Monday, November 1, 2010

Anthropology and Business Education: Practitioner Applications for a Qualitative Method

Anthropology and Business Education: Practitioner Applications for a Qualitative Method

Robert G. Tian and Alf H. Walle

Originally published in International Journal of Management Education, 7(2), pp. 59-67, 2009.


Business research has traditionally been scientific and statistical while the anthropological approach employs more subjective and qualitative methods that are invaluable within a number of contexts. In recent years, anthropological or anthropologically inspired research methods have become increasingly prominent within the business world. This paper gives an introduction to the nature and application of the anthropological approach and provides suggestions regarding how to apply anthropological methods in business education.

Keywords: Anthropology, Anthropological Approach, Business Education, Culture, Qualitative Method


Both public and private organisations seek employees and researchers who understand the cultural context of business from consumer behaviour to human resources management, from marketing to transnational business strategies (Emery, Kramer, & Tian, 2001; Armansyah, 2003; Emery & Tian, 2003). Due to the resulting transformations in the way research is conducted, increasingly by applying anthropological methods, business professors may need to adjust their course in order to reflect shifts in the practitioner world. Although it is not totally new, the application of anthropological methods in business research and business education has great potential to be explored for informing multi-disciplinary research in management both conceptually and methodologically (Linstead, 1997; Fernie & Thorpe, 2007; Lillis, 2008). It is suggested that consumer behaviour is a particular area where qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology, are gaining importance and prestige (Sunderland & Denny, 2007; Tian, 2007).

Anthropology has made significant contributions in the real business world (Jordan, 2003). However, the theories and methods of this qualitative social science have not been as widely phased into business courses as they could and should have been (Tian, 2002, 2007). To help remedy this situation, the present paper explores how anthropology can be more fully integrated into business education. Specifically, this paper reviews the relationship between business education and anthropology; discusses how anthropological practices have been successfully used in consumer behaviour research; and explores possible applications to business education. The goal is to introduce the concepts of anthropology in a user-friendly way to provide perspectives that can be employed by business instructors, particularly to those who have limited exposure to anthropology and qualitative research methods in the classroom.

Anthropology: What Is It?

Anthropology is a social science that studies the social environment in which people live and the impact of this social environment on feelings, attitudes, behaviour, and so on. 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 (Armansyah, 2003). 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 (Hall, 1959, 1960). The classic anthropological methods of research such as ethnography, observation, interviewing, furthermore, have proved to be appropriate for business research (Walle, 2000, 2002; Jordan, 2003)

The scientific method is a process for 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 (Belk et al., 1989). 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 behaviour from the informant’s perspective, not with reference to the feelings or opinions of the investigator. As a result of this informant-centred 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’ (Walle, 2002) and the rigour demanded by science and has been criticised 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. (1989) are reflective of the ethnographic method of anthropology. Related to this is the work in what Elizabeth Hirschman (1986) has called ‘humanistic’ marketing research which, like anthropological methods, is based upon qualitative methods of research and analysis. Thus, the current vogue of anthropology in marketing and consumer research can be viewed as a part of a larger qualitative and humanistic research agenda for the field.

In this context, ethnography is a process of describing a culture in subjective ways that stem from the feelings of informants who are functioning members of the group being investigated (Mulroney, 2002; Tian, 2007). Anthropologists have long argued 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 (Walle, 2002; Jordon, 2003).

The seminal work leading to this conflict is Kenneth Pike’s book, “Language in Relation to a Unified Structure of Human Behaviour” (1967), in which he suggested 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 (Pike, 1967).

Pike generalised 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 behavioural sciences to refer to two different kinds of data concerning human behaviour. An emic report is a description of behaviour or a belief in terms meaningful to the actor, consciously or unconsciously. An etic report is a description of a behaviour 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 recognised that both methods have valuable contributions to make (Pike, 1967; Walle, 1998).

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. 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 (Belk et al., 1989). 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 Moran (1987), 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 behaviour. 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 (Sunderland & Denny, 2007).

Although consumer behaviour textbooks 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 consumer research are often misused. However, the profound impact of culture upon consumer response is observable and undeniable (Douglas & Craig, 1995; Griffith & Ryans, 1995). Those teaching marketing, consumer research and advertising need to scan the textbooks they use to be sure 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 analyse human behaviour, values, choices, preferences, practices, beliefs and attitudes (Costa, 1995). According to classical anthropological theory, culture is an underlying dimension of all societies and all social life. All human behaviour, including consumption, takes place within a cultural context (Harris & Moran, 1987). 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.

