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date: 28 February 2021

Anthropology in Consumer Researchfree

  • Maryann McCabeMaryann McCabeCultural Connections, LLC
  •  and Rita DennyRita DennyPractica Group, LLC


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.

Emergence of a Field

Anthropological studies of consumer practices focus on discovering cultural meanings of products and services in people’s everyday lives and making the societal practices that inform and perform these meanings visible. Business anthropologists use consumer research results to help organizations solve business problems, develop strategies for designing and marketing products and services, and align organizational structure and processes to deliver products and services to customers. Consumer research embraces involvement in business and the corporate world. It is oriented to changing relations between producers and consumers through understanding sociocultural meanings and practices, representing consumer voices in the formation of new business practices and reconceiving theories of human action embraced by industry.

Consumer research is one of three primary domains in business anthropology, which include: (1) design anthropology, (2) consumer research, and (3) organizational culture and change. In actual practice boundaries among these domains are often blurred, and ethnographic research with consumers may be conducted for multiple purposes such as designing and marketing products and services.1 Consumer research takes a holistic view of doing ethnography by considering relations of power within the global economy, illuminating assumptions about consumers that are embedded in cultural categories such as gender, ethnicity, and personhood, and in thoughtful consideration of how consumers are represented to clients. As Joy and Li have noted, consumer culture theory “emerges from particular socio-economic systems, with the impact of globalization and market capitalism explicit in all consumer culture studies”.2

The history of anthropology’s intersection with consumer research is far from linear. Like the engagement between anthropology and business more broadly, its roots are rhizomatic, that is, marked by multiple voices and multiple activities in multiple places.3 In the case of consumer research, we’d like to call out spheres of activity, important texts, and forums for community, all of which have propelled and sustained emergence of a field.

In the1980s a number of individuals entered the domains of advertising and marketing explicitly as anthropologists to make disciplinary contributions visible. On the industry side, Steve Barnett took on Madison Ave;4 John F. Sherry Jr., Eric Arnould, and Brian Moeran made inroads into academic marketing departments in the United States and Europe; and Grant McCracken straddled both worlds at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. The efforts of these and other individuals built on earlier engagements of social and behavioral scientists with industry, notably, Sidney Levy,5 whose work provided an impetus for a later revolution in theorizing consumer behavior. The 1980s also saw the emergence of applied semiotics in Britain and France,6 initial engagements with business problems in France,7 and, a decade later, an influx of British anthropology PhDs into commercial workplaces in search of jobs.8

In the 1990s, the trajectory of design entered the consumer research space. Consultancies such as E-lab, emerging from U.S. design firms, or industrial design firms like IDEO, saw the future of design in the context of human-centered experience. Their past lay in foundational work such as that which Suchman and colleagues performed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1980s (which in turn provided a foundation for anthropologists to move into tech in the United States).9 Emergence of design anthropology in Britain and Europe in the 1990s was laterally influenced by North America but had its own roots in the preoccupation of workplace design that emerged in the 1970s in Scandinavia.10 Emergence of “ethnography” in Japan in the mid-2000s was a combination of idiosyncratic implementation, branding by corporations moving into the Japanese market, and a calling out by the business press, which labeled already existing practices in Japanese companies, alongside emerging corporate practices, as ethnography.11 Bouts of visibility in various places across the globe, combined with anthropology’s own exigencies as a discipline in creating jobs for its graduates, have meant that many anthropologists in many countries have made their way into industry, independently and idiosyncratically, since the 1990s.

Rhizomatic roots do not make a field, but communities do. Visibility of work and establishment of like-minded groups, abetted by global electronic connections, have allowed anthropological consumer research to flourish. Important texts that have served to make anthropological work visible include:

Cefkin’s Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter;

Desjeux’s The Anthropological Perspective of the World;

Denny and Sunderland’s Handbook of Anthropology in Business;

Ferraro and Briody’s The Cultural Dimension of Global Business;

Gunn, Otto and Smith’s Design Anthropology;

Hasbrouck’s Ethnographic Thinking;

Malefyt and Moeran’s Advertising Cultures;

Moeran and Malefyt’s Magical Capitalism;

Miller’s Design + Anthropology;

Miller and Woodward’s Blue Jeans;

Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.12

Significant forums for engagement include:

EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) founded in 2005;

Journal of Business Anthropology, started by Brian Moeran in 2012;

International Journal of Business Anthropology, begun in 2010 by Robert Tian, Daming Zhou, and Alfons van Marrewijk;

anthrodesign listserv, started by Natalie Hanson in 2006; and

formation of a professional group of anthropologists within the Society for Applied Anthropology in 2014.

