Articulating Anthropology’s Value to Business

Businesses want and need anthropologists. It’s time we claimed our skills and told industry leaders what our training and expertise can do for them.

Anthropological concepts, methods, and knowledge are currently being used or sought after in the business world, but not always employed by people with our unique training and global mindset. Ethnography, culture, and holism are hot topics, applied by management consultants, behavioral economists, and industrial and organizational psychologists to help solve workforce concerns or meet customer demands. Many businesses are unaware that these ideas were developed in anthropology and that they should seek to hire trained anthropologists—but we can change that.

We must show that we understand business norms and problems, and how our expertise can find solutions.

We need to publicize our expertise and demonstrate how our skills can contribute to organizations struggling with issues such as diversity and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and human-centered design. We need to showcase the value of our training for operationalizing innovation, to create more jobs for anthropologists and hopefully a better future for everyone.

Each of us is responsible for improving the awareness and relevance of our discipline. But how do we best bring ourselves back into conversations around concepts, frameworks, and research methods that originated in anthropology? How do we demonstrate that we add unique value, not employed by others in related fields?

Clarifying the problem

Ethnography, culture, positionality, cultural relativism, tribalism, and participant observation are all examples of concepts or practices that originated in anthropology and yet are often ill-defined or used inappropriately in business settings, without the essential context that makes them powerful tools for anthropologists. Why does this matter? Because trained anthropologists have the contextual knowledge and hands-on experience to operationalize these tools and concepts for the benefit of business, and because qualitative research skills are essential to making sense of the big data businesses so highly prize.

Strategic solutions

Bias against academics in the business sector and bias within anthropology against applied or corporate work restrain anthropology’s influence. The stereotype that academics are not equipped to deal with the pace and pressure of the business world is alive and well. Learning the language of business, presenting tangible results, referencing case studies, and framing or reframing our work in a way that makes sense to stakeholders are all ways to address and overturn such misconceptions. We need to explain what we do using concrete, current examples, and demonstrate how our research skills and anthropological perspective add value. We must show that we understand business norms and problems, and how our expertise can find solutions.

Processes to overturn the bias within our discipline are already underway, as an increasing number of anthropology students aspire to a range of career paths beyond the academy  and realize that jobs in business and industry can be highly rewarding and desirable. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has deeply underscored the urgency for higher education institutions to respond to new enrollment challenges, such as explaining to students the utility of their degree for today’s job market. Similarly, businesses increasingly recognize the value of social science and holistic perspectives in their job candidates. At minimum there is need for more dialogue and training around the diverse possibilities and paths for anthropological careers. There are a few anthropology programs that recognize the importance of applied training, but more departments need to acknowledge the importance of preparation for non-academic careers. Others require support in how to offer the relevant courses, a need that might be met by Robert Morais and Elizabeth Briody’s “Business Anthropology on the Road” workshops.

Personal branding

What can you do to publicize the value of anthropology to the business world? Try two long-standing business tools, the elevator pitch and the value proposition. Put anthropological concepts and thinking into business language.

Getting the word out that anthropologists are experts at the skills, concepts, and methods that are gaining momentum and value in the business world remains the responsibility of anthropologists.

A personal elevator pitch is a short, 30–60 second speech that tells someone about a skill you possess and how it can solve a business problem. Pitches are light on detail because they are premised on giving the listener just enough information to catch their attention and provoke a desire to hear more. For anthropologists, who are trained to see social complexity everywhere, distilling a problem to an elevator pitch is no small task.

The best pitches are conversation starters delivered to the right target audience. They help explain the genuine need for your expertise, product, or service and clarify what differentiates you from the competition. A key difference between business pitches and scholarly abstracts is that the pitch is framed around clearly presenting what one’s expertise, product, or service does, or the effect it will have, and how it adds value to the target audience or problem space. For example, “I use my cross-cultural knowledge and communication strategies to improve employee-manager relations in multinational organizations.

Value propositions

Value propositions are broader branding statements that explain how a disciplinary skill set and perspective can help solve specific business problems. These work best when targeted to a specific group or industry segment and a problem they face, in a way that differentiates that discipline from others. Value propositions can follow a common problem-solution narrative framing as a starting point. For example, a value proposition targeting tech industry decision makers (such as executives at Google or Facebook) might look like this:

Target: tech industry decision makers
Our: cross-cultural research and analysis
Help: businesses
Who want to: grow and innovate
By: understanding patterns of behavior
And: how customers make meaning
Unlike: quantitative big data analysis

As anthropologists, our approach to human insights research and analysis offers businesses a unique way to understand patterns of behavior and meaning making that differs from quantitative data analysis. For example, ethnography of tech industry consumer needs conducted by anthropologists, who use cross-cultural knowledge, cultural relativism, and a holistic approach, will offer businesses a way to understand consumer needs that is not often present in a management-, psychology-, or even sociology-based perspective. These insights then allow businesses to provide better products and services.

