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Capitalism with a Brazilian face

A study reveals the idiosyncrasies of the national administration of companies

The globalization of capital and of communication has incorporated Anglicized words into the Portuguese language, has internationalized technology and fast-food, pasteurized fashion and brought questions and feeling of foreign cultures the radio and television music channels. Nonetheless, the devastation of the “Brazilianness” has not occurred. It remains including in the corporate world of large multinationals installed in the country. The Brazilians who work there are dressed in their own cultural background, different from the culture of the capital to which they submit, and not knowing this can jeopardize the economic success of any enterprise.

After fifteen years of research into national, multinational and State companies, six of them with financial assistance from FAPESP, the anthropologist Guillermo R. Ruben has concluded that companies are not metal boxes, impermeable to the Brazilian way of doing things. Ruben is the coordinator of the project Brazilian Entrepreneurial Cultures: a Comparative Study of Public, Private and Multinational Companies which today involves almost one hundred researchers from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), with ramifications for the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES), the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) and the School of Administration of the State of São Paulo (EAESP), and of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV).

The thematic project was inspired by research carried out by Ruben in 1987 , at a bi-national company, of Brazilian and Argentinean capital. “The company had everything: capital, technology and educated personnel and stripped off of the prejudice that exist between Brazilians and Argentineans”, tells the anthropologist, he himself having been born in Argentina and naturalized Brazilian. Nevertheless, there was a disagreement with one detail: the Brazilians wanted to install the factory in Alphaville in the district of Barueri, and the head office on Paulista Avenue – an address taken by the “locals” as an icon of success, as a showroom for the company. The Argentineans wanted to keep the office and the factory together.

“It seems to be a silly discussion, but its motivation was subconscious and cultural”, explains the anthropologist. In Brazil, slavery inheritance isolated the manual work, the shop floor and capital. “Until today, our work matrix very clearly separates out the the slaves and the masters”, he says, In Argentina, where slavery was abolished seventy years before Brazil, and had little economic influence, the reference is something else. “The wealth of the neighboring country lay in cattle, which didn’t need a large work force, depending more on the keen eye of the rancher”, he observes.

It was the first piece of work carried out by Rubens using the traditional theoretical techniques of anthropology – those used to analyze primitive societies – within a modern society. From that moment up to now, currently as the coordinator of a multidisciplinary team from Unicamp, the anthropologist has seen the project expand into the work relationships of large, small, State and private companies.

Brazilian aspects
In 1996, FAPESP began to finance the thematic project of the Unicamp, EAESP and UFF researchers. The project proposed to “characterize typical Brazilian behavior capable of influencing management and the development of the company’s productive process of any kind in the country, and to map out similarities and differences between public, private and multinational companies that operate in Brazil”.

Anthropology is takes no generalizations. The “local” cultural components observed in the studied companies are considered to be only in that universe. Since the techniques used by the team to analyze the companies come from ethnology, the researchers insist that each case is unique. However, the coordinator of the project managed to point out “Brazilian social processes”, common to the researched cases. One of them is the way of dealing with power and hierarchy: the Brazilians constantly build and re-build the rules, in opposition to more rigid entrepreneurial cultures such as German, Japanese or even American.

“This fact very often disorientates foreigners and is a permanent source of conflict”, says Ruben. In the same way, there is a tendency for the Brazilians, in the work environment, to avoid conflict instead of solving it. The researchers also observed, in Brazilian companies, a greater tendency to “listen” to the outside, but an equally high predisposition to minimize the contribution of another.

“The company is run by a culture, not only y profit margins”, asserts the anthropologist. The project’s research core certainly confirmed this affirmation. After the tiresome work of getting close to companies, today’s research involves a reasonably sized universe of companies of diverse profiles.

Brazil and Japan
For example, one of the pieces of research was carried out at the Banco América do Sul ( South America Bank), founded by the Brazilian-Japanese community in the 40’s. The financial institution, run by Japanese born in Brazil, attempted to superimpose Japanese culture on Brazilian culture. It was a form of maintaining untouched the ritual universe of Japanese entrepreneurial culture, which involved and directed only Japanese descendants (40%) and excluded the Brazilians (60%). “The problem with the bank was not financial, but one of two cultures in shock” declares the anthropologist.

The cultural conflicts were responsible for an immense crisis in its administration. The division between the Japanese and the Brazilians, in the minimum, made consensus decisions more difficult, which for the Japanese is fundamental. The bank ran into difficulties because of this. Before finally going bankrupt, it went through a small growth phase when it recognized its error and had attempted to include the 60% into its entrepreneurial rituals. “But it was too late”, adds Ruben.

The results of field studies show that it is a management error to import administration models. “They have nothing to do with our style of life”, explains the researcher. Cultural conflict has ended up being the major culprit for the downfall of associations of national capital with foreign companies. “We don’t have very precise statistics, but we calculate that 90% of the joint ventures constituted in Brazil have not worked out”, he says . Take for example the case of Gevisa (an association between General Electric, Villares and the Safra Bank during the 80’s and 90’s) and the doomed experience of Autolatina.

The differences – the research derived from the thematic project demonstrate – are also regional. The anthropologist Kátia Muniz from Unicamp researched two factories belonging to the same Dutch company, one n the town of Vinhedo (SP) and the other in Recife (PE). The intention was to compare, within the two, power and hierarchy relationships and principally the relationship between men and women in the working environment.

