Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Dialogue on Business Anthropology

A Dialogue on Business Anthropology
Comment by Barry R. Bainton on March 18, 2011 at 1:16pm

Dear Robert:

Thank you for this article and review. I found it very helpful. Your literature review has me pondering some questions about the state of business anthropology. First is the question of use of "profit" in the following:

"However, in Gwynne’s view there is a major methodological difference between business anthropology and other kinds of applied anthropology because in most cases the fundamental purpose of private sector economic activity is to make profit, and as such, there is always full of competitions in the business world. (Gwynne, 2003)." (emphasis added)

This statement appears to be more "ideological" rather than "scientific." Since when has the goal of business NOT to make a profit?

As a cultural universal, human beings engage in economic activity. Throughout history they have sought to create or accumulate a surplus as an insurance policy against bad times. Such surpluses are "profits." In my experience, business organizations are a particular type of social structure created by individuals and/or groups of individuals in order to carry out and conduct economic activity for the benefit of the owners and their customers. Without profits, there is little reason or incentive to conduct business.

However, I believe that there are a number of anthropological questions here that are far less "ideological" and far more scientifically interesting. For example: "what does "profit" mean in different socio/cultural contexts?", "how does a business measure "profit" beyond "generally accepted accounting standards?" "how does a business translate its profit into "good will" or vis-a-versa? "Are there differences in the cultural criteria a business uses to value a business opportunity, and what are they?"

I find the following, attributed to Gwynne, to be rather naive.

Moreover, because when working for highly competitive business firms business anthropologists usually face a difficult task in being “open” with results, publications, and sometimes must undergo through severe concerns about professional ethical questioning (Gwynne, 2003)
This sounds like the subject for being blamed for behaving like the subject. What problems the business environment presents to the anthropological study of business are really the anthropologist's problem, not the business firm's. If one goes into an indigenous community and finds that they don't access to Facebook or Twitter so the anthropologist can not post her or his observations back to the students in the classroom, should the indigenous community be blamed?

Business plans, marketing information, trade secrets and other intellectual property is proprietary. Intellectual property is legally recognized as having a true economic value to the business. Any anthropologist, academic or applied, should understand and accept this if they want to work in the business environment.

Further, is there any ethical difference between the confidentiality one would extend the indigenous community and what one extends to a business firm? Why should the business anthropologist expect to be accepted into the business community, if the anthropologist can't accept the local rules over his/her vague "professional" ethics? Should there be a more realistic code that fits the business context that the business anthropologist can subscribe to rather than trying to fit the business into an ethical system based on academic principles of ethics?

Another interesting point you raised is:

... the fourth field can be termed as anthropology of competitive intelligence and knowledge management, focus on the study of unique methods by anthropologists to be used in competitive intelligence and knowledge management (Tian 2009).

I recognize that this (competitor intelligence) is often the reason an anthropologist might be hired by a business firm, either as an employee or as a consultant. However, in the end, this raises the broader question. In American culture, at least, business is often referred to metaphorically as WAR.So, What is the difference between an anthropologist hired by a private business corporation to do competitor intelligence research, and the anthropologist hired by the military to do cultural terrain analysis?

Is there a different code of ethics based on the identity of the client, i.e. a form of "racial" profiling? Or, should there be a different code of ethics based on the purpose of the activity bring carried out regardless who the client is?

As you can see, you have me thinking. Good job!

Again, thank you for the article and summary.


A Discussion with Barry Bainton


Thanks for your good comments, which push me to invite you write an article for the International Journal of Business Anthropology. You have made three excellent, and yet, arguable, points: 1) what are the purposes of business firms (profits vs. nonprofits); 2 shall we (anthropologists) adapt to the subjects’ environment (both nature and social) and rules or shall we blame the subjects for not sharing the same environment and rules as ours; and 3) how shall we deal with our professional ethic codes, shall we have our professional ethic codes adapted to the subjects’ society or shall we must insist on our own.

