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Introduction: From Business to Business Anthropology (2)


  1. A Primer of modern Anthropology



What is Anthropology?


Anthropology is a social science that studies the social environment in which people live and the impact of this social environment on feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and so on. Often this is done is a cross-cultural context, meaning that anthropology tends to be comparative and international in scope.  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.  Although it may appear to be a discipline and methodology only recently employed by business researchers, in reality anthropology has a long history within business research.  For instance, Edward T. Hall introduced his seminal ‘silent language’ approach in the 1950s and 60s.[xxxiv]  The classic anthropological methods of research such as ethnography, observation, interviewing have furthermore proved to be appropriate for business research.[xxxv]

The scientific method is a process of experimentation that is used to explore observations and answer questions.  Scientists use the scientific method to search for cause and effect relationships in nature.  In other words, they design an experiment so that changes to one item cause something else to vary in a predictable way.  The ‘naturalistic method’ that has risen to prominence in consumer research in recent years is clearly indebted to anthropological methods.[xxxvi] 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 behavior from the informant’s perspective, not with reference to the feelings or opinions of the investigator.  As a result of this informant-centered focus, researchers are able to more effectively perceive what motivates consumers and affects their responses.

While this method does not adhere to the principles of ‘scientific method’[xxxvii] 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 et al. are reflective of the ethnographic method of anthropology. [xxxviii]  Related to this is the work in what Elizabeth Hirschman has called ‘humanistic’ marketing research which, like anthropological methods, is based upon qualitative methods of research and analysis.  Thus, the current vogue in anthropology of marketing and consumer research can be viewed as a part of a larger qualitative and humanistic research agenda for the field. [xxxix]

In this context, ethnography is a process of describing a culture in subjective ways that stem from the feelings and actions of informants who are functioning members of the group being investigated.[xl] Anthropologists have long discussed 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[xli].

The seminal work leading to this conflict is Kenneth Pike’s book, “Language in Relation to a Unified Structure of Human Behavior,” in which he suggests that all research can be characterised 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 short example demonstrates 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 .[xlii]

Pike generalized rigorous and verifiable research as ‘etic’ while more humanistic research that could not be so verified was depicted as ‘emic’.  In general, ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ are terms used by scholars in the social and behavioral sciences to refer to two different kinds of data concerning human behavior.  An emic report is a description of behavior or a belief in terms meaningful to the actor, consciously or unconsciously.  An etic report is a description of a behavior or belief by an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures.  Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each side of this dichotomy led to a major debate within anthropology.  While initially both parties strongly upheld their own arguments, scholars eventually recognized that both methods have valuable contributions to make.[xliii]

Those engaged in ethnographies tend to focus upon the emic feelings of informants.  They typically seek this information by interacting within a community as much as possible and 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 the subjects.  We will discuss more on the difference of etic vs. emic as research approaches in Chapter 5.

In naturalistic consumer research, these emic methods are adapted and applied to a research agenda.  For example, in order to explore how flea markets actually function, researchers went to such gatherings and observed consumers and sellers interfacing and striking deals.[xliv] While this method may not be a sound scientific approach, it does provide useful information that could not be gathered using formal techniques that demand the researchers remain completely impartial and distanced from the events being analysed.

Anthropology also provides useful methods for analysing particular cultures. Harris and Mora, for example, indicate 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.  Culture provides a learned, shared, and interrelated set of symbols, codes, values, and knowledge which justify and motivate human behavior.[xlv] In recent years, those with international experience have written articles and books about foreign countries that help those in international business to understand diverse cultures in order to be more effective within that context. These monographs tend to be emic-oriented.[xlvi]

Although most business textbooks, especially textbooks for organizational behaviour, consumer behaviour, management, 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 marketing and consumer research are often misused.  However, the profound impact of culture upon consumer response is observable and undeniable.[xlvii] Those teaching marketing, consumer research and advertising need to scan the textbooks they use to be sure that 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 and attitudes.[xlviii]  According to classic 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.[xlix]  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, especially when the researcher is studying a modern industrial country or a small, remote village.

Historically, as we will address in Chapter Two, anthropologists played a significant role in promoting business operations and profitability by conducting culture studies.  Baba and Batteau indicate that since the 1930s, cultural anthropologists have conducted a large 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 organizations were influenced by informal cultural patterns and cohort groups.[l]

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 research. With their traditional emphasis upon participant observation, business anthropologists are in a position to gather information on grassroots corporate culture. [li]

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.  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 emphasise customer relations when training technicians.[lii]

In short, anthropology is a social science that studies the social environment in which people live and the impact of this social environment upon feelings, attitudes, behavior, etc. Although often wrongfully dismissed as an “ivory tower” discipline, anthropology has much to contribute to the study of business problems, such as cultural management, ethnic conflicts in organization behavior, and consumer behavior studies.[liii]  Accordingly, anthropology is the study of human beings as both natural and social creatures, from the time of our pre-human ancestors’ earliest appearance on earth to contemporary time. 