Baba and Batteau (2003) indicate that since the 1930s, cultural anthropologists have conducted a vast amount of research in industrial and corporate settings, focusing largely on corporate cultures in the United States. The human relations school of organisational research of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, produced a number of ethnographies that demonstrate how informal cultural patterns, and cohort groups, influence organisations. More recent studies of corporate cultures have shown how specific configurations of values within organisations 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 (Jordan, 2003). With their traditional emphasis upon participant observation, business anthropologists are in a position to gather information on grassroots corporate culture.

The Xerox Corporation, for example, used an anthropologist to help the company devise more effective training programs for their service technicians. Julian Orr (1996), 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 (Baba & Batteau, 2003).

Some Recent Examples

Business Week (2006) magazine published a lengthy feature about ethnography and anthropology's increasing acceptance in the corporate world. The feature highlights how anthropologists are frequently finding their way onto teams with designers and engineers to research and develop new products at various companies. As the tourist industry becomes increasingly important to communities around the world, the need to develop tourism in a sustainable manner has also become a primary concern. In earlier of this decade a group of European scholars applied anthropological approach to addresses this crucial issue by asking what local communities can contribute to sustainable tourism, and what sustainability can offer local communities. Their research discover the role of the community in environmental, cultural and economic sustainability is highlighted in an extraordinary variety of contexts, ranging from inner-city Edinburgh to rural northern Portugal and the beaches of Indonesia, and therefore made a significant contribution for the tourist industry and sustainable community development (Hall & Richards 2003).

Currently, business anthropology is considered as a new and important branch in the discipline (Jordan, 2003). According to Baba and Batteau (2003), business anthropology is defined as applying anthropological theories and practices to the needs of private sector organisations, especially industrial firms. Current research initiatives in the field tend to be concentrated in marketing and consumer behaviour; organisational theory and culture; and international business, especially international marketing, intercultural management, and intercultural communication.

The current interest in business anthropology started in early 1980s when applied-anthropologists Lucy Suchman and Julian Orr investigated how people interact with technology (See Baba 2006 for detailed discussion). Since then, a wide number of anthropologists have worked within the business world, often adopting titles such as ‘knowledge liaison’, ‘ethnographer’ and ‘evaluator’. In recent years, anthropologists have become more involved in strategic and tactical projects involving consumer research. In such work, anthropologists often evaluate technological products before their release (Walsh, 2001).

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 (Mulroney, 2002).

Baba and Batteau (2003), among others, are anthropologists who have successfully integrated anthropology with business education by offering business anthropology courses at Wayne State University. Their 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. Utilising anthropologists and anthropological methods are important strategies 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 then 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 behaviour that impact strategies and tactics. This focus can be used to improve business operations (Bennett, 1954; Baba & Batteau).

Jordan (2003) observed that anthropology’s influence within business schools has grown slowly since the 1980s. Acknowledging that the role business anthropology plays in the real business world has become more important, it needs to be more fully introduced in business education. It is impressive that recently anthropologists in business schools have made their unique contributions in the development of consumer studies within business education. On the one hand there are 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 who are examples of anthropologists who have impacted the business education community. On the other hand, business faculty such as 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 (Jordan).

Structural and Post-structural

Historically, anthropology emphasised a social structural approach. As such, it envisioned cultures as unique patterns of thought, sentiment, and action. Individuals learn about and come to believe in their culture though a process of socialisation that created patterned ways of thinking. It is through the process of socialisation and interaction with others that individuals learn about social roles, and the socially defined expectations that a person in a given social position will follow, as well as the core values, generalised beliefs and expected behaviours of the culture they are born into (Tian, 2007).

Such perceptions have been commonplace within business and consumer research. Thus, the social cultural 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. For example, whenever writers speak in terms of ‘American’ versus ‘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 organisations.

For many years, the social structural approach was the state of the art of the social sciences, but in the 1960s, this paradigm fell from vogue (Walle, 2002). Although long attacked by theoretical rivals, Walle documents that current advances in the structural model are returning it to useful service. However, even without this rehabilitation and even if the structural models are not as powerful or universal as scholars once thought, the method has remained current because of the fact that the existence of social structures is self-evident.

