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Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Business Anthropology: An Overview
Business Anthropology: An Overview
Dr. Robert Guang Tian
The development and growth of business anthropology is discussed in terms of its roles and functions within both the theoretical and practitioner realms. The tools used by business anthropologists tend to be qualitative and have proved useful in areas including product design, marketing strategy, organizational change, and so forth. In a global age when understanding people within a social context is vital, business anthropology has a dynamic and unique contribution to make.
The roles and functions of business anthropologists are widely recognized (Jordan 2010), especially ethnographic investigations involving consumer research (Malefyt 2009.) In addition, business anthropologists help organizations cope with demographic variations involving ethnic and cultural distinctiveness (Schwartz 1991.) In some cases, business anthropologists interface between management and the workforce (Reice 1993.)
The discipline serves in many roles (Jordan 2010, Marrewijk 2010, Morais and Malefyt 2010); representative assignments include product design, organizational structure, improving the efficiency of daily operations, and so forth. No matter what the mission, however, business anthropologists tend to rely upon similar methodologies and analytic techniques including participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, survey methods, and network analysis (Aguilera 1996, Corbett 2008.) Relevant substantive topics include beliefs, values, social structures, and gender-related behavior among others (Marrewijk, 2010; Ybema et al., 2009.)
Although business anthropology can be viewed as a subset of applied anthropology (Gwynne 2003; Jordan 2003), Gwynne reminds us that business anthropology tends to serve private sector organizations pursuing the profit motive. Because much business research is of a propriety nature, furthermore, questions related to professional ethics can emerge if researchers and the organizations that hire them are not candid regarding their findings (Gwynne 2003.)
Due to time constraints and the cost-conscious nature of practitioner-oriented research, investigations are usually of a much shorter duration and use fewer informants than academic or scholarly studies (Hafner 1999.) In any event, the anthropological approach invariable asks questions such as “Why do people do what they do?” and “What are the full implications of doing so?”
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 organizations, including their “cultures”, work processes, directives for change, and so forth), 2. the anthropology of marketing and consumer behavior, and 3. design anthropology (product and services design.) Agreeing with Jordan, this author believes the field is destined to expand in additional directions including 4. the anthropology of competitive intelligence and knowledge management (Tian 2009) and 5. the anthropology of international and cross-cultural business (Ferraro 2006; Lillis and Tian 2009). These last two roles, not discussed here at length, can be viewed as a wave of the future and, to a degree, are addressed in Walle’s text (Walle, 2013).
In this overview, a range of methods and tools of business anthropology are discussed with reference to the current development of the field and the way it is evolving to serve decision makers in the practitioner world. Long ignored or reduced to intellectual second class citizenship by those who favor scientific and quantitative methods, business anthropology is increasingly recognized as possessing a different but equally legitimate methodology and mission.
In order to demonstrate the contributions the field is poised to make, a number of research initiatives within business anthropology are discussed including 1. Exploring corporate cultures, 2. Tactic Knowledge Management, 3. Cultural Audits, 4 Addressing organizational Change, 5. Product Design and Development, 6. Marketing and Consumer Research, and 7. Addressing globalization and Cross-Cultural issues. It is hoped that these non-exhaustive discussions regarding the roles business anthropology are useful.
The days of allowing business organizations to be led by those who lack cultural competence are fading. Grant McCracken (2009), for example, argues that organizations need a chief cultural officer (CCO) that can foster proactive adaptation instead of merely reacting to circumstances.
A business, like a society or subculture, exists within cultural, legal, and social milieus and is made up of individuals that may possess idiosyncratic differences. Participants may be of both genders, span a wide range of ages, possess different educational backgrounds, as well as varying levels of ability. Business anthropologists have a crucial role in developing a systematic understanding of specific organizational cultures (Kotter 1991; Reeves-Ellington 1999.)
From an anthropological point of view, organizations are groups of people who operate within a social system that tends to evolve over time and, to a greater or lesser extent, exhibit (internal as well as external) stress and change. Business anthropology can help generate a better understanding of corporate cultures by documenting and analyzing both formal and informal knowledge that exists within them (Garza 1991.)