Structural and Poststructural


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.[liv]

For many years, the social structural approach was considered the state of the art in the social sciences, but in the 1960s, this paradigm fell from vogue.  Although long attacked by theoretical rivals, Walle documents that current advances in the structural model are returning it to useful service. [lv]   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.

The rise of this philosophical school led to the establishment of existentialism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.  These methods reject the 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.)  Poststructuralism and postmodernism have emerged as popular methodologies among marketing researchers due to the importance of dealing with distinct groups (specific target markets).

While social structuralism 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 rejects ethnography while others embrace 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.

                Anthropology as Natural or Social Science: Although many now view it as fitting more appropriately among the humanities, anthropology has historically been considered a science – a body of knowledge gained from studying, learning about, and testing phenomena and ideas within a particular subject gained by using agreed-upon data collection and testing methods.[lvi]  Most scientists are designated either natural or social, depending on their subject matter.  The natural sciences are a group of disciplines, including botany, geology, and astronomy, that are concerned with physical phenomena such as the evolution, current status, and future of plants, rocks, or stars. 

The social sciences are a group of disciplines, including political science, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, that are concerned with social phenomena – social in that their focus is some aspect of the behavior of human beings as they live with and relate to each other in social groups.  Anthropology is unusual for a science in that it straddles the natural science – social science divide.  On one hand, its object of inquiry, like that of the other social sciences, is human beings; on the other hand, it is concerned with human beings as creatures of nature as well as society.[lvii]

Persuasive arguments have been put forward for considering cultural anthropology as one of the humanities rather than one of the sciences.  Indeed, “even those scholars who acknowledge science as cultural anthropology’s ‘dominant parental strain,’ intellectually speaking, often do not recognize it as the only strain.”[lviii]  Practitioners of a more humanistic cultural anthropology refer to it by a number of different names; its leading proponent, Clifford Geertz, labels this kind of cultural anthropology interpretive anthropology, but it has also been termed hermeneutic, symbolic, deconstructionist, postmodern, critical, and reflexive, among other appellations.[lix]

No matter what the designation, however, defenders of this view see the search for cultural anthropological knowledge as more appropriately a search for meaning than fact, always subject to change and reinterpretation and specific to particular times, places, and even researchers rather than universal.  Moreover, those who support a more humanistic anthropology argue that the scientific quest for objective knowledge by the cultural anthropologists is unavoidably doomed, because the subject matter of (cultural) anthropology defies objective description.[lx]

The disagreement about cultural anthropology’s appropriate academic placement is ongoing, with interpretive anthropologists viewing traditional anthropologists’ attempts to be scientific as “naïve and unrealistic,” and scientific anthropologists’ view of the goals of interpretive anthropology as “trivial and unworthy”[lxi].  This book takes the time-tested view that whatever else it may be, cultural anthropology is a science, and that therefore the principles of scientific inquiry can and should apply to the greatest extent possible, given the variability and mutability of the discipline’s object of inquiry.[lxii]

If cultural anthropology is a science, then it is indisputably a social science, since its focus is the behavior and beliefs of human beings in social groups.  Linguistic anthropology is customarily placed in the same category.  Archaeology, with its interest in understanding the cultures of past peoples through sophisticated analyses of physical remains (analyses which often take place in the laboratory), combines social and natural science.  Physical anthropology is the field of anthropology that is most clearly affiliated with the natural sciences.  It is important to note that in anthropology, the distinction between natural and social science is by no means clear-cut.  Many aspects of being human are neither wholly products of social life nor of biology.  Examples include human beings’ historical and linguistic development and their cognitive and symbolic abilities.[lxiii]



Four Traditional Fields of Anthropology


As one of the traditional academic disciplines, anthropology overlaps many other disciplines, among both the sciences and the humanities.  Examples include primatology, human physical morphology, human psychology, and sociology.  However, anthropology differs from all other disciplines in the inclusiveness of its interests in all aspects of the human story, in its multiplicity of perspectives from which to view human existence, and in some of the methods it calls upon in its search for knowledge about humankind. [lxiv]

The study of human beings as both natural and social creatures is a very broad subject that requires a number of different vantage points.  As such, different kind of anthropologists focus on different aspects of what it means – or meant – to be human.[lxv]  Some anthropologists are primarily interested in the ideas and lifestyle of contemporary human beings while some others study human beings of the past, as revealed through physical objects and other clues left behind when ancestral groups died out or migrated.  Still some anthropologists focus on human beings’ physical evolution, from the first appearance of pre-human creatures of the taxonomic order primates to the present day, on human beings’ contemporary physical status, and on their relationship with other members of their taxonomic order.  In addition, a relatively small number of anthropologists study various languages that human beings used to communicate from both past and present perspectives.[lxvi] 

In short, anthropologists are interested in studying anything and everything that sheds light on the existence, development, appearance, behavior, and beliefs of human beings. Accordingly, anthropology is divided into four traditional sub branches, and each of these four fields focuses on a different aspect of human life:

  1. Cultural anthropology (also called sociocultural anthropology)
  2. Archaeology
  3. Physical (sometimes called biological) anthropology
  4. Anthropological linguistics

In spite of the single academic umbrella beneath which these anthropological topics all cluster, and of the considerable overlap among these four fields, they differ considerably in terms of their knowledge bases and methodologies. Although most anthropologists have some graduate training in each of the four fields, individual anthropologists usually specialize in only one for the entirety of their careers. The traditional division of anthropology into four fields both acknowledges and perpetuates these intellectual “turf” distinctions. 