Value propositions move the conversation forward through positioning and perspective. Whereas a personal branding statement is about you and articulates what you do, a value proposition targets a particular group’s perspective. It explains why an anthropological approach matters to that group and what unique tools the discipline can bring to their problems. This is an important shift in perspective that many academically trained anthropologists may not be familiar with—understanding the needs of a target group and framing your pitch from the perspective of those needs. It should answer the question, “Why do we need anthropology?”

Learning (and teaching) the language

In the same way an anthropologist in the field has to learn the local language to understand and be understood by others, it is our responsibility to speak the languages and learn the vocabulary of business if we wish to have any impact. Although our goal is to demonstrate the value of anthropological perspectives for business, many business people may have a shallow understanding or no knowledge of the discipline and its terms. You will also likely need to tailor a pitch for different industries or audiences. For example, design firms may define and approach problems differently than medical research groups or financiers. Anthropology’s advantage here is that we have been trained to seek out context, to learn local languages, to observe and catalog unspoken norms and attitudes. We can apply these same skills and training to the various cultures of businesses and industries. But to craft a sensible pitch one must become familiar with an industry and its practices.

We need to publicize our expertise and demonstrate how our skills can contribute to organizations struggling with issues such as diversity and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and human-centered design.

We have strategic opportunity to elevate anthropology and prove our value for a wide variety of industries and fields across academia, business, government, and nonprofit sectors. But in order for businesses to understand our value, we must serve as translators and show how our training and experience can improve their products, services, and even their bottom line. We can all serve as ambassadors for our discipline and articulate anthropology’s relevance to the larger public.

Ultimately, getting the word out that anthropologists are experts at the skills, concepts, and methods that are gaining momentum and value in the business world remains the responsibility of anthropologists. We can accomplish this through professional collaborations with psychology and sociology colleagues who already actively engage with business, by developing partner projects with industry groups, by promoting the value and relevance of anthropological perspectives, and by training students how to apply their skills in the business world. We should seize this opportunity to grow our discipline, find jobs for our students, and make significant changes to the world.

This article is based on the workshop “Rebranding and Building a Marketing Strategy for Business Anthropology” at the Global Business Anthropology Summit held on May 28–29, 2019, in New York City. Thank you to all 35 participants for their insights and discussions.

To learn more about careers in applied anthropology, sign up for the four-part AAA webinar series, Game-Changing Job Search Strategies as an Applied Anthropologist.

Melissa Vogel is director of qualitative research at Hanover Research and was the founding director of the business anthropology program at Clemson University, where she is now a Professor Emerita. She has 25 years of mixed methods research experience in the United States and Latin America and is currently focused on improving corporate approaches to qualitative research and demonstrating the value of anthropology for business strategy.

Adam Gamwell is a design anthropologist and digital producer. He co-founded Missing Link Studios, a collaborative social impact storytelling and design research studio, and also works as a cultural anthropologist and researcher with MotivBase. He is the creator and host of the podcast This Anthro Life.

Cite as: Vogel, Melissa and Adam Gamwell. 2020. “Articulating Anthropology’s Value to Business.” Anthropology News website, July 15, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1459

Comments

Hear hear! I left the academy and worked as a senior usability researcher for 5 years (I’ve talked about this at the AAA). I now primarily teach UX and ethnography for business in an engineering-focused department, although I am an affiliate of my university’s anthro program as well. I’ll add this to the list of resources I give students when we get to the qualitative methods section of my class.

This is a great piece that clearly summarizes the current state of the field for practicing business anthropologists. We need to hear more about anthropologists working in business operations, though. Process improvement (Lean and other business disciplines) are just distilled versions of participatory social research methods. Trained anthropologists can help companies address why these tools — sound an insightful in theory, hard to implement systematically — don’t always take root as deeply as needed.

This is great. I have been a practicing anthropologist / sociologist in the brand / marketing space for 20 years and have found ways to make the theory and practice accessible and impactful. I’d love to be a part of this larger Dialogue at AAA as it impacts not only this community but the business community.

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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.