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Editorial Commentary: Anthropologists’ Contributions to the Business Studies

Editorial Commentary: Anthropologists’ Contributions to the Business Studies


Although anthropologists can and have made significant contributions to the business world (Jordan 2013), the theories and methods of this qualitative social science have not been as widely phased into business research practice as they could and should have been (Tian and Walle 2009). The most powerful tool that business anthropologists can apply and contribute to anthropological skills is to do ethnographic study. The term ethnography means to make picture of a people. It can be juxtaposed with ethnology, the process of comparing different peoples or ways of life in the hope of discovering universal or recurring patterns, tendencies of human behavior. Put simply, ethnography is the research approach used by anthropologists when studying groups of people. Business anthropologist Malefyt reveals that technological methodologies are central to the production of branded ethnographic practices, as forms of branding and technology legitimate consumer–corporate flows of interaction. The conclusion raises awareness to the ways in which modern branding practices reconstruct anthropology in public discourse (Malefyt 2009).

Stewart suggests that business anthropologists need to understand business language to interpret the speech and other acts around them, regardless in organizational behavior, marketing, product design, or technology.  In this perspective, they are just the same as any others in their need to know the language of their sites.  They share some of their  challenges with most applied anthropologists but not necessarily with academic anthropology.  The need for speed and the attendant necessity for a well defined focus of studies is one of such challenges.  Applied anthropologists often need to work in cross-disciplinary teams as they are often expected to defer to colleagues from other disciplines, particularly economics and psychology, as many business anthropology case studies have demonstrated.  Moreover, the minor role that anthropologists may find themselves in may lead to ethical conundrums.  The dominance of the other fields is also a reason that useful findings by anthropologists have often failed to be implemented (Stewart, 2011).

     According to business anthropologist Dr. Robbie Blinkoff and his Context Based Research Group team, one of most successful business firms provide consultation service by using anthropological theories and methods, ethnography involves four key tenets: Participant Observation, with ethnographers spending time with people as they go about their daily lives, learning how they live by actually doing what they do; Natural Setting,  ethnography is conducted in the space where participants actually live, work and play, not in a separate research facility; In Their Own Words, ethnography research findings are delivered in the words of the participants, using their language and intonation; Holism concerns how people's actions and thoughts are influenced, directly or indirectly, by absolutely everything in their lives. Ethnographers stay open to all potential connections. Ethnographers use many different research methods to gain insight into people, but always come back to these four core ideas.

    Conducting an ethnographic study is a very specific investigation that explores a circumscribed social setting. The goal of ethnographic fieldwork is to describe and analyze a set of human behaviors that exist or have existed in a specific time and place, not to generate universal theories of humankind or human behavior. This type of focused investigation has a proven value to businesses that seek to understand how people respond in the workplace, as employees, as consumers and so on (Walle 2001). Doing ethnographic research involves a range of data-collection activities and can be placed somewhere along a continuum, stretching from the passive observer at one end to the active participant observer at the other. Participant observation involves a level of immersion that allows the researcher to be able to intellectualize what is seen and write about it convincingly. To develop a strong familiarity with the business issues being studied, ethnographers must unravel different clusters of meaning by engaging in a level of interaction that allows them to test their insights about a setting. Ultimately, ethnography is an inductive process, whose data is produced by repeated and prolonged contact between researcher and informant, often with considerable mutual involvement in the personal lives of native participants (Tian, Van Marrewijk, Lillis 2013).

     In recent years, researchers in business have increasingly begun to employ qualitative methods such the ethnographic method and participant observation. Marketers and consumer behavior specialists have developed ways to employ the techniques of ethnography and participant observation within the context of the marketplace. Specialists such as John Sherry and Russell Belk among many others have demonstrated the value of doing so.  This research stream, arguably the most successful example of applying qualitative methods within business research, has gained a high profile and generated great interest (Walle 2001; Tian and Walle 2009). More recently, business anthropologists using ethnographic methods have helped business firms to improve business performances in many function areas, such as product design and development, consumer behavior studies, human resources management, competitive intelligence, and so on.