Parsing the boundaries of anthropological forays into consumer research is, by necessity, arbitrary. Fortuitous intersections among people, ideas, and practices combined with texts and communities that make the work visible also make various trajectories convergent over space and time. EPIC, for example, started by anthropologists in tech at Intel and Microsoft in 2005, has evolved to embrace design, consumer research, and organizational work practices beyond technology, drawing in practitioners worldwide. These shifts expand the playing field beyond anthropologists, contesting work and business best practices, as well as disciplinary dominance. McCabe has discussed issues arising from intersections of knowledge, power, and emotion in ethnographic collaboration across disciplinary boundaries in business environments.13

Theoretical Roots

Consumer research is rooted in symbolic anthropology and the tradition of subjective meaning in the work of Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, and Victor Turner.14 Weber emphasized “the interpretive understanding of social action”,15 stating that meaning refers “first to the actual existing meaning in the given concrete case of a particular actor” and also “to the average or approximate meaning attributable to a given plurality of actors”.16 This notion of meaning applies to individual consumers as well as brand communities (groups formed by common attachment to a brand). Geertz, also focusing on interpretation of cultural meaning, espoused ethnography as thick description that unravels the “webs of significance” created by humans and animating quotidian life.17

Turner, whose work explored the dynamic character of symbols and ritual, asserted that “symbols are essentially involved in social process” and are “associated with human interests, purposes, ends, and means whether these are explicitly formulated or have to be inferred from the observed behavior.”18 Continuing this theoretical tradition of cultural analysis, consumer research seeks to identify social processes of consumption, agency, and cultural meaning in everyday consumer practices. For example, a cultural analysis of women’s laundry practices goes beyond previous interpretations of women’s domestic work as gender oppression based on binaries such as male/female and public/private, and provides a perspective on doing the laundry in terms of ritual, agency, and embodiment.19 Figures 1 and 2 show how, for some mothers, doing the laundry is a skilled practice and sensory experience oriented to cultivating self-awareness in children about dressing the body and presenting the self to the world.

Figure 1. Research participant’s dirty clothes sorted into “darks,” “whites,” and “red” categories for doing the laundry “right.”

Figure 2. Research participant folding the laundry in a moment of sensory experience, touching and smelling warm, clean clothes.

Anthropologists engaged in consumer research have contributed to the development of anthropological theory based on their professional practices. Arnould and Thompson’s seminal call to arms laid the groundwork for consumer culture theory—drawing on twenty years of scholarly work that examined relationships among marketplace, cultural meanings, and consumer action.20 Early luminaries include Miller, who eschewed the idea of material goods as fetishes and argued that social relations are generated through consumption activities; McCracken, who pointed out the transformative power of consumer goods; Wallendorf and Arnould, who brought attention to rituals of consumption, specifically Thanksgiving, a celebration of enduring abundance in the United States, and the negotiation of meaning in domestic and national arenas; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, who compared consumption to religion, describing the properties and manifestations of the sacred inherent in consumer behavior; and Sherry, who expanded the concept of marketplace from brick and mortar places to “servicescapes,” including venues such as street vendor carts, mail order catalogues, TV, phones, and the Internet.21

Other theoretical contributions from consumer research include ritual; embodiment and perception through the body, senses, emotion, and thought; materiality and relation of persons with material things; magic; kinship; totemism; creativity; globalization; cultural change; and networks or assemblages of people, things, practices, institutions, and discourses.22 For instance, a study of nonalcoholic beverage consumption in China provides insight into drink practices and how innovation fits into an existing cultural system.23 Cultural meanings given to drink choices show how the beverage market is structured by social factors such as generation, life cycle, and gender, as well as symbolic values of hot and cold associated with health, balance, and the circulation of energy in the body. The study revealed agency—the capacity to perceive and act—as a catalyst of cultural change, especially in negotiations between parents and children where relations of power are complicated by transgressions of parental authority and new norms of taste in choosing beverages.

