privileged glimpses of other countries—excellent hotels, corporate visits, private buses, and hired taxis—the discourse of fear and risk burnishes the authenticity of the experience. It also mutes any discomfiting sense of privilege that might taint the experience. And the haze of danger and fear that envelops this international activity intensifies a sense of triumphant capability and productive risk taking recounted at the other end of the experience. As one student put it, speaking to a hypothetical employer, “You can throw me on an airplane and I'm not going to die if I get off the airplane at Buenos Aires!”

Such survival is not an individual accomplishment. To return to the Mexican trip introduced at the start of this article, our more intimate immersions in the place occurred within the collegial cocoon of transnational case-study teams. The Mexican MBAs, more thoroughly internationalized and dealing with their own elite anxieties about safety, confirmed our concerns while also heroically shepherding us around town in convoys of their own cars, on hypervigilant subway rides, and for the most adventurous of the group, on a memorable trip to a lucha libre (professional wrestling) event. The buffer of our Mexican MBA guides constituted and brokered the margins of commensurable and incommensurable experiences of Mexico. The totality of the experience was assimilable to U.S. students’ professional selves through the staged collegiality of the team projects: the frame or excuse for many of the adventures, sealed with an all-nighter before our team presentation was due; an earnest exchange of business cards and cell numbers and heartfelt embraces at the end of the trip with pledges of open-ended hospitality (“If you're ever in Chicago …”).

The Mexico trip began in a familiar environment: a well-appointed classroom with a series of lectures by host faculty summarizing the development of the Mexican business climate. A succession of Mexican political administrations was rendered as a narrative of progress in the consolidation of free-market capitalism in Mexico. This was done graphically on a chart with two axes: “democratization” and “economic liberalization.” Taking the balance of the two as the best possible condition, the lecturer presented the political and economic history of Mexico as a series of lurching steps, not always in a straight line but tending toward a neoliberal sweet spot on the graph.11 This was, of course, a strategic rendering of the singularity of Mexican history, intended for consumption by U.S. MBAs there to assess the prospects of doing business in Mexico.

What interests me here is the response of the U.S. students to this presentation. Initially, this historical narrative seemed to greatly clarify the current situation in Mexico, and more than a few students remarked that they wished their home MBA program included a similar discussion of U.S. political history and economy.12 By the end of the program, however, this reflexive insight was lost. In follow-up interviews, students I spoke with were left with the take-away lesson that a distinctive feature of countries “like Mexico” was the tight link between politics–government and the business climate. In an inversion of the Lévi-Straussian categorization of hot and cold societies, countries like Mexico were hot societies, where dynamic historical events were part of the lived fabric of contemporary lives. The United States, by contrast, was a cold society lacking dynamic history or politics.

One student suggested (in 2007) that it would be necessary to go back to an event like the Great Depression to have a comparable view in the United States of the link between government and business climate. She stressed the vast distance between this historical moment and her own lived experiences. Her analogy is thus particularly resonant for my purposes because it simultaneously creates commensurability and incommensurability. One can relate to Mexico as having gone through its own version of a process that the United States went through previously. However, for contemporary U.S. citizens, that lived experience is radically other. For their part, the Mexican business faculty members had a different genealogy in mind: Using Mexico's record of sustained economic growth over the 1950s and 1960s (the “Mexican Miracle”), they explicitly positioned Mexico as the “China” of that time—an odd enfolding of time and space to endow contemporary Mexico with the fully developed potential expected for the future of contemporary China.

An important anchor of transnational commensuration on many STSA trips is a visit to the local stock exchange. Reflecting on his trip to South Africa, a student described a tour of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, where his group met the founder of a South African entrepreneurial success story: a company producing backfill bags used to help prevent mine cave-ins. Especially noteworthy, the company employed disabled miners to produce the bags. The student summed up the experience as providing a glimpse of a “value chain of the culture.”

We saw how the stock exchange was slightly different and what they were doing to bring in these entrepreneurs, we saw a consulting organization that was working with this lady at [the company] and how she was developing her concept and how she was employing people from difficult situations in Africa. … It's on its own local time line, it has its own local characteristics, and so that was really important for us [to see].

