Why you need an Anthropologist in your organisation

Anthropologists are the new black in organisations, everyone wants one and wants to show off that they have one. Big companies are now hiring and here’s just one of many articles that discusses the reasons why: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/heres-why-companies-aredesperateto-hireanthropologists-2014-3 At the basis of this article – and many others like it – lies the assumption that anthropologists are in touch with what people really think, with what they really do, with reading how people are likely to act (we’re fortune tellers!) and offering explanations based in culture as to WHY.

Anthropologists offer an authenticity that is often lacking in current business approaches that seem to focus too much on creating people simply as customers instead of having a holistic approach to understanding their wants, needs and desires. This includes employees of organisations as well as the consumers for whom organisations provide products and services.

Anthropologists can tap in to what people think by asking them, as well as being in a position to observe what people do in order to provide real information. Not only do we do this, we provide insights about human behaviour that other social scientists or those in human resources simply cannot do. This is invaluable in business and companies seem to be slowly agreeing and changing the way that they gain information about people. There are a whole lot of reasons why this is so and I want to talk up why you need one too.

We observe everything.

We observe the environment and that includes who populates your work world as well as the built environment and how people work within this. Culture is OUR WORD and we are experts in observing and interpreting cultures. Workplaces are not just home to one culture, but a multitude of interacting cultures that produce your organisational culture. We don’t just talk to people we also pay attention to what your workplace looks like, and how people work there. This includes for example taking into account all of those taken-for-granted posters that you think are motivating your employees to change. I have bad news for you: they’re not. Once you’ve seen them and noted the message you fail to see them for what they mean ever again. It’s all just wallpaper. This is true of checklists that form part of work practices too. You really need to shake things up a bit in this department…

We can take the pulse of an organisation.

In Chinese Medicine there are a number of descriptors for a wide variety of finely attuned pulse types and anthropologists are similarly able to identify not only the pulse, but the infestisimal variations of these different types of pulses and who has their finger on them and what those beating hearts represent for the people in your organisation or the people you’re hoping to do business with. You may think that you have issues to sort out at your workplace, but an anthropologist will provide rich contextualisation of those issues which offer a more nuanced and meaningful pathway for change, if that’s what you’re seeking. We can provide you with a rich snapshot of your organisation, much richer than anything that you can get from static surveys that count the instances of a thing without providing any meaningful analysis.

People like us

Anthropology uses participant-observation as its methodology. This is our contribution to information gathering and in order to do that in the corporate world we come into an organisation and work within it in order to identify what’s going on. As a participant we too are part of the organisation and its culture and we develop relationships with people and work alongside other workers and people like us (some don’t too). The relationships that we develop with people are real (loved and hated) and can sometimes last much longer than the original job that we were hired to do. We are not management but position ourselves as informed outsiders who can ask all the dumb questions as if we’re always the new kid on the block. We’re allowed to do this and this is an endearing feature of anthropological work.

We pay attention to everything

Not only do we find out what people are saying, we also observe what people are doing and this provides more in-depth information about what’s going on in a workplace. We observe what’s going on and put information together in new and unique ways as patterns emerge that aren’t usually seen from top-down approaches or from anonymised or even identified surveys. Not only does this approach work within organisations, we can also do this by hanging out with your clients. This is a novel approach that doesn’t rely on a ‘Customer Relations Officer’ or other go-betweens, but uses the authenticity of enquiry to find out up front from a social scientist who uses accepted yet novel methodological tools to identify issues of concern, patterns of consumption and other behaviours of interest.