Cultural Anthropology


The largest field of anthropology, in terms of relative numbers of practitioners, is cultural anthropology or social anthropology as termed in British tradition.  The authors of this book believe that this branch is the most meaningful to apply to business practices because it has developed and promoted “culture” as a meaningful scientific concept, studied cultural variation among humans, and examined the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities.  The anthropological concept of culture reflects in part a reaction against earlier Western discourses based on an opposition between culture and nature, according to which some human beings lived in a state of nature. [lxvii]

Much of anthropological theory has originated because of the interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distinct places/circumstances).  For cultural anthropologists, culture is human nature, and all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically (such as in language), and teach such abstractions to others. Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures.  Cultural anthropologists believe that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so that people living in different environments will often have different cultures.

Cultural anthropology is concerned with the behavior of human beings in social groups (societies).  Its focus is culture, defined for purposes of this book as all the behaviors, ideas, manufactured objects, and systems of expression that characterize life in human social groups.  Parallel to the rise of cultural anthropology in the United States, social anthropology, in which sociality is the central concept and which focuses on the study of social statuses and roles, groups, institutions, and the relations among them, developed as an academic discipline in Britain.  An umbrella term socio-cultural anthropology makes reference to both cultural and social anthropology traditions.[lxviii]

The practitioners have studied literally thousands of different cultures since cultural anthropology’s nineteenth-century inception as a discrete academic discipline.  The cultures they have studied include not only those currently extant but also many that are now either extinct or so altered as to be quite different from their ancestral forms.  Through their more than hundred years study history, the socio-cultural anthropologists demonstrated the value of cultural information and the ideas about all these cultures values from a number of different viewpoints because anthropological perspectives changed through time. Their studies now form an enormous compendium of data about people, past and present, all over the world.  This body of knowledge is so broadly ranged across many academic fields that it has enabled the field of cultural anthropology to become highly comparative. [lxix]

In the early 20th century, socio-cultural anthropology developed in different forms in Europe and in the United States.  European social anthropologists focused on observed social behaviors and on social structure, that is, on relationships among social roles (e.g., husband and wife, or parent and child) and social institutions (e.g., religion, economy, and politics).  American cultural anthropologists focused on the ways people expressed their view of themselves and their world, especially in symbolic forms (such as art and myths).  These two approaches frequently converged (kinship and leadership function, for example, both as symbolic systems and as social institutions), and generally complemented one another.  Today almost all socio-cultural anthropologists refer to the work of both sets of predecessors, and have an equal interest in what people do and in what people say. [lxx]

In the later 20th century most cultural (and social) anthropologists turned to the study of ethnography, in which an anthropologist actually lives among another society for a considerable period of time, simultaneously participating in and observing the social and cultural life of the group.  Malinowski who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England developed this method, and Boas who conducted fieldwork in Baffin Island and taught in the United States promoted it.  The students of Boas drew on his conception of culture and cultural relativism to develop cultural anthropology in the United States. Simultaneously, Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown´s students were developing social anthropology in the United Kingdom.  Whereas cultural anthropology focused on symbols and values, social anthropology focused on social groups and institutions.  Today socio-cultural anthropologists attend to all these elements.[lxxi]

Sociocultural anthropologists believe that the study of other cultures help them better understand their own cultures. Sociocultural anthropology has a unique approach to collecting and analyzing data.  Anthropologists go out into the communities. They study and spend long periods of time observing people, talking to them, and participating in their daily activities.  This way of collecting information is termed fieldwork.  While they may do some statistical analysis, their most important contributions usually come from qualitative analysis. This approach is called “ethnography.” Daily interactions with the members of a community provide anthropologists with firsthand experiences that yield insight and information that could not be gained any other way.  Because of its inductive, exploratory character, it is particularly suited to understanding complex, dynamic situations where changes are happening on several levels at once.





