Monday, November 22, 2010

Do We Need Business Anthropology?

Do We Need Business Anthropology? A Discussion by the Business Anthropologist Group

Dear Colleagues:

Business Anthropology is a very new subfield in both business and social science; it is growing very fast in recent years.  However, what is business anthropology is an issue that still needs to be clarified.  Do we need business anthropology?  How can we develop business anthropology?  What we can do and how should we do to promote business anthropology?

I hope you can invite more of your friends and colleagues to join in this discussion.


To join the discussion group go to my blog:  clik the button under the picture of tractors in the first post. 

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Your mail has arrived to the group.  I am wondering if you can lead us to discuss on how anthropology helped you in doing your business and provide us some suggestions as how to improve the relationship between academic world and the business world.

Thank you.

The question of how to merge the academic world with the real world is

In the academic world writers and professors are hung up on labels and
definitions. In the real world we don't care what you call it as long as it gets

In the academic world we talk about business anthropology and studying what
customers do and don't do. We get hung up on labels such as is a person
motivated to make a purchase or did we inspire them to make the purchase?

In the real world of business we rely on Point of Sale (POS) data to tell us
what we sold, at what price and when. This helps us to plot trends over time and
see changes on the horizon.

The academic world has customer intercepts as a way to gain information. There
is a problem with this. First of all most customers don't really know why the
bought something. Also, in my experience most of these customer intercepts are
performed by small, young college kids. A 6' 2" tall 250 pound person like me is
never stopped. For some reason I intimidate pollsters. Mostly what you see in
these intercepts is young mother pushing baby strollers. I have seen people who
were supposed to gather data get together and find that some key demographics
were missing so they simply made up data as to what they thought would be the
opinion of that group.

With our modern technology we have the ability to use our video cameras to
target and track customers as they travel through the store. We can see at what
time the enter the store, where they visit in the store and then see the point
of sale data on the same screen with the video. A truly great tool.

I think probably the best combining of the academic world and the real world
would be for everyone to call upon their common sense to make business
decisions. The parable of the hot dog and Jerry Clower's story of the inventory
are both prime examples of forgetting common sense and following academic
principles. It takes both.

One of my professors who was very helpful to actually had a business that dealt
with his subject, accounting. He was helpful because he could tell you what you
should really "take away" from what you were learning.

I once worked with the U.S. Chamber of commerce. I met many small business
people who had been helped, some would say hurt, by the Small Business
Administration (SBA). Many of them would tell me that they had pseudo government
officials tell them how to run their business. They would follow their advice
and end up worse off.

In short, if you want to be an business professor, it would be a good idea to
get some real world experience. Take a job in a small business. Volunteer to
work without pay if necessary. Ask to see the books. Then observe for a long
time before you make suggestions. Some businesses succeed in spite of

I had a friend whose father owned a small appliance company that catered
exclusively to builders. When the father died the son decided that they should
move the business and begin to cater to the consumer market. The lost
everything. Why? Because the son acted on advice before he understood what made
the business a success.

David E. McClendon Sr.

Dear David,

Thank you for this email and starting the discussions on this list. I appreciate all your points, yet I am also thinking of Genevieve Bell, for example, as a former academic who turned her back on the academic world and learned to read Intel both from a business and an anthropological (/academic) point of view. Although I can see the dicothomy between experience and practice you refer to, I am also thinking that perhaps trajectories in business anthropology and associated fields are a bit more diverse than the dicothomy you describe?

Regards, Pedro  


I agree with you that there are various relationships between academic world and real business world.  I do not think Michale Porter has ever been a business owner or business operator himself but he works as business consultant and made strategic plans for the large companies.  Also, some business owners who may never take business courses at college but they can be successful business operators.  Ideally academic persons should have some business practice while the business owners should have some kind formal training in business school, but that in many cases that may be impossible. 

Business anthropologists are fundamentally scholars first, their job is to use their anthropological skills and knowledge to study businesses and to help businesses with their best.  They could make mistakes, but to be honestly, no one can be always right. 

Hi Robert and all,

Thanks for this, Robert.

