Even if you don’t know it, you’ve probably interacted with the work product of business anthropology before. You likely use the products and services of corporations like Google, Microsoft, Facebook,  IBM, Nissan, and many more on a daily basis. They recognize the value of anthropological research to inform products, services and brands, and have business anthropologists on staff.

So why is business anthropology so important, and what is it, anyway? Essentially, business anthropology involves the application of anthropological theories and methods to the study of organizations, marketing and consumer behavior, and design.

At the core of this work, is the anthropological interest in culture and how that shapes behaviors and beliefs.

You might already see how this might apply to business decisions, but let’s take a look at some common definitions.

Business Anthropology Definitions

Business anthropology professors at Wayne State University define business anthropology as applying anthropological theories and practices to the needs of private sector organizations, especially industrial firms. Current research initiatives in the field tend to be concentrated in (1) marketing and consumer behavior, (2) organizational theory and culture, and (3) international business, especially international marketing, intercultural management, and intercultural communication. In short, business anthropology is a practice-oriented scholastic field in which anthropologists apply anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve real business problems in everyday life.

The Global Business Anthropology Summit website defines it as the use of anthropological concepts and tools to solve practical problems in contemporary enterprises, including business, public entities, and civil society organizations.  As an academic specialty, it additionally interrogates the place of business in the larger society and surrounding institutions of government and civil society.  As Business Anthropology engages with these sectors not only to solve problems but also to discover new opportunities and to develop new theoretical insights, it is perhaps the most rapidly growing branch of the discipline of anthropology today, as evidenced by employment growth and new publication venues.

If this topic interest you, read on to learn more about the anthropology of business. Discover its history, its applications, and how it can improve your business decisions.

History of Business Anthropology

Business anthropology was not always termed as such.

The field has existed since the 1930s. However, the term “business anthropology” didn’t come about until the 1990s. Until then, it was known as “industrial anthropology.”

Let’s first look at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago. It was the site of the first well-known anthropological study in business.

This study gave rise to the Hawthorne effect. It says that people will change their behavior when they know they’re being observed. This is one of many examples of ethnographic research benefitting the business world.

In the 40s and 50s, the field of human resources (HR) became an offshoot of industrial anthropology. By the 80s, there was a resurgence of interest in how culture affects the business world. Organizations and marketing departments relied heavily on cultural studies to inform their work.

Finally, by the 1990s, the term “business anthropology” was coined. Ever since, it’s become increasingly more important in consulting and driving business decisions.

Business anthropology can be divided into three subtopics. These include organizational, marketing and consumer behavior, and design.

Organizational Anthropology

So what is organizational anthropology? It refers to the study of organizations and the actors that interact with and reside within them.

Ethnographic research lends itself well to discovering pain points. Fixing these is an important step in making an organization more efficient. By interviewing employers, employees, and consumers, we can figure out where issues arise.

One major tenet of organizational anthropology is institutional theory. This studies the actors, interactions, and multiple perspectives within organizations. It may look overwhelming at first, but once broken down, you can see how it can be applied to business.

Actors perform actions to reach a specific set of goals. Within an organization, an actor can be anyone from a client to the CEO. Their goals differ, but considering each helps in understanding how the organization functions.

Interactions between actors and between organizations also affect the way it’s perceived. Are people dependent on the organization? Is there a mutual benefit? The answers to these questions inform what role the organization plays.

Finally, organizational anthropologists will consider multiple perspectives. Researchers won’t constrain themselves to just one cultural framework. This translates to a more inclusive organizational design.

Why design your business with these concepts in mind? It will help create an optimized experience for customers and employees alike.

Marketing and Consumer Behavior

What do consumers need? What motivates them to buy? These are questions that anthropology of marketing and consumer behavior can answer.

Researchers will analyze data through both emic and etic lenses. The emic lens is the perspective of the consumer. The etic lens is the perspective of the researcher.

Taking both approaches allows researchers to understand the mind of the consumer. It also lets them apply academic concepts to analyze behavior. Understanding the customer is essential to great marketing research.

Consumption, anthropologists say, is essential to understanding culture. The converse is true as well. Applying the target customers’ culture to advertising campaigns is quite persuasive.

A prevalent example is consumer culture theory (CCT). A common marketing concept, CCT studies how consumers’ identities shape their purchase decisions.

In-depth interviews can uncover consumers’ motivations to buy. They’re more valuable than simple surveys because they give deeper insight. Therefore, it’s often the prime method business anthropologists use.

Marketing and consumer behavior anthropology can help you understand your audience. You’ll identify the target consumer and the best messaging to reach them. Business anthropologists can help you do so.

Design Anthropology

Business anthropology can be applied to the design of products and services as well. Essentially, it studies the relationship between objects and culture. This understanding is then applied to enhance the user experience.

This is called design anthropology. It considers socialization and other factors that influence how consumers use a product. Most importantly, it considers the cultural context that drives users’ decision-making.

What is the underlying goal of design anthropology? It’s to create a product or service that promotes collaboration between stakeholders.

Anthropologists are uniquely positioned to do so. Their ability to get close to and understand people helps design a product that meets everyone’s needs.

Design anthropology includes stakeholders (from consumers to investors) in the process. This collaborative approach optimizes design and drives innovation.

Why Anthropology for Business Drives Success

Whether it relates to organizations, marketing, or design, we can see the value of business anthropology. It helps us understand the motivations that drive organizational actors.

Ethnographic research give us a better understanding of the “why” behind decision-making. Harnessing this power can help businesses take action. Streamlining the user experience and enhancing marketing campaigns creates better performing organizations.

So what are some of the job titles business anthropologists can hold? That’s a long, long list that includes roles like “consultant,” “product manager,” “UX researcher,” and many more.

In any area of business, anthropology makes for more compassionate and inclusive companies. Ultimately, you’ll see a better end result.

Frequently Asked Questions

Business anthropology involves the application of anthropological theories and methods to the study of organizations, marketing and consumer behavior, and design. At the core of this work is the anthropological interest in culture and how that shapes behaviors and beliefs.

Business anthropology is important because it helps organizations better understand the motivations and behaviors of organizational actors, streamline the user experience, enhance marketing campaigns, and create more inclusive companies.

Business anthropology has three subfields: organizational, marketing and consumer behavior, and design.

Organizational anthropology refers to the study of organizations and the actors involved, with a focus on organizational culture. 

Marketing and consumer behavior is concerned with consumers’ needs and motivations related to consumption and identity creation. Researchers analyze data through both emic and etic lenses to understand the consumer and develop messaging. 

Design anthropology studies the relationship between objects and culture and applies this understanding to enhance the user experience or products and services, as well as design new modes of sociality.

Businesses use anthropology to create a better end result by streamlining the user experience, enhancing marketing campaigns, and creating more inclusive companies.

Business anthropologists can hold various job titles, including consultant, product manager, UX researcher, market researcher, and many more.

The history of business anthropology dates back to the 1930s, where it was previously known as industrial anthropology, and the term “business anthropology” was not coined until the 1990s

Business anthropology helps organizations make better decisions by providing a better understanding of the “why” behind decision-making, which can then be used to streamline the user experience, enhance marketing campaigns, and create more inclusive companies.