Archaeology is the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes.  Because archaeology's aim is to understand humankind, it is a humanistic endeavor.[lxxii]  The specific ways in which its practitioners, termed archaeologists, pursue the answers to questions about people of the past are necessarily quite different from the methods used by cultural anthropologists, since the human beings who are the target of archaeological research are usually long gone.  Archaeologists find, analyze, and interpret materials that were discarded or left behind when their makers died or moved away.  These remains, termed artifacts, include everything from stone tools to cooking pots made of baked clay to ancient city walls – or small fragments of any of these.  Since artifacts are apt to be buried under layer upon layer of soil by the passage of time.  The primary research method of archaeologists involves excavation.[lxxiii]

Archaeology is divided into subfields, and most archaeologists specialize in one or more of them.  Some are most interested in the prehistoric period, the time before human beings kept written records; others in the historic period, the time after the invention of writing.  (The periods of time designated by these two terms vary in absolute terms, depending on the specific culture under discussion.)  Some specialize in the archaeology of a particular group of people (for example, Neanderthals, Bronze Age Greeks, or Native Americans); others specialize in a particular part of the world (for example, Oceania, northern Europe, or the American Southwest).   Many archaeologists specialize in cultural resources management: archaeological research in support of the effective implementation of laws intended to protect humans’ prehistoric and historical legacy.[lxxiv]

Often archaeology provides the only means to learn of the existence and behaviors of people of the past. Across the millennia many thousands of cultures and societies and billions of people have come and gone of which there is little or no written record or existing records are misrepresentative or incomplete.  Writing as it is known today did not exist in human civilization until the 4th millennium BC, in a relatively small number of technologically advanced civilizations.  In contrast Homo sapiens have existed for at least 200,000 years, and other species of Homo for millions of years. These civilizations are, not coincidentally, the best-known; they are open to the inquiry of historians for centuries, while the study of pre-historic cultures has arisen only recently.  Even within a literate civilization many events and important human practices are not officially recorded.  Today most of our knowledge about the early years of human civilization, from the development of agriculture, cult practices of folk religion, to the rise of the first cities, is from archaeology.[lxxv]

Many archaeologists today are employed not in universities but in museums, public agencies, and for profit corporations.  State highway agencies employ archaeologists to conduct surveys of proposed new routes in order to locate and excavate archaeological sites that will be destroyed.  Other sources of employment for archaeologists are the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, who hire archaeologists to find sites on public land so that the appropriate parties can make decisions about the preservation of cultural remains.



Physical Anthropology


The third traditional field of anthropology is physical anthropology, also termed as biological anthropology, the practitioners in this field study the the mechanisms of biological evolution, genetic inheritance, human adaptability and variation, primatology, primate morphology, and the fossil record of human evolution.  More specifically, physical anthropologists study biological development and current physical status of human beings and their direct ancestors.  Physical anthropology was developed in the 19th century, prior to the rise of Alfred Russel Wallace's and Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection and Gregor Mendel's work on genetics.  Physical anthropology was so called because all of its data was physical (fossils, especially human bones). With the rise of Darwinian theory and the modern synthesis, anthropologists had access to new forms of data, and many began to call themselves “biological anthropologists”. [lxxvi]

Biological anthropology is concerned with the anatomy and behavior of monkeys and apes, the physical variation between different human populations, and the biological evolution of the human species.  The specialization of primatology studies the evolution, anatomy, adaptation, and social behavior of primates, the taxonomic order to which humans belong.  We humans, or Homo sapiens, share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees.

Like archaeology, physical anthropology is divided into subfields.  One is primatology, the study of nonhuman primates (such as apes and monkeys) –human beings’ closest animal relatives. Another is paleoanthropology (or human evolution), the study of how and when human beings evolved from earlier forms of life.  A third is biological anthropology (or human variation), the study of physical differences among human beings.  A fourth is forensic anthropology, the use of data on human variation to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes, investigate fatal transportation accidents, or identify murder or accident victims.  Paleoanthropology, biological anthropology, and forensic anthropology are grouped under the rubric human evolution and variation.  Some physical anthropologists are specialists in more than one of these subfields.[lxxvii]

Some of the early branches of physical anthropology, such as those of the early studies in anthropometry, have been criticized. Metrics such as the cephalic index were often used to derive behavioral characteristics. While most biological anthropologists work in universities or museums as teachers, and researchers, many people trained in biological anthropology apply their knowledge of human anatomy to solve problems. For instance, specialists in forensic anthropology work with law enforcement and other agencies where they help to identify human remains and identify the circumstances of death. For example, teams of forensic anthropologists exhumed human remains from graves in Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti to identify victims of political assassination and determined their cause of death.



Linguistic Anthropology


The fourth traditional field of anthropology is linguistic anthropology also called anthropological linguistics.  We need to clarify that the field of linguistic anthropology is not the same as the field of linguistics, which is another important field of study about human beings.   Linguistic anthropology is the study of languages, ancient and modern, written and unwritten, and of how languages develop, diffuse, and are used.  Just as studying the material culture of a group enables anthropologists to formulate theories of sociality and social structure for a particular society, studying the languages and patterns of communication enable anthropologists to understand how culture is transmitted and reproduced. Linguistic anthropologists bring linguistic methods to bear on anthropological problems, linking the analysis of semiotic and particularly linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of sociocultural processes. [lxxviii]

Anthropological linguistic scholars study the relations between language and culture, and the relations between human biology, cognition and language. They attempt to reconstruct now-extinct languages, study how languages spread and change through time and space, and explore and explain the connections between language and other aspects of culture.[lxxix]  Like any academic discipline, linguistic anthropology has many theoretical trajectories, and its foundations have been set by a number of key theoreticians.[lxxx] Linguistic anthropology is the study of language, not any particular language, but human language as a general phenomenon.

