The Strength of Anthropology

Deciphering the Enigma of Social and Cultural Mechanisms

Anthropologists are still asked to resolve human problems as if there were some miracle solution… Anthropological answers are much more modest and often more effective.
I still remember one of the first questions I was asked by a company manager. It was in the early 1970s, when he learned that I was a young anthropologist, he wanted to know whether I could stop a strike. This question does not mean much from an anthropological point of view. It presupposes that the employees or consumers are passive and can be manipulated as desired. However, individuals and social groups are active agents, and they reinterpret what other actors seek to make them do. Some conform to the will of others, and others resist and transform the plans which certain actors have for them. The success or failure of a strike does not depend on a secret an anthropologist could discover but on the balance of power between actors within an organization. The anthropologist uncovers this balance of power.

Between 1971 and 1975, I was an assistant at the Ecole supérieure d’agriculture (Higher Agricultural College) of Antananarivo in Madagascar. I carried out my PhD research on a rural development project that aimed to increase the rice yields of the small farmers of the high lands of Madagascar. To do this, it was necessary to switch from planting rice in a nonlinear manner to planting it in a line. This new practice allowed for the use of a rotary hoe that would be pushed by local men, making it possible to weed the rice fields more quickly and hence increase their yield. The local women were strongly opposed to this new technology. Agricultural engineers on the project thought that the women’s “conservative character” could explain this opposition. As an anthropologist, I carried out an investigation on the Madagascan small farmers: Before the introduction of this new technology, it was the women who planted the rice in a scattered manner and weeded by hand, in return for a monetary payment. The introduction of the rotary hoe made them lose half of their annual monetary revenues. The women had good reasons to refuse the new technology.

Observation of facial treatment from Shanghai L’Oreal survey 2011.Dominique Desjeux

Fifty years later, I realize that, while the questions are perhaps not entirely the same, anthropologists are still asked to resolve human problems as if there were some miracle solution, a secret making it possible to manipulate people, whether to improve their lot or to harm them. Anthropological answers are much more modest and often more effective.

The job of a business anthropologist involves mediating between actors who do not have the same interests, assets, constraints, or understandings of the activities that need to be carried out collectively. This job consists of looking for the logic of the action of different actors. This logic may often seem irrational from an economic, technical or biological point of view. The anthropologist is something like a detective who is confronted with an enigma that has to be solved in order to make living equitably and efficiently in society a possibility.

Today, I work in France, China, the United States, Brazil, Africa, and Europe for private companies, administrations, and NGOs. The enigmas that I am tasked with resolving have to do with the daily lives of consumers. The companies of today, like the development projects I worked on in Africa yesterday, always hope to find the “secret” to advertising communication that will give the product an air of enchantment and persuade consumers to buy it. However, the investigations I carry out for private companies show that this enchanted advertising has little effect if the material, social, or symbolic constraints of the consumer are too strong; if the product offered does not solve a problem of daily life; or if the new product on offer is not “embedded” in the functionality and changes of society.

2006, Shengdu velo in China. Dominique Desjeux

In the investigations on make-up in China that I have carried out for French companies such as L’Oréal and Chanel, I was able to elucidate an enigma, which was that the development of the use of make-up was strongly linked with a change in society. The emergence and development of divorce. In fact, in China, as in numerous traditional societies, as well as in rural societies in which I have worked in Africa and in which there is very little make-up, it is believed that the woman should produce children and that she should work in the fields. In urban societies, a woman’s body changes in meaning. It becomes an “aesthetic asset” that needs to be maintained due to the risk of divorce, which could leave a woman without a partner. Maintaining one’s beauty means preserving one’s value on the “matrimonial market.” The make-up market, therefore, is not just a market of individual pleasure. It is the result of changes in society and the effects of social class, generation, gender, ethnicity, and religious or political culture.

In practice, it is just as difficult to get companies to accept this comprehensive approach to the behavior of consumers as it is to gain acceptance from academics, who would prefer an approach denouncing the domination of women. It is an approach that deconstructs the individualistic discourse of marketing to reveal societal dimensions and collective values.

Discovering what is hidden from actors’ view is the basic job of the anthropologist. Each actor holds some of the pieces of the puzzle participating in how family, village, district, organization, or society function. The purpose of the anthropologist is to carry out analysis in a comprehensive manner, simultaneously considering the practices, the interests and the meanings each actor gives to their action in order to convey underlying social mechanisms. These social mechanisms often relate to an invisible field of forces and to implicit cultural models anchored in locations and in items that circulate in a monetary or non-monetary manner.

Dominique Desjeux is emeritus professor of anthropology at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University, USPC) and is an international consultant.

Cite as: Desjeux, Dominique. 2017. “The Strength of Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.695

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.