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date: 19 April 2024

Business Anthropologyfree

Business Anthropologyfree

  • Ann T. JordanAnn T. JordanProfessor Emerita, University of North Texas


Business anthropology is a fast-evolving field. Social sciences such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology each have a unique set of constructs and theories for studying human behavior and each brings special insights to understanding business. Anthropologists are skilled in observing and learning from the rich interaction of social beings in their environment. With methods based in techniques for first-hand observation and interviewing of participants, and with theoretical knowledge gleaned from studying human societies across the world, anthropologists are the social scientists uniquely situated by training to analyze the social milieu and group-patterned interaction in any human setting.

Simply, business anthropology is the use of anthropological constructs, theory, and methods to study its three subfields: organizations, marketing and consumer behavior, and design. Organizational anthropology is the study of complex organizations from an anthropological perspective to solve organizational problems or better understand the nature and functioning of the organizational form within and across organizations. In marketing and consumer behavior anthropology’s methods allow one to get close to consumers and understand their needs, while anthropology’s theoretical perspectives allow one to understand how human consumption plays out on the world stage. In the design field anthropologists use their methods to observe and learn from the detailed interaction of social beings in the designed environments in which we all live. They use their theoretical perspectives to develop a holistic analysis of the rich data to develop new products and evaluate and improve existing ones whether they be refrigerators or office buildings.

The field of business anthropology is difficult to define because the moniker “business anthropology” is a misnomer. This field, as most anthropologists practice it, is not limited to work in for-profit businesses. Business anthropologists work with for-profit organizations, but also non-profit ones, government organizations and with supranational regulatory bodies. In addition to working for a business, an organizational anthropologist might be working in a non-profit hospital to improve patient safety, a design anthropologist might be working for an NGO to develop a less fuel-intensive cooking system for refugee camps and an anthropologist in marketing might be working in a government agency to develop ways to advertise new vaccines.


  • Applied Anthropology
  • International and Indigenous Anthropology
  • Sociocultural Anthropology

Introduction to Business Anthropology

The field of business anthropology is fast-evolving and difficult to define. The moniker “business anthropology” was first applied in the 1980s to refer to anthropologists based in both academia and in business who studied business. Simply, business anthropology is the use of anthropological constructs, theory, and methods to study its three subfields: organizations, marketing and consumer behavior, and design. Just as there are many definitions of “anthropology,” there are many definitions of the anthropology of business.1 One reason for this is that the field has developed in fits and starts. New areas of concern have been added, old interests have grown to include new subject matter, and all has become blurred, overlapping, and dynamic.

One source of confusion regarding this field is the use of the term, “business.” While the field dates to the 1920s and 1930s, the term “business anthropology” did not appear in general usage to denote this domain of anthropology until the 1990s. An earlier popular moniker was “industrial anthropology” which reflected the importance of industry during the years of its popularity, the 1920s through the 1950s. Other names include enterprise anthropology (a commonly used term in Asia), anthropology of work (an anthropological field that predates business anthropology but has sometimes been included under the business anthropology umbrella due to its overlapping subject matter), economic anthropology (another older field with overlapping subject matter), and applied/ practicing anthropology (two fields with their own definitional differences and confusions, and of which business anthropology is considered to be a part).

Adding to the confusion, the name, business anthropology, does not accurately reflect all the work subsumed under it. While it initially dealt with for-profit business, it quickly became clear that anthropologists were studying and working in other organizational forms as well. This field, as most anthropologists practice it, is not limited to work in for-profit businesses. Business anthropologists work with for-profit organizations, but also nonprofit ones, as well as with government organizations at the local, state, and federal level and with supranational regulatory bodies. Another distinction is the difference between the anthropology of business defined as academic research on business and the anthropology for business defined as practitioners working in business.2

History of Business Anthropology

Between 1924 and 1933, Chicago was the location of possibly the most famous human relations study in a business setting in all North American organizational research. Through a collaboration that ultimately involved the Western Electric company, the National Academy of Sciences, and Harvard School of Business Administration, a research project was conducted from 1927 to 1932 at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, a manufacturing plant in Chicago. The researchers were conducting the first qualitative study of informal social organization in the work setting. Research there led to the identification of the Hawthorne effect and eventually to the creation of human relations as a field of study. It is the human relations school that gave us the concept of informal organization (Gamst, 1977).

During the 1940s, the specialty of industrial anthropology spread to universities around North America. Theoretically, the work made use of the functionalist paradigm; methodologically, it combined both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Case studies were the predominant data-gathering approach. Whyte (1961) wrote a seminal book, Men at Work, that included studies of the restaurant, hotel, steel, automobile, glass, and petroleum industries. Gardner (1949) published a textbook on human relations that was significant in the field. Other publications included studies on technology change on an assembly line at IBM’s Endicott plant (Richardson & Walker, 1948) , leadership and change in Eastern Corporation’s Lakeshore Mill (Sayles, 1952) , and informal relations on an automotive assembly line (Walker & Guest, 1952). In Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, anthropologists from the Manchester School were studying work on the shop floor with a focus on conflict and the problems of analyzing context. For example they studied the Citroën works from three perspectives: managers, the assembly shop and the machine shop (Emmett & Morgan, 1982).

From the 1960s through the 1980s, interest in business anthropology decreased in both the US and Europe due to concerns about the ethical nature of the work. By the 1980s however, large numbers of anthropologists were again working in applied fields in a wide variety of contexts. Business leaders and the popular press took a sudden interest in subjects in which anthropologists had expertise. The term culture became popular in business literature in the 1980s. On the surface it appeared that this clamor among business analysts regarding culture in organizations was largely a result of the American response to Japanese business success.

