Anthropology for the Planet

Partnering with business for sustainability.

Although the US federal government under the Trump administration is working to roll back the Environmental Protection Agency and withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, there is hope. An impressive array of US corporations, institutions, and sub-federal governments are stepping up to affirm their commitment to environmentally sustainable practices and policies. In the business world, growing numbers of corporations are realizing that sustainable practices are important to their customers, employees, and other key stakeholders. This—along with other business considerations such as reducing waste in their supply chains or staying a step ahead of new, tighter government regulations in the markets where they do business—means that sustainability can be good for the top line and the bottom line.

Nonetheless, businesses often find it challenging to envision their most opportune and impactful sustainability strategies or the most effective ways to bring them to life.

How can anthropologists help?

For many business leaders, their rising interest in sustainability is tempered by their uncertainty about how to make it work for “our business” and “our customers.” In this context of uncertainty, anthropologists can offer distinct perspectives and capabilities as partners in common cause with business. Our kit of methods and perspectives enable us to think about the challenges of sustainability in a different way. Our approach may feel “normal” and familiar to us, but it is far from normal in the world of business.

Among the many perspectives that can make anthropologists valuable partners for innovating sustainable business practices, three stand out: holistic-systemic thinking, etic-emic understanding, and critical reflexivity.

Holistic-systemic thinking

As anthropologists, we know that people, culture, and society constitute complex, organismic wholes rather than random collections of isolated bits and pieces. We see the world and the human experience in systemic terms, and we’re adept at making sense of the big picture; the fine details; and their complicated, often surprising, interconnections.

Most business leaders aren’t accustomed to looking at the world in this way. They more often excel at viewing their sphere of engagement through a prism that refracts everything into distinct verticals, initiatives, or budgetary line items. While corporations frequently celebrate their own big picture thinkers, their social structure typically separates big thinkers from detail thinkers in a hierarchy from biggest picture to smallest, all the way from the top to bottom of the organization. CEOs think globally. Department heads think departmentally.

jbloom/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This constrains sustainability. First, if businesses can’t get their heads around the interlaced layers of a problem, they won’t come up with the best solution. Second, actualizing real solutions often requires systemic, coordinated effort across organizations.

In complex organizations, opportunities for significant sustainable impact often lie in less-than-obvious areas of practice. For example, when anthropologists J.A. English-Lueck and Miriam Lueck Avery (2014) partnered with Google, their focus was not on Google’s core business but rather the social and environmental impact of the (often sumptuous) corporate sponsored employee meal programs for the growing population of tech workers in Silicon Valley. Taking a systemic approach, their team conducted participant observation and interviews with farm workers, families, corporate employees, food preparers, and food purchasers. Their work led to visioning tools to help Google and other corporations imagine future food service models that can help to reconnect these key stakeholders in food production and consumption, and have positive, sustainable benefits for the food system.

Etic-emic understanding

Anthropologists, almost by definition, recognize and seek out multiple perspectives and ways of knowing. We’re especially adept at uncovering other peoples’ values, meanings, and interpretations of the world, and communicating these to many different audiences.

This epistemological mode is unfamiliar and uncomfortable in most corporate environments. Perspectives that don’t readily align with decision-makers’ own worldviews can be difficult for them to decode and empathize with. Although business leaders increasingly express interest in knowing “the voice of the customer,” most strategic decisions in the business world—including decisions about sustainability efforts—draw more deeply and routinely on the very etic perspectives of well-paid “experts” in their industries and markets. But it’s the emic that tells us what sustainability issues really feel like in people’s lives and can often point toward effective opportunities for sustainability success.

Nicholas Nova Flickr/CC BY 2.0

One area where emic perspectives can help drive sustainability efforts is in understanding customers’ mental models that inform their engagement with products and services. This approach enabled Dan Lockton and colleagues at the Royal College of Art (2013) to help utility companies work more effectively with customers to reduce their energy consumption. Lockton and his colleagues—who are designers, not anthropologists—took a cue from our discipline, conducting contextual interviews and observations of energy customers in their homes. They found that, for householders, the emic meaning of energy use is not about “using energy” per se but more about end goals and values like caring for family; preparing meals; and creating a comfortable, welcoming home. This pointed utility companies toward new ways of engaging their customers in energy conservation that are more emotionally resonant than the coldly rational appeal of lowering their monthly bills or the idealistic appeal of being selfless environmentalists.

Critical reflexivity

In the best ethnographic tradition, our discipline is deeply reflexive—we study and question our own presence and effect in the work we do. Corporations, on the other hand, tend to pursue linear goals and embrace mythologies of their ethical guidelines and good intentions.

This mode of thinking is not necessarily the result of callous disinterest or a disavowal of possible negative impacts. Although such disinterest is a factor in some circumstances, in my seventeen years of engaging corporations, I’ve found that this way of thinking more extends from two sources. One is the daily demand of business itself, which favors resolute action over self-reflection. The other is the basic human tendency to experience one’s own worldview and ways of being as normal, natural, and good.

Oran Viriyincy/Flickr CC BY-SA 2-0

For sure, business leaders tend to wave off critiques of their companies or industries that they’ve heard over and again—usually, because these critiques strike at the core of their business models and are difficult for them to acknowledge. Telling a fisheries company about the global problem of overfishing or a chemical company about groundwater contamination probably won’t motivate or inspire their leaders. But, as anthropologists, we can help businesses reflect on themselves in ways that are unexpected and provocative. In doing so, we can help them uncover new opportunities to take steps toward realizing more environmentally responsible versions of themselves, especially in areas of practice where they wouldn’t think to look.

Partnering for sustainability

Most anthropologists don’t readily turn toward corporations as partners—these organizations are more likely to be the objects of our gaze. But this is changing.

Today, anthropologists have an unprecedented opportunity to partner with business for the common good. Yes, the stakes for the planet and society are perilously high—but, fortunately, many leaders in business realize these stakes are high for them as well. Yes, anthropologists approach problems very differently than most business people—but, fortunately, appreciation for anthropological insight in business has been on the rise for the past couple of decades.

Now is the time to apply our distinct perspectives to push corporations take a closer look at their impact on the planet, consider it from other angles, and imagine new ways to create value in the world.

Michael Youngblood is lead consultant at The Youngblood Group and a cultural anthropologist working at the nexus of ethnography, human centered design, and social innovation. His recent book Cultivating Community: Interest, Identity, and Ambiguity in an Indian Social Mobilization is a study of political organizing and change-making in rural India.

Cite as: Youngblood, Michael. 2017. “Anthropology for the Planet.” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.697


Thank you for that, Richard! Your comment has led me to discover your long list of contributions on sustainability and related topics — including your book Time, Consumption and Everyday Life, which is now on my reading table.

This is an extraordinarily smart and useful editorial that should be required reading for every single Anthropology student and all who practice and teach. It details all the ways our discipline is crucial and vital to our collective future. After struggling and arguing for this kind of engaged Anthropology for my entire career (along with many others including elders like Laura Nader) it is immensely gratifying to see this articulated so well. Thank you!

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