Key Areas of Consumption Practice


At a relatively broad level, anthropologists influence the making of markets by questioning prevailing assumptions about markets or market development, thereby expanding corporate understandings of market dynamics. So, for example, Nafus and Kitner, Kuriyan, and Mainwaring decoded assumptions about emerging markets made by Western multinationals and offered alternative measures for evaluating viability.24 Nafus disentangled technology adoption measures from assumptions about market “readiness” (traditionally measured by GDP—gross domestic product) to come up with a new index of market viability, while Kitner, Kuriyan, and Mainwaring incorporated a measure of social forces in the analysis of tech adoption. anderson et al., in a study of technology usage, explored cultural assumptions underlying the quantification processes on which market development depends.25 Schindhelm, Jones, and Jones argued that sustainable market innovation is only possible if cultural logics surrounding use of resources and practices in subsistence markets is understood.26 In a multisited, multi-country, multidisciplinary project to establish sustainable fishing practices, Hasbrouck and Scull’s ethnographic investigation of global fishing examined the entire channel, from “hook to plate,” as a means for achieving marketplace impact.27

Corporate interests often lie in identifying target markets for which resources, communications, and retail strategies are developed. Anthropologists have inserted themselves into the corporate discourse of customer segmentation—deconstructing and illuminating practices, as well as offering alternative constructions.28 Cohen’s essay on “users” shows how markets are constructed by institutionalized practices surrounding imagined users, advocating a more inclusive consideration.29

The role of algorithms in making both users and markets, in particular the discursive power of algorithms in market-making, has increasingly become a focus of anthropological analysis.30 Anthropologists working in technology point out that data analytics constitute systems of knowledge, not merely “evidence” of fact, and that big data’s apparent objectivity is mediated by the subjectivities of researchers and thus such data are best conceived as indicators of larger social patterns and contexts.31 In consumer research, anthropologists who work with data analytics and contribute to data collection are in a position to show its social applications and to invest data with subjective understanding.

The goal of anthropologists to influence market-making practices is grounded by a desire to change prevailing corporate discourses of market dynamics. In doing so, anthropologists contest managerial models of segmentation schemes, illuminate the power trajectories of discursive signs, and attend to and alter assumptions by which markets, and market knowledge, are constructed.


Branding provides a means of differentiating a company’s products and services from those of competitors by attaching to the brand a unique symbolic meaning from the lived experience of consumers. McCracken termed branding a “meaning transfer process” because corporations and their advertising agencies imbue products and services with cultural significance based on their use in everyday consumer life.32 From a producer perspective, branding allows companies to develop relationships with target populations and encourage brand loyalty. For example, a study for a major rum brand in Australia discovered the importance of social dimensions of human identity projects in consuming brown spirits.33 Ethnographic work with male rugby league fans revealed allegiance to local teams as a connection to peer group and community through the idea of mateship, where brand-loyal Australian males construct their identity as laid-back, friendly mates. This discovery led to a strategic decision by the company to sponsor local rugby league championships instead of the national rugby union team. Consumers form attachments to brands in many ways. Individual preferences may spur brand loyalty based on identity, and there are social factors such as family, friendship, gender, ethnicity, and key points over the life cycle that may encourage brand choices. For example, Olsen noted the strong role of nostalgia and lineage in shaping connections to brands.34 Brand communications with generational themes may remind consumers of a loved one who used specific brands and introduced them to the next generation of relatives, and now memories of the loved one prompt brand loyalty. A study of shopping for luxury brands in Hong Kong showed how collective identity causes friction among groups of people.35 There is escalating conflict between Hong Kong and People’s Republic of China (PRC) luxury consumers because the Hong Kongese feel anger, envy, resentment, and status anxiety linked to fears of being occupied by and assimilated into Chinese culture, while the Chinese mainlanders experience anger and puzzlement toward the Hong Kongese whom they consider Chinese. As the authors stated, “Each culture, discrete yet overlapping, competes against the other for the social and economic power embodied within cultural capital.”36

Consumer Agency

The success of corporate branding strategies to connect with target populations and build brand loyalty depends partly on responses from consumers to marketing and advertising communications. The branding practices of capitalism reflect a highly reflexive process of producers trying to read consumers and consumers assessing the text and imagery communicated by the producers. In this ongoing process, consumers may reject not only a brand message but also the branded product or service. McCracken argued that corporations, if they are to be successful, must have sustained conversations with consumers.37 Speaking about brand differentiation as a “qualification” process, Callon, Meadel, and Rabeharosoa noted that a wide array of people is involved in qualifying products and services from the design, production, marketing, distribution, and consumption facets of the capitalist enterprise.38 While many people and organizations participate in branding creation, they pointed out consumer agency in the dialectical relationship between producers and consumers:

[C]onsumers are just as active as the other parties involved. They participate in qualifying available products. It is their ability to judge and evaluate that is mobilized to establish and classify relevant differences. There is no reason to believe that agents on the supply side are capable of imposing on consumers both their perception of qualities and the way they grade those qualities.39

In other words, agency exists on the demand as well as the supply side.

