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Viewing business through an anthropological lens

By Dr Joanna Puckering, Durham University

A friend took me to a networking event in Halifax recently, where I found myself explaining to a roomful of new people (in 2 minutes or less!) what I do as a cultural anthropologist with a professional background in quality management. The main question afterwards was, ‘What does an anthropologist actually do?’ Many individuals and organisations are unfamiliar with anthropology as a discipline, so the exercise left me with plenty of food for thought.

Broadly speaking, anthropology concerns itself with the entire range of human evolution, development, activities and achievements. It involves the study of human groups and their behaviour; how they interact with each other and with the surrounding environment. It’s about revealing the often invisible mechanics of social life, as well as exploring and understanding the wider social, political and economic contexts and external issues that shape them. Anthropology also tries to avoid preconceptions and assumptions about human societies, encouraging us instead to be curious, critical, and to ask challenging questions about the world we live in.

That world is getting smaller. Long distance travel is easier and cheaper (if increasingly controversial). Rapid advances are being made in communications technology and cultural influences are being exported and shared around the globe – food, music, religious and political beliefs, news, social media, films etc. Geopolitics extends beyond national borders, addressing issues such as war and peace, food and water security, poverty, human trafficking and ecological concerns. Anthropology offers valuable insights about living and working in the 21st century. It provides tools to analyse, understand and navigate not only this complex and changing world; but also the diverse social behaviours and cultural perspectives increasingly found in a global economy, where companies are likely to have international networks of relationships and a diverse workforce.

Traditionally, anthropology was often regarded as remote, exotic and arcane – the study of kinship groups, power relationships, totems or obscure dialects. Now there is increasing interest from beyond academia, with many anthropologists undertaking research much closer to home, in contemporary urban settings and often in the workplace. And yet we still find ourselves dealing with those totems, rituals and dialects: we just call them something different. Annual reviews, client networking, a whole array of business acronyms, dress codes, competing for parking spots, celebrating birthdays (or just Fridays) in the office: all sorts of things contribute to an organisation’s internal culture.
Business and anthropology might not always seem to be an obvious fit, and yet, ‘business and industrial companies are, ultimately, social communities’ (Strang 2009: 99). Anthropologists offer a cultural perspective to their understanding of people, places and situations. They focus on the relationships between institutions, groups and individuals, and the mechanics of cultural cohesion: organisational hierarchies, rules of behaviour, language (including business terminology), obligations and values – most of which can be found in some form or other in contemporary organisations, and may well reflect and shape a company’s strategy and long-term goals. As corporate anthropologist Anita Ward explains: ‘Anthropologists understand that work is not just about process, it's about people’.

Two terms that usefully describe the key services that a cultural anthropologist has to offer are ‘ethnography’ and ‘cultural translation’. Ethnography is about engaging actively with communities or groups of interest. It’s about asking different questions, and challenging assumptions that may often be taken for granted. It is also a way of seeing the world holistically, in a manner which recognizes the complexity of modern organisations with their wide range of management, staff, client and user requirements and relationships. Consultancy company ReD Associates, for example, seeks insights that are generally found by using the human sciences: ‘All of our work begins with an exploration of the customers’ world’. Another consultancy, Stripe Partners, uses ethnography to ‘help our clients bridge the gap between business and what happens in the real world’. 

A mainstay of qualitative research, ethnographic fieldwork primarily involves becoming immersed in the everyday life of the society or organisation being researched. Often described as a ‘deep dive’, anthropologists also talk of ‘hanging out’ with research participants, which does not really do justice to the powerful combination of in-depth interviewing techniques, participation, and observation. Using this approach, anthropologists can tease out valuable and often surprising findings that might be missed in a survey, focus group or quick conversation. This is because what people say they do may not be what they actually do; and to complicate matters further, a large percentage of our decisions are made subconsciously. As a result, ‘what customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different’ (Baer 2014). 

Drawing on the ethnographic approach and a holistic worldview, anthropologists also provide a ‘cultural translation’ service: understanding and communicating different perspectives; building bridges between disparate groups with different needs, priorities and values; recognizing the effects of a wider cultural context on more ‘local’ work cultures and practices. Cultural translation helps managers, staff, clients and communities to recognise each other’s wishes, needs and concerns; and how this can be transformed into more effective strategies, product innovation, user satisfaction and positive relationships. 

Anthropologists can be found working within a wide range of organisations in the public and private sectors: education, health, culture and heritage, social media, design and marketing research, to name but a few. They utilise a broad understanding of human society and behaviour, and the transferable skills that come with a study of anthropology, which enable them to offer insights into areas such as communications, organisational culture and change, brand image, technology innovation, consumer research or user experience testing. Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world (Baer 2014) and many other companies, including Google, Amazon and Intel, now have an in-house anthropologist – or even a whole team. This may not be a practical option for smaller companies but they, too, face similar business challenges and could well benefit from viewing their world through an anthropologist’s lens. 


Baer, D. 2014. ‘Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists’, Business Insider, 
ReD Associates,
Strang, V. 2009. What Anthropologists Do, London: Bloomsbury
Stripe Partners, 
Ward, A. nd. Anita Ward,