Feeding Innovation in Business Anthropology

Anthropology is a way of seeing and interpreting data, and it inflects everything I do.
When I began working as a market research consultant, shortly after receiving my PhD, I knew that I would likely spend a good part of my time translating what I do to my colleagues. What I do now—writing surveys, conducting focus groups, presenting PowerPoints to clients—bears resemblance to what I did as a graduate student. But now I often find myself in business situations in which I’m the only PhD or the only anthropologist. As a result, I’m frequently explaining the norms of these communities of practice to the other—essentially, what each group is looking for and what each group sees.

Strangely, what doesn’t seem to vary much between these two groups is how they see business anthropologists. Whether I’m talking to other anthropologists or to corporate employees, the response tends to be acceptance, so much so that the job of the business anthropologist is seen as inevitable. Most of the people I talk to have read something in a business journal or the popular press about the utility of ethnographic methods in business—and if they haven’t, they think it’s cool that I studied food from an anthropological perspective and now study it for food companies or that I studied semiotics and now apply it to businesses.

It’s a testament to the business anthropologists who have come before me that the response I’m used to is acceptance rather than disdain. But this perspective doesn’t take into account the fact that the practice of anthropology is more than just methodology or content. It’s true that my work on the anthropology of cuisine helps me work on packaged food and that my experience as a participant observer makes me a better qualitative researcher, but anthropology is more than that. Anthropology is a way of seeing and interpreting data, and it inflects everything I do, not just ethnographic techniques but also focus groups and even survey writing. And the longer I spend outside of academic anthropology, the more I appreciate what it is that we see.

One of the clearest things that anthropologists see that other people don’t is the connection between individuals and broader social structures. When I conduct research on a consumer product, I am deeply aware not only of people’s individual preferences but also how they think about themselves in relation to larger ideas about health or class, whether their thoughts about dinner are related to their perceptions of being a good parent or if their shopping habits are related to ideologies about productivity. My colleagues from outside of anthropology aren’t unaware of these ideas, but anthropology provides tools to think about these concepts that emphasize how individual choices are enmeshed in a broader cultural milieu.

Working in an environment in which most people aren’t anthropologists also means I can’t fall back on the theoretical shorthand that I could use in graduate school; I have to truly know what I mean and learn how to communicate it.
Another thing that anthropologists are trained to see is the vast diversity of people’s opinions and beliefs both across and within cultures. We learn not to assume that people who share the same demographic information or background will feel the same way, and we learn to probe on the phrases people use even if they seem self-explanatory to us. I’ve found this way of looking at the world to be particularly helpful in both the interviews I conduct and the surveys that I write and analyze. A survey is better when you don’t assume that everyone who takes it agrees on what the words “innovative” or “progressive” mean. And you don’t need to be working with ethnographic methods or the topics you researched for your dissertation for that perspective to be helpful (though of course there’s an added richness when you do).

Finally, perhaps the most powerful thing that anthropologists see when they work in business is simply the diversity of human opinion all the time. A facet of applied anthropology that is often overlooked is that being an applied anthropologist can actually lead one to be a better anthropologist. Practicing anthropology means exactly that—I’m constantly doing it—and as a result I’m able to see patterns across the people I talk to or the research methods I propose. Working in an environment in which most people aren’t anthropologists also means that I can’t fall back on the theoretical shorthand I could use in graduate school; I have to truly know what I mean and then learn how to communicate it. For instance, I often find myself wanting to tell people that we’re looking at a great example of neoliberal subjectivity, but in the context of my job I have to know what I really mean by that. (This is an especially important reminder since anthropologists don’t always mean the same thing when we say those words either.)

As a result, seeing like an anthropologist has started to mean something a little different to me as I’ve progressed in my career. It still means that I’m uncovering the codes by which people live their lives and seeing how big societal concepts manifest themselves in daily interactions. But increasingly it means understanding what anthropology can bring to business and the other way around. Above all, it means seeing things from multiple perspectives and translating between communities—a job that anthropologists often think of ourselves as doing anyway.

Amy Lasater-Wille is senior research manager at Insight Strategy Group. She earned her PhD at NYU, where she also serves as adjunct faculty in business.

Cite as: Lasater-Wille, Amy. 2018. “Feeding Innovation in Business Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, May 1, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.827

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