Business Anthropology Defined

Business anthropology is the use of methods and theories adapted from anthropology to find novel solutions to challenges faced by industry. The application of anthropology in business expands knowledge, increases empathy and understanding, and generates uncommon insights that improve organizations, products, services, and consumer experiences.

Where Business Anthropology Is Used

Business anthropologists study organizations to solve operational and human resource problems; interact with consumers in their homes, in retail settings, and on social media to inform business initiatives; observe and interview people using products and services to improve their experiences; inspire designers to imagine, produce, and assess innovative ideas.

Among the business organizations that have hired anthropologists are Google, Intel, Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Microsoft, IBM, Netflix, Disney, Sony, NBCU, Warner Bros. Discovery, BBC, AMC Networks, Major League Baseball, Scholastic, Procter & Gamble, Best Buy, Ecobee, General Mills, Campbell Soup, Mars, Coca Cola, Freshpet, airbnb, WeWork, General Motors, Nissan, Waymo, Dropbox, Verizon, AT&T, ADP, J.P. Morgan Hilton, Financial Times, Boston Consulting Group, ReD, and IDEO. Numerous market research and advertising agencies employ anthropologists. In education, business anthropology scholars teach students how to apply anthropology methods and ideas to industry.

How Anthropology Contributes

Businesses are drawn to anthropology’s principal research method, ethnography, because it enables them to understand their customers, partners, suppliers, and their own organizations in fresh ways. To a large extent, anthropologists contribute to business by championing the concept of culture, broadly defined as the rules, beliefs, values, rituals, sentiments, and symbols by which people navigate and make meaning in their worlds. Business anthropologists gain an insider’s perspective, apart from the way an outsider would see people’s actions. An insider’s way of knowing provides access to the meaning of implicit rules and behaviors that outsiders often miss. Anthropologists understand that organizations and consumers of their products are intimately connected to a larger whole. They illuminate how the parts are mutually influential and interconnected. These are just a few of the ways anthropologists produce “thick data” that generates solutions businesses would otherwise find elusive. Finally, anthropologists consider how business practitioners should reflect on their work, their personal and organizational values, and their impact on the world.