Sunday, November 7, 2010

What is Business Anthropology?

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, (3) international business, especially international marketing, intercultural management, as well as intercultural communication, and (4) product design and development. Of course due to the nature of anthropology the implication of anthropology in the business world is unlimited, it can be extended to all the function areas of business. Accordingly, 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, product design and development, 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, 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 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 University 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 expect to work with my colleagues in the business education field in large to make business anthropology as one of the basic or fundamental business courses at more and more business schools.

There is an online discussion group about business anthorpology, if you are interested please join in the group by cliking the button below and then register for your membership.  Let us work together to develop the field of business anthropology. 

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Business Anthropology as a Career

Students majored in anthropology often feel puzzled about their career after graduation, one undergraduate student wrote to a graduate student who is doing well in the field of business anthropology for advice: “I was wondering how you became a business anthropologist.  I have my Bachelors in Anthropology and I have always loved the subject. I tutored for this subject in my JC and I am considering a Masters in Anthropology, but what then? I do love the school atmosphere so perhaps I will teach or work in a museum, but what are your thoughts? How did you find your ‘niche’? Thanks.  The graduate student answered the undergraduate student’s question with his suggestion to the undergraduate student as quoted below:

I have a master’s [degree] in a narrow field of Anthropology called Proximics and in the process of doing the research for the thesis, I found a whole area of untapped need  in business anthropology.  This area can be used in a broad sense in business or more specifically in helping design more appealing business situations such as retail stores.  In a more broad sense, knowing cultures and understanding the nuances of culture have allowed me to work in the international purchasing field for many years.  Negotiating all types of business deals (and a few political ones) to help resolve differences and get signatures on paper.    Teaching is an honorable profession and I have done so in the past. I plan to return to it at some point.

“You ask how I found my niche.  It was somewhat by accident and political climate at the time.  I was working in Archaeology for the most part and the funding dried up.  I had worked in the University purchasing department and had enjoyed my time there and though that it would work well with a master’s [degree] in Anthropology so headed in this direction.  I also studied several languages with the hope of doing international work and as it so happened, it did.  For you, what is your favorite area?  Focus on this and then look how it can be applied in the larger world.”

More and more parents are asking their children enrolled at colleges some very practical questions directly connected with their future career plans as the costs of college education continuing to skyrocket.  For example, parents often want to know why their children are majoring in anthropology.  Ferraro indicates that usually behind such a question is the more pragmatic one: What kind of job can you get with a B.A. in anthropology?

Anthropology and Job Market

It is very normal that the parents of students with anthropological major concern their children’s future careers after graduation given the fact that academic anthropology is a small, elite discipline practiced by a relatively small number of people worldwide. In the past, with the exception of the United States, the number of academic positions for anthropologists has always been limited and very small. As such, the supply of anthropology graduates worldwide has probably outstripped the demand for academic anthropologists since the early 1980s and this helps explain why in the past two decades there has been a significant presence of anthropologists practicing outside the academy.

Anthropologists are in the people business. Any occupation that requires understanding people, such as studying human behavior, assessing people’s opinions, beliefs, or needs, etc., can use anthropology graduates. The American Anthropological Association finds that anthropology graduates are well-qualified for modern government work and increasingly recognized as valuable in the fields of management and international business. For a long time, anthropological skills have been sought in the health and social services fields. Anthropology provides the tools for understanding the multicultural, international, global issues that is basic to our continued existence.

The job market for graduates with anthropology major is based for the most part on demand for persons with skills in social science research meth­odology. However, just as John Van Willigen sharply indicates, the market is not very much aware of anthropologists with these skills and there is a limited market for anthropology graduates. Moreover, although there are many opportunities for professional work, very few are designed strictly for anthropologists. This circumstance is not limited to anthro­pology but is typical of many of the social sciences and humanities.

A degree in anthropology can be the first step toward the attainment of more advanced training in order to become a professor, researcher, or applied anthropologist. Archaeology is a growing area for jobs, because public service archaeology is required by legislation designed to protect our cultural heritage. Physical anthropology is a gateway to a wide range of career path opportunities, including forensics, medicine (especially anatomy and genetics, and primatology.

The prevalence of applied anthropology within the discipline has increased in recent decades, most notably during the 1970s and 1980s. Because of a shrinking academic job market, coupled with federal legislation requiring environmental impact studies and historical preservation, more professionally trained anthropologists are employed in nonacademic positions than in colleges and universities. As more and more Ph.D.-level anthropologists are making their way into nonacademic jobs, employment opportunities for those with less than Ph.D. training in anthropology are also increasing. Today people with training in cultural anthropology are putting their observational and analytical skills to work in a variety of ways in both the public (government) and private (business) sectors of the economy.[vi]

