“We Are All Anthropologists Now” aired on BBC Radio 4 in February of this year as part of a series that explores anthropology in today’s world. What was particularly striking about this segment was that it was all about anthropologists in business. The image on the right, taken from Amy Santee’s January 2016 AAA Webinar, shows a stack of work by anthropologists in corporate arenas – a stack that is stretching if not bursting beyond the boundaries of the image. A LOT is going on in anthropology and business.
As editors of the 2014 Handbook of Anthropology in Business, we are witness to the myriad activities occurring at the intersections of anthropology and business. If historically there are traceable lines of activity in fields of technology and design, organizational and workplace studies, advertising and market research, now there is also activity in social entrepreneurship; journalism; management consulting; service design; product, brand, workplace, and policy innovation; commercial semiotics; and cultural dubbing, to name a few. There are calls to install Chief Culture Officers in the C-suite. And it is a set of activities happening globally.
For business, what do anthropologists bring to the party? Why hire an anthropologist? Despite the popular tropes, we would argue that it is not about going ‘deeper’ or getting ‘truer’ by virtue of our exotic disciplinary ancestors. But it is about helping businesses think differently about their endeavors by providing a social, cultural lens that focuses on the social assemblages within which products, people and institutions are engaged. This lens is truly different for business and is rarely applied without the help of anthropological thinking. Anthropological perspective can spur creative possibility, illuminate markets, make for more effective teams and frame a different set of solutions.
In our own framing of anthropology and business, we found it useful in the Handbook to stress the interactivity, the mutuality of influence, and the heterogeneity among the actors. Invoking a city metaphor, we framed anthropology and business as labyrinths of the old and new, and the mixture as a matter of intertwined mazes. Heterogeneity is illustrated in the varied type of business contexts in which anthropology currently has a voice. Among the business contexts covered by authors included in the Handbook are: health care, finance, and family-owned enterprises; energy and technology; non-profit foundations and design; branding and marketing from an academic, business school perspective as well as advertising, branding, and marketing, and design from a practicing and consumer research perspective and their combination. (See Gareth Hamilton’s informative review).
The spirit we hoped to convey is that business, like anthropology, is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Business and anthropology are each made up of actors with strategic goals and interests, enmeshed in material and practical realities, built up in the past and the present. And business and anthropology are intertwined, in the corners of the academy as well as commerce.
Nonetheless, if anthropology is arguably more often good than bad for business, one can also ask if the reverse is true. We think so. As Handbook authors’ chapters made obvious, being an anthropologist in business almost certainly entails being an anthropologist of business, making one’s work, oneself, one’s position, into an anthropological object. Anthropologists in these spaces have vantage points inaccessible to others. Who else will point to the memes that organize institutional actions or inspire (or constrain) anthropological thinking and practices? Who else can contest and transform and bring anthropology in from within?
Patricia Sunderland (Patti@CRAstudio.com) and Rita Denny (firstname.lastname@example.org) have been working at the intersection of anthropology and business for many years providing cultural analyses for a range of industries, from home cleaning to global high tech. They are editors of the 2014 “Handbook of Anthropology in Business” and authors of the 2007 “Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.” Both books have been honored with CHOICE Awards for Outstanding Academic Books.