As an applied anthropologist specializing in design anthropology and user experience, I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at SXSW 2021 titled “Anthropology as a Crucial Frame for Change.”

Along with my colleagues Gigi Taylor, Patti Sunderland, and Marcel Aurea Salas, we explored the transformative potential of anthropology in business and society. Here are some key insights and quotes that stood out from our discussion:

Cultural Analysis: Uncovering Symbolic Meanings

At the core of anthropology lies cultural analysis – elucidating the symbolic meanings and cultural contexts that shape human behavior. As Patti Sunderland eloquently explained:

Culture is a very elusive concept itself, but the idea that most of us here on this panel and many others subscribe to is one that was elucidated by Clifford Geertz in the 1970s…that as humans, we create meanings, symbolic meanings, that we spin and live within and through… It’s not a static view.”

By uncovering these cultural meanings, anthropologists can provide invaluable insights for businesses in areas like product development, branding, and organizational issues. This approach goes beyond traditional psychological frameworks focused on individual needs and motivations.

Meaning and Experiences: A Holistic Perspective

Anthropologists bring a unique lens to understanding meaning and experiences, looking at the broader cultural and social factors at play. Gigi Taylor shared an example from her work in the beauty industry:

“For meaning, I might ask, what does beauty mean to you? …We use tools like collages. This is a great way to get the conversation started to help people put concrete words to this abstract concept.”

By exploring daily lived experiences and cultural practices, anthropologists gain a deeper understanding of how individuals organize and make sense of their world. This holistic perspective can help businesses create more meaningful and resonant products and experiences.

Reflexivity: Examining Our Impact

A key concept in anthropology is reflexivity – reflecting on our own biases and the impact of our actions on larger systems and institutions. As researchers and practitioners, acknowledging our role in shaping interpretations is crucial. Marcel Aurea Salas highlighted this in the context of consumer segmentation frameworks:

“…it inevitably involve marketers to construct categories where ideas about social difference, such as race and ethnicity, become the frameworks through which markets are made, but at the same time can be bound up with underlying theories and actually work to oversimplify and obscure.”

By applying reflexivity, anthropologists can challenge existing frameworks, promote diversity and inclusion, and work towards more ethical practices in business.

Navigating Ethical Challenges

Anthropologists often face ethical dilemmas in their work, balancing obligations to participants, clients, and society at large. As I shared from my own experience consulting:

“We also have to contend with other issues, ethical issues, such as privacy… What does it mean to exchange your data with a company that’s monetizing it? …Is that fair? Should we contribute to that?”

Navigating these challenges requires a commitment to doing the right thing for participants and being willing to have difficult conversations with clients. Anthropologists must strive to do no harm and create positive change.

Interventional Ethnography

Ethnography, the hallmark method of anthropology, involves observing, documenting, and analyzing human behavior and culture. However, as I emphasized, modern ethnography is evolving:

“…ethnography is changing. It’s no longer like the lone researcher just going out into some distant place for a year and studying some other culture… we collaborate with lots of stakeholders, other disciplines… And most importantly, the participants. We co-create with participants…”

By embracing participatory research and giving voice to the experts – the people themselves – anthropologists can facilitate deeper understanding and drive meaningful change.

Anthropology of the Future

While anthropology has a rich history of critical analysis, many of us in the business world are increasingly focused on the future and creating change. As I shared:

“…much of the work becomes really about the future. It’s not to say that I’m not going to keep working on products that currently exist and trying to improve those. But for me, it’s really about what is next? What are the possibilities? Where are we going with all this?”

By asking big questions and collaborating with participants to design solutions, anthropologists can help solve wicked problems and shape a better future.

The Power of Anthropology in Business

Throughout our discussion, a resounding theme emerged: the incredible potential of anthropology to reframe understanding and drive positive change in business and society. As Patti Sunderland summarized:

“…the value of anthropology within business as well as dealing with social problems is that anthropology can really give us a new and different frame for looking at things that we don’t usually use. And that framework can be really good for getting us out of stuck places.”

By embracing anthropology’s holistic, reflexive, and future-oriented approach, businesses can gain profound insights, navigate complex challenges, and create meaningful impact.

Call to Action: Hire Anthropologists

In closing, Gigi Taylor left us with a powerful call to action:

“Hire anthropologists. You’ve heard us call ourselves either cultural anthropologists, business anthropologists, design anthropologists, consumer anthropologists, organizational anthropologists, but we all work under the umbrella of business anthropology, applied cultural anthropologists. Hire us as internal research partners to complement your existing research practice, UX practice, or as external partners, consultants, vendors, to help you tackle those very wicked problems that exist.”

As an applied anthropologist myself, I couldn’t agree more. We are here to collaborate, innovate, and help organizations navigate the complexities of an ever-changing world. Together, we can harness the power of anthropology to drive positive transformation in business and society.