Example of Luxury Cars

A study of two advertising campaigns for luxury cars, one for Infiniti and the other for Cadillac, demonstrates consumer agency and how brands mediate relations between production and consumption.40 Both manufacturers launched new vehicles with advertising campaigns that led to opposite results. General Motors redesigned its Cadillac line and introduced it to the public with a successful advertising campaign, “Breakthrough,” celebrating the idea of crossing boundaries and charting new territory. Sales increased, especially within the target population. Nissan entered the luxury car market with the Infiniti line and an advertising campaign associating luxury with the serenity of nature. Sales did not reach the intended mark.

The initial advertising campaign for the Infiniti emphasized the brand’s Japanese heritage to differentiate it from other luxury car brands. The campaign assumed Japanese ideas about nature would be transparent and transportable to the U.S. marketplace. Scenes from nature were employed (leaves reflected in a rippling pond, waves rolling over an ocher beach, and geese gliding across the sky—see Figure 3), with a voiceover referring to Japanese design and aesthetics and the Infiniti.41 Underlying the Zen-like state depicted in the ads was an equation among nature, comfort, and luxury. However, the advertisements failed to stir brand awareness and sales because the campaign did not reflect the symbolic formation of luxury cars in the U.S. target market: young professionals who had previously owned a Japanese car. The most obvious reason for lack of consumer response was that the ads did not show the car or its performance on the road. In addition, the aspired-to sense of serenity (implied by the nature scenes) was presented as the peaceful absence of objects, which contradicted consumer perception at the time that luxury should embody and demonstrate an abundance of things such as gadgets and amenities. Finally, by linking luxury to a Zen-like conception of being one with nature, the ads misrepresented U.S. cultural attitudes toward nature, which was regarded as something to dominate and control. As a result, the campaign did not offer meanings that could be used for the construction and performance of identity.

Figure 3. Image of nature representing serenity for introducing new luxury car brand.

By the beginning of the 21st century when the Cadillac brand was losing a significant market share, General Motors redesigned the vehicle line and commissioned ethnographic work in hopes of reaching a younger audience than previously targeted. Research participants spoke of life as a process of becoming, where one defines and redefines oneself continually over time and through key life events. They told stories of themselves carving out new experiences, learning, growing, and becoming new selves as they succeeded in obtaining new jobs, promotions, new relationships, and so forth. For participants, defining and redefining the self involved imagination, dreaming outside the box, crossing boundaries, and not feeling constrained by either social rules or family wishes. Achieving steps of a dream would warrant celebration, such as the purchase of luxury goods. Although describing Cadillac as “my grandparents’ car,” they wished the brand would reinvent itself as an American icon, become “cool” again, and speak to their generation. In other words, their discourse revealed correspondence between the image of self and hopes for the brand—dream outside the box and reinvent oneself. Cadillac’s subsequent “Breakthough” campaign resonated with consumers and is credited with helping to bring the Cadillac division of General Motors out of the red and into the black.42 Sales and profits increased. The company succeeded in appealing to younger consumers, as the average age of the Cadillac owner dropped from someone in their seventies to someone in their fifties.


Innovation is both a concept and set of organizing practices embraced by organizations in the push for business growth. As a discursive sign (a concept circulating in social discourse encoded with cultural meaning), innovation is variably articulated as an engine of progress, the needed solution to economic and social ills, the meaningful source of corporate competitive advantage, and a productive disruption that spurs change in markets.43 In short, innovation is often conceived as a moral good. Though innovation in corporations has been the purview of research and development (R&D) departments, it is increasingly becoming the domain of brand and market teams. It is with innovation processes that design and consumer research often converge in practice.

