Good Lab interview with Dr. Avron Boretz

Dr. Avron Boretz is a socio-cultural anthropologist, he teaches at CUHK. He's also Founder and CEO of Kaya Consulting International, an organization development consulting and market research firm. Avron is author of Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. He joined the Good Lab membership in 2015.

Grew up in an immigrant family in the multicultural environment of New York City, Avron is exposed to Chinese culture (and authentic Chinese food!) at an early age through Chinese friend/colleague of his father.

He has a genuine interest in understanding the world, which enables him to navigate between different domains from the industry to academic and then to the startup world, and more recently venturing into social enterprise too.

Avron joined the Good Lab two months ago after hearing about the news that Good Lab is known for its work in the social enterprise field.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Avron recently to learn about his work and his passion for ethnography and Chinese culture.


Avron Boretz in the field

a deep love for Chinese culture

GL: You know a lot about the Chinese language and Chinese culture. How did that happen?

AB: When I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, in Boston, I took a course in East Asian history which inspired me and a few other classmates to learn Chinese. But in those days studying Chinese was not popular in the US, so we had to convince the university to establish a new program. A few years later, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, they required a very professional level of Chinese, so I went to Taiwan to study for two years. While I was living in Taiwan, I came to realize that classical scholarship was not what really energized me. I was much more interested in people, their lives and stories, how they found significance in the everyday world, in everyday things. So I left academia and went back to New York, where I thought I could find more meaningful work related to China.

I was lucky to get some good experience in the China field and in the non-profit space at the National Committee on US-China Relations. Later on I worked as a travel writer for a couple of years, and as part of my job I occasionally led tours to China. That was great because I was able to see some of the changes taking place in China at the time. But on the downside, I saw how after two weeks of sightseeing and shopping and hopping from city to city, a lot of tourists went home talking like instant China experts. It was very frustrating to see that. The travel industry makes a lot of money by catering to consumers’ fantasies. I felt that people mostly prefer to have their existing prejudices confirmed, not to learn anything new or transformative. I needed a more meaningful challenge, so decided to pursue a PhD in Anthropology, at Cornell University.

While I was at Cornell, I was able to spend three more years doing field research in Taiwan (I had to learn Taiwanese, since many of my informants didn’t speak Mandarin). My PhD dissertation was on martial ritual and martial cults in Chinese and Taiwanese popular religion. After receiving my PhD, I taught for a few years at Hobart and Wm. Smith, a liberal arts college in New York State. Later on I was offered a position at the University of Texas at Austin, where I stayed for ten years, teaching Asian Studies and Anthropology. In my department, I was really close to my Chinese colleagues—I spoke Chinese half the day, and taught students about China the other half! During my years at Texas, I was able to often visit China and Taiwan for research or professional conferences; my life and career were deeply connected to Chinese language and culture.

service learning to bridge the classroom to the real world

GL: So you dived into the academia?

AB: Doing research and teaching young students for a living is a dream job in some ways, but as much as I enjoyed this work, I felt that university teaching didn’t do enough to make a positive difference in the world.

In 2008, I left the academic world (again) and took the position of Program Director at the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, based in Hong Kong. As the financial crisis of 2009 unfolded, the United Board began rethinking many of their priorities and programs, me and my colleagues were given the opportunity—and responsibility—to reconfigure an entire charitable organization and come up with new, innovative programs. It was at this time that I began focusing on a new set of themes, including peacebuilding, local knowledge, and service-learning.

GL: What is service-learning?

AB: As an anthropologist who often moved among different cultural and linguistic contexts, I had always felt constrained by the limitations of classroom teaching. Like many teachers, I searched for ways to bring students out into the world, and to bring the world into the classroom.

Service learning is one possible solution to this problem. Service-learning is a kind of experiential learning; but more importantly it is learning that integrates community service and academic study to foster social awareness, empathy, and concern for society. It sounds strange but somehow I never encountered service-learning back when I was a professor in the US, even though the methodology was first developed there.

During my service at the UB, I worked with universities across Asia to build service learning programs, including a number of initiatives for college students in Hong Kong. Over the past few years, service-learning and community-based research have been introduced to all of the publically-funded and some privately-funded higher education institutions in Hong Kong.

Ethnography as a tool to help us see each other's perspective

GL: Can you tell us more about how the knowledge of ethnography enables you to have an impact on the world?

AB: During my time at the United Board, I also helped to develop peacebuilding
initiatives in Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, and India. Most of those places had histories of horrific violence, and in some areas communal, inter-religious violence was still an ongoing, lived reality. I worked to promote collaboration between organizations as well as to develop new programs. In all these areas, bringing people from different communities together was not an easy task, given that these were communities scarred by violence and hatred. I pointed out that the programs that seemed to work best were those that allowed people to face the trauma of violence in a safe and secure environment, helping them to build emotional pathways with each other. I have tremendous admiration for the individuals who have dedicated themselves to achieving peace in their own homes and regions. It takes tremendous patience and perseverance, and a strong, deep commitment to a goal that is, as we all know, still distant and elusive.

GL: Was this sensitivity and close observation of people key to your starting your own business?

AB: Yes, in 2013, I founded a consultancy firm here in Hong Kong called Kaya Consultants International. Kaya specializes in applying anthropology-based analytical tools and ethnographic field techniques in support of both corporate and NGO missions. I even considers myself somewhat of an ‘evangelist’ for ethnographic research in Hong Kong these days. Ethnography-based research has been adopted by Japanese and Korean companies as well as in the West, but is only beginning to gain traction here. It has proven to be a useful tool for entrepreneurs who need deep understanding of their customers and help in designing more effective organizational models as they grow.

GL: How exactly can an ethnographic research and organizational analysis help my company/NGO?

AB: Kaya’s goal is to create a sustained benefit for organizations and enterprises, so our services include both consulting and training. Training is the great multiplier, because it enables organizations to integrate the knowledge that the consultant brings. The kind of analysis and research we specialize in has many recognized advantages, including:

  • Understanding how your ‘brand’ and message is really received and perceived
  • Product/server user experience assessment
  • Better recognize market opportunities
  • Understand unmet needs
  • Product and service design and development to fit the consumer’s real world
  • More strategic recruiting

Over the last two decades, both big name agencies and startups have been adopting these tools and hiring anthropologists and ethnographers to help them understand the ways people actually use (not just say they use!) products and services, in their natural environments (unlike the artificial circumstances of focus groups and questionnaires).

There are even conferences and professional associations in this field, like EPIC, which unites academics, entrepreneurs and policy makers.

GL: What is the biggest learning in your career so far?

AB: Probably the most useful thing I have learned is to be capable of hearing what other people are saying. To be able to do this, I had to first recognize and modify my own preconceptions and judgements. This is a skill you absolutely need to adapt successfully and understand another culture, another way of life. It is personally deeply transformative; and I strongly believe that this is something everyone could benefit from.

GL: Any advice for young people?

AB: Through all these years, I have learned to be:

  • reflective
  • critical
  • open-minded

and I believe practising in these directions would help young people too.

GL: What have you changed your mind about recently?

AB: The importance of kindness in our everyday thoughts and actions.


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