The term "business anthropology" became more popular and widely used in the 1980s, when anthropologists were hired in 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. Currently “business anthropology” is recognized as a subfield of the discipline in applied anthropology.
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 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. We define business anthropology as a practical oriented scholastic field in which business anthropologists apply anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve real business problems in everyday life.
Moreover, we define business anthropologists as all those anthropologists who study business fields of management, operations, marketing, consumer behavior, organizational culture, human resources management, international business, and so on, through anthropological methods, particularly through ethnographic methods, such as participant observation, informal and structured interviews, and other anthropological based research methods. Business anthropologists are able to play key roles in business world, such as help corporations develop culturally appropriate ways of doing business with suppliers, business partners, or customers; promote 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.
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. Business anthropologists can also facilitate organizational restructuring for greater economy and efficiency. In the next section we will discuss more in details about the function and role business anthropologists in the modern business world.
Business and industry are fundamental structures of organizing economic activity to meet basic human needs in modern market societies. For Baba, businessmeans the buying and selling of goods and services in the marketplace, also known as commerce or trade, while industryrefers to the organized production of goods and services on a large scale, it consists of all the business firms produce and marketing the same product. These terms, when used by business anthropologists in their practice usually 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/or 3) anthropology related to the behavior of consumers and the marketplace.
Today, business anthropology as 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. As business anthropologist Marietta Baba puts it “business (still)… doesn’t sit well with most anthropologists”. This attitude may reflect a lack of understanding and appreciation, on the part of academic anthropologists, of the skills and contributions of business 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 – it may never entirely disappear.
Business anthropologists at Wayen State Univeristy have successfully integrated anthropology with business education by offering business anthropology courses and programs at the 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. 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 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. This focus can be used 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 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. Myself as a business professors had successfully worked with my colleagues in the business departments at two small comprehensive colleges and put business anthropology into business program curricula. I have also used anthropological approach to teach other business courses, especially consumer behavior and marketing research courses. I expecte to work with my colleagues in the business educaiton field in large to make busienss anthrpology as one of the basic or foundmental business courses at more and mroe business schools.