The work of anthropologists involved in innovation seeks to examine the grounding assumptions of innovation goals and influence the frameworks for conceptualizing and developing organizational actions and resources. Not surprisingly, anthropologists emphasize the social systems and relationality at the heart of human action: understanding consumers or users in relation to social systems vs. decision-makers at point-of-sale; paying attention to ideas and actions as cultural constructions, as Stayton, Cefkin, and Zhang did in their analysis of the change in meaning of “autonomy” spurred by technological change; explicitly bringing in client epistemology in fieldwork analysis; and actively incorporating clients into fieldwork processes, not as a practical matter, but as a conceptual frame for the fieldwork itself.44 The work in this domain recognizes that an analysis of consumption is simultaneously an analysis of client and other stakeholder assumptions about the nature of the problem to be solved and that innovation, at its best, is grounded by a necessary “we” not an “other.” Work in this domain re-envisions relationships of stakeholders to each other and corporate actors in society.45

Consumer Research Orientations

The perceived benefit of consumer research in anthropology depends on the theoretical lens through which capitalism is viewed. Among the many lenses, we call out two distinct interpretations of capitalism applied to the work of anthropologists who study consumer practices. A Marxist approach takes a negative stance toward consumer research as fetishism of commodities and alienation of the self, while a business anthropology approach claims a positive position based on consumer agency and a more cooperative relationship between producers and consumers in capitalist practices today. In the latter case, the marketplace is understood as a contested, dynamic, negotiated resource.

The Marxist Approach

In Marxist thought, capitalism is conceived as a binary opposition between capital and labor, and relations between workers and the owners of production are antagonistic. Marx’s adverse reaction to products made during early industrial capitalism arose from his idea of commodity fetishism.46 For Marx, products become commoditized when they lose the “use value” of humans producing material things to utilize in their own activities and assume “exchange value” where human labor is exchanged for money. Products are fetishes because they conceal the human labor exerted in the act of production:

[T]he products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social . . . So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities . . . this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them.47

As a result of commoditization, according to Marx, workers are alienated from both themselves and the products of their hands because ownership is transferred to the buyer at the time of sale. Commodities are material things that make the social relations of production opaque. As Taussig stated, “The commodity assumes an autonomy apart from human social activities, and in transcending that activity the relations between commodities subjugate persons, who become dominated by a world of things—things that they themselves created.”48 In other words, a subject/object binary operates in Marxist thinking; social relations are disguised as relations between things, that is, the equivalence of labor and product to money.

Some anthropologists extend the Marxist view to critique consumer research and commercial ethnography. Foster argued that corporations exploit people by appropriating their consumption work of creating meaning in the everyday use of branded products and services.49 The claim revolves around Marx’s notion of “surplus value,” the difference between the value of products sold and the value of labor and other components used in production, “surplus value is created through appropriated consumption work, that is, the emotional attachment beyond reason of consumers to certain brands.”50 In the Marxist articulation, surplus value allows capital accumulation and accentuates profit motivation.

The View from Business Anthropology

In comparison to Marx’s notion of capitalism as opposition between capital and labor, recent scholarship recognizes continual change in the way capitalism is constituted.51 Capitalism is practiced differently at different times and places. Thrift described capitalism as “instantiated in particular practices”52 and “a project that is permanently ‘under construction’.”53 This idea of capitalism as a malleable form challenges the binary to which the Marxist position subscribes and considers more complex relations and blurred boundaries between producers and consumers. As Malefyt and Morais noted, “the increasing emphasis on interaction between consumers and corporations and new forms of hybrid marketing make it increasingly difficult to demark classic divisions between production and consumption.”54

Anthropologists engaged in consumer research note that capitalist practices have shifted to a consumer-centric perspective.55 Producers depend on co-creation with consumers to innovate and plan ventures in the design and marketing of products and services. Arnould and Cayla commented, “The idea that organizations should be shaped according to consumer needs and requirements brings the consumer into the heart of organizational practice.”56 From this perspective, producers, rather than creating false desires in consumers, respond to what they perceive to be their product and service preferences and, at times, to broader interests and values, such as ethical sourcing and corporate social responsibility. In other words, this mode of capitalist practice involves a more interactive relationship than Marx imagined between producers and consumers. Relations between producers and consumers have become more reflexive and reciprocal.

The consumer-centric perspective raises the disenchantment and re-enchantment issue in anthropology. Despite Weber’s view of modernity as rational and disenchanting, Jenkins finds that disenchantments may stimulate re-enchantments and pointed to a wide range of the latter, including “the mundane daydreams of advertising and consumption.”57 When consumers give meaning to branded products and services in everyday life, they create re-enchantments relating to social construction of their identities. Such identity projects emphasize materiality and relationships between persons and objects. Thus, the subject/object binary prevalent in Marxist thought dissolves with re-enchantments of consumption and the current capitalist practice of co-creation which elucidates cultural meaning and self-fashioning through the use of branded products and services.