Language interests anthropologists for several reasons. For one thing the ability to communicate complex messages with great efficiency maybe the most important capability of humans that makes us different from other primates and other animals. Anthropologists are interested in language because of how the culture and language of a people affect each other.  The subfield of anthropological linguistics is concerned with the complex relations between language and other aspects of human behavior and thought. For example, anthropological linguists are interested in how language is used in various social contexts: How does one order a drink in China?  What style of speech must one use with people of high social status?  Does the language we learn while growing up have any important effects on how we view the world or how we think and feel?

As a broad interdisciplinary field which studies the evolution, distribution, and functions of human language in relation to human culture, society, cognition, and experience, it is the study of how language and other systems of human communication contribute to the reproduction, transmission, and transformation of culture.  It is concerned with the role of language and other systems in reproducing and transforming such aspects of society as power relations, ideologies, subcultural expressions, social identity, popular culture, class, gender and ethnic identity, to name a few.[lxxxi]  Linguistic anthropology is primarily concerned with:

  1. The causes and social meanings of language variation within societies, and the sociohistorical development of different languages and linguistic varieties.
  2. The centrality of language for the human condition, as a medium of world-building, cognition, and identity negotiation.
  3. Language as it is used, in particular sociocultural contexts by people who have specific cultural roles and interests at stake.



  1. Expanding Towards Business Anthropology



Applied Anthropology as the Fifth Field


The traditional fields of anthropology are primarily concerned with creating theoretical models which correspond to its units of analysis. For instance the units of analysis for sociocultural anthropologists are mainly related to social inequality, performance, exchange, meaning, and so forth.  Sometimes the research that falls within the applied field is referred to as “applied” in contrast to academic research, which is referred to as basic.  Business anthropology is an example of “applied” anthropology.  Academically, applied anthropology refers to the application of method and theory in anthropology to the analysis and solution of practical problems.

Inasmuch as anthropology proper comprises four traditional sub-disciplines -- biological, cultural, linguistic, physical and archaeological anthropology -- the practical application of any of these sub-disciplines may properly be designated applied anthropology.  In fact, some practical problems may invoke all sub-disciplines.  For example, a Native American community development program may involve archaeological research to determine legitimacy of water rights claims, ethnography may involve assessing the current and recent historical cultural characteristics of the community, linguistics may be applied to restoring language competence, and biological, or more specifically “medical” anthropology may be applied to determine the factors contributing to dietary deficiency diseases, and so on.[lxxxii] 

Some scholars regard applied anthropology to be a fifth sub-discipline that applies anthropological data, perspectives, theory, and methods to identify, assess and solve contemporary social problems.[lxxxiii]   However, applied anthropologists often work in nonacademic areas such as governments, development agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), tribal and ethnic associations, interest groups, social-service and educational agencies, and businesses.  They use the theories, methods, and ethnographic findings of anthropology to solve human problems.   Today, most applied anthropologists are practitioners who use cross-cultural knowledge and anthropological methods for research and action around the world, not only from an academic base.[lxxxiv] 

Applied anthropologists do not simply study the nature of problems but more and more focus on the solutions to the problems.  Practicing applied anthropologists make their contributions to business, government, health, education, and human services domains by doing ethnography and participant observation, which are their primary research tools. They also use textual analysis, survey research and other empirical methods to inform policy or to market products.  They may work for congresswomen, in hospitals, school districts, research and consulting firms, or state and local governments. These anthropologists are often administrators, program directors, and even business owners.  Applied and practicing anthropologists may confront special challenges.  They are called on to offer the anthropological perspective--a view of humanity grounded in a tradition of cross-cultural scholarship and action.[lxxxv]  



Scope and Limits of Applied Anthropology


In contrast to the quantitative information of science or economics, the information of anthropology is basically qualitatively oriented.  The data anthropologists collect is the information regarding peoples, their habitats, communities, institutions, values, and aspirations.  Anthropological information is powerful and could be very crucial in the decision-making process if supported by quantitative data (statistics).  The qualitative sociocultural information consists of worldviews, interactions and organizations.  The implicit patterns and traditional values underlying behavior and organizations do not emerge from the conventional social science studies, such as sociology and economics.[lxxxvi] 

Applied anthropologists have tried to turn the implicit into the explicit, values and patterns into operative elements.  Two approaches are available for applied anthropologists to use their anthropological knowledge and skills in the real world.  One is through the application of anthropological information in the public domain.  Concerned individuals and organizations may wish to undertake in-depth studies of a particular territory, community, or topics of interest.  They may improve their understanding through the available literature, audio-visual documentaries, or orientation courses and seminars, which are provided by anthropologists.  The second approach is through specific advisory and support services by anthropologists hired for a specific time period or as permanent in-house experts. [lxxxvii]