Anthropologists were now working in the fields of international business consulting (Terpstra & David, 1985) and intercultural training (Ojile, 1986), conducting research on American and Japanese organizational and cultural interactions (Hamada, 1991) and employed by corporations to conduct in-house research (Briody, 1988). The surge of interest in organizations by anthropologists in the 1980s was tied to the surge of interest in anthropology by organizational behaviorists. The possibility for cross-fertilization was great (Walck & Jordan, 1993). In the Netherlands, Tennekes (1995), Koot (1989) and others were establishing the field of business anthropology in organization studies while in the UK, Bate was defining the difference between the anthropological perspective on organizations and that of other organization specialists (Bate, 1997), and in France, Francois Chanlet was publishing on the multiple layers of culture in organizations (Chanlat, 1994).

In 1987, the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), funded from a variety of sources including the Xerox Foundation, was founded. While the work at IRL was purposefully interdisciplinary and drew from fields such as economics, statistics, psychology, and computer science, it was heavily influenced by anthropology from the beginning. The theoretical paradigm on which IRL work was based was the notion that learning does not occur in a passive situation where an instructor places knowledge in the head of a student but in a larger, interactive environment. The research at IRL has impacted anthropology and our understanding of how humans learn. The research included the work practices of claims processors at an insurance company, of workers in the communications and control center of an airline’s ground operations, and of technicians who repair copy machines. The analysis provided insights into ways to improve work performance by increasing learning of key information. The work attracted attention in the fields of marketing, consumer behavior, and product design and was instrumental in anthropologists becoming involved in those fields. In the 1990s, anthropologists moved into the field of design. The anthropologists at Xerox were influential in the adoption of ethnographic techniques in this field. Doblin Group, E-Lab, Sapient and other design firms employed anthropologists (Jordan, 2013).

World-Wide Growth of Business Anthropology

Since 2000, the fields in business anthropology have further crystallized and grown. In 2005 anthropologists Arnould and Thompson (2005) published a seminal article in the Journal of Consumer Research in which they reviewed 20 years of consumer research, identified a research tradition that they called Consumer Culture Theory (CCT), and explained how this research studied the cultural dimensions of the consumption cycle. Arnould and Sherry were then instrumental in developing the CCT Conference, first held at University of Notre Dame in 2006. In design anthropology, a similarly significant conference to the CCT Conference is the annual Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) begun in 2005. This conference was again started by a group of anthropologists to include Anderson at Intel, Lovejoy at Microsoft, Blomberg at IBM, and Wasson at University of North Texas, and promoted the use of ethnography in business.

In Europe the increased interest in the field is demonstrated by added training programs, for example at University College, London; the Sorbonne; the University of Copenhagen; the University of Southern Denmark, and Maynooth University, Ireland. Ethnography is being introduced in business in the Czech Republic (Ailová, Cír, & Gillárová, 2014) and in Hungary workshops are being conducted on business anthropology through the Central European University (Central European University, 2018). The estimates of Podjed, Gorup, and Mlakar (2016) suggest that of the applied anthropologists in Europe, over half are working in business anthropology.3 The European Association of Applied Anthropologists’ Applied Anthropology Network annually organizes the “Why the World Needs Anthropologists” event which is spearheaded by business anthropologist Podjed (see Podjed et al., 2016). In the United Kingdom, the Design Council and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts encouraged research focused on product and service design. In 2005, anthropologist Hilary Cottam was awarded UK Designer of the Year for design work in public service reform (Roberts, 2014). In France, there has been “a full- fledged development of professional anthropology” primarily in consumption and innovation, intercultural applications for organizations, and immigration (Desjeux, 2014).

The growth of business anthropology in Asia over the past 15 years is significant for the field. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences includes the Commission on Enterprise Anthropology begun by Hamada Connolly and Zhang Jijiao. Business anthropology conferences are being held across Asia. Yasunobu Ito describes the importance of Fujitsu’s collaboration with Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Hakuhodo advertising company’s collaboration with IDEO, both occurring in the mid-2000s, as an impetus for the popularity of ethnography in Japan (Ito, Japan Institute of Science and Technology, unpublished manuscript “How Ethnography Infiltrated the Japanese Business Scene: A Case Study.” The first International Forum on Business Anthropology was held at the Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, in 2010, and the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences has held numerous conferences that include enterprise anthropology, for example in China in 2009 and Japan in 2018. Additionally, Tian has organized conferences in China, beginning with the First International Conference of Business Anthropology held at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong in 2012 (Chen & Zhou, 2013; Tien, 2013) and has promoted the teaching of business anthropology across Chinese universities. In India anthropologists are pushing to increase the training in business anthropology in departments across the country. As one of the world’s largest consumer bases, India attracts multinational corporations and global business. Khan (2017) notes that business anthropologists can be helpful to consumers and businesses alike in maneuvering in this environment, a view propounded by M. R. Singh in his 2016 manuscript, “Business Anthropology: New Direction of in Research in India.”

A further sign of the maturity of the field and its international nature is the birth of two journals of business anthropology. The International Journal of Business Anthropology sponsored by the University of Sun Yat-Sen, China and VU University, Amsterdam, is the result of the work of Tian; it published its initial issue in 2010. The Journal of Business Anthropology, an open access journal initially hosted by the Copenhagen Business School, published its first issue in 2011 and is the result of the efforts of Moeran and Garsten.