Here the distinctive attributes of the South African business climate concatenate into a “value chain”—distinctly South African but structurally commensurable with any other business practice. By “culture,” the student was gesturing to “the distinct characteristics of the people and maybe how they're different than some of our habits, concepts, ideals that exist in the States … . I guess when I say ‘cultural’ it is what makes their people and their heritage unique.” Viewed as a resource in a value chain, this irreducibly singular quality is aligned and rendered commensurable with activities anywhere.

Something comparable was at stake in the packaging of Mexican cultural distinction in the 2007 trip. The formal case studies we discussed were selected to showcase specific “Mexican” entrepreneurial qualities along with the business potential charted in the thumbnail economic history of the country. Recall the success story of the messenger service that renders the illegible warren of Mexican neighborhoods (places our MBAs hosts would not take us to) receptive to consumer credit and other commercial communications. The company's success rested on the can-do ingenuity of its intrepid messengers. A second case involved a company that produces rail frames for trucks, buses, and recreational vehicles. Founded in the 1970s by a man who had worked for a U.S.-owned steel mill in Mexico, the company has become one of the three largest producers of rail frames in North America. With the now-elderly owner present for our discussion, faculty extolled the company as anchored in family values and for its loyalty to customers and concern for workers. They celebrated a spirit of artisanal ingenuity, developing innovative production processes to meet customers’ needs, implying that such problem-solving ingenuity and creativity was not possible in the U.S. firm that originally employed the company's founder. These are the qualities you get, was the message, when you access Mexican (or global) markets with Mexican partners; this is the marginal value of doing business in Mexico.

For traveling MBAs, familiar institutions like stock exchanges or romantic frames like the family-owned business help manage differences at the margins, some of which they find quite troubling. A student on a trip to Brazil remarked on the stark differences he experienced between the pace of business life in Brazil and in the United States. With some disapproval, he described the “lax,” disorganized, “thrown together” quality of the corporate visits. This was unsettling for the student, and it was the primary example he offered when I asked him to expand on his comment that the trip had given him a sense of cultural differences and the different ways society works “down there.” The laid-back approach in Brazil was different from the approach in the United States, where “we're very driven here to work a lot and produce a lot.” The only exception to this impression came during a visit to BOVESPA, the Brazilian stock exchange, which the student described as “really driven.”

For this student, as for others, the otherness of Brazil was condensed most powerfully by the stark poverty he observed.

I found Brazil incredibly depressing. Such a black and white division—a horrible pun!—of economic division. Areas of beautiful houses next to favelas. … It was just crappy. You see that kind of thing and it does makes you appreciate where you live because there is no general poverty here. I mean you see Appalachia and you see homeless people in metro areas. We saw families of eight—not one crazy homeless person—living in stick huts. … You see someone here and you can say that guy did something to screw up his life, he's clearly a crack addict or an alcoholic, and then you're in a position where you're seeing—we went on a jungle tour doing canopy rides, and the farther we went out of town the more things went downhill. And you get to a point where you say I just don't want to go any farther because I don't want to see this out here.

“It sounds elitist,” he went on, “but I guess to some point you can hope to insulate yourself from that. In certain areas you don't even see it. If I were [posted there] I wouldn't take my family to see that. Or if I did it would be just before we hopped on the plane to leave.” It may be important to see such things (his analogy was a troubling trip he took to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC), but “you only need to do [it] once.”

This desired onceness is instructive. The trip to the margins confronted this MBA student with a set of more and less manageable experiences. Alongside the serial familiarity of BOVESPA and the more rehearsed accommodation of stereotypically late and disorganized Latin Americans, he struggles to make sense of the scenes of poverty he glimpsed. Analogies from home—“Appalachia,” the homeless “crack addict”—are inadequate, and all he can say is, “I just don't want to go any farther because I don't want to see this.” As the saying goes, you cannot “unsee” something. The task, rather, is to manage the singularity of what you see: maintaining its marginality as a potential terminal link in a “value chain of culture” or as an experiential emblem of global managerial competency.