The breadth of applied anthropology has two dimensions: an interdisciplinary one and an intercultural one.  As a matter of fact all human and social problems are interdisciplinary.  To successfully deal with social or human problems from a single perspective of only one discipline is almost impossible. Formal and well-trained anthropologists are usually very good at merging together various sources of information and analysis to create an added value.  Moreover, anthropologists are skillful in collaborating with experts of other disciplines.  Their capacity to observe while participating in real life situations, known as the participation observation method in anthropology, is an advantage point for the development of teamwork skills.[lxxxviii]

In the contemporary world, most business actions involve nation-states and governments.  The globalization, migratory movements from one place to another, the close interdependence among governments, industries, and communities across the geographical and political boundaries have made the business become multidimensional and complex.  We term these phenomena as an intercultural dimension of the contemporary business world.  Multiple languages, religions, ethnicities, and cultures within one single business case become common and even dominate the business world.  Accordingly, business firms, governments, government agencies, and non-government organizations must combine interdisciplinary ways of thinking with intercultural approaches in order to create a common and comprehensive operational ground.  It is necessary to work out common intelligibility in concept, method and procedure, roles and relations, accountability and safety to assure smooth functioning and better output.  Anthropologists can help in analyzing and shaping the organizational and business cultures.[lxxxix]

Social structures and cultural frameworks are permanently in a state of flux.  So the methods, data and theories of applied anthropology need to be constantly revised and updated.  The most important issues of community and territory demand medium and long-term cumulative and comparative research in order to create a picture and confidence in the findings and interpretations.  This can be a burden for many organizations.  Some unusually larger organizations may be able to respond to this problem by employing an anthropologist as in-house expert; however, it is most unlikely for many consultancy service-users who need quick solutions and are willing to sustain only short-term inquires. Well experienced and highly skilled anthropologists will usually be able to manage qualitative research in a compressed timeframe.  However, better methods, procedures and standardization for the short and medium-term applied works must be developed in applied anthropology.  This demand from the real world brought business anthropology into being.[xc] 



Toward Business Anthropology


As discussed above the scope of applied anthropology is very broad, as such the chances of its misuses through inappropriate and fruitless applications are unavoidable.  Following the trend or fashion of anthropological consultancy, many organizations may simply hire an anthropologist as a showpiece without really providing him or her with sufficient resources and logistic support to conduct serious research or they can simply ignore the anthropologist’s findings and recommendations. [xci] 

Applied anthropologists have much to contribute to solving the problems and challenges, both organizational and operational, faced by for-profit businesses, because most business problems are people problems.[xcii]   The use of anthropological ideas and methods to achieve practical goals primarily in the private, for-profit sector is termed business anthropology or, alternatively, corporate anthropology.  Another related term, industrial anthropology, refers specifically to anthropological research focusing on industry that is defined in terms of its large scale, capital investment, among some other criteria.[xciii] 

These two terms, namely business anthropology and industrial anthropology, are interchangeable for scholars of business anthropology.[xciv] However, the term “business anthropology” became more popular and widely used in the 1980s, as more and more anthropologists were hired as full-time, non-academic practitioners in niches related to consumer behavior and marketing. Prior to that time, the term “industrial anthropology,” “anthropology of work,” or “applied anthropology in industry” were used more frequently to denote areas of research and practice focused on business related phenomenon.  More recently, the term “business anthropology” has begun to be used more generically to refer any application of anthropology to business-oriented problems.[xcv]  Currently “business anthropology” is recognized as a subfield of the discipline in applied anthropology. [xcvi]

Baba and Batteau, two business anthropology professors at Wayne State University define business anthropology as applying anthropological theories and practices to the needs of private sector organizations, especially industrial business firms. Current research initiatives in the field tend to be concentrated in (1) organizational theory and culture, (2) marketing and consumer behavior, and (3) international business, especially international marketing, intercultural management, cross cultural competitive intelligence, and intercultural communication.[xcvii]   

In this textbook, we define business anthropology as a practical oriented scholastic field in which anthropologists or scholars from other disciplines apply anthropological theories, methods, and skills to identify, to study, and to provide the solutions to solve all kinds of business related problems that faced by all kinds business organizations, from the smallest single person run corner stores to the hugest corporations that are with thousands of employees, in their everyday business operations in various business environments, domestically, internationally, or globally.

Moreover, we define business anthropologists as all those anthropologists who study the business fields of management, operations, marketing, consumer behavior, organizational culture, human resources management, international business, competitive intelligence, knowledge management, and so on.  Their study is done through anthropological methods, particularly through ethnographic methods, such as participant observation, informal and structured interviews, and other typical anthropological research methods, which we will discuss in chapter three.  Business anthropologists should and are able to play key roles in the business world, by helping business organizations develop culturally appropriate ways of doing business with suppliers, business partners, or customers.  Promoting smooth working relationships among employees who are more and more likely, thanks to recent equal opportunity employment legislation, to represent different age groups, ethnic groups, and both sexes.[xcviii]

            In practice, business anthropologists do study almost everything from marketing strategies to corporate culture and 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. [xcix] Business anthropologists can also facilitate organizational restructuring for greater economy and efficiency.  In the next section we will discuss in more detail about the function and role of business anthropologists play in the modern business world.