Unfortunately, explaining to managers that examining these questions will contribute to organizational success can be difficult. Thus, on many occasions decision makers fail to recognize the importance of the field (Aguilera 1996.)
Gwynne (2003) observes that business anthropologists have a wide number of tools to employ including Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, Malinowski’s functionalism, Geertz’s symbolic approach, and so forth. Each paradigm investigates people, culture, and social institutions in a distinctive manner; this variety provides a broad menu of qualitative tools.
No matter what approach is adopted, business anthropologists tend to view an organization as a “community” of people that is studied, analyzed, and understood as a social or cultural group (Gwynne 2003.) Working to implement organizational changes can smooth the way for change by identifying cultural contexts. Thus, Judith Benson observes:
“I worked closely with individuals whom I recognized as potential roadblocks…I spent time with these major stakeholders to understand their points of view. At the same time, I worked with team members so that they could develop the process…in a way that blended with rather than confronted the existing cultural context.” (Benson 2000.)
Today, decision makers recognize that organizations develop a milieu that is analogous to a “culture.” Once this intellectual leap is made, business anthropologists have a vital role in helping decision making choose alternatives that are appropriate for the corporate culture of the organization.
Patricia Burke, suggests that observing how employees actually behave, think, and function is a vital contribution that business anthropologists are uniquely qualified to provide. Tacit knowledge consists of habits and thinking that is unstated, implicit, intuitive, and could easily be overlooked. In the discipline of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to areas of information and understanding that are difficult to communicate to others (Burke 1988.)
The process of transforming tactic knowledge to explicit understanding is known as “articulation” or “codification.” A factory worker, for example, may possess an “informal mental map” of the way raw materials actually flow through a production facility. This tacit knowledge may be more accurate than formal descriptions of the procedure developed by management. By studying tacit knowledge, business anthropologists may be able to document useful options and understandings that would otherwise remain elusive (Gwynne 2003.) Tacit knowledge can provide valuable insights (Baba 1998) even though those who possess it may not recognize its value. As Karl Polayni once observed, we know more than we can tell (1966).
Business executives who adequately document their employees’ tacit knowledge can improve the efficiency of the organization. Doing so can be envisioned as “tacit knowledge management.” The insights and grassroots techniques informally developed by long-term employees, for example, can sometimes be “captured” and taught to others (Baba 1986) via lectures, written guidelines, or simply by encouraging seasoned employees to provide informal advice (Laabs 1992.)
Tactic knowledge can be envisioned as unwritten folklore or grassroots knowledge. Anthropological methods are particularly useful when gathering this sort of informal knowledge and action. Business anthropology, therefore, has a vital role to play in tactical knowledge management.
Cultural values and preferences affect how the stakeholders of an organization respond. A strategy or initiative that is successful in one social, cultural, or organizational situation may not work effectively under other conditions. Cultural audits examine current practices, programs, and processes in order to identify their cultural appropriateness or inappropriateness. The results of a cultural audit are often kept confidential because organizations seldom air their problems in public (Gwynne 2003.)
The cultural audit examines the organization’s cultural and social characteristics, such as its assumptions, norms, philosophy, values, and relationships among employees. Ideally, the culture of the organization supports its vision and mission (Strathern 2000.) Gwynne (2003) suggests that business anthropologists involved in cultural audits, might be interested both in 1. employees’ opinions (both positive and negative) and 2. their suggestions for improvement. The audit is also interested in identifying values, feelings, attitudes, and expectations about the organization.
Sometimes business anthropologists who function as cultural auditors interview members of its board of directors or even its stockholders. The information collected from a wide variety of sources is synthesized in a report typically containing specific recommendations.
A cultural audit undertaken at General Motors provides a good example. The managers observed that some former expatriates experienced morale problems upon returning home (Briody and Baba 1993.) Many returnees, for their part, felt their overseas work was not appreciated and that their status in the company had suffered because of overseas service.
A series of interviews determined that some of GM’s domestic operations were administratively linked, or “coupled,” with overseas operations, while others were not. The domestic employees of “de-coupled” operations developed chauvinistic attitudes (Garza, 1991) and had little understanding of, or appreciation for, the importance of their expatriate counterparts. As a result, employees returning home after an overseas assignment often had less promising future opportunities.