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 structuralism method emphasises that the socialisation process solidifies 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, post-structuralism and post-modernism. The post-modernism methods reject a 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 which has been adapted to model the responses of circumscribed groups and how they are distinct from the mainstream, if a mainstream exists at all (Walle, 2002). Post-structuralism and postmodernism have emerged as popular methodologies among marketing researchers due to the importance of dealing with distinct groups.

While social structuralism and post-structuralism/post-modernism are distinct, both are able to benefit from the use of the ethnographic method. Although a difference in the philosophic underpinnings of various researchers is noted, these distinctions do not result in one group rejecting ethnography while the other embraces it. Indeed, the goal of both groups is to employ methods that are appropriate for studying mankind by eliminating the distortions and the blind spots of purely scientific analysis.

Consumer Behaviour and Anthropology

From an anthropological perspective, marketing and consumption are crucial forces that are impacted by culture. Anthropologists view consumer behaviour in cultural, historical and global contexts (Jordan, 2003). Richins (2000) stressed the significance of consumer behaviour in the President’s Address to the 2000 Annual Conference of Association for Consumer Research, pointing out that consumer research should be viewed as a social science. Richins further argued that consumption is important to economic performance: it is connected to personal health and well-being. According to Richins, many pressing social problems are related to consumer behaviour, such as tobacco use and alcohol abuse, which can have devastating impacts on individuals and families. It is clear that consumption impacts virtually every aspect of our life. On some occasions, rival consumption options can be a source of conflict. In short, consumption and its impacts are ubiquitous and powerful.

Although consumer behaviour can be viewed as a social science it is often not treated as such. As a result, the focus is often on the psychological factors of the individual rather than the social context of behaviour and motivation. After all, consumer research is a multifaceted discipline that combines applied aspects of psychology and the social sciences and uses them to understand the behaviour of consumers and the market place. As a result, some researchers focus to such a degree upon psychology that they might pay relatively little attention to cultural concerns (Tian, 2007).

Nonetheless, the importance of social issues cannot be overestimated. Columnist Gene Koprowski (1999) wrote that subcultures, which are of interest to business, exist everywhere from online chat rooms to convenience stores. Contemporary business anthropologists are conducting fieldwork with video cameras and tape recorders, as well as pagers. In the process, these researchers track the buying rituals of consumers and, in doing so, they help decision makers develop culturally sensitive marketing strategies. Robinson and his colleagues, reported by Koprowski, use anthropological methods to observe and conceptualise the consumption process in order to aid in the designing of new products. Instead of asking people questions, these researchers watch how people actually behave. By doing so, they have aided in the development of new over-the-counter cold medicines, helped create a new estate car for a major car manufacturer, led backpack maker JanSport to design a completely new way of displaying its products in sporting goods stores, and assisted Frito-Lay in better segmenting its markets .

According to Mulroney (2002), one of the most obvious applications for using anthropology within business research is the study of consumer behaviour in retail business. Newman (1993) observed the effects of economic decline on consumption patterns, lifestyle, and family relationships. Underhill (1999) discussed consumer behaviour within the context of retailing in his book, “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” and explored why consumers go into a store for one item but finally buying something else, in addition to discussing what kind of store atmosphere is most effective for influencing shopping behaviour. McCracken (1990), in his book “Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities”, demonstrated how the consumption process has meanings that resonate from culture. For McCracken, consumption is broadly defined to include the processes by which consumer goods and services are created, bought and used. Accordingly the relationship between culture and consumption is profoundly interrelated within three contexts: history, theory and practice.

Bierck (2002) indicated that quantitative analysis might not help decision makers to truly understand consumers, whereas qualitative and observational research often provides revealing insights. McFarland (2001) observed that when the consumer reaction to a new product needs to be determined, companies traditionally turn to the qualitative focus group (another qualitative method). Ethnographic market research, however, is increasingly being used in such circumstances. Such research methods can provide an inside look at cultural trends, attitudes and lifestyles that influence consumer decisions.

Consumer anthropologists do not look merely for opinions or answers to questions, instead they seek to understand how a product might mesh within the consumer’s daily life. For instance, Whirlpool recently asked an in-house anthropologist to conduct a study for a line of luxury bathtubs. The strategy was to tap into the actual feelings of a sample of informants, without in-depth statistical analysis: this is a task where anthropology excels. In conducting the investigation, qualitative, open-ended interviews were combined with observation of consumers using the product (Sunderland & Denny, 2007).

