Does my business need an anthropologist?

At the center of anthropology is ethnography: the study and description of human cultures.

In a strange way, ethnography should be understood as both a noun and a verb: it is both the resulting description (i.e. “an ethnography”) and a method of discerning, discovering, and revealing, the subtle nuances of the production of meaning in everyday lives (i.e. “ethnographic research”).

An effective ethnography is about de-centering one’s own perspective in order to better understand the perspective of others. It is in this way that the anthropologist can begin to understand how others find and make meaningful courses of action in their own everyday lives. If, for example, we say the discipline of economics is about understanding the cost and benefit of people’s decisions, we should say that anthropology is about understanding what makes those things that someone must decide between more or less valuable to them; not just what contexts, relationships, goals, and ideas are stake, but why those things are constituted as they are in the first place.

In traditional anthropology, this has typically taken the form of long-term fieldwork whereby which a researcher remains in a given place to study a group of people for months, even years at a time. The researcher lives among these people, learns and adopts their habits, goals, attitudes, comes to understand their familial relationships, their economies, traditions, beliefs, problems and ideas from their perspective. In a contemporary applied setting, however, this work is stream-lined and adapted for modern market demands.

Today, in the field of applied anthropology, ethnographers use honed research methods to bring the consumer’s point of view to the design and development of new products and services, and to improve upon existing ones. In these cases, work is conducted over a much shorter time period, over a few months, or even days.

Elizabeth Sanders, an anthropologist working with Microsoft, once stipulated a number of features of modern ethnographic work for business, which are helpful here. Ethnography, she writes:

  1. Takes place in natural surroundings (as opposed to a laboratory), and so reflects real-world settings;
  2. Is open to change and refinement throughout the process as new learning shapes future observations;
  3. Has a goal which is more likely to be exploratory than evaluative; and
  4. Aims at discovering the point of view of the person or group being studied. People studied in the context of applied anthropology are generally potential consumers or end-users of new or existing products (Sanders 2002; 2).

Ethnographic work has taken a number of forms in recent years, at businesses like Xerox, Reebok, Intel, Motorola, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, and more. Yet effective ethnography is hard to come by, as highly-trained anthropologists, who conduct real ethnography, are opting to work for governments, development organizations, and non-profits, more so than for-profit corporate environments.

Today, ethnography is useful throughout every stage of the development process. At the earliest “fuzzy” stages, to explore the unmet needs of people at home or work, to alleviate the risk of going after a new market or bringing a new product to market. Ethnography can also validate the usefulness of prototypes at later stages of the development cycle by situating itself in the surroundings most natural to its end-users. Most importantly, and generally, ethnography is useful for understanding how people live with, and experience products and services, in order to refine the next generation of products, policies, and services to be best suited for the goals, attitudes, and socio-cultural circumstances of users.

So to answer the question: does my business need an anthropologist?

About as much as a marathon runner needs shoes.

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