Based on this cultural audit, recommendations were made regarding how GM could improve returning employees’ productivity and job satisfaction through the establishment of an exchange program in which American and foreign workers trade places for a few years in ways that prevented their careers from becoming sidetracked (Garza 1991; Gwynne 2003.)
The contemporary era has been a time of great change for many organizations. Increasingly, there is a focus on understanding how organizational change can be achieved, how local practices can be incorporated to maximum effect, and how opportunities can be improved for disadvantaged groups, particularly women. Nigel Thrift (2001), for example, notes that evolving economic conditions and changing systems of finance, sometimes place women at a disadvantage.
Just like cultures, businesses and commercial environments are dynamic and evolving; this is particularly true for large transnational corporations. An aerospace company, for example, which previously lumped all the engineers in one department began to assign these specialists to “integrated product teams” (IPTs) dedicated to one type of aircraft. Another popular innovation is “self-directed work teams” (SDWTs) that are given a greater range of autonomy. Teams have been shown to enhance productivity and to contribute to employees’ sense that they are an integral and important part of the organization (Jordan 1997, 1999.)
Teams are particularly well suited to anthropological analysis (Van Marrewijk 2010.) The Boeing Company, for example, hired a business anthropologist to create and integrate product teams. Applying anthropological methods and skills, shop floor mechanics were interviewed leading to recommendations that facilitated Boeing’s goal of involving its entire labor force in “determining the course of work” (Benson 2000; Gwynne 2003.)
PRODUCT DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
Business anthropologists have a significant role in research involving product design and development. In general, companies hire anthropologists to conduct internal or external ethnographic studies in order to understand how to best satisfy consumer demands. In recent years, ethnography has become popular with those who are interested in understanding the total consumer process.
The value of incorporating ethnography into product development and work practices research has been widely recognized, particularly in the design industry (Squires and Bryan 2002.) New firms have arisen that specialize in design research; some of them employ ethnographic methods. As discussed here, ethnography refers to observing how consumers behave in everyday life and why they do so (Baba 2006.)
Some business anthropologists specialize in product design and development. A business anthropologist investigating surgical instruments, for example, visited emergency-room doctors to view their work in an actual setting. When interviewed, the doctors insisted accuracy was their major concern. The anthropologist’s ethnographic analysis, however, discovered that speed was actually more highly valued. These findings convinced the company to redesign its surgical instruments resulting in increased market share (Baba 1998.)
Business anthropologists are increasingly called upon to help generate ideas for technological products and/or to assess the effects of new technologies. In order to develop ideas for new products and services, for example, Motorola commissioned a study of pager use in rural China (in an era when a scarcity of telephones existed.) The results of this anthropological analysis prompted Motorola to consider two-way paging outside of urban markets (Hafner 1999.)
An anthropological analysis of ethnographic data, furthermore, can influence the re-design of work systems. Customer repair work at Nynex became disjointed and inefficient when a new ‘trouble ticketing system’ was introduced. This system divided repair work into segments that were distributed to individual workers. If a technician did not complete a repair job by the end of the shift, the company re-cycled the job to someone else, without an opportunity for the two workers to communicate. An activity analysis, however, revealed that the communication that was being thwarted was important and that preventing it reduced effectiveness (Sachs 1995.)
Over twenty years ago, John Sherry, observed that marketing and anthropology are suited for intellectual cooperation (Sherry 1987.) This includes advertising as well as other marketing tools. Business anthropologists involved in marketing often use anthropological field methods to identify potential customers, raise consumers’ awareness, and create demand. Anthropologists have provided advice regarding advertising, user-friendly web sites, appropriate packaging, product placement, and strategic pricing (Sherry 1994; Malefyt and Moran 2003.)
