In a recent episode of the Anthropology in Business podcast, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Associate Professor and Head of Studies at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, shared fascinating insights into the evolving field of business anthropology. One key theme emerged: the importance of bridging the gap between academic anthropology and applied anthropology in business settings.

Legitimizing Business Anthropology in Academia

When Kasper first began pursuing business anthropology, it was perceived as a marginal and unconventional field within the discipline. As he explains:

“I wanted to convince my fellow anthropologists that this was a real field of anthropology and a proper field of anthropology and one that should be respected just as much as any other field that anthropologists have studied.”

To establish business anthropology as a legitimate area of study, Kasper aimed to show that classic anthropological concepts and methods could be valuably applied to understand business organizations:

“I am very fond of using classic anthropological notions like totemism, animism, some of the very earliest concepts in anthropology on their practices while, I mean, using those concepts to try to understand what’s going on in a business organization.”

Breaking Down Barriers Between Academic and Applied Anthropology

Over the past 15 years, the field of business anthropology has evolved significantly. However, Kasper notes that a problematic distinction still persists between academic and applied anthropology:

“I think many of us know the discussions that were going on 10 to 15 years ago, where you sort of separated academic anthropology and applied anthropology at some level. The one being more pure and the other impure, which is a distinction, which I definitely don’t like.”

This separation creates an “us vs. them” mentality between anthropologists working inside and outside of academia. To break down these barriers, Kasper emphasizes:

  • Inviting practitioners into the classroom to present real-world problems for students to explore
  • Sending students into organizations through internships and fieldwork to gain applied experience
  • Challenging the notion that peer-reviewed academic research is more valuable than applied work

“I clearly there is a difference or at least the condition for doing anthropology are different if you are inside a department of anthropology, or if you are inside a business organization, different periods of time that you have to do fieldwork, different conditions for analyzing your data and so on… I just don’t like that the one is called academic while the other is called applied.”

The Journal of Business Anthropology as a Collaborative Platform

As the new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Business Anthropology (JBA), which recently returned to its origins in Copenhagen, Kasper aims to create a forum for researchers and practitioners to exchange ideas.

To make the journal an inclusive platform for collaboration, he plans to publish a diverse range of formats beyond standard research articles:

“We hope to have a range of different formats in which you can publish in the Journal of Business Anthropology in order to make that journal more of a forum for people to reflect on their anthropology.”

This includes video articles, written essays, and other innovative modes of communicating and reflecting on anthropology’s application in business.

Exploring New Frontiers in Business Anthropology

Kasper’s current research project, RE-ANIMATE, exemplifies how classic anthropological concepts like animism can shed light on modern economic tendencies and the relationship between human and non-human life:

“Could it be that it’s a sort of animistic way of being in the world that is somehow moving into these different visions that we see for a new way of doing economy.”

By investigating alternative economic models focused on regeneration and sustainability, the RE-ANIMATE project pushes the boundaries of how anthropological thinking can help address pressing global issues.

The Future Is Bright for Business Anthropology

As academics like Kasper Tang Vangkilde continue to advocate for the value of anthropology in business, the lines between academic research and real-world application will hopefully blur. Exciting developments in design anthropology, organizational anthropology, and studying alternative economic futures demonstrate the immense potential for anthropologists to positively impact the business world.

With more opportunities for practitioners and researchers to learn from each other, business anthropology is poised to thrive – both as a respected academic discipline and as an indispensable tool for organizations navigating complex human dynamics in our rapidly changing world. The best is yet to come.