The Power of the Culture Construct

The construct “culture” is a building block of theory and method in anthropology and important to the work that business anthropologists conduct. Anthropological definitions are legion but, “culture” can simply be defined as an integrated system of shared ideas (thoughts, ideals, attitudes), behaviors, and material artifacts that characterize a group.4 Culture is shared, learned, symbolic and adaptive. Hamada Connolly suggests culture “is an amalgam of historically derived meanings that include values, conventions, artifacts, norms, discursive practices, power-relations, and institutional habitus, which together constitute daily social realities for individual people” (Hamada Connolly, 2015, p. 125).

Understanding cultural groupings is a unique contribution business anthropology makes to the fields of organization studies, design, and marketing and consumer behavior. For example, organizational behavior specialists’ training is typically based in psychology and sociology. While many of these organizational specialists use the term culture in their analysis of organizations (since the publication of Deal and Kennedy’s book, Corporate Culture in 1982), the term has common usage in organization studies), they define the term in a way that gives it less explanatory power. Culture, from the organization studies perspective, represents one of the characteristics of an organization at the organizational or macro level analysis. Culture is seen as something an organization has that can be manipulated by the singular efforts of leaders. It is additive, one more characteristic of an organization.

Anthropologists, on the other hand, see the organization as a culture and all the components of the organization’s structure, reward system, rules of behavior, and goals, are parts of the culture. An organization is also a web of interacting cultures (see Figure 1) which can be internally nested, cross-cutting and overlapping, and the organization is a subculture within larger cultural units. In addition, individuals are members of ethnic, regional, gender, and professional cultures outside of the organization. Cultures are shared and negotiated, not dictated by leaders. Every individual worker contributes to multiple cultural groupings in the organization and, along with the CEO, is a “culture producer.” Power is never absolute, since subordinates create culture and hold power just as leaders do, although typically not to the same degree.

Figure 1: Anthropological perspective on culture and organization.

Another use of culture in business anthropology is the study of culture flow. Urban defines culture as “whatever is transmitted via social processes in which people “(1) acquire knowledge, skills, practices, habits, values, stories, beliefs and the like from other people: and (2) transmit what they have learned . . . to others.” (Urban, 2016, p. 323) He describes commodified culture flows in which commodities carry culture and culture increases the value of commodities. A diamond, for example, is valued for the cultural belief in its ability to confer status on its wearer. Non-commodified culture flows also exist. The assembly line process copied around the world is an example. A non-commodified flow can become commodified if it can be prevented from “flowing” as is the case with a patent on a new drug which prevents other drug companies from producing it (Urban, 2016).

Consequently, as anthropologists define it, culture is the recognition and study of patterned group behavior and its use provides a unique edge. It is a powerful construct to use in analyzing human behavior in all three domains of business anthropology: organizational, marketing and consumer behavior, and design.

Organizational Anthropology

Organizational anthropology is the study of complex organizations from an anthropological perspective to solve organizational problems or better understand the nature and functioning of the organizational form within and across organizations. While the missions of complex organizations may differ, a review of organizational anthropology shows that complex organizations face similar problems in management, work processes, and mission fulfillment no matter the organization type. Anthropologists are working in corporations (Ho, 2009), small and medium scale businesses (Caulkins & Weiner, 1998), government agencies (Neyland, 2013), military organizations (Ben-Ari & El-Ron, 2002), educational institutions, Hamann, Vandeyar, & Garcia, 2013) labor unions (Durrenberger & Erem, 2013), non-profit organizations (Fiske, 2008; Shaffer, 2008), indigenous organizations (Novo, 2013), virtual organizations (Wasson, 2013), and health care organizations (Sobo, Bowman, & Halloran, et al., 2008). They are working across multiple organizational types and amassing a body of knowledge about how organizations work. While some anthropologists are conducting these studies for research purposes, others are working directly for the organization to solve its problems. In addition, anthropological research demonstrates the global nature of organizational networks. For example, the work of both Briody (2013) and Ho (2009) work demonstrate how complex organizations of varied types are connected around the world in multiple ways. Work in organizational anthropology is not just about understanding issues internal to an organization but also about understanding the ways in which organizations partner and interact to impact communities, nation-states, and world economics and politics. In other words, organizational anthropology is also about global processes.

Theory in Organizational Anthropology Research

Since its rebirth in the 1980s and with the inception of journals dedicated to business anthropology, published work and presentations on organizational anthropology have not only increased but the topics have broadened. Responding to the interests of clients, much of the early work focused on internal organizational processes, organizational culture and change, and cultural diversity. It made use of the basics of anthropological research: ethnographic methods, the culture construct, holism and integration. Examples of the work on organizational culture change include Krause-Jensen’s study of the Bang & Olufsen company’s attempt to change its culture by focusing on values rather than products. He describes the resulting employee frustration with changes that seemed vague, abstract, and out of touch with reality (Krause-Jensen, 2010). Other work on culture change is that of Briody, Trotter, and Meerwarth (2010) who provide a history of culture change in automobile manufacturing plants, analyze the important issues in culture transformation, and provide lessons for success in organizational change through their work on the Ideal Plant Culture project at General Motors. As organizational anthropology has matured, work on processes, diversity and change continue to be bedrock in the field, but the 21st century brings additional concerns about globalization, technology, capitalism, and power.