I believe each of these three issues is worth of debating and discussing among our colleagues. I would like to particularly invite you write something on ethic issues and using competitive intelligence as the case. Dr. Ann Jordan is in the position that we (anthropologists) should not involve ourselves into CI projects, while Dr. Alf Walle and I, among several others, believe that anthropologists do have the advantages in doing CI projects. I believe it is a very interesting topic to discuss and to debate among business anthropologists.
Please contact me by email: rgtian@yahoo.com

Thank you again.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Roles of Business Anthropologists Have Been Recognized

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The roles and functions of business anthropologists have been widely recognized; in fact anthropologists are able to help solve most business problems in the real world and have made their unique contributions (Jordan, 2010). Business anthropologist Timothy Malefyt recently (2009) discusses the changing public role of anthropology in last few years by exploring the rise of branded ethnographic practices in consumer research. He argues that a juncture in the “New Economy”—the conjoining of corporate interest in branding, technology, and consumers, with vast social changes—help to explain the rapid growth of ethnography for consumer research and predict its future direction. Business problems are various, for example, some of the business problems are related to the acceptance of new technical tools, methods, and processes by reluctant workers. Business firms that have workers with different educational, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds may face serious difficulties in creating a coherent organizational culture (Schwartz, 1991). Business anthropologists have been hired to investigate sources of trouble and to suggest remedies (Mars, 1994). In some cases, business anthropologists are able to help mediate and open communication between groups of workers and management (Reice, 1993).

In practice, most business anthropologists play very different roles in the companies for which they work (Jordan, 2010; Marrewijk, 2010; Morais and Malefyt, 2010). Some focus on the products that businesses produce, for example, by helping businesses to develop attractive, salable products and to market these products successfully. While others focus on business organizations themselves, for example, by helping businesses to improve the efficiency with which they are run. No matter what their topical focus or employment status is, however, business anthropologists rely on the same methods other kinds of applied anthropologists use in their practice, especially participant observation, informant interviewing, focus groups, various survey methods, and network analysis (Aguilera, 1996; Corbett, 2008). They also research and analyze many of the same cultural variables as other anthropologists, such as beliefs and values, social structure, and gender-related behavior differences in organizations. In general, their work includes the same process and methods along with other kinds of applied anthropology (Marrewijk, 2010; Ybema et al., 2009).

Margaret A. Gwynne (2003), an applied anthropological theorist, along with Ann Jordan (2003), a business anthropologist, places business anthropology as a subfield of applied anthropology. However, in Gwynne’s view there is a major methodological difference between business anthropology and other kinds of applied anthropology because in most cases the fundamental purpose of private sector economic activity is to make profit, and as such, there is always full of competitions in the business world. Moreover, because when working for highly competitive business firms business anthropologists usually face a difficult task in being “open” with results, publications, and sometimes must undergo through severe concerns about professional ethical questioning (Gwynne, 2003).

     The profit motive usually means that the “product cycle” of any given item produced by a business – the amount of time between the development and introduction of a product and its decline – tends to be relatively short. For this reason, research conducted by business anthropologists is usually of a much shorter duration and involves much fewer informants than research conducted by their colleagues in the academic world (Hafner, 1999). In the business world there are various approaches to the real problems that are mostly associated with people. The anthropological approach seeks to answer the ever-widening questions such as:  “Why do people do what they do?”  “What do they mean when they doing so?”  Keeping these questions in mind we can further analyze the roles that business anthropologists can play, the functions that anthropologists can have, and the contributions that anthropologists can make to improve the business operations.

     In her recent article on the importance of business anthropology Jordan (2010) suggests that business anthropology can be effectively divided into three fields: 1) organizational anthropology (the study of complex organizations to include their cultures, work processes, and change directives), 2) anthropology of marketing and consumer behavior, and 3) design anthropology (product and services design). While fully agree with Dr. Jordan, this author tends to add the fourth and the fifth fields, the fourth field can be termed as anthropology of competitive intelligence and knowledge management, focus on the study of unique methods by anthropologists to be used in competitive intelligence and knowledge management (Tian 2009), and the fifth field can be termed as anthropology of international and cross-cultural business (Ferraro, 2006; Lillis and Tian, 2009). In the following sections the author will briefly present the contributions that business anthropologists can make in the studies of corporative cultures, knowledge management, cultural audits, organizational changes, product design, marketing, consumer behavior, and international business with an additional section to discuss how anthropologists make their contributions (This is the introduction section of an article that I recently published in the International Journal of Business Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 2).

