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Anthropology and Business Education: Practitioner Applications for a Qualitative Method

Anthropology and Business Education:

Practitioner Applications for a Qualitative Method



While much business research has traditionally been “scientific” and statistical, the anthropological approach employs more subjective and qualitative methods that are invaluable within a number of contexts.  In recent years, anthropological (or anthropologically inspired) research tactics have become increasingly prominent within consumer research.  In this paper, the nature and application of these anthropological tools are discussed as well as suggestions regarding how to introduce such ideas into the classroom


Key Words: Business Anthropology, Business Education, Consumer Behavior, Qualitative Method




Both public and private organizations seek employees and researchers who   understand the cultural context of business.  Due to the resulting transformations in the way research is conducted, business professors may need to adjust their courses in order to reflect shifts in the practitioner world.  Consumer research is a particular area where qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology, are gaining importance and prestige (Emery, Kramer, Tian 2001; Tian 2001).

 Although anthropology has made significant contributions in consumer research and new product design (Jordan 2003), the theories and methods of this qualitative social science have not been as widely phased into business courses as they could and should have been (Tian 2002). To help remedy this situation, the present paper explores how anthropology can be more fully integrated into business education.  In specific, this paper (1) reviews the relations between business education and anthropology, (2) discusses how anthropological practices have been successfully used in consumer behavior research, and (3) explores possible applications to business education.  The goal is to introduce the concepts of anthropology in a user-friendly way to provide perspectives that can be employed in the classroom.


Anthropology is a social science that studies the social environment in which people live and the impact of this social environment upon feelings, attitudes, behaviour, etc. Although often dismissed as an “ivory tower” discipline, anthropology has much to contribute to the study of contemporary problems, such as urban life, ethnic conflicts, and postmodernism (Armansyah 2003.) Although it may appear to be a discipline and methodology only recently employed by business researches, in reality anthropology has a long history within business research.  Thus, Edward T. Hall introduced his seminal “silent language” approach in the 1950s/60s (Hall 1959, 1960.)  The classic anthropological methods of research such as ethnography, observation, interviewing, etc., furthermore, have proved to be appropriate for business research (Jordan 2003, Walle 2002, 2000)

The ‘naturalistic method’ that has risen to prominence in consumer research in recent years is clearly indebted to anthropological methods (Belk, Sherry, Wallendorf 1989)  The basic strategies of this approach are to engage in participant observation and to observe and interpret what people actually do in a real-life environment.  Like anthropological fieldwork, this naturalistic method demands that researchers interpret behaviour from the informant’s perspective, not with reference to the feelings or opinions of the investigator.  As a result of this informant-centred focus, researchers are able to more effectively perceive what motivates consumers and impacts their responses.  While this method does not adhere to the principles of the scientific method and the rigor demanded by science (and has been criticized by some for this reason), the results of the qualitative, naturalistic method have been widely applauded.  In many ways, the naturalistic techniques employed by Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf are reflective of the ethnographic method of anthropology.

Related to this is the work in what Elizabeth Hirschman (1986) has called “Humanistic” marketing research that, like anthropological methods, is based upon qualitative methods of research and analysis.  Thus, the current vogue of anthropology in marketing and consumer research can be viewed a part of a larger qualitative and humanistic research agenda for the field.

In this context, Ethnography is a process of describing a culture in subjective ways that stem from the feelings of informants who are functioning members of the group being investigated.  Anthropologists have long argued among themselves regarding the appropriateness of basing research upon the feeling of the subjects being investigated.  In the 1960s, these differences led to a heated debate between advocates of humanistic research and those who favoured scientific rigor. 