Sexual harassment
Contrary to what common sense might suppose, the anthropologist verified that the relationship between men and women in the Recife factory was one of cooperation; in Vinhedo of complete hostility. “In Pernambuco, a State considered to be chauvinist , the men were more considerate and cooperative towards women”, tells Ruben. “In Vinhedo, on the contrary, there was a very strong relationship of male domination over the women, which bordered on sexual harassment”, he tells.

The anthropologist Alcides Guczi, on researching two Spanish companies, Telefônica and the Banespa/Santander Viscaya Bank, with the objective of understanding “the re-conquest of Latin America by the Spaniards”, ran up against another cultural variable: there is a well rooted culture of the workers in the ex-State companies, which had an almost family relationship with their employees before privatization. The Spanish style of management, as well as creating internal conflict, generated a personnel restructuring of the remaining workers. The “Banespa bank culture”, already under threat from Federal interference in the bank, was simply “obliterated” with its privatization to Santander.

To have been an employee of the Banco do Brasil was also almost a lifetime project. The attack of the Federal government on the bank staff produced a summation of personal dramas, according to research carried out by Lia Caravaglio Rodrigues of Unicamp. “The policies towards public companies change according to the government – and this was one of the bloodiest in the world regarding State companies”, attests Ruben. According to Lia, the Voluntary Dismissal Plan (PDV in the Portuguese acronym) of 1995 close to 13,500 employees left from a total of some 107,000. Over the following two years a further 29,611 quit. “By the end of 1997,a reduction of 42,980 employees had occurred, or around 37% of the total that had existed in December 1994”, the anthropologist explains.

The change of policy by the State in relation to the company produced suicides, alcoholism and segregation. “All of the metaphors used by the bank’s employees falimy related”, tells Ruben. “I dedicated my life to the bank and was betrayed by it” – this was the most common complain of the frustrated ex-employees, victims of the breaking of the pattern of the relationship between the government and the State financial institution. In Lia’s opinion, in the year after the Voluntary Dismissal Plan – a process that had little of volunteer – twenty cases of suicide were registered (eight of them related to debts with the bank itself, four during the PDV and eight after the PDV). Not quantified, but included in the research – which is offered as a qualitative analysis – are the cases of alcoholism, heart attacks, suicide threats, depression and dismissal for the repetitive stress injuries (RSIs).

Furthermore, technological innovation is an imposition of a cultural standard – and, to a certain extent, there are problems in the incorporation of new technologies both on the part of the company and the employees. This is what the anthropologists verified in another piece of research of the thematic project, into which were incorporated Jacques Wainer (Sciences and Computing) and the political scientist Tom Dwyer, both from Unicamp. Companies, in search of productivity, bought excessive and inappropriate technology. The employees, for their part, resisted the substitution of an interpersonal relationship in their work for an impersonal one, carried out by a machine.

In Brazil, the study of complex organizations (companies and non-governmental organizations) through anthropology carried out by the team coordinated by Guillermo Ruben is pioneer. The team has kept in touch with abroad , according to the anthropologist, where there are similar studies, though small in number, in England, in the United States and in France. Today, the anthropology of organizations is recognized as an area of knowledge. From 1996 onwards, Unicamp adopted an optional discipline in the course of Social Sciences denominated the Anthropology of Organizations. The UFES started offering it in 1998.

For Guillermo Ruben, the result of the work of Unicamp’s Research Group into Entrepreneurial Cultures – studies in companies, dissertations and doctorate theses on the question and the recognition that complex organizations can be the object of an anthropological study – has gone beyond his expectations. And this comes from three great difficulties. The first of them was that of the adaptation of classical concepts of anthropology to the modern world. “We never gave up on the classical concepts of culture, myth, family relationships, kinship, representations and gender”, he explains. The second was to face the reaction of anthropology colleagues. “They didn’t get as far as being hostile, but were skeptical”, details Ruben. The final one was that of convincing the companies that anthropologists could carry a role of studying the interpersonal relationships between their employees.

Having overcome the difficulties, and now with the recognition of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology, the group that took on the challenge of researching work relationships as they might investigate an indigenous community – with the conviction that, whatever the human grouping might be, the relationships are given by cultural matrices – went on to name the specialty as Ethnography of Capitalism.

In the conception of Ruben, this branch of knowledge could be very useful for companies to understand their internal difficulties. “We’re worried about this because the weakening of companies would lead to the impoverishment of Brazil”, says the anthropologist. The concept that the company is a cultural creature, which is alive and is organized through local standards, is being assimilated, on the cost of management failures by some multinational companies. The executive-manager of previous times was a foreigner who had no commitment to the country, who stayed here for a few years, lived in ghettos, financially made a nest egg and would return to his place of origin. Today, there is a greater and greater number of Brazilians commanding companies in Brazil that have been set up with foreign capital.

The project
Brazilian Entrepreneurial Cultures: Comparative Study of Public, Private and Multinational Companies (nº 95/00439-2); Modality Thematic project; Coordinator Guilhermo R. Ruben – Philosophy and Human Science Institute of Unicamp; Investment R$ 161,592.50