In comparing Marxist and business anthropology views on consumer research, the difference between fetish and symbol is key. We note that fetishes hide meaning while symbols reveal meaning. Where fetishes conceal the relations of production, symbols lay bare what is important to consumers. Business anthropologists penetrate cultural assumptions underlying consumer practices, bring these symbolic qualities to the attention of clients, and represent consumer voices in developing new business strategies.

Since business anthropologists act as mediators between consumer and corporate worlds, their approach to undertaking consumer research calls for grasping capitalism not as an entity but as persons and processes coming together in assemblages where there are often contradictory commitments among actors. Welker advised that we should not “treat capitalism as a unitary and coherent system” but concern ourselves with how it is enacted.58 This approach recognizes consumers as agents who participate in cooperation with other agents yet are involved in power struggles with them so, as a result, tension between corporate profit and consumer interest continues to exist. Outcomes from interactions among agents may be judged “good” sometimes and “bad” at other times, because capitalism is constituted and reconstituted on an ongoing basis. Consumer researchers are applied anthropologists who represent consumer voices and act as agents working with organizations to pursue change in the consumer interest.

Critical Perspective

Since anthropology’s founding as a discipline in the early 20th century, anthropologists have taken a critical perspective toward societies in which they themselves live. Taking a critical perspective emerges from the cross-cultural basis of ethnographic work. It is a reflexive practice that questions cultural assumptions underlying behavior in one’s own society. A critical perspective is typically oriented to human rights and social justice. One of the earliest examples of this perspective is Margaret Mead’s research among youth, primarily adolescent girls, in Samoa. Her book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), describes the sexual lives of teenagers in Samoa and claimed that culture strongly influences psychological development.59 Mead argued that Samoan girls in the early 20th century followed more relaxed sexual norms than girls in the United States. According to Mead’s comparison of adolescence in both societies, the transition from childhood to adulthood in Samoa was a smooth one, not marked by the emotional and psychological distress, anxiety, and confusion in the experience of U.S. teens. More recent ethnographies adopting a critical stance are Farmer and Holmes.60 Anthropologists practicing in consumer research continue to pursue a critical perspective.

A study of women and make-up practices in the United States takes a critical perspective of gender hierarchy in the advertising of cosmetics.61 The discourse of beauty in the embodied experience of women differs from the discourse and images of beauty in advertising by the cosmetic industry. Women generate an authentic sense of self in daily make-up rituals by connecting outer beauty with inner beauty. The transformation that occurs when they put on make-up combines looking good and feeling good so that there is correspondence between inner state and external expression. Make-up rituals provide a source of identity formation, self-confidence, and a feeling of being ready to engage in the world (see Figure 4). In contrast to this emphasis on inner worth and connecting the internal and external self, advertising discourse focuses on physical appearance, looking good, and the critical gaze of self and others. Yet women’s reluctance to appear in public without wearing make-up indicates that they may not only contest standards of beauty promoted by the cosmetic industry but also adopt its discourse on the importance of enhancing their physical appearance with make-up. While the industry discourse reinforces gender bias, women’s paradoxical adherence to industry discourse—resisting while also recreating it—allows us a glimpse of dynamics underlying the tenacious hold of gender ideology in U.S. society.

Figure 4. Collage made by research participant showing transformation of self before and after putting on make-up.

Taking a critical perspective affords business anthropologists opportunity to influence client understanding of cultural presuppositions embedded in internal business practices and external communications to stakeholders. One of the ongoing challenges of consumer research is bringing cultural analysis back into institutions and having an impact. Industry has embedded ideas about how the markets work structurally and ideologically. While companies may celebrate their “big picture” thinkers, their internal organization typically separates big thinkers from detail thinkers in a hierarchical way. As Youngblood has noted, “CEOs think globally. Department heads think departmentally.”62 Anthropological consumer research encourages businesses to reflect on themselves, to value consideration, not just resolute action, and to uncover new opportunities. Applying critical reflexivity to question a company’s perspective of what’s going on may inspire employees to dare wonder about ways they might be misreading a target audience and even offer the organization a competitive advantage. Of course, there are differences of scale in the potential impact of anthropologists as change agents engaged in consumer research projects with corporate and nonprofit organizations. On a minimal scale, business anthropologists can reframe problems for clients and affect how clients address target audiences through marketing and advertising strategies, communications, or innovation; and on a broader scale, they can simultaneously contest cultural ideologies perpetuated by business practices and shape markets.