The seminal work leading to this conflict is Kenneth Pike’s Language in Relation to a Unified Structure of Human Behavior (1954) where Pike suggested that all research can be characterized by two linguistic terms “phonetic” and “phonemic.”  Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that objectively and scientifically observes sound patterns.  Phonemics, on the other hand, does not examine empirical verifiable phenomena (observed sounds), but focuses on the categories that exist within the human mind that cannot be empirically verified.  A quick example will demonstrate the difference: phonetically, a person with a speech impediment would have a distinctive pattern of speech that can be verified empirically. Phonemically, on the other hand, people could still understand this person because of the underlying structure of the language that exists in the minds of both the speaker and the listener.  These patterns, however, are not empirically observable.  Nonetheless, emic research is legitimate and useful.

Pike generalized rigorous and verifiable research as “etic” while more humanistic research that could not be so verified was depicted as “emic.”  Discussing the pros and cons of each member of this dichotomy led to a major debate within anthropology.  While initially both parties took a hard line, scholars eventually recognized that both methods have valuable contributions to make.  (For an overview of this debate and its implications see Walle 1998 59-63)

. Those engaged in ethnographies tend to focus upon the emic feelings of informants.  They seek this emic information by, typically, interacting within a community and (as much as possible) becoming a functioning part of the social networks that exist there.  The strategy of this ethnographic method is to use actual participation among actual residents in order to discover the emic structures that are embraced by people.   In naturalistic consumer research, these emic methods are adapted and applied to a research agenda.  Thus, in order to explore how flea markets (swap meets) actually function, researchers went to such gatherings and observed, first hand, consumers and sellers interfacing and strriking deals (Belk, Sherry, Wallendorm 1989).  While this method is hardly scientific (and can be attacked accordingly), it does provide useful information that could not be easily gathered using formal techniques that demand that the researchers remain completely “impartial” and distanced from the events being analyzed.

Anthropology also provides useful methods for analyzing particular cultures. Harris and Moran, for example, (1987) focus on the fact that culture provides people with a sense of who they are, gives them a feeling of belonging, establishes rules of how to behave, and offers rankings of what goals are important, etc.  Culture provides a learned, shared, and interrelated set of symbols, codes, values, knowledge, etc. that justify and motivate human behavior.  In recent years, those with international experience have written any number of guides of foreign countries that help those in international business to understand diverse cultures in order to be more effective within that context. These all monographs tend to be emic-oriented.

Although consumer behavior textbooks typically include an obligatory discussion of culture, such content is often truncated, combined with other issues, and as a result it can easily be overlooked or discounted.  From a practical point of view, the concept of culture and its implications for consumer research are often lost in the shuffle. The profound impact of culture upon consumer response, however, is observable and undeniable (Douglas & Craig 1995; Griffith & Ryans 1995).  Those teaching marketing, consumer research, advertising, etc. need to scan the textbooks they use to be sure these topics are adequately addressed.   Where they are not, professors may want to consider adding supplemental materials. 

Anthropology uses the concept of culture to describe and analyze human behavior, values, choices, preferences, practices, beliefs, attitudes, etc. (Costa 1995). According to classical anthropological theory, culture is an underlying dimension of all societies and all social life.  All human behavior, including consumption, takes place within a cultural context (Harris & Moran 1987.)  The embrace of cultural beliefs and values is an integral part of being human.  Indeed, it is culture that makes social life and economic cooperation possible and meaningful.  The concept of culture, therefore, is invaluable for those who seek to understand consumption.  This is true if the researcher is studying a modern industrial country or a small, remote village.

Baba and Batteau (2003) indicate that since the 1930s cultural anthropologists have conducted a vast amount of research in industrial and corporate settings, focusing largely on corporate cultures in the United States. The human relations school of organizational research of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, produced a number of ethnographies that demonstrate how informal cultural patterns, cohort groups, etc.  influence organizations. More recent studies of corporate cultures have shown how specific configurations of values within organizations can contribute to their success or failure. Anthropology has made a significant contribution to this research agenda. The use of anthropology and qualitative anthropological methods is increasing in business studies (Jordan 2003). With their traditional emphasis upon participant observation, business anthropologists are in a position to gather information on grassroots corporate culture.

