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.
Ann T. Jordan
Maryann McCabe and Rita Denny
Consumer research, an emergent field in applied anthropology, examines relationships between producers and consumers as mediated by the marketplace. The anthropological purpose of consumer research is to discover cultural meanings of products and services in people’s everyday lives and to identify societal practices and discourses that inform and perform these meanings. While consumer research is inspired by and draws on traditional anthropological theory, it has also made theoretical contributions to anthropology, including consumption practices as crafting identity, consumption activities generating and maintaining social relationships, and the transformative power of consumer goods instigating cultural change. Anthropologists engaged in consumer research work in three primary areas: (1) market-making to assist organizations in defining the environments in which they operate; (2) branding to differentiate an organization’s products and services from those of competitors by attaching to the brand a symbolic meaning from the lived experience of consumers; and (3) innovation to guide business growth by analyzing consumer practices, as well as client and other stakeholder suppositions about the nature of the problem to be solved. Anthropologists in consumer research not only represent consumer voices but are also mediators of stakeholder interests. Change occurs at minimal scale by reframing problems for clients and affecting how clients address target audiences through marketing and advertising strategies, communications, or innovation; and at broader scale, by simultaneously contesting cultural ideologies (e.g., gender, personhood, ethnicity) perpetuated by business practices.
Derek Newberry and Eric Gruebel
Since at least the 1930s, anthropologists have been conducting research on the dynamics and features of leadership and organizational development. After a period of dormancy lasting from the middle of the century to the end of the 1970s, work in the field has taken off. Drawing on two of anthropology’s defining features—the ethnographic method and the culture concept—scholars working within the field have provided an alternative and productive approach to a subject studied across a range of disciplines. As is the case throughout anthropology, no one definition of culture serves as the universal touchstone for the anthropological study of organizations. Still, anthropologists working within the field commonly reject any notion of culture as static, uniform, or fully bounded within an organization. Unlike in the traditional management scholarship, there are few explanatory frameworks on effective leadership or organizational functioning in the anthropological literature. This different emphasis is a byproduct of the larger trend toward reflexivity over the last two decades, in which anthropologists have increasingly challenged both the concept of “culture” itself and attempts to develop broad theoretical frameworks. For anthropologists of organizations, this shift has created a division between more academically oriented scholars who produce small-scale ethnographies that resist generalization and applied anthropologists who have created more practical, method-focused guides to the field. At the same time, academics and practitioners in fields like design-thinking and industrial-organizational psychology have developed their own, anthropologically informed approaches and theories for understanding leadership and cultural change in organizations. Entering the third decade of the 20th century, it remains to be seen whether the field will continue down this divided path or instead reconnect with its roots in broad cultural theory, leading to greater efforts to synthesize practical, academic, and interdisciplinary approaches to develop new theoretical frameworks.
Keir James Cecil Martin
Corporations are among the most important of the institutions that shape lives across the globe. They often have a “taken for granted” character, both in everyday discourse and in economic or management theory, where they are often described as an inevitable outcome of the natural working of markets. Anthropological analysis suggests that neither the markets that are seen as their foundation nor corporations as social entities can be understood in this manner. Instead, their existence has to be seen as contingent on particular social relations and as being the outcome of long processes of historic conflict. The extent to which, at the start of the 21st century, corporations satisfactorily fulfill their supposed purpose of managing debt obligations in order to stimulate economic growth is particularly open to question. This was traditionally the justification for the establishment of corporations as separate legal actors in economic markets. Some 150 years on, other sociocultural relations and perspectives shape their boundaries and activities in a manner that means that their purpose and character can no longer be assumed on the basis of such axiomatic premises. Instead, their actions can be explained only on the basis of historic and ethnographic analysis of the contests over the limits of relational obligation that shape their boundaries.
Laurie Novak and Joyce Harris
Information technology increasingly figures into the activities of health-care workers, patients, and their informal caregivers. The growing intersection of anthropology and health informatics is reviewed, a field dedicated to the science of using data, information, and knowledge to improve human health and the delivery of health-care services. Health informatics as a discipline wrestles with complex issues of information collection, classification, and presentation to patients and working clinical personnel. Anthropologists are well-suited as collaborators in this work. Topics of collaborative work include the construction of health and illness, patient-focused research, the organization and delivery of health-care services, the design and implementation of electronic health records, and ethics, power, and surveillance. The application of technology to social roles, practices, and power relations that is inherent in health informatics provides a rich source of empirical data to advance anthropological theory and methods.