According to McFarland’s report in 2001, using a sample of 15 families from four different markets, the research methodology involved in-home interviews and filming swimsuit clad participants whilst they were bathing. Informants were asked open-ended questions such as “when you think of your tub, what images come to mind?” and participants were instructed to create a journal that included photographs they took or found in magazines. What emerged was a consumer picture of bathing. Those leanings (include the emotional, cultural and symbolic meanings) are quite powerful. The study also validated Whirlpool’s working concept for the luxury tub. As with a focus group, the categories and feelings deemed important by the informants were emphasised. Since the research took place within the context of the informants’ homes, it was extremely effective in triggering appropriate and revealing responses (McFarland).

Lacayo (2001) indicated that consumer anthropology takes the time to really understand how and why consumers use products. As anthropologist Patricia Sunderland (2000) asserted, part of the idea of going into peoples’ homes is that researchers are able to discover from those people what the meaningful categories are. The real power of ethnography lies at the front end of product development, as the principle logic for consumer anthropologists is inductive rather than deductive. For example, toothpaste marketing emphasised cavities and whitening teeth. However, ethnographic research found that the concerns of consumers have changed. People are increasingly concerned with gums, the tongue and the whole mouth when they are using their toothbrush; it is not just cavities that they are interested in anymore. Brands of toothpaste, such as Colgate Total, which purports to continue to work even after you stop brushing, are such designed to appeal to this broader concept of dental care (Sunderland & Denny, 2007).

In the field of consumer science, qualitative researchers such as Belk et al. (1989), among many others, often employ anthropological or anthropologically inspired techniques to study how consumers are actually living their lives, and how to make decisions regarding the purchase and consumption of products. Marketing involves targeting an audience for a product and then selling it. Working within this process, anthropologists are often responsible for finding out how specific items are purchased, valued and consumed, as well as what feelings particular people have regarding certain products and their use. By recording in great detail how people live and how products fit into their lives, anthropologists often gain useful information that could not be easily gained from a formal interview. Because of the unique contributions those anthropologists made to the business world, an increasing number of anthropologists are being hired by industry (Walsh, 2001; Sunderland & Denny, 2007).

Implications for Business Education

Business educators must integrate state-of-the-art techniques into their courses. Since qualitative methods, such as business ethnography and business anthropology are increasingly being used in business research and practice, business professors need to integrate appropriate discussions of them into their classes. Without a doubt, anthropologists are bringing unique and invaluable methods to the business world, especially in the fields of international business (Whiteley, 2001).

The role of anthropology in business is growing much faster than was anticipated only a few years ago. These developments require that anthropology be given a higher profile within business classes. Business schools are often depicted as being overly quantitative (Gremler et. al., 2000), with qualitative methods such as ethnography being touted as an antidote for such limitations. Indeed, a major thrust of consumer research during the last twenty years has been to employ more naturalistic methods of research. Other consumer researchers emphasise the humanistic approach and the qualitative methods it employs. An anthropological approach to business education fits in well with these initiatives and is particularly suitable for courses concerned with consumer behaviour (Tian, 2007).

The application of anthropological methods to business education is not new, but it is deserving of a renaissance. Indeed, anthropologists are teaching business courses at Harvard Business School, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, The University of Nebraska and the University of Utah. On the other hand, anthropology departments (such as at Wayne State University and Oregon State University) are teaching business anthropology courses (Tian, 2007). Due to the wide application of anthropology in business, and the increased demand for business anthropologists, more and more colleges and universities are looking for anthropology professors with business experience to help train practicing anthropologists (Walsh, 2001).

It is recommended that theories and methods of business anthropology be introduced into business curriculum. Based on the authors own experience, there are five factors which need to be addressed in applying anthropological methods for business education. The first factor is that it is necessary for business educators to integrate a fuller discussion of anthropology into their courses. More anthropological content to specific courses is also needed to reflect the changing methods of the practitioner world. Introducing ethnographic methods in the classroom is an important first point because most anthropological work in business involves some kind of ethnographic methods. Human behaviour should be studied from a social and cultural context. This factor has been widely accepted by business organisations and business educators need to make adjustments accordingly (McFarland, 2001; Jordon, 2003; Tian, 2007).

To involve the interactions between the instructor and the students is the second factor which needs to be addressed. Before sending students out to do a participant-observation project, they need formal training in the methods of anthropology. Instructors should join with the students in field-work exercises or, at a minimum, be readily available to provide advice. At the same time, students need to understand that business researchers often take shortcuts that do not occur within more scholarly anthropological ethnographies. Streamlining research in this way can be acceptable if doing so leads to useful and cost-effective information for decision makers. Paying attention to the constraints of time and money, of course, occurs in all business research and therefore is not a unique concern to the application of qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology.