The Xerox Corporation, for example, used an anthropologist to help the company devise more effective training programs for their service technicians. Julian Orr, the anthropologist assigned to the project, received training as a technician and personally went on service calls in order to understand what happened when technicians interfaced with clients. This research revealed that teaching people how to use the copying machine was an important task because Orr found that a large number of service calls were not required from a mechanical standpoint.  People simply did not know how to operate the machine. That insight, gained through firsthand participant observation, encouraged Xerox to emphasize customer relations when training technicians (Baba and Batteau 2003).

Currently “business anthropology” is recognized as a subfield of the discipline.  (Jordan 2003).  According to Baba and Batteau (2003), business anthropology is defined as applying anthropological theories and practices to the needs of private sector organizations, especially industrial firms. Current research initiatives in the field tend to be concentrated in (1) marketing and consumer behavior, (2) organizational theory and culture, and (3) international business (especially international marketing, intercultural management, and intercultural communication.) 


The current interest in Business anthropology got its start in early 1980s when applied-anthropologists Lucy Suchman and Julian Orr investigated how people interact with technology. Since then, a wide number of anthropologists have worked within the business world, often adopting titles such as “knowledge liaison,” “ethnographer” and “evaluator.”  In recent years, anthropologists have become more involved in strategic and tactical projects involving consumer research.  In such work, anthropologists often evaluate technological products before their release (Walsh 2001.)

            In practice, business anthropologists study almost everything from marketing strategies to corporate culture, to business development. For instance, University of Toronto anthropologist Dr. Victor Barac has worked with Mutual of Omaha Insurance to update its advertising strategies and with the Canadian film industry in a project that entailed visiting theatres observing everything from snack buying patterns to which posters drew people’s attention, and interviewing patrons about their attitudes and experiences (Mulroney 2002.)

Baba and Batteau, among others, are anthropologists who have successfully integrated anthropology with business education by offering business anthropology courses at Wayne State University (Baba and Batteau 2003.)  They indicate that research has shown that failures in the international business settings frequently result from an inability to understand and adapt to foreign ways of thinking and acting. The world, furthermore, is changing quickly and decision makers need to understand these developments and their implications.  Utilizing anthropologists and anthropological methods are important avenues for addressing these issues.  While an understanding of the cultural context of domestic business is invaluable, the importance of culture is even more vital within the international sphere.  After all, in international business the magnitude of the cultural differences is vastly greater then in domestic situations and, as a result, the potential for misunderstanding or inappropriate actions/decisions is multiplied. When studying both domestic and foreign societies, anthropologists are especially skilled in finding and explaining patterns of behavior that impact strategies and tactics (Bennett 1954.)  This focus can be used to improve business operations (Baba and Batteau 2003.)

In fact, Jordan (2003) has observed that since the 1980s anthropology’s influence within business schools has grown.  Given the increased role of business anthropology, it needs to be more fully introduced in business education.  Anthropologists in business schools have played an important role in the development of consumer studies within business education.  For example, Jerry Saltman and Grant McCracken at Harvard, John Sherry at Northwestern, Eric Arnould at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln, Barbara Olsen at State University of New York-Old Westbury, Janeen Costa at the University of Utah, and Annamma Joy at Concordia are examples of anthropologists who have impacted the business education community. On the other hand, business faculty like Ron Hill and Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, who received their training from business schools, have embraced the ethnographic method and employed it in their business research (Jordan 2003). 


            Historically, anthropology emphasized a social structural approach.  As such, it envisioned cultures as unique patterns of thought, sentiment, and action.  Individuals were believed to become a part of their culture though a process of socialization that created patterned ways of thinking that tended to be covert. 

            Such perceptions have been commonplace within business and consumer research.  Thus, the method envisions something that is usually perceived as “national character”: a pattern of perspectives and responses that the majority of the people in a society embrace in relatively unconscious ways.  Whenever, writers speak in terms of, for example, “American” vs. “Japanese” culture, they are employing a variant of this national character model.  Applied on a micro level, the “corporate culture” construct applies these techniques to distinct organizations.