Business anthropology has a vital role in marketing research (Baba 1986.) Market researchers seek to isolate the distinguishing cultural contexts and so forth that might motivate consumers, or encourage them to buy particular products. Related issues include identifying the places where consumers expect to purchase particular products, what kinds of packaging encourage purchase, and the expected cost. Ethnographic research is a popular technique used by business anthropologists who are involved in market research. Individual interviews and/or focus groups are also widely employed. These tools are used to elicit information regarding consumer needs, values, opinions, likes, and dislikes (Gwynne 2003.)
Business anthropologists involved in market research also analyze the constantly shifting symbolic meanings of products, paying attention to conscious and/or unconscious desires. Chevrolet, for example, commissioned a study regarding how car buyers decide which vehicle to purchase. Focusing on the symbolic role played by automobiles and consumers’ inner motivations, in-depth interviews were conducted to better understand the image that SUVs have in the minds of potential purchasers. Findings indicated that some women with children liked the fact that SUVs, unlike station wagons, do not announce to the world “I’m a mother.” Other consumers viewed SUVs as simultaneously safe and adventurous. The anthropologist notes, “If a marketer is skillful enough to equate his or her product with (its) deeper symbolism, they have the potential to turn it from just another good product into a cultural icon” (Shuldiner 1994.)
Business anthropology is providing leadership in expanding consumer research and marketing theory, based on empirical research in non-Western societies. By comparing Western views with pre-market socio-centric values, and an Islamic ethno-nationalist view, for example, Eric Arnould argues that the concept of “preference formation”, a staple of conventional marketing, may need to be rethought. Later, drawing upon ethnographic sources, Arnould has shed new light on marketing topics ranging from cross-border trade to relationship management (Arnould 1995.)
The formation of contemporary consumer markets is typically intertwined with social identities. Consumer researchers develop models regarding what kind of person will be most amenable to particular social markets (Malefyt and Moeran 2003). Grant McCracken (1990) demonstrates how the consumption process has meanings that resonate from the culture. For McCracken, consumption is broadly defined to include the processes by which consumer goods and services are created, bought, and used. According to McCracken, the relationship between culture and consumption is profoundly interrelated within three contexts: history, theory, and practice.
A key to success often involves an understanding of consumer demand, the level of desire, and their urgency to purchase particular products (Sherry 1994.) What products are consumers likely to purchase? Which are they likely to avoid? Why? What modifications can enhance their appeal? Some characteristics affecting consumer demand (such as price, ease of use, efficacy, and attractiveness) are obvious, but others, such as the unconscious meanings consumers may associate with particular products, are less apparent. To obtain information on consumer demands, business anthropologists conduct ethnographic research, interviewing and observing consumers in their “natural habitats” (Hafner 1999.) Useful field methods include one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and videotaping.
Since not all consumers in a particular nation, culture, or society are alike, market researchers typically differentiate among potential consumers with reference to factors such as sex, age, occupation, socioeconomic status, level of education, place of residence, ethnic group affiliation, geographical context and so forth (Burkhalter 1986.) This aspect of market research is referred to as “market segmentation.” Business anthropologists seek clues regarding who are likely to purchase a particular product as well as how consumer expectations regarding the product might vary from group to group (Gwynne 2003.)
I, along with my students, for example, conducted anthropological research regarding cultural factors impacting dining in ethnic restaurants. The findings indicate that to understand these responses, the culture in which consumption takes place must be understood. The extent of the degree of cultural understanding and cultural awareness among consumers also influences behavior and purchase decisions.
Buying and consuming products helps people to establish identities and express themselves. One approach to the analysis of consumer research is termed “cross-cultural interpreting” that recognizes the differences in cultural norms and values between countries. These differences can be illustrated through studying dining in restaurants. The culture’s beliefs and attitudes regarding food impact the choices that consumers make regarding dining in ethnic restaurants. Patterns of consumption differ from country to country because of these cultural differences (Tian 2007.)
The British anthropologist Daniel Miller, drawing on a range of examples from Western and developing cultures, views contemporary society as the product of both individual and collective identity (and behavior rooted in these identities.) He notes that Marxist interpretations often view people as being estranged from the objects they produce. Miller, however, has developed an alternative view that argues that people redefine material objects in ways that reflect their personal tastes, moral principles, and social ideals (Miller 1997.)
