Anthropology is a discipline that over the last hundred or so years has developed a wide array of qualitative techniques for understanding people and their behavior. Although its toolkit is broad, flexible, and illuminating, for many years, these analytic methods suffered as second class citizens within the business disciplines because research tastes were skewed towards quantitative and so called “rigorous” methods. Less formal techniques, such as those that distinguish anthropology, were not considered respectable.
That has changed.
Business practitioners have become impatient with techniques that are unable to provide culturally sensitive information in a timely and effective manner. Because of these problems, anthropological fieldwork techniques (and those inspired by them) have evolved and are being applied within business. The “naturalistic” research stream of consumer behavior is an excellent example of this trend.
It is within today’s environment that Robert Tian, Michael Lillis, and Alfons van Marrewijk offer a text that explores ways in which the qualitative social sciences in general, and anthropology specifically, can serve the strategic sciences such as business and policy science. New books on this subject are always welcomed because this is an area of thought that is quickly evolving and writing only a few years old is likely to be dated. The authors seek to review the current literature and put it into an historical, intellectual, and tactical perspective.
This book is organized into chapters that provide overviews of important trends involving the growing influence of anthropological methods within business research. On the one hand, qualitative methods are being adopted by those who were initially trained in the business disciplines. At the same time, actual anthropologists are joining business schools and the practitioner world. Consulting firms that specialize in qualitative research and anthropological methods are springing up. This is an exciting time for those who are interested in this kind of research. This book was written to help clarify the complexity that is arising.
The book begins by laying a foundation for understanding the current era of business anthropology. As indicated, formal and quantitative methods have long dominated business research. In addition, many leaders and organizations were weakened by ethnocentricity and a lack of cultural understanding. Today the cultural sensitivity of the qualitative methods of anthropology is making organizations increasingly aware of social frameworks that trigger responses. These contributions are much needed and welcomed.
Originally focusing on the workplace, the glimmerings of business anthropology first emerged through efforts associated with the “human relations school” which, starting in the 1930s, which exerted a powerful influence for a generation. During the 1960s and 1970s, however the use and respectability of business anthropology declined. Currently, however, anthropologists increasingly serve as business researchers, and their culturally sensitive perspectives and methods are valued by decision makers.
Compared with their academic counterparts, business anthropologists typically use more questionnaires, although participant observation is a preferred fieldwork method for both business anthropologists and other academic disciplines. Nonetheless, many qualitative (and occasionally quantitative) methods used by anthropologists contribute to the field and its effectiveness. Culture (both corporate culture and culture at large) exerts a profound influence on organizations. From a practical standpoint, building an awareness of culture and its influences is an important first step in determining how to manage people. The need to envision the social milieu creates a profound role for business anthropologists and their methods.
Ethnography and participant observation are two classic qualitative methods of anthropology. Ethnography involves intimately viewing the interworking of a social situation and creating a qualitative analysis of it. Participant observation takes place when a person attempts to function within a social situation in order to intuitively understand what is going on. Business anthropologists use these methods in a variety of ways; these tools are often tailored to the needs of a specific situation. Doing so provides invaluable cultural clues.
Besides helping decision makers to better understand workers and organizations, business anthropology can help explain consumer behavior. Anthropology, as a social science, emphasizes individual behavior within cultural contexts and with reference to shared values, beliefs, etc. Anthropology is positioned to create actionable recommendations and interpretations regarding target markets by gathering and processing detailed qualitative information and interpreting this evidence using culturally relevant insights and theories.
The development of new products is critical. The strategies used to do so often require multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration. The challenges and needs of the contemporary design industry provide exciting and lucrative opportunities for anthropologists because understanding customers, what they want, and how they will use new products is vital.
Some research tasks are qualitative and anthropologists are well prepared to gather and assess valuable information using culturally sensitive, non-quantitative techniques. Competitive intelligence typically involves a sophisticated combination of secondary research and interviewing knowledgeable informants. The theories and methods of anthropology have great potentials in fields such as competitive intelligence and knowledge management.
Since 1980, the world has experienced profound changes due to advances in technology and an exponential increase in international travel and communication. These trends create both risks and opportunities for firms that understand the cultural implications of these transformations. In this global age, anthropologists have a profound role to play. International business provides a wide array of opportunities for anthropologists who possess intercultural knowledge coupled with a strategic focus.
Entrepreneurs play an increasingly important role in business and are a dynamic force of innovation and change. Anthropological studies of entrepreneurship are making a significant contribution to anthropology, business, policy science, leadership, and economic development. The qualitative methodologies of anthropologists and their culturally centered views provide reliable and effective ways to study the entrepreneurial process.
In summary, the qualitative methods of anthropology (and adapting them to the needs of business) provide a vital toolkit that has emerged as a different but equal alternative to more quantitative alternatives. A wide variety of applications ranging from employee behavior to consumer response to entrepreneurship are gaining prominence. Because of the relevance of strategic decision-making, business anthropology will continue to grow and gain prestige within the marketplace and the shop floor.
Alf H. Walle III
Feb. 2010 in San Ignacio, Belize