As discussed earlier, business and industry are the fundamental structures for organizing economic activity to meet basic human needs in modern market societies.[c]  For some scholars, business means the buying and selling of goods and services in the marketplace, also known as commerce or trade, while industry refers to the organized production of goods and services on a large scale.  It includes all that businesses produce as well as the marketing of those products.  These terms, when used by business anthropologists in their practices, are related to one or more of the three major domains of business anthropological research and practice, namely 1) anthropology related to the process of producing goods and services, and the corporate organizations in which production takes place; 2) ethnographically-informed design of new products, services and systems for consumers and businesses, and 3) anthropology related to the marketplace and the consumer behavior. [ci]

Today, business anthropology as a subfield of applied anthropology is not only taught in graduate programs in anthropology but also included in the curricula of a number of American universities offering the MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) degree.  It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the old association of business anthropology with a lack of concern for human welfare still persists today among some academic anthropologists.[cii]   As some business anthropologist may think that today business does not work well with most anthropologists.[ciii]  This attitude may reflect a lack of understanding and appreciation of the skills and contributions of business anthropologists by academic anthropologists.  If so, it is sure to continue to weaken with time.  However, to the extent that this attitude reflects a more widespread phenomenon – some academics’ general disparagement of any kind of intellectual output other than the theoretical – may never entirely disappear.[civ]

Baba and Batteau, among others, are anthropologists who have successfully integrated anthropology with business education by offering business anthropology courses at Wayne State University.  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. [cv]   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 to get effective solutions for addressing these issues.  While an understanding of the cultural context of domestic business is invaluable, the importance of culture is even more essential within the international sphere.  In the end, the magnitude of the cultural differences in international business is vastly greater than 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. [cvi]   This focus can be widely applied to improve business operations.

In fact, Jordan 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 integrated into a 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 have employed it in their business research. [cvii]



  1. 5.     What Contributions Can Business Anthropologists Make?


The roles and functions of business anthropologists have been widely recognized; in fact anthropologists are able to help solve most business problems in the real world.  Business problems are various. For example, some of the business problems are related to the acceptance of new technical tools, methods, and processes by reluctant workers.  Business firms that have workers with different educational, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds may face serious difficulties in creating a coherent organizational culture.[cviii] Business anthropologists have been hired to investigate sources of trouble and to suggest remedies.[cix]  In some cases, business anthropologists are able to help mediate and open communication between groups of workers and management.[cx]

In practice, most business anthropologists play one of two very different roles in the companies for which they work. Some focus on the products that businesses produce, for example, by helping businesses to develop attractive, salable products and to market these products successfully.  While others focus on business organizations themselves, for example, by helping businesses to improve the efficiency with which they are run.  No matter what their topical focus or employment status is, however, business anthropologists rely on the same methods other kinds of applied anthropologists use in their practice, especially participant observation, informant interviewing, focus groups, various survey methods, and network analysis.[cxi] They also research and analyze many of the same cultural variables as other anthropologists, such as beliefs and values, social structure, and gender-related behavior differences.  In general, their work includes the same steps that characterize other kinds of applied cultural anthropology.[cxii]

Margaret A. Gwynne, an applied anthropological theorist, along with Dr. Ann Jordan, places business anthropology as a subfield of applied anthropology, which we fully agree with. However, in her view there is a major methodological difference between business anthropology and other kinds of applied anthropology because in most cases the fundamental purpose of private sector economic activity is to make profit, and as such, there are always highly competitive in the business world.   Moreover, because when working for highly competitive business firms business anthropologists usually face a difficulty in being “open” with results, publication, and sometimes must undergo serious concerns about professional ethical questioning.  Gwynne emphasizes that this statement must be qualified by “in most cases” because there are situations in which the private nonprofit sector, private citizens run businesses, charitable foundations, NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), PVOs (Private Voluntary Organizations), or religious institutions not to make a profit but for humanitarian purposes.[cxiii] 

The profit motive usually means that the “product cycle” of any given item produced by a business – the amount of time between the development and introduction of a product and its decline – tends to be relatively short.  For this reason, research undertaken by business anthropologists is usually of a much shorter duration and involves far fewer informants than academic research does.[cxiv]  In the business world there are various approaches to the real problems that are mostly associated with people. The anthropological approach seeks to answer the ever-widening questions such as:  “Why do people do what they do?”  “What do they mean when they doing so?:  Keeping these quesitons in mind, we can further analyze 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.