Conclusion: Ours margins, our selves

The study-abroad experience as an emblem of global managerial competency is a theme that has surfaced in virtually every interview I have conducted with MBA students with study-abroad experience. In almost every case, students have told me that the greatest value of their experience (the marginal value?) has little to do with acquiring direct knowledge of a particular place. For most students, the greatest value stems from what the experience reveals and cultivates about attributes of their selves. This is consistent with the liminal condition of MBAs: undergoing a transformative rite of passage designed to remake them into suitable subjects of contemporary capitalism. A number of students told me that their study-abroad experience was a great “ice breaker” in recruitment interviews: that anecdotal information about a city or the linguistic sophistication casually displayed by correctly pronouncing a recruiter's “foreign” name, served to establish rapport in these interactions. And, as a marginal addition to the standard business school resume, these study-abroad experiences were understood to signal their adventurousness, their inquisitive spirit, their flexibility and willingness to take risks, their capacities to work in cross-cultural environments.

Recall the student who was interested in going to South America because he could “use it in a story.” “What do you mean, ‘use in a story’?” I asked him.

When you interview with people. Things like that. There's got to be some kind of a reason you do things. … I think the international aspect is very valuable and I think bringing South America to the table for me is much more compelling if you know I have some kind of an international exposure, some kind of a vision, [that] I get how things are going to a small degree down there, you know, culturally.

The nimble and artful subjects of international business, managing the margins of contemporary global capitalism, ultimately commensurate the singularity of international experiences through the marketing and the circulation of their professional selves.

Intrinsic to this circulation as constructed by the study-abroad process is the cultivation of risk. The double sense of cultivation—the nurturing of growth and the harnessing of growth to managed ends—evokes precisely the ways STSA trips to the margins are charged with a risk that must never fully recede. The high-value trips are the ones that take MBAs to places they would not risk going on their own. The relative secure bubble of privilege in which most STSA groups travel while in-country, the network of professional counterparts in Mexico or South Africa or Brazil that they develop in the course of their trips, and the confidence that inheres in the partial expertise they develop from firsthand experience of local places, currencies, foods, or other tokens of the exotic create a space of plausible legibility for both foreign sites and the MBA students as adepts of international management. Students returning from the 2007 Mexico trip told me that they came away with a better understanding of the lives of their professional counterparts in Mexico and a better appreciation of the challenges of business management in the face of what they saw as the socioeconomic obstacles presented by Mexican society. One student told me that the experience “got rid of some stereotypes,” adding that the friendly, family-oriented style of business she now associated with Mexico not only would shape how she would do business there but also would serve as a model of work–life balance she would strive for in her own career. Yet, even as they harness these place experiences to their own “stories,” taking the experiences with them as part of their professional selves, they leave aside, in the margins, the singularities they do not yet know how to manage—the things they hope to see “only once.” Although largely screened from the MBAs on the study-abroad trip to Mexico, this too was a vital part of the story told about “doing business in Mexico”—evident in the heroic delivery of consumer credit to the places the MBAs only glimpsed. Thus placed on the margins of the ledger, on the verge of legibility, these singularities stand for the promise of risk and the potential for its management.


The economic crisis of 2008 has provoked a torrent of critical assessments of MBA training and the adequacy of the curriculum and the managers it produces for the realities of contemporary capitalist practice.13 These assessments have set the internationalization of MBA curricula in instructive relief. MBA curricula have always been part of a highly reflexive process, linking a paraethnographic, anxious self-awareness suffusing capitalist practices (cf. Holmes and Marcus 2008) with the standardized production of the agents of capitalism's future. The development of the international business curricula detailed here reflects one strand of an iterative process of self-examination and reinvention in the face of the perceived new realities of capitalism.

While the resulting changes have been far from fundamental, a couple of trends appear to be emerging. One involves “if only they had listened to us” reforms: redoubling initiatives already under way in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals to increase ethics education and infuse ethics training across all functional areas of the curriculum. A similar effort applies to the MBA message that management is part science and part art, with its increasing emphasis on cultivating the “soft skills” and awareness of social and historical contexts necessary for responsible management decisions. The value of international experience is highlighted here as one opportunity in the business curriculum for students to link classroom experiences with the real world (Riaz 2009). The focus on case studies is flagged as another best practice in this regard. Alongside these efforts are trends in some MBA programs toward awarding degrees focused on “green” or sustainable business or that blend business with other professional training, such as engineering, as well as a growing emphasis on one-year MBA programs and efforts to recruit applicants who do not fit the traditional business-school mold. While these developments are no doubt responses to a variety of substantive challenges to the MBA curriculum, they should also be seen as a savvy repositioning of the brand at a time when business school applications from U.S. students are down and increasing numbers of MBA students indicate career goals outside the structured corporate paths of finance and banking, for instance, starting their own businesses.