The roles of anthropologists in the non-academic fields could be administrators or managers, consultants, project directors, community service coordinators, and program planners among others. Willis Sibley notes that approximately 50% of anthropologists with their Ph.D. degree find employment outside the academy. [vii]  Accordingly, we can assume that great majority of anthropologists with their master degree and almost all anthropologists with bachelor degree will be employed in non-academic fields.  After graduation with degrees in anthropology some may involve into various forms of private sector consulting (and will have been well-rewarded for doing so), and in fact many of them have ceased to self-identify as anthropologists, often preferring instead the more employable term “management consultant”. Private practice anthropology has thus grown as academic anthropology has either shrunk or remained stable, and as the worldwide wave of economic rationalism has privileged the short-term consultant over the permanent public servant in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Ferraro argues that a B.A. in cultural anthropology is a liberal arts degree, just as in most other undergraduate fields of study; it is not some type of professional certification. It is important to keep in mind that an undergraduate degree in anthropology does not prepare a person to become a professional research anthropologist any more than an undergraduate degree in political science equips a person to achieve high political office.  In fact, the B.A. in anthropology will help students get an excellent background for graduate study in anthropology at the Ph.D. level, which is the normal route to becoming a professional anthropologist.[ix]

The globalization of the world economy has brought anthropology and business come together.  In recent decades, especially in North America, anthropology moved from a position of domestic concern with social economic relations in the work place to an international concern because of social and economic change in the world.  But as Gordon notes, at the very beginning the knowledge gained in researching the international issues was not fed back into business through private consulting and the business world, with help from other academic disciplines, responded by creating the new field of management consulting.  And yet, management consultants from time to time were ill-equipped to deal with issues of internationalization and cultures outside the business itself.[x]

Ferraro notes that the term anthropologist or cross-cultural expert is not a standard job Classification in the employment section of a newspaper’s classified ads. In recent decades, however, a number of jobs in both government and industry have developed that focus on certain cross-cultural issues and involve working with people from different cultural and sub-cultural backgrounds. As discussed, anthropological skills can be applied to a number of different professional areas. For example, case studies demonstrated how anthropological skills and insights have been used to help architects design appropriate housing for sub-cultural groups, develop a highly successful reforestation program in Haiti, shed light on the public health aspects of the AIDS epidemic, and provide courts with culturally relevant information for the resolution of legal cases.[xi]

It is possible to be meaningfully employed doing things that are consistent with one’s training in anthropology.  The anthropologist seeking work must be ready to deal with employers who are unfamiliar with the true capabilities of well-trained, contemporary anthro­pologists, or even employers who hold grossly inaccurate stereotypes of the anthropologist’s capabilities. The most adaptive response to these conditions includes a commitment on the part of the anthropologist to educating the employer, and a strategy of self-presentation that is based on experience and ca­pabilities rather than diploma and transcript. This does not represent a problem because these days, except for a very few occupations, it works this way for most everyone.

Ferraro stresses that anthropology graduates are better equipped in certain areas than are those graduating with any other liberal arts degree. First, anthropology graduates are well acquainted with cross-cultural differences and similarities, an area of expertise of particular importance in multicultural societies. This means that anthropology graduates have the ability to “size up” unfamiliar social and professional situations, appreciate the wide range of cultural behavior in the world, and learn how to behave toward people from other cultures with sensitivity, flexibility, and understanding.  Second, training in anthropology instills such qualities as interviewing skills, experience with survey research, observational sharpness, and a holistic perspective. Third, anthropology graduates should have other skills and assets that can be useful to potential employers, such as experience with statistical methods, computer skills, foreign language fluency, and communication skills.  

Once students have a clear understanding of their skills, they are in a good position to tailor their resumes to a particular job opening.  Each student majored in anthropology should be responsible for carving out a spot in the job market for her or himself.  Because no jobs in the nonacademic world are exclusively for culturally oriented, as such it is important for the graduates in cultural anthropology to prepare for the job search by gaining an understanding of the organization offering the job as well as a clear appreciation of what he or she brings to the job situation.[xiii]  Below are some examples of job advertising we collected from National Association for the practice of anthropology’ homepage ( that might be interesting to graduates of anthropology:

Cultural Anthropologist

We are looking for Senior Cultural Anthropologists who have experience and references working with world-class brands. We often have projects that require ethnographic research in Russia, China, Japan, India, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and various countries in Europe. Our current project is to do research in eight of these countries, including the US. Please respond to the email address listed.

Ethnographic Market Research
Ethnographers needed for market research: up to $22/hr!  SmartRevenue ( is a market research company founded by cultural anthropologists. Our field researchers generate data using traditional ethnographic fieldwork methods of observation and interviews, as well as structured marketing surveys, to generate insight on consumer preferences and habits. We will be fielding projects soon in cities throughout the US and are in need of ethnographers. We prefer to hire people with anthropological or social science training and ethnographic or qualitative research experience.