Corporate Cultures 

A business, like a small-scale society or subculture, exists under certain rules and policies established by the government or industries.  As discussed previously, a business firm consists of many individuals, of both genders, and a wide range of ages with different educational backgrounds; moreover, the individuals within the same business organization may have different skills and levels of ability.  A business firm may include members of different ethnic groups and representatives of different socioeconomic classes.  Each of these individuals will play a particular role in the institutional structure of the business, and this role conveys, on each, a particular status in the corporate hierarchy structure.  The first, and perhaps the most important, contribution of business anthropologists to business organizations therefore is their systematic understanding of the corporate or organizational culture.[cxv] 

For anthropologists, businesses firms are not only economic organizations that exists primarily to make a profit, but also groups of people similar in many respects to the other kinds of human groups that are more traditionally studied by anthropologists.[cxvi]  Business anthropologists have the ability to “penetrate” corporate cultures and to elicit not only formal but also informal knowledge from them.[cxvii]  For example, business anthropologist Eleanor Wynn, who has worked for a number of high-tech companies on a consulting basis, compares the work she did for one of them, the Xerox Corporation, to “going to deepest, darkest New Guinea… What goes on in an R&D (research and development) computer lab … was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen”.[cxviii]

Business anthropologists tend to find out the answers to the following questions in a given business organization under the study:  Who are the leaders and who are the followers in the business?  How many different groups of people exist in the business? What common beliefs, values, and attitudes do members of each group inside the business hold?  What does the existing political hierarchy, according to which power and authority are wielded and responsibility is delegated, look like?  How is information passed through among the members of each group?  How do group members relate to and communicate with each other?  What causes disputes among group members, among groups, and how are these resolved? It is sometimes difficult to convey to business managers that studying the answers to these and other anthropological questions can lead to corporate policy recommendations, which will be able to help a business function more smoothly and thus more profitably.  Anthropological theory is sometimes not easily adopted by the average businessperson.[cxix] 

According to Gwynne, any cultural anthropologist who is attempting to unravel and make explicable the culture of a small-scale society will have a number of different models to follow; examples include Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, Malinowski’s functionalism, Geertz’s symbolic approach, and Marcus’s postmodern approach.  Each of these models, and there are many others as well, provides a different means for conceiving of and investigating the culture of a group of people who are bonded together by same shared common values.  Any of the models listed above can be used as a conceptual tool for investigating the culture of a business organization.  Accordingly, the analysis of the culture for a specific business organization by business anthropologists can be approached in different ways; therefore the task of business anthropologists is often quite complex and theoretical once managers have accepted that business anthropology has merit.  [cxx]

To Gwynne, no matter what the model, a business anthropologist will view a business as a bounded community of people to be studied, analyzed, and understood in the same terms as other non-business communities.[cxxi]  Take applied anthropologist Judith Benson as an example. She worked for Kaiser Permanente, a health care management firm.  Her responsibilities ranged from conducting focus groups to setting up a computerized system for processing clients’ complaints and managing a local call center.  When Kaiser decided to embark on a “re-engineering” project intended to implement significant organizational changes within the business firm, Benson smoothed the way for process change by offering guidance to the team members on how to identify the cultural context within which the change would take place.  One of her concerns was to ensure that any changes made to the corporate culture would be sustainable for employees being affected, a task she addressed by developing a series of strategies that promoted communication, idea sharing, and collaboration among employees:  “I worked closely with individuals whom I recognized as potential roadblocks to the process change…I spent time with these major stakeholders to understand their points of view.  At the same time, I worked with team members so that they could develop the process change in a way that blended with rather than confronted the existing cultural context.”[cxxii]



Tacit Knowledge Management


All employees will gradually develop tacit knowledge, which is defined as an informal body of knowledge gained in the course of doing a particular job.[cxxiii]  With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others.  Tacit knowledge is considered more valuable because it provides context for people, places, ideas, and experiences.  Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact and trust. Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. One of Polanyi's famous aphorisms is: We know more than we can tell.[cxxiv]

Tacit knowledge often consists of habits and culture that we do not recognize by ourselves. In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge which is only known by an individual and that is difficult to communicate to the rest of an organization.[cxxv]  Knowledge that is easy to communicate is called explicit knowledge.  The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as articulation or codification.  This kind of knowledge contrasts with formal knowledge in that it is not made explicit. For instance, a factory worker may have an “informal mental map” of the way raw materials actually flow through a manufacturing logistic process, a map that may reflect what really happens on the shop floor more accurately than what is shown on an idealized schematic drawing of the manufacturing process.  An important part of what business anthropologists do is to tease out tacit knowledge that would otherwise remain hidden.[cxxvi]

Business executives who understand their employees’ various bodies of tacit knowledge can use these to improve the efficiency with which a business is run, which ultimately, of course, helps increase profits.  This skill is called tacit knowledge management.  The tacit knowledge of a group of experienced, long-term employees, for example, can sometimes be “captured” and taught to incoming employees[cxxvii].  This may be accomplished formally, by means of orientation lectures or written guidelines for new employees, but is more often done quite informally by having long-term employees talk to newcomers about a corporation’s history and traditions.[cxxviii]



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