Ethical concerns are central to anthropological work in consumer research at a broad moral level and specifically within client projects. At the broader level, Malefyt and Morais noted a range of responses in the anthropological world to anthropologists who work in or for businesses. There are anthropologists “who denounce any sort of involvement by anthropologists or social scientists in capitalistic enterprises,” while there are also those “who advocate greater involvement in investigations of capitalism, consumption and production, organizational development, and business education as alternatives to academic practice of anthropology and to better inform the myriad modern social practices, theories and peoples involved in these areas.”63 Malefyt and Morais also note that business anthropologists are mediators of knowledge practices who apply learning from consumer research to business situations.64 As a result, their ethnographic work is goal-directed in an effort to influence the thinking and action of clients. Such goal-directed involvement implies change, whereas for academic anthropologists the “do no harm” principle in the American Anthropological Association Principles of Professional Responsibility implies minimizing change.65 Anthropologists undertaking consumer research endeavor to create change in the consumer interest and, as Gallenga, Sampson, and Soldani argued, seek an optimal balance between scientific neutrality and social engagement.66

An ethical call for action in consumer research is a new phenomenon in anthropology. Sherry, commenting on the time period in which he was trained as an anthropologist in the second half of the 20th century, said, “I think it is safe to say that, in that era, the only reason one might study contemporary commerce would be to subvert it; the thought that one might improve it would be heretical.”67 Sherry argued for anthropologically informed marketing and advertising strategies: “Given the variations of capitalism at work in the world today and the totalizing force of its grip on our economic imagination, it seems clear to me that anthropological tinkering is not merely feasible, but ethically imperative.”68

Anthropologists working in consumer research grapple with an ongoing tension between fitting in and standing apart. The dilemma is fueled by the corporate imagination of what anthropologists do or offer—“new discovery”—within the bounds of corporate structures and habits and by a moral imperative of practitioners to push boundaries in the work they produce.69 The goal of those working in the field is not to reify corporate models but to change them, a goal not easily achieved and a source of ongoing negotiation. Sherry argued that corporate work all too often focuses on users as individuals because corporate models are based on theories of individual decision-making but, in doing so, risk obscuring the embeddedness of individuals in social systems.70 In adhering too much to client models, he argued, research contributions become disposable. Hasbrouck has argued that an exploration of the cultural logics of consumers necessitates an exploration of the organizational models that produced the terms of the problem.71 Denny and Sunderland have highlighted the need for practitioners to be bilingual in the language of business and anthropology because expanding discursive practices, code-switching, or developing new registers (particular ways of speaking), are indicative of institutional change.72 Choices made and tensions managed affect voice and contribution. These issues have a moral valence.

In the client project realm, specific ethical issues arise:

protection of research participants through informed consent and confidentiality;

accurate representation of research participants which, as Sunderland and Denny maintained, entails an understanding of the cultural dynamics at play in any situation including the dynamics of power;

respect for contractual arrangements with clients such as non-disclosure agreements and good faith estimates of time and cost for conducting ethnography and cultural analysis; and

selection of projects since business anthropologists may accept or reject work based on their judgment that a product is harmful to those who would consume it.73

It should be noted that many corporations have a code of ethics addressing ethical behavior toward employees and other stakeholders, including people who participate in corporate research projects.74 However, Batteau and Trainor, noting the challenge of undertaking fieldwork in complex organizational environments and the ethical reasoning and moral agency required because of value complexities and asymmetries of power, advised business anthropologists to develop ethical communities of practice for discussing ethical concerns that may arise on a case-by-case basis.75

Further Reading

  • Cefkin, Melissa, ed. Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.
  • Denny, Rita, and Patricia Sunderland, eds. Handbook of Anthropology in Business. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Desjeux, Dominique. The Anthropological Perspective of the World: The Inductive Method Illustrated. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.
  • Ferraro, Gary P., and Elizabeth K. Briody. The Cultural Dimension of Global Business, 8th ed. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. Design Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Hasbrouck, Jay. Ethnographic Thinking. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller. Digital Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
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