            For many years, the social structural approach was the state of the art of the social sciences, but in the 1960s, this paradigm fell from vogue. (See Walle 2002 for a discussion of this process.)  Although long attacked by theoretical rivals, however, Walle documents that current advances in the structural model are returning it to useful service (2002 215-229.)  Even without this rehabilitation, however, the method has remained current because of the fact that the existence of social structures is self-evident (even if they are not as powerful or universal as scholars once thought.)

            In the 20th century, the phenomenological school of philosophy arose as a major tool for viewing mankind’s conscious thought and its impact upon action, emotion, and world-view.  While the structural method emphasizes that the socialization process solidified cultural patterns into covert and unconscious patterns of thought, phenomenology deals with conscious thought and focuses upon the individual, not the group.

This rise of this philosophical school led to the establishment of existentialism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.  These methods reject a sense of cultural unity, so prevalent among social structuralists, and replace it with the view of a fragmented world.  The result is a model that is designed to deal with the individual and it has been adapted to model the responses of circumscribed groups and how they are distinct from the mainstream (if a mainstream exists at all.)  Poststrucuralism and postmodernism have emerged as popular methodologies among marketing researchers due to the importance of dealing with distinct groups (specific target markets).

While social strucutralism and poststructuralism/postmodernism are distinct, both are able to benefit from the use of the ethnographic method.  Thus, although a difference in the philosophic underpinnings of various researchers is noted, these distinctions do not result in one group rejecting ethnography while other embraces it.  Indeed, the goal of both groups is to employ methods that are appropriate for studying mankind by eliminating the distortions and blind spots of purely scientific analysis.


              From an anthropological perspective, marketing and consumption are crucial forces that are impacted by culture; “Anthropologists view consumer behaviour in a cultural, historical, and global context.” (Jordan 2003:64) Marsha Richins stresses the significance of consumer behavior in the President’s Address to the 2000 Annual Conference of Association for Consumer Research, pointing out that consumer research should be viewed as a social science. Consumption is important to economic performance; is connected to personal health and well-being; and many pressing social problems are related to consumer behavior (such as tobacco use, alcoholic abuse, etc. that can have devastating impacts on individuals and families.) 

            In the final analysis, consumption impacts virtually every aspect of life.  On some occasions, rival consumption options can be a source of conflict. In short, consumption and its impacts are ubiquitous  and powerful (Richins, 2000). 

            Although consumer behavior can be viewed as a social science it is often not treated as such.  As a result, the focus is often on the psychological factors of the individual and not the social context of behavior and motivation.  After all, consumer research is a multifaceted discipline that combines applied aspects of psychology and the social sciences and uses them to understand the behavior of consumers and the market place.  As a result, some researchers focus to such a degree upon psychology that they might pay relatively little attention to cultural concerns.

Nonetheless, the importance of social issues cannot be overestimated.  As Gene Koprowskj (1999) indicates, subcultures that are of interest to business exist everywhere from online chat rooms to convenience stores, etc.  Contemporary business anthropologists are conducting fieldwork with video cameras, tape recorders, and pagers. In the process, these researchers track the buying rituals of consumers and, in doing so, they help decision makers develop culturally sensitive marketing strategies.  Rick Robinson is one of this new breed of business anthropologists. He and his colleagues use anthropological methods to observe and conceptualize the consumption process in order to aid in the designing of new products.  Instead of asking people questions, these researchers watch how people actually behave.  By doing so, they have aided in the development of new over-the-counter cold medicines, helped create a new station wagon for a major carmaker; led backpack maker JanSport to design a completely new way of displaying its products in sporting goods stores; and assisted Frito-Lay in better segmenting its markets.

