Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies:A Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology (1)

The Unique Contributions and the Unique Methodologies:
A Concise Overview of the Applications of Business Anthropology

Robert Guang Tian
Medaille College

Anthropologists can make their great contributions to improve business operations. Business anthropology is a relatively new but fast growing subfield in anthropology and the business anthropologist is becoming a major occupation for anthropologists. This paper analyzes the roles that business anthropologists can play, the functions that anthropologists can have, and the contributions that anthropologists can make in the real business world. It suggests that by using specially developed research methods of anthropology, such as participant observation, informant interview, focus group, various survey techniques, and network analysis, business anthropologist can help business management to improve performance from product design to marketing strategies, from organizational change to consumer behavior studies, from domestic to international business development.


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.


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