Business Anthropology Comes of Age

Business anthropology is leading a future direction for anthropology and is asserting itself on the global stage. While its origins date to the 1930s (Jordan 2013, 9-22), business anthropology gained traction in the 1980s and ‘90s. Business anthropology is again on the rise: More companies are hiring anthropologists and the pace and volume of scholarly publications is growing. Today, business anthropologists work in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and contribute to economic development globally. Where it is taught, business anthropology educates students about the culture of work and exchange, advancing cross-cultural understanding.

Why business anthropology now?

The increased complexity of many businesses makes anthropological approaches to business vital. In a 2014 global study of 1,500 CEOs conducted by IBM, 80 percent responded that addressing increased complexity was their first concern and prioritizing a customer focus was paramount. Yet, the “human element” was puzzling to these CEOs. Humanistic approaches complement data analytics and help companies understand what can appear to be irrationality among customers and employees (Madsbjerg and Rasmussen 2014). Anthropologists’ ability to look beneath surface behavior and uncover apparent irrationality in cultural practices using ethnography and anthropological theory holds special appeal for business. Anthropological methods and theory find application in a wide range of business operations, including management, product innovation, design, marketing and consumer behavior, advertising, organizational culture, technology, and sustainability. Anthropologists help firms understand their customers, partners, suppliers, and organizations better. Corporations such as Google, Intel, American Eagle, ADP, and IBM recognize staff anthropologists’ contributions; Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup, Nissan, and Mars, among others, hire anthropologists as consultants; advertising agencies and design firms employ anthropologists; and, many marketing research firms specialize in business anthropology.

Business anthropology scholarship

As business anthropology practice has grown, so has its scholarship. Newer journals such as Journal of Business Anthropology  (US-based) and International Journal of Business Anthropology (China-based) offer peer-reviewed publishing outlets, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference posts original articles and profiles of practitioners in its Perspectives section, and Human Organization, Practicing Anthropology, Culture and Organization, and American Anthropologist contain occasional articles on business anthropology. The Society for Applied Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association offer sessions and panels on business anthropology. The push for using humanistic methods from within the Association of Consumer Research also inspired the development of two additional groups. First, Transformative Consumer Research operates within marketing organizations to encourage, support, and publicize research that benefits consumer welfare and improves quality of life for persons affected by consumption globally; second, Consumer Culture Theory investigates consumer behavior from social and cultural orientations, addressing interactions between consumer behavior, marketplace, and cultural meanings. Numerous books on business anthropology have also hit the shelves in recent years (See http://practicinganthropology.org).

Business anthropology at the 2017 meeting of the AAA

Applied anthropology has expanded opportunities for anthropologists and become increasingly visible at AAA meetings. The Annual Meeting has tended to focus on how applied anthropologists “help solve human problems through education and advocacy.” Business anthropology has been less visible. The “Business Anthropology Matters!” program addresses recent advances in business anthropology. It will highlight business anthropology as a sub-discipline of applied anthropology that offers significant career opportunities and acts as a “voice” that conveys the capabilities and potential of an engaged anthropology. The Business Anthropology Matters! agenda is comprehensive, with 12 sessions and workshops, including an Executive Session and Invited Session.

The primary objectives include the following:

  • Enlarge discussions on the value of business anthropology intellectually and practically to a more expansive AAA audience;
  • Situate business anthropology positively within an applied/engaged anthropology that aims for positive change and improving people’s lives;
  • Demystify business anthropology among the AAA’s membership;
  • Address ethical issues in the anthropology of business;
  • Raise awareness of rewarding careers in business for anthropologists;
  • Bring valuable ethnographic accounts of commerce in many societies and their theoretical contributions;
  • Encourage the AAA to look inward at its values and aims, and outward to the business world for intellectual stimulation, contributions to society, and employment opportunities;
  • Help mainstream non-applied anthropology departments become more receptive to teaching business anthropology; and,
  • Lead to a strategic plan for improving the supply of business anthropologists and working with the business world to increase demand.

Just as business is changing to embrace the more humanistic understandings of marketplaces, work environments, and design practices, so too are anthropologists engaging with capitalistic enterprises beyond observing and recording behavior to articulate new possibilities and guide transformative action. The Annual Meeting will mark the beginning of a more expansive business anthropology movement that will provide anthropologists with greater opportunities in both practice and scholarship.

Robert J. Morais is principal emeritus at Weinman Schnee Morais, a marketing research firm, and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School.

Timothy de Waal Malefyt is clinical associate professor of marketing at Fordham Business School, and formally Vice President, Director of Cultural Discoveries at BBDO Worldwide Advertising.

For more information on business anthropology, visit businessanthro.com

Cite as: Morais, Robert J., and Timothy de Waal Malefyt. 2017. “Business Anthropology Comes of Age.” Anthropology News website, November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.670

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