According to Catherine Mulroney (2002), one of the most obvious applications for using anthropology within business research is the study of consumer behavior in retail business. Katherine S. Newman (1993), a business anthropologist, has examined the effects of economic decline on consumption patterns, lifestyle, and family relationships.  Anthropologist Paco Underhill (2000) discusses consumer behavior within the context of retailing in his book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. There, he explores why consumers go into a store for one item and end up buying something else, what kind of store atmosphere is most effective for influencing shopping behavior, etc.  Grant McCracken (1990), in his Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, demonstrates how the consumption process has meanings that resonate from culture. For McCracken, consumption is broadly defined to include the processes by which consumer goods and services are created, bought, and used.  According to McCracken, the relationship between culture and consumption is profoundly interrelated within three contexts: history, theory, and practice.

Richard Bierck (2001) indicates that quantitative analysis might not help decision makers to truly understand consumers, while qualitative and observational research often provide revealing insights.   Jennifer McFarland (2001) observes that when the consumer reaction to a new product needs to be determined, companies traditionally turn to the qualitative focus group (another qualitative method.) Ethnographic market research, however, is increasingly being used in such circumstances. Such research tactics can provide an inside look at cultural trends, attitudes, and lifestyles that influence consumer decisions.

Consumer anthropologists do not look merely for “opinions” or answers to questions; instead they seek to understand how a product might mesh within the consumer’s daily life. For instance, Whirlpool recently asked an in-house anthropologist to conduct a study for a line of luxury bathtubs. The strategy was to tap into the actual feelings of a sample of informants, no some kind of statistical analysis; this is a task where anthropology excels.  In conducting the investigation, qualitative, open-ended interviews were combined with the actual observation of consumers using the product.

Using a sample of 15 families from four different markets, the methodology involved in-home interviews and filming participants bathing (they were wearing bathing suits.) informants were asked open-ended questions such as “When you think of your tub, what images come to mind?” and participants were instructed to create a journal that included photographs they took or found in magazines. What emerged was a consumer picture of bathing. “Those leanings—the emotional, cultural, symbolic meanings—are quite powerful.” They also validated Whirlpool’s working concept for the luxury tub. As with a focus group, the categories and feelings deemed important by the informants were emphasized.  And since the research took place within the context of the informants homes, it was extremely effective in triggering appropriate and revealing responses.

According to McFarland (2001), the real power of ethnography lies at the front end of product development. The principle methodology for consumer anthropologists is inductive rather than deductive. As one anthropologist observed, “Part of the idea of going into peoples’ homes…is that you’re discovering from them what the meaningful categories are.” Toothpaste marketing, for example, used to emphasize cavities and whitening teeth. But ethnographic research found that the concerns of consumers have changed. People are increasingly concerned with gums, their tongue—the whole mouth when they are putting the toothbrush in their mouth; it's not just cavities that they're interested in anymore. Brands of toothpaste, such as Colgate Total, which purports to “continue to work even after you stop brushing,” are designed to appeal to this broader concept of dental care. Just as Richard Lacayo (2001) indicated: “consumer anthropology takes the time to really understand …how and why consumers use products.”

In the field of consumer behavior, qualitative researchers often employ anthropological or anthropologically inspired techniques (such as the naturalistic method of Belk, Sherry, Wallendorf 1989, etc.) in order to study consumers actually living their lives and making decisions regarding the purchase and consumption of products. Marketing involves targeting an audience for a product and then selling it. Working within this process, anthropologists are often responsible for finding out how specific items are purchased, valued, and consumed as well as what feelings particular people have regarding certain products and their use. By recording in great detail how people live and how products fit into their lives, anthropologists often gain useful information that could not be easily gained from a formal interview. As a result, an increasing number of anthropologists are being hired by industry (Walsh 2001.)


Business educators must integrate state of the art techniques into their courses. Since anthropology/methods inspired by anthropology are increasingly being used in business and consumer research, marketing professors need to integrate appropriate discussions of it into their classes.  Without doubt, anthropologists are bringing unique and invaluable methods to the business world (especially in the fields of marketing.)  In addition, the research of anthropologists is contributing to our understanding of consumption (Jordan 2003).