The third factor needing to be addressed is assuring that all instructions should have an ethical component. Regarding the client, fieldworkers need to do their work with care and precision in order to give them the valuable professional service. It is also important to emphasise that researchers have ethical obligations to their informants. Because these can be confusing and conflicting issues, instructors and students will benefit from reviewing formal codes of ethics, such as those of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) . Codes of ethics establish valuable sets of criteria and guidelines for avoiding inappropriate behaviour and for acting in a consistent manner.

Theoretical issues are the fourth factor that needs to be stressed. There are different concepts and methods in social and behaviour science which can be applied in anthropologically inspired research to make valuable contributions to business practices. Business anthropologists, for example, often examine issues such as the influence of family, kinship, gender and friendship on consumer behaviour, as well as how broad cultural patterns impact consumer response. In addition, the research of anthropologists is contributing to a better understanding of consumption (Jordan, 2003). In consumer behaviour, anthropology has long provided a range of methods for understanding both the process of acquiring and consuming products, and for dealing with the symbolic role of the consumption process. Students need to be aware of the valuable contribution that anthropology is well positioned to make.

The last but not least factor deals with the presentation and analysis of data collected from fieldwork. Students should be reminded that without proper analysis, data will never become useful information that can aid in the decision making process. Students need to be instructed on how to effectively present the findings of their research. This can be particularly important to those who are presenting the findings of qualitative research which are often not as highly valued as their quantitative alternatives. Students need to understand that while anthropological analysis begins with empirical observation, critical analysis must follow.

The application of anthropology in business practice and business education is still developing. However, there are some features that make it unique in terms of methods and contents. According to Linstead (1997), anthropology can contribute to the study, practice, and teaching of business in three domains: 1) Focus on culture – new theoretical lines of enquiry can be developed that reassess the significance of shared meaning and conflicting interests in specific settings. For instance, the concepts of symbolism and it application in management can be critically elaborated, and modes of representation of management can be opened up to self-reflexivity. 2) Focus on critique - ethnography can be used to de-familiarise taken-for-granted circumstances and reveal suppressed and alternative possibilities. For instance, new or unheard voices and forms of information can be resuscitated and used to sensitise managerial processes, at the same time cognitive, affective, epistemological, ideological and ethical considerations can be linked in the same framework. 3) Focus on change - anthropological ideas and concepts can shape and reflect change in processes and resolve unproductive dilemmas. For instance, managerial learning can be enhanced by promoting the ethnographic consciousness as a way of investigating and understanding, thus formalising an attitude of openness (Fernie & Thorpe, 2007; Lillis, 2008).


Anthropology has gained a larger role within practitioner research in the business world, from consumer behaviour studies to human resource management, and from cross-cultural marketing to strategic international business management. The subject of business anthropology is one that has been receiving considerable attention in both academic and organisational domains. The continuously increasing applications of anthropological methods to business practice have generated an impact on business education and anthropological methods in turn will increasingly need to be integrated into college business curricula. Courses such as consumer behaviour, marketing research, international business, competitive intelligence, and human resources management can certainly be improved by integrating anthropology into the syllabi.

Of course, the application of anthropological methods in business education is not a simple combination of anthropology and business classes. From the perspective of the pedagogy of business education, the anthropological approach focuses on the influences of culture and society on individual behaviour. It emphasises participative observation and academic analysis of organisations and individuals through qualitative methods, which are perceived to be more reliable and valid. Qualitative methods have long been taught within business schools and the current shift towards anthropology is destined to give these methods a higher profile.

Business instructors are increasingly developing their courses around qualitative methods, such as those of anthropology and ethnography. Teaching business theories and practices through an anthropological approach may help enlighten and excite students in classroom. The authors personally found this approach to be very effective in helping students understand the principles of consumer behaviour (Tian, 2007). As professionals in the field of business education, we need to consistently improve our teaching methods and practices. While a commitment to a critical pedagogy is not a common goal shared by all business educators, it is clearly a more practical approach that could be reached.


The authors thank Ms Sue Wesner at Medaille College, New York, USA and Dr Dan Trattor at Coker College, South Carolina, USA for their proofreading and comments. Thanks also to the editors of IJME and two unknown reviewers for their critical review and constructive suggestions.


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