It might come as a surprise that business and organizational anthropology are garnering significant attention in today’s corporate environments. Forrester’s report on ‘The future of CX’ from 2019, named anthropology as a core discipline shaping the path of CX, while giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook became desperate to hire in-house cultural anthropologists.

One of the reasons business and organizational anthropology gained so much popularity is because the above-mentioned giants understood that technology can’t come to the crucial insights on people’s behaviours. In other words, even though Data can tell you What humans do, it can’t explain Why they do it. If you already invested millions in your datasets hoping to increase revenue, the odds are high that you are a far cry from the intended goal without hiring a social scientist.

Now, before you start freaking out because you already don’t have an anthropologist on your team, let me explain what business and organizational anthropology is.

What is business and organisational anthropology?

an image showing a young researcher in the field of business and organizational anthropology.

Even though there is no one correct answer to what business and organizational anthropology is, you can look at it as a discipline that applies ethnographic research, thick description, and emic perspective to identify core business challenges. In other words, business anthropologists rely on contextual research to support organizational development from various instances.

You might be wondering how is this any different from other social science methods? Unlike some more rigid approaches to discovering through beforehand defined hypotheses, anthropologists adopt what Gillian Tett in her book AnthroVision named ‘gazing on the world like a child.’ More specifically, anthropologists try to enter research spaces whit awareness of their biases and diverse factors impacting their own experience of a certain situation. This level of curiosity and self-awareness allows them to turn unfamiliar concepts into familiar ones.

The odds are high, that at this point, you’re googling the meaning behind the terms ’emic’ and ‘thick description’. To non-anthropologists, these concepts might seem exotic or too scientific. Therefore, I’m willing to untangle them and draw near the power of its application in business.

The two main concepts of business and organizational anthropology

Even though you can’t call yourself an anthropologist before investing years in reading capital books by Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, or Bronislaw Malinowski, you still can learn basic frameworks and apply them to your corporate context.

Moreover, cultural anthropology is a multidisciplinary human science, inviting history, psychology, sociology, and biology into its holistic observation of people. Embracing interdisciplinary resources that can help you understand how people create meaning in their lives, will bring you closer to what it means to think like an anthropologist.

1. Emic perspective: embracing child’s curiosity

an image showing a young female researcher conducting ethnographic research as a part of business and organizational anthropology initiative.

One of the key principles of business and organizational anthropology is holistic thinking. To fully understand why humans do what they do, anthropologists suggest ’hanging around’ with people in their homes, offices, parking lots, schools, kitchens, or wherever they take you.

This leads us to what anthropologists call emic perspective or applied research from the users’ point of view. This technique opens the door of empathy and a deeper understanding of somebody else’s world.

The most powerful thing about empathy is that it can disrupt our ego-centric and ethnocentric believes about ‘how things should be done’. In the business context, this is particularly significant in cross-cultural management, international marketing, and product development. 

In one of my previous articles, I wrote about how LEGO used ethnography to uncover what playing experience is about. Spending time with kids in their homes and observing how they interact with the tiny bricks, helped LEGO invest in aspects of playing the Big Data that could never predict or even identify as important.

While most of the solutions are built for those who can use them in an ‘expected way’, the voices of vulnerable and underrepresented groups stay invisible. A simple technique such as emic research can prevent business executives ignore the perspective of people who are not in power to decide and shape the world’s narratives.

One example came from LEGO a few months ago with their statement of developing genderless blocks with no male-female connection. Sneaking into the worlds of their youngest users informed the future of this brand’s purpose. Many other giants could follow the same lead. The question is, though, are they brave enough to observe and hear what people have to say?

2. Thick description: explaining holistic human experience

an image showing a young female research writing a thick description as a part of ethnographic research.

The second most important concept in anthropological research is ‘thick description’. Before I elaborate on what it is and how companies can benefit from such an approach, let me reflect on the importance of understanding the notion of culture in the customer experience context.