Anthropologists are conducting more work that focuses on the large and complex internal and external environment of the organization. Baba, Blomberg, LaBond, and Adams (2013) propose applying new institutional theory to the study of organizations. They state that, “(n)ew institutional theory, with its focus on processes of institutionalization, could be an interdisciplinary approach to address major societal and economic issues.” Institutional analysis does not require the traditional perspective of a focal subject or a singular point of view but instead allows for actor–actor and translocal interactions and can reflect divergent perspectives and possible oppositional forces. They explore three analytical dimensions of an anthropological approach to new institutionalism: actors, interactions, and multiple perspectives. Three types of actors are found in institutional theory: Individuals, organizations, and societies (usually nation-states). Baba et al. suggests that rather than limiting anthropology to its traditional role in institutional research of exploring rational choice explanations, its role should expand to analyzing different societal problems from an institutional perspective. They emphasize that “anthropologists could contribute to understanding behavior by examining each of the diverse perspectives attendant to a set of actor-actor and/or translocal interactions and their consequences at various levels of analysis” (Baba et al., 2013, p. 74).

Others are working with complexity theory. For Darrouzet, Wild, and Wilkinson, “the situation of complexity needs to be recognized as the empirical and epistemological background of most ethnographic anthropological work” (2009, p. 63). Just as complexity is a diagnostic characteristic of weather patterns or sand dunes, where one cannot predict when a sand hill will start to slide, it is also a diagnostic of sociocultural phenomena. In organizations, for example, cultural and societal dimensions are distinct from the formal organizational system with its regulations, policies, and pay grades. They are the informal part of the organization and complexity theory is useful for analyzing these informal organizational systems. Sobo, Bowman, and Gifford (2008), in a study of how implementation scientists in the VHA health care organization approach their work and what issues they encounter, describe the health care organization as a complex adaptive system and explain the competing agendas of the implementation scientists and those their research impacts. “Complex adaptive system” describes a structural type used in complexity theory. Podjed (2011) uses complexity in the study of a birdwatching association and declares that the complexity paradigm integrates functionalist, interpretive, radical structuralist, and radical humanist paradigms into a coherent unit. Anthropologists are trained to place the phenomena they study in larger context. Complexity theory gives them a tool for explaining the interactions with and importance of the larger context.

New work also analyses global organizing. Extending the use of complexity theory to look at organizational action on the global level, Jordan (2011) studied complex adaptive systems centered on health care and the oil industry where the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one institutional partner. Complex organizations, including nation-state governments, transnational businesses, and supranational regulatory bodies, are important, not just for their economic might and consequent political power, but also for the ways in which they combine in intraorganizational arrangements. As a result, we experience a web of interconnected organizations all acting in their own interest. However, they achieve their self-interest through partnerships with other organizations and other networks and through adaptations that appear beneficial to all network partners. Complex adaptive systems are a significant form of global organizing. Garsten and Jocobsson (2011) suggest that regulation is moving toward post-political forms of regulation based on consensual relationships. They explain how, in an interdependent world, the forms of governance are changing. In addition to political actions of nation states negotiating relationships, transnational organizations use a model of consensus building to regulate member interactions. The presupposition of consensus results in the hiding of differences in interest and power resources among the members so that unequal power relations become almost invisible. They cite the Open Method of Coordination of the European Union as an example of this new governance process. Evidence of the same process can also be found in other supra-regulatory organizations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

Human–technology interaction has become standard fare for business anthropologists in all three domains of the field. Suchman’s 1987 work on human–machine interaction was an important early step. For example, she demonstrated the need for a simple, obvious copy button because copiers had become too complex for non-experts to operate. Batteau and Villegas (2016) tell us that “tools encode multiple cultural values, including magic, identity, the authority of the state, and class domination.” New forms of organization are enabled by the rise of the internet (Wasson, 2013) and researchers are using Actor–Network Theory and Assemblage Theory for their ability to analyze human–machine interaction (McCabe & Briody, 2018).

Work on valuation is developing out of all three subfields of business anthropology and overlaps with economic anthropology. Batteau and Psenka (2012) suggest that business anthropology is well suited to further the study of how “economic progress” has brought normative instability to societies and flexible deprivation to workforces and consumers. Business anthropology can contribute to studying this by the “development of the concept of value,” the study of the “growth of tightly coupled networks circulating not only information and objects across the world, but also value and authority,” and the “analysis of authority” (2012, pp. 75–76). Moeran and Garsten make a case for the anthropological study of assemblages of worth in a special issue of the Journal of Business Anthropology. They reflect on how humans and organizations valuate and evaluate their lives and assert that “the study of culture—is a study of the values that constitute a particular configuration of culture and the evaluations that are practiced by, and negotiated among, people” (Moeran & Garsten, 2013, p. 1). Social organization, religious beliefs, artistic forms, trading relations, and so on are all cultural forms based on values and evaluation. Røyrvik (2013) writes on managing corporate values in Hydro, a Norwegian multinational, and Ailon (2013) describes the increasing importance of shareholder value instead of profit as the measure of corporate success. Garvey (2013) focuses on consumption and material culture in a study describing the relational values and “having, wearing, and showing” in furniture and clothing, for example the relationship between Ikea furniture and H&M clothing.

Other work demonstrates the continuing viability of anthropological theoretical stalwarts. Mary Douglas’s theoretical contribution to the study of organizations, typically called either cultural theory or group/ grid theory, has proven robust and continues to be used by organizational anthropologists. Mars (2013) describes how Douglas’s theory has been expanded from a static to a dynamic model by arguing that in social units with enough size or duration, all four solidarities (isolates, hierarchy, individualism, and enclaves) are present in differing degrees and compete. Mars considers group/ grid theory not only useful for understanding organizations but practical as well, and describes a wide range of cases in which it has been applied.