The cities scheduled for fielding in the near future are: Boston, Providence, Fairfield County (CT), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore/DC, TAmpa, Orlando, Gainsville FL, Miami, Tallahassee, Chicago, Denver, Dallas/Ft Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, LA, San Francisco, Seattle. WE HAVE AN URGENT NEED IN ATLANTA for the end of January.

This is a great opportunity for people with social science backgrounds to practice their ethnographic and writing skills by applying them to a specific task, and to make good money at the same time. SmartRevenue always has a variety of projects planned nationwide, so this could be a helpful future source of supplemental income.
Typical Project Description:  SmartRevenue researches shoppers' choices of products. Ethnographers need to interview 15-20 shoppers per store, which usually works out to one day of 8 hours. We often work at 2 or 3 stores per community, so we hire 2 to 4 ethnographers per project. Some projects last 3 or 4 days, some only 1 day, and some projects last several weekends.

Many of the projects require both observation and interviews. Interviews are conducted using a hand-held computer, which we will mail you. Observations are based on your ethnographic training and can include looking at shoppers' behavior, noting signage or other advertisements, or even noting patterns of movement through the area. The details of each job are explained on phone conferences.
Interested and qualified applicants should reply to Please attach your resume/CV and describe your availability to work. Also include your city name in your email subject heading. Thank you!

User Experience Strategist, Atlanta, GA   The User Experience group within’s Product Management department is responsible for promoting a clear understanding of our customers and for identifying experiences that meet or exceed customer needs. They work closely with Product Management to help define the next generation of products and services that will appear on
The User Experience-Strategy team within User Experience is at the forefront of these efforts, developing a deep understanding of our customers through research and communicating it to product managers, user experience designers, and the product development team.
A User Experience Strategist conducts user research, analyses primary and secondary research, and communicates findings and recommendations to the organization. Personas, scenarios, documents, presentations and one-on-one conversations are used to communicate the value of customer needs throughout the organization. Competitive analyses and best practices are also used to communicate the current environment.
At, the User Experience Strategist:
• Designs and conducts user research studies
• Collaboratively analyzes the results of those studies to identify customer needs and business opportunities
• Works closely with our Product Management team to identify new product opportunities and influence the future direction of existing products
• Ensures that the voice of the customer is represented at all phases of product development
• Creates and maintains customer personas, scenarios and mental models
• Researches and documents both competitive assessments and best practices
• Clearly documents all research findings, customer profiles, and recommendations
• Communicates the value of customer needs to the organization
The ideal candidate:
• Has knowledge and experience with current user research methodologies
• Has thorough knowledge of best practices for information architecture, interaction design, usability, and web design (both e-commerce and informational)
• Has knowledge and hands-on experience with user interface evaluation techniques
• Has expertise in gathering, analyzing and synthesizing primary and secondary research
• Is well-versed in user centered design principles and processes
• Has experience in aligning customer needs with business objectives
• Has excellent oral, written, and presentation communication skills
• Can work collaboratively with cross-functional teams
• Four or more years experience in user experience and web-based products required
• Additional experience in anthropology or ethnographic research a plus
• College or university degree required in HCI, Cognitive Psychology, Anthropology, Design, or related field (advanced degrees preferred)
• Ability to travel up to 20%, created in 1997 and headquartered in Atlanta, GA, is the Internet's leading auto classifieds marketplace and consumer information website. delivers more than 3 million vehicle listings – updated daily - attracting more than 11 million unique visitors a month.

Location: Toronto       Basis: Contract
Idea Couture is seeking an anthropologist or other social scientist to join our qualitative research team in Toronto on a contract basis with an option leading to a full-time position. The successful candidate will have a real passion for fieldwork, the ability to identify and clearly communicate customer insights to internal teams and clients, and the nimbleness required to juggle academic theory, various research methods, and creative design thinking with business needs.
·         Designing, conducting & reporting on qualitative field studies
·         Translating field insights into future products, services & experiences
·         Participating in & contributing to internal & client ideation sessions
·         Collaborating with designers, strategists, technologists & others
·         Traveling the globe on a frequent basis
  • Advanced social science degree
  • Specialization in health, technology, social media or design
  • Proven experience conducting ethnographic research projects
  • A keen eye for observation
  • Experience conducting 1-on-1 and group interviews
  • Strong writing and editing skills
  • Scholarly or other publishing record
  • Strong understanding of and passion for 'digital culture'
  • Proficiency in Microsoft Office
  • Basic film editing software (ie. iMovie) skills an asset
  • User-centered design & research experience an asset
  • Previous applied/business experience an asset
  • Second language an asset
Commensurate with experience

Senior Market Research Associate
The SMRA will design and manage agency and client research projects. Have knowledge of commonly used concepts as well as ability to keep abreast of new technologies and methodologies. Will gather and analyze primary and secondary data pertaining to current and potential clients and their business categories. Must be versed in qualitative and quantitative methodologies. It's pretty generic, but should help. I think one of the most important aspects is knowing the African American market (this person does not need to be African American - EOO).

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