Miller interprets shopping using the metaphor of sacrificial ritual (Miller 1998) which typically is carried out by women and linked through bonds of love and devotion to the family. Thus, although consumer goods might trigger alienation, discrimination, or control in some circumstances, researchers should not assume that this is always the case.
GLOBALIZATION AND CROSS-CULTURAL ISSUES
Since the end of Cold War in the late 1980s, the world and its economic structure has experienced dramatic changes often discussed with reference to the term “globalization” (Daniels and Sullivan 2009.) In this emerging world of change and growing interrelationships, fresh techniques for understanding, motivating, and empowering diverse employees are needed. Helping organizations examine and respond to cultural values and other dimensions provides a significant role for business anthropologists (Jordan 2003.)
Ideologically, globalization often embraces neoliberal perspectives (that emphasize free trade, deregulation, open markets, and privatization along with a greater role for the private sector.) From a more hands-on perspective, globalization often overstates the degree to which the world is a single unit, while internationalization is more apt to recognize a greater difference between peoples and the impact of these variances upon business. Robertson refers to globalization as the view that the world can best be envisioned as a unified whole, essentially one big market (1995.) This view, of course, is controversial.
Globalization can be viewed both in terms of marketing and production (Hill 2004.) The globalization of markets refers to the merging of historically distinct and separate national markets into one huge larger pool while the globalization of production refers to the sourcing of goods and services from locations all over the world.
Whereas market liberalization refers to the elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to international trade between countries, globalization is a more complex phenomenon that is becoming increasingly present in various domains, including economics, politics, technologies, and different cultures. As business strategies increasingly transcends national borders, the need to manage the global marketplace increases. This is causing a need to for treaties and other mechanisms to control and regulate global business (Yücel et al. 2009.)
In the 1950s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall, served as director of the U.S. State Department's “Point Four” training program that provided training to expatriates destined to work outside of North America. Hall built a career centered around cross-cultural communications, writing several seminal works that today are considered to be classics (Hall 1981; Jordan 2003.)
In Hall’s first book, The Silent Language, he explored nonverbal characteristics of communication that needed to be understood within a cultural context. In his later work, Hall explored culturally distinct ways of conceiving space and time and their implications for cross-cultural communications. Hall’s work has profoundly influenced others, such as Gary Ferraro, continue his work (Ferraro 2006).
Ferraro’s contribution to international business (sometimes referred to as the Ferraro model, eg. Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010) examines cultural values such as “individualism vs. collectivism”, “equality vs. hierarchy”, “tough vs. tender societies”, varying levels of “uncertainty avoidance”, and aspects of time (including precise versus loose reckoning and conceptions of past, present, and future. Ferraro’s work on the cultural dimensions of international business balances the theoretical with practical in ways that can help develop the basic knowledge and skills needed to conduct international business with cultural sensitivity (Tian et al. 2010.)
Geert Hofstede’s global model is the best-known model of cross-cultural communication. His work has given rise to what is called “the four-dimension of culture model” composed of “power distance”, “uncertainty” “avoidance”, “individualism-collectivism”, and “masculinity” (Hofstede 1980, 1991.) Moreover, some researchers such as Emery and Tian, along with others, have added an additional dimension called Confucian Dynamism, with the special intention of differentiating Chinese from Western cultural values (Emery and Tian 2003.)
Emery and Tian argue that the significance of cross-cultural differences in advertising have become even clearer as global principles have grown in importance. The findings indicate that existing models such as Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are too broad and need to be refined or expanded. Thus, Emery and Tian point to the need to enlist experts in Chinese consumer behavior before developing promotional campaigns (Emery and Tian 2003.)
HOW CAN ANTHROPOLOGISTS MAKE CONTRIBUTIONS?
Although business anthropologists can and have made significant contributions (Jordan 2003), its qualitative methods have not been as widely embraced as they could and should have been (Tian and Walle 2009.) The ethnographic method, in particular, is useful and can be juxtaposed with ethnology, the process of comparing different peoples or ways of life in the hope of discovering universal or recurring patterns of human behavior. Simply put, ethnography is used to study particular people or situations.