Another frame used by anthropologists is cultural ecology. Organizations adapt to their environments, which are likely to include multiple influences, from capitalist markets and government regulation to societal norms. Successful adaptation to these external forces is necessary for organizational sustainability and growth. Jordan (2013) provides an example of a merger in which the merged companies could not settle on common practices because each original company was adapted to success in a different market environment. Adaptation can be used to study the internal dynamics of an organization as well. Baba (1995) used human and cultural ecology and conceptualized the internal environment of the corporation as an ecological system to study work group responses to an organizational change in communication tools and methods.

A common thread across many organizational anthropology studies is the significance of relationships, stakeholder perspectives, and trust. In work on exchange systems, the work of both Karl Polanyi and Marcel Mauss provides insights. Negotiating trust among numerous stakeholders with different cultural perspectives and interests is a common subject. Friberg (2017) describes the position of Swedish mediator companies which mediate between universities and businesses. Using Marilyn Strathern’s theory of “cutting the flow,” he studies how the flow of knowledge in a laboratory can be stopped, cut, and remade. Wan and Ip (2014) discuss how the Chinese practice of guanxi (built on family ties, principles of Confucianism and favoring personal bonds) impacts relationship marketing in China’s foreign banks.

Other work reflects the new organizational forms that upend our understanding of organizations in the 21st century. A variety of different organizational types are explored by anthropologists as they describe in Garsten and Nyqvist’s edited volume (2013) how, as researchers, they enter complex organizations. In describing modern organizational forms, network methodology looms large (Ofem, Floyd,& Borgatti, 2013). In understanding global organizing, it is a key factor. Gluesing (2013) uses it in understanding post-industrial or post-bureaucratic organizing enabled by information technology. Jordan (2017) uses it to describe a local political advocacy organization in Texas. Analysis of virtual organizations provides significant insight into new organizational structures in the 21st century (Wasson, 2013).

More work uses assemblage theory as a guiding theoretical perspective. McCabe and Briody (2018) edit a volume describing the interaction among consumers, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in the United States, China, India, Cambodia, and Nigeria. McCabe explains the use of assemblage theory to theorize culture change emphasizing agency. At its heart, assemblage theory allows one to analyze how people, objects, practices, discourses, and institutions align, disperse, and coalesce to form new, often temporary, arrangements. From this perspective, culture change is the movement in these assemblages. Assemblage theory is useful in all three subfields of business anthropology. Examples include: Delcore’s (2018) study of designing new educational offerings by analyzing an assemblage of discourses on educational equity, technology, and student and faculty ways of dealing with education; Onomake and Ejiro (2018) analysis of a brokerage assemblage in a Nigerian–Chinese business relationship; and Aiken’s assemblage analysis of the shift to human-centered design for spacecraft at the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) (Pahl, Ramer, & Aiken, 2018). Aiken documents the shift occurred when NASA focus moved from short-duration flights such as those on the Space Shuttle to long-duration flights such as travel to the International Space Station (ISS) and astronaut comfort became more important (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Anthropologist’s field notes showing assemblage analysis of organizational culture shift at NASA. Image courtesy of Jo Aiken.

Future of Organizational Anthropology

Darrah and Dornadic advocate “working on work organizations” by which they mean “(e)verything from information systems to built environments, from accounting practices to incentive systems can be the object of design, with professions and occupations testing the limits of linking intention to implementation” (2013, p. 257). This means increasing the importance of “in situ” studies, learning to conduct ethnography on the “material,” identifying, developing and articulating ideas for new work processes and new organizational arrangements, and being conversant in multiple forms of data-collection and representation including video, screen-capture software, and workshop tools (2013).

The organizational form is everywhere in today’s world. Anthropologists bring an important skill set to its study. Our focus on social processes, power, context, technology interaction, integration, and global organizing and governance allow us to provide important information about how the modern world works and make a valuable contribution to the discipline of anthropology as well as to business anthropology.

Anthropology of Marketing and Consumer Behavior

In marketing and consumer behavior anthropology’s methods enable one to get close to consumers and understand their needs while anthropology’s theoretical perspectives enable one to understand how human consumption plays out on the world stage. For the anthropologist, marketing and consumption are important forces in human behavior, and understanding these forces is essential to understanding political economy and world systems. Anthropologists view consumer behavior in a cultural, historical, and global context. As Denny of Practica Group explains, “My work is in decoding the meaning of brands, bringing the consumers of products and services to life as cultural beings, understanding the role of products, brands or services in the context of everyday life, where meaning is produced and consumed. It is at heart a cultural analysis” (Denny, 2002, p. 148)

Anthropologists working in the field of consumer behavior not only provide insights that are useful to their clients but make a substantial contribution to anthropological theory. Miller (1998) suggested that in our theoretical understanding of the processes at work in society, anthropologists had been slow to recognize the key role of consumption. Appadurai (1986) called for a renewed focus on the circulation of commodities in social life. He suggested that while the traditional focus in anthropology has been on the type of exchange, focusing on the object of the exchange allows for a new understanding of human behavior. Anthropologists working in consumer behavior and marketing have helped to rekindle the discipline’s focus on the importance of material culture (see Figure 3). As Grant McCracken (1988) proposes, consumption, from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, is the process at work when consumer goods are created, bought, and used, and understanding consumption is important to understanding culture.

Figure 3: Example of marketing for cross-cultural appeal. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Briody.