Friday, March 11, 2011

An Anthropological Approach to Ignite Traditional Focus Group

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An Review of Refocusing Focus Groups: A Practical Guide

Maryann McCabe
University of Rochester

     If we were living during the California Gold Rush, this book would be a desired nugget for the business professional interested in learning about focus groups and eureka would form on the lips of the reader. Although this is not the mid-19th century when the Gold Rush occurred, Refocusing Focus Groups by Robert J. Morais (Paramount Market Publishing, Ithaca, NY) comes at just the right time when an anthropological perspective has gained recognition in the business community as a valuable tool for market research. An introduction for people new to focus groups, the book provides nuggets of insight into the use and flexibility of focus groups for understanding consumers and positioning brands. Short and succinct, the book is worth its weight in gold.

     The author, a cultural anthropologist with expertise in marketing research and strategy, tells us what we need to know as observers of focus groups. The book reflects keen awareness of the business needs of corporate clients and their purpose in studying consumer behavior. It assumes a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the marketing and advertising professionals sponsoring the research. One of the book’s many contributions is indicating when a focus group is an appropriate method to pursue compared to other methods like observation, ethnography, one-on-one interviews, online interaction, and quantitative research.
     The subtitle of the book sets the tone for readers. Chapters are laid out corresponding to what happens before, during and after focus groups are conducted. The book answers upfront research design questions facing clients concerning how many groups to have for a given project and how many people to have in each group. Answers are based on the intent of qualitative research to delve deeply into consumer beliefs, values, and practices. Fewer groups and fewer people may yield the rich conversation that provides what is needed. This less is more principle also applies to the design of a moderator’s guide. Exploring a few key questions with consumers may be better than rushing through a thousand questions. To this end, the author provides a number of projective techniques that can increase our ability to explore the cultural logic underlying behavior with products and brands.
     Another asset of the book is its focus on reflexivity, an issue that has shaped knowledge production in anthropology and the social sciences generally in recent years (Clifford and Marcus 1986). As observers of focus groups, we have our own knowledge and assumptions about relationships between consumers and specific products and brands. This input usually comes from one’s experience in the world and from company intelligence. The book encourages us to be aware of our views so that they do not interfere with listening to what persons in the focus group are really saying. The author correlates the reflexive self with a sense of being naïve because it is what allows us to listen and gain fresh insight.
     The book’s greatest strength lies in its emphasis on interpreting the meaning of products in the everyday life of people. The author points out that cultural analysis goes beyond what people say in focus groups in order to identify categories of meaning that motivate purchase and use of brands. From this kind of analysis come new ideas for positioning and advertising. For business people desiring a fuller explanation of cultural analysis than this practical guide can be expected to provide, the authors refer readers to the lengthier book that has become a bible for an anthropological approach to market research (Sunderland and Denny 2007).

     Despite the importance of such weighty issues as reflexivity and interpretation, Refocusing Focus Groups offers an easy and entertaining read. The writing is crisp, free of jargon (from the speak of both anthropology and business), and full of good humor. Advice on back-room behavior during focus groups, while serious and sagacious, is written with a wit that would draw a laugh from anyone, yet orients interactions between researcher and clients to useful dialogue. Critical to the success of the book, I think, is the use of lucid case examples from the author’s experience that bring points home.
     After reading the book, focus groups will seem what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls common sense (Geertz 1983). This is because Refocusing Focus Groups gives such a quick grasp of how to use focus groups that the new learning seems common sense. Like the Forty-Niners flocking to California in search of gold, readers can expect to find new and exciting ways to mine focus groups for gaining consumer knowledge. Clever graphics accompanying the text make the learning process fun since they inspire readers to become engaged in figuring out associations between image and text for themselves and thus doing business anthropology.

References were deleted by RGT