Stewart observes that business anthropologists need to understand business language to interpret the speech and other acts around them. After all, conducting ethnography involves learning to act and think like an “insider.” This focus is central to all ethnographers even though business anthropologists might streamline their work in ways that would not meet the standards of the academic world.
Although anthropologists may master the regimens and orientations of the business world, they often have little clout. As Stewart observes “the minor role that anthropologists may find themselves in may lead to ethical conundrums. The dominance of these other fields is also a reason that useful findings by anthropologists have often failed to be implemented” (Stewart, 2010.)
According to Robbie Blinkoff, ethnography involves four key tenets: Participant Observation: with ethnographers spending time with informants as they go about their daily lives, learning through doing and observing. Natural Setting: ethnography is conducted in the space where participants actually live, work and play, not in a separate research facility. In Their Own Words: ethnographic research findings tend to be delivered in the words of the participants, using their language. Holism: concerns how people's actions and thoughts are influenced, directly or indirectly, in synergistic ways by the entire environment. (www.contextresearch.com/context/index.cfm).
Ethnographic studies are specific investigations that explore a circumscribed social setting. The goal of is to describe and analyze a set of behaviors that exist (or existed in a specific time and place.) This type of focused investigation has a proven value to businesses that seek to understand how people respond in the workplace, as consumers, and so on (Walle 2001). Ethnographic research makes use of a range of data-collection activities that can be placed along a continuum, stretching from the passive observer at one end to the active participant observer at the other. Participant observation involves a level of immersion that allows the researcher to better envision behavior from an insider’s point of view. Ultimately, ethnography is an inductive process in which data is gathered by repeated and prolonged contact between the researcher and informant. In ethnographic investigations, researchers are often actively involved in the lives of informants (Tian, Lillis, and Van Marrewijk 2010).
In recent years, researchers in business have increasingly begun to employ qualitative methods such as ethnographic methods and participant observation. Marketers and consumer behavior specialists, for example, have developed ways to employ the techniques of ethnography and participant observation within the context of the marketplace. Specialists such as John Sherry and Russell Belk, among many others, have demonstrated the value of doing so. This research stream, arguably the most successful example of applying qualitative methods within business research, has gained a high profile and generated great interest (Walle 2001; Tian and Walle 2009). More recently, business anthropologists using ethnographic methods have helped organizations improve their performance in many areas including product design/development, consumer relations, human resource management, competitive intelligence, and so on.
The Hunt Corporation, for example, is a manufacturer and international marketer of products targeted to home, office and educational users. It employed an ethnographic study involving interviews with informants along with direct observations at the informants’ at-home offices. The investigation identified that there were three types of home office users with each type having very specific needs and desires. Armed with this knowledge, product designers developed concepts for products aimed as those with home-offices. (www.contextresearch.com/context/index.cfm.)
Many other examples demonstrate that the ethnographic method provides a method of “getting closer” to the consumer (Sherry 1994; Sunderland and Denny 2007.)
Business Anthropology Is Dynamic and Growing
Anthropology has developed a wide array of qualitative and naturalistic techniques for understanding people and their behavior. For many years, practitioners in the business sector considered these analytic methods to be inferior to quantitative and so-called “rigorous scientific” methods. However, in recent years these positivistic biases have been strongly criticized (Bate 1994, Alvesson and Svenginson 2008.) Business anthropologists support these critics (Aguilera 1996, Ferraro 1998, Jordon 2003) and point to their qualitative ethnographic and naturalistic methods as positive alternatives to more formal analytic techniques (Jordan 2003, Ybema, Yanow, Wels, & Kamsteeg, 2009.)
Business anthropology is defined here as a practitioner-oriented social science that typically uses qualitative methods to examine aspects of everyday life. (Baba 2006; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010) Business leaders must rethink what they offer customers and with whom they chose to collaborate. Anthropological methods provide excellent insights in this regard (Jordan 2003, 2010, Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010).
A prominent example is the role of business anthropologists in the consumer industry. In recent decades, consumer markets have become fragmented and traditional ways of doing business have become less effective. These changing conditions have created many opportunities (Tian 2007, Tian and Walle 2009.)