Important to this field of anthropological study is consumer culture theory (CCT). While this field involves several disciplines, anthropology has been at the forefront since the beginning. In 2005, Arnould and Thompson outlined four thematic domains of research: consumer identity projects, marketplace cultures, the sociohistoric patterning of consumption, and mass-mediated marketplace ideologies and consumers’ interpretive strategies. In an overview of the CCT work, Joy and Li (2012), suggest that the domains of research have grown and fractured since the inception of CCT. For example, they credit business anthropologists Moeran (2006) and Sunderland and Denny (2007) with extending CCT research into organizations by studying how employees, managers, consumers and others in corporations collaboratively create market cultures.

Studies in consumer behavior cover a variety of topics. Examples of the breadth of the work include: negotiated identity: Chin’s (1999) study of alterations that African-American ten-year olds make to Barbie dolls; resistance through consumption: Kates and Belk (2001) on consumption at a Gay Pride Day in Toronto; experiential consumption: Creighton (1997) on Japanese tourism selling the “village experience” to urban Japanese; localization in globalization: Miller’s (1998) study of coke and rum recognized as a national drink in Trinidad; and branding: Garth and Powell (2017) on the rebranding of a convenience store as a market for healthy foods, and Tse (2016) on the tension between creativity and money in composing text and pictures for a Hong Kong fashion magazine.

Anthropological work in marketing and consumer behavior is rich and deep. The field is a growth area for anthropologists wishing to practice outside academia. Work by Malefyt and Morais (2012) and Sunderland and Denny (2007), anthropologists who have worked in the field for decades, provide in-depth guidance into the anthropological approach. Steve Barnett, an anthropologist who has been conducting consumer research as a consultant since 1978, demonstrates through a series of case studies the unique value of anthropological qualitative pattern-recognition techniques. They satisfy his guiding principle: “what kinds of research will get us as close as possible to the client’s concerns in ways that do not duplicate the kinds of research the client’s competitors are doing” (Barnett, 2016, p. 62).

Design Anthropology

Work for anthropologists in the design field continue to increase. Ethnographic techniques have become popular in the design field because they fill a void. At one time, designers depended primarily on human factors research, which developed out of cognitive psychology and marketing. Human factors research considers human cognitive abilities and the attributes that make a product easy for humans to use; for example, if the hardware on a door is flat with a bar across the middle, it becomes obvious to the user that to open the door she must push, not pull Wasson, 2000). Human factors research is useful but not sufficient for understanding the best way to design some products. Rob Van Veggel, in an unpublished manuscript “Where Two Sides of Ethnography Collide,” persuasively argues that it is too abstract and removed from everyday reality since it is often conducted in controlled, laboratory environments. In addition, this type of research focuses on what goes on in individuals’ heads and does not consider group interaction and social and cultural contexts. Thus, there is no opportunity to observe and learn from the rich interaction of social beings in and with their environment. Anthropologists are the social scientists uniquely situated by training to analyze that rich social milieu and that group-patterned interaction.

Ethnographic techniques are not the only valuable tools anthropologists offer, however. After all, anyone can videotape consumers in the act of using a product (although not just anyone can analyze that videotape). Anthropologists offer a theoretical grounding and an understanding of the interrelationships of the variables that are essential to providing valuable and useful analysis of the data. As Wasson puts it, “a videotape alone cannot answer questions about how, for instance, particular user–product interactions are situated in consumers’ family dynamics, work pressures, and cultural beliefs” (Wasson, 2002).

Design anthropologists work on new product development, redesign of existing products and existing product evaluation, sometimes taking a cue from do-it-yourself products (see Figure 4). An example of product redesign is Von Baeyer’s (2017) study of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The aim was to aid a client in designing educational programs. An ethnographic study of refugee families in their homes and communities helped the client think “outside the camp” and move beyond the refugee camp model of assistance. Von Baeyer’s reporting on social networks and cell phone usage among refugees led the client to consider mobile technologies and social networks in developing educational solutions. An example of both product evaluation and redesign, Peinado and colleagues worked with three banks and two insurance companies to develop a new methodology for designing bank and insurance products for customers in France. They began with an evaluation of the existing bank products and interviewed individuals about banking. The knowledge gained resulted in the designing of an interactive based interface that allowed “clients to personalize their bank and insurance information, assess their overall financial situation, simulate future actions, and dialogue directly with their banks and insurances”(Peinado, Jarvin, & Damoisel, p. 271).

Figure 4: Design anthropology includes the study of repurposed objects. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Briody.

Just as in the fields of marketing and consumer behavior, anthropologists’ ability to get close to the consumer, to let the consumer formulate the questions, and to see the rich, contextual issues surrounding product use, are contributions to design research. Miller (2018), Gunn and Donovan (2012) and Gunn, Otto and Smith (2013) provide useful discussions of how design and anthropology intertwine. While ethnography as a method has become decoupled from anthropology in the design field by those who have no anthropological training and in has, in some instances, become co-opted under the umbrella of User Experience (UX) research, the anthropological approach to ethnography and theory and the anthropological understanding of context and holism have much to offer product design and research (Amirebraahimi, 2016). A synergy results from the evolving relationship between anthropology and design. Design anthropologists no longer limit their research to work on products, they design processes, work spaces, and solve other design issues.


