Apparently “Comments” close after a time, so picking up a theme from Allen’s very first post here. I just want to state that this is one of the most incisive and eloquently stated articulations of what I would hope Business Anthropology comes to embrace. Highlighting the key point to me. Thanks for this, Allen — a breathe of hope (in these otherwise rather despairing times!)
“In some quarters, Business Anthropology is interpreted as a newer and cleverer set of tools for understanding consumers, motivating managers, or creating products. However, at its best, Anthropology – Business or otherwise – draws on some deep understandings of culture, civilization, and history, reframing business far more expansively.”
I’d like to begin a conversation on an issue that’s been on my mind for a while but becomes palpable when I present business anthropology marketing case studies to my MBA students: How did the case translate into a marketing campaign and what impact did it have on the brand? When I have details, I always include strategies, creative executions, media venues, and market results. If I were teaching organizational or design anthropology, I’d convey the outcomes whenever I could. When I’m not presenting my own cases or those where I know the outcomes, I often contact the authors so I can share them with students. Sometimes I am provided details, sometimes not.
There are two areas of impact when anthropologists conduct studies for businesses (as opposed to on/of business), one more measurable than the other:
(1) What action was taken after our research was completed and shared? In marketing, it could be development of a marketing strategy, new advertising or a brand innovation. On the organizational front, it could be, for example, a plan for improving communication across divisions. None of these actions guarantee success and they are not measurable in the usual sense, but at least they are outcomes of the work we did.
(2) What, if any, success did our work generate? This is a more quantifiable area. In marketing, this would be a statement like, “The advertising that was informed by our research helped drive the brand from #6 in the market to #3.” For work with an organization it might be, “The insights that we developed about operating styles resulted in a more productive relationship among the three divisions than they had over the past ten years.” or “The research on employee expatriation had X (or even some) impact on employee retention.”
If we can’t produce outcomes of our work, at least one of the above, why should anyone in business hire us? As business people, they must believe they are getting a return on their investment, or at least some value. Another way of thinking about this issue is along the lines of accountability: Was our work just interesting or did it help a business? More pointedly: What did they (our clients) do with what we did? How do we measure success? One measure is being rehired by the same client again — and then the question would be why did they rehire you?
Consider this statement on an EPIC talk by Meena Kothandaraman and Zarla Ludin:
“Human-centered research practices embedded in business contexts have matured to a problematic inflection point. Called upon as a means of finding answers to human complexities, qualitative research is often measured against misappropriated metrics of success. Time, money, efficiency, and return on investment have been artificially applied to demonstrate value to the rest of the business. Although these metrics are meaningful to a business at large, they can diminish the credibility of a nuanced research engagement. This false tie leads to tendencies behind research practices that no longer service the domain of human-centered research—that even hurt it. Leading with method, over-simplifying complex human dynamics, misaligning questions with objectives, and setting unrealistic expectations of data gathering are just some of these responsive tendencies. Research can no longer be a gratuitous technique, conjured to help others get their work done.” https://www.epicpeople.org/creating-strategic-research/
Let’s not conflate metrics with actionability. “Nuanced research engagement” is what we do. Sometimes our work generates specific, measurable results; sometimes it only generates a plan of action, and a clear connection between our analysis and organizational impact, product or service design, advertising, or market growth is elusive. Still, as Melissa Cefkin writes in the Handbook of Anthropology in Business, “Whether it is strategists advancing new directions, designers building new concepts, or developers actually creating products, services, and tools, work practices studies produce ‘actionable’ results” (Cefkin 2014: 296). I am proposing that we share (as non-disclosure agreements permit) what happened after we submitted our reports, measurable or not.
It’s one thing to produce interesting, even profound studies in business anthropology. It’s quite another to demonstrate how our work sparked results or at least led to some action. That is the test of the business value of business anthropology; otherwise, it’s academic.
Thoughts from the community are welcome.
I am totally sympathetic with Jan English-Luecke’s comment about “organizational” v. “enterprise” v. “business.” “Organization” seems to me to be the most all-encompassing term, and my key resource here is Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: a critical account. For Perrow, an “industry” (e.g., the medical industry) can embrace numerous businesses, academic institutions (e.g., medical schools), hospitals, clinics, etc., etc., etc. Each of these, to the extent that it has a corporate identity, exists at the sufferance of the state, i.e., it has a corporate charter.
And yes, I am still trying to get the hang of this interface.
I am still getting the feel of this interface, so good luck to me! I was very much intrigued by the Chinese anthropological perspective on this question, which was to really embrace “enterprise” over business. From my perspective, rooted in Silicon Valley, companies bleed into non-profit and governmental organizations all the time, so I often mentally reframe as “organizational” anthropology.
Just arrived. Looks good.
Hi everyone, how are you?
Our lead objective is to critically examine the concept of Business Anthropology, recognizing that the terms “enterprise,” “business” and “anthropology” have multiple complex connotations for different audiences. To elaborate on each of these, first of all the more generic “enterprise,” or even moreso, “commerce,”) has a depth of centuries, and can refer to any activity involved in producing or buying and selling goods and services; “business,” by contrast, sometimes has a nationalistic tinge in the US (“The business of America is business,” according to Calvin Coolidge), and is definitely more oriented toward private goods rather than public goods. From a more neutral perspective (Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: A critical account, perhaps), the difference between a public and a private enterprise is less a function of what they do, and more a function of the larger régime or institutional environment. Thus “business anthropology” in a larger perspective moves forward with at least an implicit interrogation of our civilization and the institutional environment. (See Nakamaki, Hioki, Mitsui, and Takeuchi, eds., Enterprise as an Instrument of Civilization: An Anthropological Approach to Business Administration.) (There are substantial theoretical issues here that we should at least be cognizant of.)
Similarly, “anthropology” has an historical and institutional legacy, coming out of 19th century colonialism. Although we might claim Herodotus as the first anthropologist, in fact the lineage of contemporary anthropology traces back to the colonial expansion of European and New World powers. In different national contexts, “anthropology” has a different tinge, the unifying threads all having to do with interrogating national identity. In the 20th century anthropology can claim a proud legacy of undermining racism (Boas, Race, Language, and Culture) and promoting a greater awareness of the situations of marginalized populations.
What import does this have for Business Anthropology? In some quarters, Business Anthropology is interpreted as a newer and cleverer set of tools for understanding consumers, motivating managers, or creating products. However, at its best, Anthropology – Business or otherwise – draws on some deep understandings of culture, civilization, and history, reframing business far more expansively. Although we rarely articulate these with our clients, they are there in the back of our minds, informing our work, enabling us to imagine other possibilities. When Business Anthropology enables executives and managers and workers and consumers to think more expansively, beyond the short term and parochial immediacy, it performs a valuable service for the society, for business, and the profession as a whole.