     More recently, Malefyt (2009) sharply notices that a conjunction in the rise of branding, fast technologies, and increased corporate interest in consumers has produced new branded forms of ethnographic practices, a unique method that business anthropologists can use to make their unique contributions to the business world. For example, Hunt Corporation is a manufacturer and international marketer of consumer products. Their products are targeted to home, office and educational users. Hunt was interested in expanding its shelf presence in the home office supplies and tools categories.

     The business anthropologists at Context worked as a team with Hunt's design partner conducted an ethnographic study by doing fieldwork in Baltimore and Philadelphia area; they conducted a deep interview and observation of each participant's home office. They identified that there were three types of home office users with each type having very specific unmet needs and desires. Armed with this knowledge, the designer was able to produce product sketch concepts for Hunt, which were targeted toward each type of home office user. In the end, Hunt selected the final concepts, which became and will still become products for the home office and marketed at mass merchandisers and office stores throughout the United States. There are many examples to demonstrate that using ethnography is the best way to get closer to the consumer (Sherry 1994; Sunderland and Denny 2007).

Business anthropology as a sub field of anthropology and a sub field of business studies has experienced a great development and progress in recent years. The implication of anthropology along with its unique methods and contributions to the business world has been widely documented. The unique methodology developed by anthropologists enables them to make particular contributions to the business world. The roles that business anthropologists can play, the functions that anthropologists can have, and the contributions that anthropologists can make in the real business world are innumerable according to the needs of individual business firms and the expertise individual business anthropologists accumulated.

     Corporate cultures, knowledge management, cultural audit, organizational change, product design and development, marketing, consumer behavior, and international business studies are some areas that are particularly suitable for business anthropologists to look into and make their contributions. Business anthropologists can also work in and make their contributions to other areas, such as competitive intelligence, international business, human resources management, and operations. In short, the contributions that business anthropologists can make in the real business world are unlimited, and it is reasonable to expect that in the future business anthropologists will become much demanded professionals in the real world (Tian 2010).

     Ethnographic method provides a very powerful tool for business anthropologists to make their much needed contributions to business implementation and strategy. Business researchers can often benefit from doing ethnographies and the information that they can provide. Business ethnographers focus on the fact that there is often a significant difference between what people say and what they really do. Through participant observation, business anthropologists can reveal informal social structures and patterns of behavior that exist, as well as tensions that might not be obvious at first glance. Professionals in the business world have been increasingly using ethnographies as the effective means to improve business performance and profitability (Robert Guang Tian and Gang Chen).





Jordan, A. (2013). Business Anthropology (2nd Edition). Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press.

Malefyt, T. de Waal (2009). Understanding the Rise of Consumer Ethnography: Branding Technomethodologies in the New Economy. American Anthropologists, 111(2): 201-210.

Sherry, J., Jr. (Ed. 1994). Contemporary Marketing and consumer Behavior: An

Stewart, A. (2011). Foreword: Why Become a Business Anthropologist?  In Tian, R., D. Zhou, and A. van Marrewijk (Eds.) Advanced Readings in Business Anthropology: 1-2. Miami, Fl: North America Business Press.

Sunderland, P, and R. M. Denny. (2007). Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Sunderland, P., M. McCabe and T. Malefyt (2012). Business Anthropology in China, Anthropology News, July 23, 2012.

Tian, R, Van Marrewijk, A.H., M. Lillis (2013). General Business Anthropology, Miami (2nd Edition), FL: North American Business Press.

Tian, R. & A. Walle (2009) Anthropology and business education: Practitioner applications for a qualitative method. International Journal of Management Education, 7(2): 59-67.

Tian, R. (2010). The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies: a Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology. International Journal of Business Anthropology, 1(2): 70-88.

Walle, Alf H. (2001). Qualitative Research in Intelligence and Marketing. Westport, CT: Quorum Bo

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