There is substantial literature in the field of business anthropology on ethics. Examples include Beeman (2017); Cefkin (2017); Gallenga, Sampson, and Soldani (2016); Kitner (2014); Malefyt and Morais (2017); and Urban (2017). Malefyt and Morais state that in comparison to those for academic and non-practicing anthropologists, ethics for business anthropologists include a host of distinct and complex issues, many of these due to the capitalist environment. They explain that “business anthropologists work in an interactive field of consumer–producer co-creation in continual change that presents a substantial ethical challenge. Not only are issues of causality, power, and agency less clearly assigned, but also anthropologists in business are, themselves, agents of change.” (Malefyt & Morais, 2017, p. 9)

In the 1980s the anthropology community was deeply involved in a debate over ethics. Many anthropologists felt there was a dangerous possibility that the rights of the individuals who were the subjects of their studies were in jeopardy when anthropologists were being hired by clients to use their expertise to find out information on the subjects of study for use by these clients. Suppose corporate executives hired an anthropologist to learn how to control employees. Could the information gleaned from this research be damaging to the employees being studied? Or, suppose corporate executives hire an anthropologist to devise a marketing plan for a new product. Will this research assist the corporation in convincing people to buy a product that they don’t need, or is harmful, thereby increasing corporate profit at the expense of the consumer? What if this research is to be kept secret (a common requirement when one is hired to do research by a corporation)? Is it ethical for the anthropologist to engage in secret research? These are questions anthropologists consider highly important to the ethics of the profession. The anthropological community strongly defends the rights of research subjects and the responsibility of the researcher to prevent her subjects from being harmed by the research.

Today professional anthropologists operate under several codes of ethics. Those most important in North America are the codes of the American Anthropological Association (AAA, 2012), the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA, n.d.), and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA, 2018). Taken together, these codes establish a valuable set of criteria for the consultant to follow. They cannot possibly, however, address all potential ethical conflicts an anthropologist may experience. Many business anthropologists find the AAA code inadequate in creating guidelines for their work. Briody and Pester (2017) wonder why the AAA code of “do no harm” cannot be supplemented with one of “do some good?” Doing some good is an ethical guide that most applied anthropologists consider to be at the core of their work.

Value of Anthropology to Business and Other Organizations

Anthropologists have a skill set and knowledge base that are valuable to business (Desjeux, 2017; Morais & Briody, 2018; Sieck & McNamara, 2016; Tett, 2014). Some of those skills are:


Culture Construct: Discussed in Section 2, this is a cornerstone of the anthropological perspective.


Holism: A holistic perspective, the ability to see the integrated picture, to pull back from the specific problem, event, or situation under study and put it in a larger context, is one of anthropology’s most important contributions to business. Just as we understand that culture is an integrated system, we understand how issues are frequently integrated with other issues so that to understand museum attendance, for example, one must look at use of space, types of visitors, and placement of objects, not just museum attendance. Sieck and McNamara (2016) discuss how the anthropologist reframes and expands the conversation. For example, police violence could be reframed by viewing officer training as ritual or a police department as kin networks. Tett refers to this as “joining up the dots between different parts of peoples’ lives” (2015, p. 133).


Emic View: Anthropologists are trained to be able to understand the “emic” perspective: the point of view of the participants in our research, not just the view others hold of them. In organizations, we interview and observe at all levels of an organization to get many points of view in addition to those of the organization leaders; in studying consumers, we interact with the consumers, not just product designers, in our quest to see patterned group behavior. For example, Sobo and collegues studied a VHA health care organization; their detailed research revealed the competing agendas of the implementation scientists and those impacted by their research. Their goal was to understand the view of all stakeholders (Sobo, Bowman & Gifford, 2008). Squires’ (2002) research on breakfast foods for children took her into homes at breakfast time to observe morning rituals and talk with parents and kids to learn what each wanted in a breakfast food. This is the kind of fine-grained analysis that quantitative data cannot provide. We are trained to analyze not only talk but silence and not only what people say they do but what they actually do.


Ethnocentrism: One barrier to our ability as humans to understand the cultures of others is our tendency to mistake our own cultural behavior for natural, panhuman behavior. Corporations that have interests in many countries recognize the importance of understanding foreign cultures but frequently insist on running their international branches under the influence of their home cultural bias. Anthropologists have the skills to understand this all-too-human behavior and explain how it leads to management mistakes and product failures (for example, Wan and Ip on the Chinese practice of guanxi). Also, within an organization, the construct of ethnocentrism can be used to understand how distinct employee groups may have differing “ethnocentric” views of the organization. For example, Krause-Jensen (120) learned of the divide between leaders’ and employees’ views of the organization’s culture at Bang & Olufsen.


Ethnographic Methods: Our qualitative methods continue to gain popularity in business and beyond for their ability to provide real insights into consumer and employee actions and interests. They are the calling cards that get many anthropologists in the door of business. Examples of this importance are found in Butler (2015); Garsten and Nyqvist (2013); Hasbrouck (2018); LeCompte and Schensul (2010); and McCabe (2017).


Comparative Analysis: An additional important insight is the understanding of how cultural groupings interface. One of the tasks of the anthropologist is to act as a culture broker and negotiate among multiple stakeholders, for example, between a Norwegian CEO and his local manager in Brazil (Giskeødegård, 2016). In an example of sociocultural brand research, a team studying the American Girl brand strove to view it from the points of view of numerous stakeholders (girls, adult women, marketers, etc.) in order to compare and analyze their viewpoints (Diamond et al., 2009). Anthropologists are ambassadors of cultural difference whether that difference be between employees in the sales department and those in the marketing department, between technology specialists who design the company website and the less tech savvy customers who use it, or between company employees in Germany and those in Kenya.