The role of anthropology in business is growing much faster than was anticipated only a few years ago.  These developments require that anthropology be given a higher profile within marketing classes.  Business schools are often depicted as being overly quantitative (Gremler, et. al. 2000) and qualitative methods, such as ethnography, are being touted as an antidote for such limitations. Indeed, a major thrust of consumer research during the last 20 years has been to employ more naturalistic methods of research.  Other consumer researchers emphasize the humanistic approach and the qualitative methods its employs.   An anthropological approach to business education fits in well with these initiatives and is particularly well suitable for courses concerned with consumer behavior (Tian 2001.)

The application of an anthropological approach to business education is not new, but it does seem to be enjoying a renaissance.  Indeed, anthropologists are teaching business courses at Harvard Business School, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, The University of Nebraska, the University of Utah, etc.  On the other hand, anthropology departments (such as at Wayne State University and Oregon State University) are teaching business anthropology courses.  Due to the wide application of anthropology in business and the increased demanding for business anthropologists, more and more colleges and universities are looking for anthropology professors with business experience to help train “practicing anthropologists” (Walsh 2001.) 

Due to these developments, it is necessary for business educators to integrate a fuller discussion of anthropology into their courses.  It is recommended that courses in business anthropology be introduced into business schools. More anthropological content to specific courses is also needed to reflect the changing methods of the practitioner world.

Introducing ethnographic skills in the classroom is an important first step because most anthropological work in business involves some kind of ethnographic methodology.  Human behavior should be studied from a social and cultural context; this truth has been widely accepted by business organizations; business educators need to adjust accordingly

At the same time, students need to understand that business researchers often take shortcuts that do not occur within more scholarly anthropological ethnographies.  Streamlining research in this way can be acceptable if doing do leads to useful and cost-effective information for decision makers.  Paying attention to the constraints of time and money, of course, occurs in all business research and are not limited to the application of qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology.

A second step involves the interactions between the instructor and the students. Before sending students out to do a participant-observation project, they need formal training in the methods of anthropology. Instructors should join with the students in field-work exercises or, at a minimum, be readily available to provide advice.   

Instruction should also have an ethical component.  Regarding the client, fieldworkers need to do their work with care and precision in order to give them their money’s worth.  It is also important to emphasize that researchers have ethical obligations to their informants.  Because these can be confusing and conflicting issues, instructors and students will benefit from reviewing formal codes of ethics, such as that of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA). Codes of ethics establish valuable sets of criteria and guidelines for avoiding inappropriate behavior and for acting in a consistent manner.

The fourth point concerns theoretical issues.  Various concepts and methods make anthropologically inspired research a valuable contribution.  Anthropology, for example is designed to examine issues such as the influence of family, kinship, gender, and friendship on consumer behavior as well as how broad cultural patterns impacts consumer response.  Students need to be aware of the unique contribution that anthropology is poised to make. In consumer behavior, anthropology has long provided a range of tools for understanding both the process of acquiring and consuming products and for dealing with the symbolic role of the consumption process.

 The fifth point deals with the presentation and analysis of data collected from fieldwork. Students should be reminded that without proper analysis, data will never become useful information that can aid in the decision making process. Students need to be instructed on how to effectively present the findings of their research.  This can be particularly important to those who are presenting the findings of qualitative research because they are often not as highly valued as their quantitative alternatives. 

Students need to understand that while anthropological analysis begins with empirical observation, critical analysis must follow.  


            Today, anthropology has gained a larger role within practitioner research of business, in general, and consumer research, in specific.  As a result, anthropological methods increasingly need to be dealt with in greater detail in college courses, such as consumer behavior and marketing research.

Although qualitative methods, such as humanistic and qualitative social scientific techniques, have long been taught within business schools, the current shift towards anthropology is destined to give these tools a higher profile.  As a result of this growing trend, consumer behavior and marketing research instructors increasingly need to develop their courses around qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology and ethnography.  It is hoped that this paper provides valuable resources as this process progresses.


References will be provided

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