Business anthropologists, furthermore, are positioned to serve both for-profit and nonprofit organizations (Jordan 2003; Pant and Alberti 1997.)
Today business academics increasingly employ anthropological theories and methods (Bate 1997.) In addition, business schools have started to redesign their curricula to acknowledge anthropological perspectives (Tian & Walle 2009, Tian 2005.)
Tensions and divisions between scholars and practitioners, of course, exist. Practitioners are concerned with enhancing the short term decision making process while facing both time and cost constraints, Scholars, in contrast, pursue pure research and are less controlled by time and cost considerations. Nonetheless, these differences can be transcended in positive and productive ways. The fact that applied anthropology has long embraced a practitioner orientation facilitates building productive bridges and mutual respect between scholars and practitioners.
DynamicS and MATURITY
Anthropology has developed a wide array of qualitative techniques for understanding people and their relationships with others. Business anthropologists typically use these methods as an alternative to more formal methodologies and quantitative techniques. Doing so gives business anthropologists a competitive advantage when pursuing a wide range of assignments (Jordan 2003, Ybema, Yanow, Wels, & Kamsteeg, 2009.)
These techniques facilitate business anthropologists aiding the decision making process (Baba 2006; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010.) As business anthropology becomes increasingly recognized as a strategic science, the demand for its services is destined to grow.
Technological advances and globalization are transforming the way people interact; interpreting these changes and their impacts is a forte of business anthropology. As a result, there is a great need for holistic analysis based on qualitative analysis (Jordan 2003, 2010; Tian, Lillis, and van Marrewijk 2010.)
Ann Jordan stresses that business anthropologists tap various sources of information in the quest to understand how people react within organizations (Jordan 2003.) This emic (informant centered) perspective is a common feature of the anthropological approach. Business anthropologists, furthermore, examine human behavior from within the social, historical, spatial, and economical context, providing a social construction of cultural differences that can be of strategic value (van Marrewijk 2009.)
The evolution of consumer research from a sub discipline of marketing into a freestanding multi-disciplinary field of study has worked in favor of business anthropology. This situation creates opportunities for anthropologists to play an enhanced role when strategies and policies are being developed (Tian 2007, Tian and Walle 2009) in the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and NGOs (Jordan 2003; Pant and Alberti 1997.)
The interest in business anthropology is spilling over into the scholarly world. University faculties are increasingly involved in projects involving the field (Bate 1997.) Many business schools are developing curricula with business anthropology in mind (Tian & Walle 2009, Tian 2005.) Future developments in global business will amplify the relevance and reach of business anthropology.
As is always the case when a scholarly discipline is refined for practitioner purposes, different priorities may exist. Academics are occupied with pure research for its own sake while business anthropologists must adjust their work to the circumstances in which they operate, the requirements of the assignment, and time/cost considerations. These concessions are often made at the expense of scholarly rigorousness.
Thus, this is a very dynamic time for business anthropology. Changes in the world of work, marketing, and the growth of a global focus have increased the need for cultural understanding. The new respect of qualitative research is providing practitioner-oriented anthropologists with a degree of strategic clout that has not existed since the World 2 era.
Thus, business anthropology is reaching maturity.
In recent years, business anthropology has emerged as a qualitative research discipline with one foot in the social sciences and the other within the realm of business and practitioner-focused analysis. The relevance of its methods and its analytic paradigms is widely recognized.
The ethnographic method is a powerful tool that business anthropologists often use to help decision makers understand significant differences between what people say and what they actually do. Through participant observation, business anthropologists are able to document informal social structures and patterns of behavior, as well as tensions that might not be obvious at first glance. Decision makers increasingly use ethnographies as the effective means of gaining subtle, culturally-specific information that is needed to develop actionable strategies.
Building upon its assets, business anthropology is emerging as an important strategic science and will increasingly be in demand.
Aguilera, F. (1996). Is Anthropology Good for the Company? American Anthropologist, 98(4): 735-742.
Alvesson, M. and Sveningson, S. (2008), Changing Organizational Culture, London: Routledge.
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