Analysis of Power Structures: anthropologists are trained to see informal and formal power structures. Tett (2014) states that CEOs avoid the mention of power as almost a taboo. Processes of social control include clearly stated controls but also controls transmitted in more subtle, silent ways.

Tett, an anthropologist and Assistant Editor of The Financial Times, states: “the real beauty of anthropology is that it encourages people to ask the question: why? Why is the world arranged in this way? Why do we talk about some topics – but not others? Why do groups coalesce in this manner, attach so much importance to particular objects, or think in a certain manner?” (Tett, 2014, p. 134).

Future of Business Anthropology

The number of practicing anthropologist working in the fields of business anthropology continues to grow. There is work for anthropologists wishing to pursue this avenue. Anthropologists Morais (35 years of experience in advertising and marketing with customers including Procter and Gamble, WD-40, Coca-Cola, Safeway, and Swissotel) and Briody (24 years at General Motors Research and in consulting work in health care, consumer products, aerospace, petrochemicals, and aging) proclaim that “business anthropology is booming”. Anthropologists can be found at Google, Intel, American Eagle, Nissan, ADP, and IBM and at advertising agencies, design companies and marketing research firms. Corporations for which they have conducted research include Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s Soup, Revlon, IDEO and Mars. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts growth in business and consulting for anthropologists (Morais & Briody, 2018).

Examples of the need for business anthropology are found in the popular press. In an article for, Baer (2014) stated that companies were desperate to hire anthropologists for the new perspective they could bring. While company executives are great at understanding the numbers, they do not know how to figure out what is important to people in their daily lives, Baer explained. Forbes published an article by anthropologist and consultant Andrea Simon in 2016 describing four ways anthropology can help women drive change in corporations. Lidow (2017) explained that while there is ample panel survey data, there is an urgent need for ethnographic study of business creation and entrepreneurship and Moore (2011, 506) suggests international business needs more ethnography to understand “ambivalent phenomena.” Anna Cucurull (a business anthropologist, managing partner of A Piece of the Pie in Barcelona, and whose clients include Intel, Mondalez, Volkswagen Group and Vodafone) says her consultancy is growing due to the uncertainty and complexity in business. Traditional thinking just does not solve the problems (Bowman 2016).

Whether working for non-profit or for-profit organizations or government agencies, anthropologists bring every voice to the table by including the low-level employee and the isolated consumer, promote intercultural knowledge by understanding the value in diverse groups, and bring underrepresented groups into the discussion. To be a business anthropologist does not in itself represent a stance for or against business, but it does represent a willingness to engage in the dialogue about business that illuminates solutions to new problems and new ways of seeing old realities; this is fast becoming the defining dialogue of our times. Anthropologists have a responsibility to contribute their knowledge to this worldwide conversation. We champion consumers, foster human-centered organizations, and promote cultural diversity. If the goal of anthropology is to study human behavior, we cannot exclude business.

Further Reading

  • Arnould, E. J., & Thompson, C. J. (2005). Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty years of research. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(4), 868–882.
  • Butler, M. O. (2015). Evaluation: A cultural systems approach. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Caulkins, D. D., & Jordan, A. T. (Eds.). (2013). A companion to organizational anthropology. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Cefkin, Melissa. (Ed.). (2009). Ethnography and the corporate encounter: Reflections on research in and of corporations. (Studies in Public and Applied Anthropology, Vol. 5.) New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Denny, R., & Sunderland, P. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of anthropology in business. London: Routledge.
  • Garsten, C., & Nyqvist, A. (Eds.). (2013). Organizational anthropology: Doing ethnography in and among complex organizations. London: Pluto Press.
  • Hasbrouck, Jay. (Eds.). (2018). Ethnographic thinking: From method to mindset. London: Routledge.
  • Gunn, W., Otto, T., & Smith, R. C. (Eds.). (2013). Design anthropology: Theory and practice. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Ann T. J. (2013). Business Anthropology. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Joy, A., & Li, E. P. H. (2012). Studying consumption behaviour through multiple lenses: an overview of Consumer Culture Theory. Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(1), 141–173.
  • Malefyt, Timothy de Waal, & Morais, Robert J. (2012). Advertising and anthropology: Ethnographic practice and cultural perspectives. Oxford, U.K.: Berg.
  • Malefyt, Timothy de Waal., & Morais, R. J., (Eds.). (2017). Ethics in the anthropology of business. London: Routledge.
  • McCabe, M. (Eds.). (2017). Collaborative ethnography in business environments. London: Routledge.
  • McCabe, M., & Briody, E. (Eds.). (2018). Cultural change from a business anthropology perspective. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • Miller, C. (2018). Design + anthropology: Converging pathways in anthropology and design. London: Routledge.
  • Moeran, B. (2005). The business of ethnography: Strategic exchanges, people and organizations. Oxford, U.K.: Berg.
  • Sherry, J, F. (Ed.). (1995). Contemporary marketing and consumer behavior: An anthropological sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Sunderland, P. L., & Denny, R. M. (2007). Doing anthropology in consumer research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.



  • 1. Examples of definitions are Baba (2012, p. 25), Denny and Sunderland (2014, p. 16), and Peluso (2017, p. 11).

  • 2. Sedgwick (2017) and Cefkin (2017) discuss the issues involved in distinguishing anthropology of/for business.

  • 3. Podjed et al. define business anthropology differently than I do here and break up the field into several areas. I add together all his numbers for fields I call business anthropology to arrive at this conclusion. This difference is again an example of the many and differing definitions of the field.

  • 4. Adapted from Hiebert (1976, p. 25).