Taking from what you said, you and I have already discussed the question of validity a few times but I keep wondering whether what we need as business anthropology researchers (and I am very freely calling myself one, has someone who has just joined the field working on my first business anthropology case) is a more precise analysis of how we come up with the conclusions that we come up with, as business anthropology researchers. How do we analyse data to conclude what we do? Can we find common sensical ways of explaining to the client how we draw our conclusions from the data found so that the client too can form an image of the validity of our findings?

I keep believing this should give us a far clearer view of the kind of solutions we suggest and the risk hazards associated to them. That analysis cannot sacrifice the serendipity of findings by which people like Susan Squires and others keep suggesting all sorts of fundamental clues for new business solutions based on a combination of ethnographic encounters and other methodologies (triangulation). Yet I am inclined to agree with David that many of these processes of research that we label 'academic' are already put to empirical use by people who are not academics (I see it in my father every day).  

Having said all of this, a conference bringing together academics and practitioners of business anthropology would be fundamental to start answering some of the questions that David very rightly puts to the fore.  

Regards, P.


I think most business uses some form of anthropology. They just don't call it
that. When a small business owner observes how customers interact with the
environment the business has created that is a form of anthropology

Very rarely will a small business owner conduct a formal survey but he or she
may simply ask their customers what they like about the business or don't like.

Most people will tell a survey taker what they think is the right answer and not
necessarily what they really feel. However, if they think a small business owner
is sincerely asking they may provide the truth. On the other hand they may wish
not to offend the business owner and tell them that everything is fine. It is
for this reason that in my area we primarily use observation and point of sale
data. It is very helpful. We also use a lot of trial and error. We move stuff
and see what happens.

One thing my wife Suzanne taught me is that sometimes conventional thought isn't
always right. She reorganized a beer cooler in a convenience store we were
working for. The beer company marketers flipped out. They said that you had to
have the premium beers right beside each other, the standard beers right beside
each other and so forth. The owner stood by Suzanne's decision and the beer
sales went up 30%. Once the beer sales went up people from the corporate office
for Miller Coors and Anheuser Busch came and took pictures so that they could
determine why the sales went up when it was laid out all wrong according to
their years of study.

What I learned through observation and just plain asking customers is that in a
small mom and pop store where almost 100% of the customers are regulars, it
really doesn't matter where you put the beer as long as they could find their
beer. When they came in they knew exactly what beer they wanted. As long as the
beer they wanted was on the shelf they bought that beer. Never would they
deviate from their brand of choice. That is until the economy took a nose dive
and almost everyone switched to a cheaper beer.

So, what explained the increase in sales? When Suzanne organized the cooler she
found that there was a lot of wasted space. She moved shelves and squeezed every
inch of wasted space out. In the new found space she added specialty beers.
Since no other convenience store in town was actively monitoring their cooler
and space usage or offerings she was able to provide for a very popular mix of
beers for the college age crowd. People who had not yet found what they wanted
but knew they did not want to drink their father's brand of beer.

When Suzanne left the beer companies offered to rearrange the cooler for free.
The owner thought he had to (English as a second language) so he allowed it.
Beer sales fell by about 50% for two reasons. The mix was gone and the beer was
not kept in stock because no one was actively monitoring the sales.

When the only tool in your tool box is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.
I say this meaning that it takes more than just one discipline to run a
business. Anthropology is a tool as is marketing, accounting, financial
management, consumer behavior, Economics, etc. Each one of these tools has a
place in the business owner's tool box. If he is missing one of them he has to
make due with what he has. This means that some key elements may go un-addressed
and the business is not as good as it could be. Most small business owners,
though not formally trained, possess many if not all of those skills.

Dear friends and colleagues:

Before I set up this discussion group I was not aware of any such an online group existed.  The business anthropology is fast growing but we do not have a platform for it.  As such a few business anthropological scholars decided to launch a journal entitled International Journal of Business Anthropology, which has been published 2 issues so far.  One of my contact suggested that we should have an online discussion group and then I set up this group.  So far we had a few very interesting discussions but we need more members to join us so that we will have a large number of memberships to support our discussion.  Please help us to grow by using your personal connections, such as your face book, your emails, and so on.

Our textbook "General Business Anthropology"  is published, if interested in more information about it please contact me and I will provide you the detailed information.

Have a good weekend!


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