In this environment, some of the discussion of the post-2008 MBA suggests a shift away from technical competencies and a doubling down on the cultivation of leadership talents. In the findings of one study, in a world where “nomadic” managers may never be tightly linked to a single corporate community, MBA programs must embrace their role in providing “rites of passage—shaping the values, commitments, habits and mores of aspiring leaders” (Petriglieri 2012).

I have been interested in this article in the role of short-term study-abroad courses as they cultivate these sorts of capacities as required attributes for the future managers of global capitalism. The production of these managerial subjects, I have argued, is coterminous with the production of “the global” as the grounds of contemporary business. The global is always a heuristic for what is a mobile engagement with a shifting set of specific places. Capitalism has long required the constant location of such spaces at the horizon of business as usual. The ascendant frames of “semiglobalization” and the renaissance of regionalism in business thinking are more than just recognitions of the empirical limitations of simplistic metaphors of a flat world; they are themselves generative cultural projects. MBA programs are institutional sites for the production of adepts of mobile specificity (fast subjects), even as they are also productive of the scalar engagement of places of putative singularity and risk whose ceaseless assimilation is a core value proposition of capitalism.


 The research reported here was supported by research grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and from the Research Board and the Center for International Business Education and Research of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Jennifer Hardin and Elizabeth Youngling have been outstanding research assistants for different phases of this work. This article has also been improved by the generous comments of Angelique Haugerud and anonymous reviewers for American Ethnologist.


  1. 1

    This expresses, in a different register, a point made in other recent commentaries on globalization, stressing countervailing processes of localization or “friction” (e.g., Appadurai 1996; Dirlik 1999; Miller 1995; Tsing 2004).

  2. 2

    This is noted with alarm by some IB scholars, such as Peter J. Buckley (2005:6), who see the field “under threat,” particularly in the United States, where the trend toward infusion has dulled the edge of any disciplinary mission.

  3. 3

    Research for this project has included an academic year spent shadowing an MBA cohort through courses and extracurricular activities; observation of courses and other activities at six additional MBA programs; interviews with faculty, administrators, and students from a total of 12 MBA programs; and participant-observation in conferences and workshops related to international business research and curriculum development.

  4. 4

    For more on Shurz at Thunderbird, see Arizona Memory Project n.d.

  5. 5

    The more coordinated efforts to reimagine a professional business curriculum in the United States, signaled in a pair of reports commissioned by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations (Gordon and Howell 1959; Pierson 1959; cf. Clark and Opulante 1964), build on a confluence of cultural developments crystallizing since the 1930s. These range from the ascendance of the idea of “the American dream” of upward mobility to the emerging figure of the business “manager” as a cultural type and the consolidation of cognate academic disciplines such as human relations and industrial psychology (Berle and Means 1991; Frederick 1964; O'Connor 1999; Susman 1984).

  6. 6

    See N. 2.

  7. 7

    See also Preda 2002, Riles 2010, Santiso 2003 (esp. ch. 5), and Clark and Thrift 2005 for discussions of the construction and mobilization of authoritative expertise in business practices.

  8. 8

    My comments here on marginal analysis, and below on value-chain analysis, are informed by the courses I observed in MBA programs as well as by Albaum et al. 2005, Bartlet et al. 2004, Landsburg 2005, and Wild et al. 2006.

  9. 9

    In one orientation session for new MBA students, the dean made a point of introducing select international students to underscore the range of countries represented, even asking an Indian student to demonstrate the “Indian head shake” as a source of confusion in intercultural communication.

  10. 10

    These lists rarely include area specialists from elsewhere on their campus.

  11. 11

    For discussions of neoliberalization in Mexico, see Babb 2004, Cahn 2008, Lugo 2008, and Weaver et al. 2012.

  12. 12

    One of the recommendations of a post–Great Recession review of MBA curricula is that programs do precisely this (Datar et al. 2010).

  13. 13

    In addition to Datar et al. 2010, see, for instance, Mintzberg and Danos 2011, Aspen Institute 2008, Damast 2008, and Petriglieri 2012.