In her book Practical Ethnography, Sam Lander says that a product’s meaning depends on a customers’ perception of two broad concepts:

1) their own identity,

2) the system of meaning in which customers find themselves.

In other words, products don’t exist without the meaning people give to them. This further leads us to the point that customer experience can’t be understood or analyzed without first grasping the idea of culture. Anthropologist Clifford Getz defined culture as a ‘web of meaning’ people constantly create. To decode this wonderfully complex ‘web of meaning’ he suggested the practice of ‘thick description’.

The thick description would be an ethnographers’ explanation of what people see, say, feel, and think.  What makes it different from any other research report is a unique interpretation of qualitative data that encompasses human emotions, cultural contextualization, and situational descriptions.

To enrich this article with the perspective of someone who is not an anthropologist but plays a significant role in applied research, I invited Forrester’s principal analyst David Truog to share his opinion on the value of business and organizational anthropology:

‘Firstly, anthropologists are experts at understanding and analysing human behaviours and cultures in their subtlety and complexity. Secondly, they are skilled at research methods such as ethnography that yield higher-fidelity data about customers. In my opinion, these are much more reliable sources than the traditional research methods companies typically use.

Surveys, for instance, are less efficient simply because this method relies on customers’ self-reported responses after the fact, in which they tend to distort their experiences, obscure, or even fabricate parts of them. Fundamentally, anthropology has the potential to equip businesses with deeper insight and higher accuracy in their customer understanding efforts which are the bedrock of effective CX efforts.

How can anthropology contribute to your organisational culture?

Anthropology as a discipline has culture and cultural analysis as its core interest. While there is no just one definition of culture, we can reflect on those that are widely accepted and used as a point of reference. One of these definitions of organizational culture comes from sociologist Edgar Shein. Shein defined this concept in the following way:

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.’

What makes this definition valuable is the notion of culture as a set of learned behaviours. Furthermore, it helps us understand that a group of people within an organization intentionally or unintentionally learn behavioural patterns typical for that environment. In other words, anthropology invites us to observe culture as a process, rather than something fixed people have to accept passively.  When understood as a process, organizational culture becomes a playground, something we can understand, and impact positively.

As Sam Lender explains in her book, ‘culture change work is not something directed by senior management. It is embodied by everyday practices by all members of the organization.’

Applying theory of anthropology to understand organizational culture

A more simplified definition of organizational culture would be a ‘set of values, beliefs, and behaviours‘ a group of people demonstrates at the workplace. Taken in this way, culture invites anthropological and sociological theory of identity roles, gender, class, and race to decode the power dynamic, value gaps, and reasons behind people’s actions.

an image showing anthropologist decoding organizational culture in the context of business and organizational anthropology.

The idea that the organizational culture belongs to everyone, puts people as active players of organizational change. However, to understand the meaning behind people’s values, beliefs, and behaviours, you have to interpret a huge amount of data gathered through ethnographic research. To do this successfully, ethnographers need to be familiar with social science theories and be highly skilled in doing data synthesis. Anyway, this is a whole new topic and want to save it for another article. In this post, I barely scratched the surface of a broad discipline that is business and organizational anthropology.

Business and organizational anthropology is an emerging discipline, and the impacts of the above-mentioned techniques are yet to shine in the CX arena. In some of my upcoming articles, I’ll offer practical suggestions on how to apply anthropology in organizational behaviour. Until then, check some of the references for further reading I selected for you below.

Business anthropology books you should check out

As more and more CX professionals are growing their attention to business and organizational anthropology, we decided to share some essential reads that will help you build basic knowledge on the topic.

  • Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice by Wendy Grun
  • Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life by Gillian Tett
  • Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century by Alison J. Clarke
  • Handbook of Anthropology in Business by Rita Denny and Patricial L Sunderland
  • Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Rita Denny and Patricia L Sunderland

Customer Experience Magazine is developing a library of articles that help CX and EX professionals broaden their perspectives on the industry and embrace fresh approaches to solving challenges. Here are some of the articles that you might find useful:

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