Communication is our thing, whether that’s formal or smoking in the car park with the CEO

We look at communication flows at work and can talk about informal pathways that don’t necessarily appear on an organisational flowchart, yet can have far reaching consequences for the sharing of news and information. For anthropologists, there’s no difference between formal and informal communications; to us EVERYTHING is communication, however you label it. That’s why we also pay attention to everything that’s said. For example, most people would attend meetings in the workplace as a part of workplace communication, information sharing, strategy planning, presentations etc etc etc. For most people, the meeting is the THING. But for anthropologists, we pay attention not only to the meeting and what’s said and done there (and not said and not done), we also pay attention to the before meeting and the after meeting. These are critical junctures that tell you a lot about intentions, performance and what’s important to reflect and act upon. We study gossip seriously.  We understand individuals and groups of individuals as actors with intentions and consequences for what’s said and done.

Why are anthropologists coming of age? The post postmodern times that we live in are fractured. The ideologies and big isms that used to define us have been challenged. There is not one set of rules, one set of practices or even one set of beliefs that fits everything and explains everything anymore. Increasingly we are seeing the need for multiple sets of policies and practices to accommodate the needs of individuals. This is much more than what used to occur, where once upon a time if you didn’t fit in with the policy or practice (as a student, as a consumer, as a customer, as an employee, as a client, as a product user… ) then you were not identified as the recipient of core business. Nowadays, much has changed as institutions both governmental, corporate and civil attempt to provide a multitude of products, services and experiences that are geared more closely to the specific needs of individuals. Much like a design-your-own-pizza: no more pre-determined Supremes for me!

Anthropologists have been studying culture for a long time. No other discipline can lay claim to the knowledge and practices that define anthropology. There is a lot of borrowing that goes on and human resources folk will talk of culture, but it’s not an informed perspective based on long-term studies and immersions within cultural worlds. This is what anthropologists do in order to become known as anthropologists. It’s a long, slow and sometimes very painful process. Any ethnographic account will attest to this. It’s not easy and it’s not quick to develop authentic relationships with people, with those who will inform you about culture, your informants, but this essentially what must occur in order to develop insights and find out about what a culture is like: you have to move slowly and you have to do this from the perspective of an insider, even if that’s only a borrowed skin that you’re inhabiting for a while.

This is the problem with anthropology too. Much of the modern scientific and humanities endeavours in research demand more timely production of knowledge. “What do you mean? You need a year?” And that’s just the fieldwork component. Then there’s the analysis and the production of a text that makes sense of the whole experience which balances the literature, your ideas or questions and the experiences of those whom you’ve interviewed and observed.

If you’re cutting edge you’ll want to think about the applications of what I’m talking about here. Imagine your organisation not being cut off from and wondering about customer preferences. It’s not enough anymore to say, “We’ve always done it this way…” Imagine anthropologists let loose in clinical settings – this already occurs, but is straitjacketed by red tape. What gets done to people in hospitals really needs to be looked at in novel ways to make the whole experience much better, and dare I say less clinical? Think about new inputs from the consumer movement which have meant that consumers now have a place on boards, employment panels and advisors from peak bodies. These are another example of having the authentic voice represented and not just presented.

Hanging out in people’s homes, giving people cameras to make visual diaries, creating documentaries that present authentic people’s experiences are part of the production of knowledge that has been informed by anthropological practice. There are companies now who promote the anthropological method as informing their business practice, some of whom can be found here: http://www.redassociates.com/about/partners/
Further to this there are academic conferences that inquire into the nature of this phenomenon as well and he’s a conference abstract from a panel at the RAI in the UK from 2012 on this theme that includes speakers from ReD Associates as presenters: http://www.nomadit.co.uk/rai/events/rai2012/panels.php5?PanelID=1408

This raises the issue of whether or not this is generally a ‘good thing’ or not. Should the voice of the anthropologist be coopted in this way? Are we acting morally? Is this an ethical endeavour? Should we have a more critical view of the tools of the trade within the discipline being utilised in this fashion? What can be said of relationships that develop through the anthropological endeavour that are subject to the intentions of business? Do we become less authentic researchers by including ourselves in the corporate sphere? Are we less trusted if we’re employed by large mining or tech companies than if we were treading the path and tailing the villager on their way to collect water? Is objectivity thwarted by the nature and location of the endeavour in which we’re involved?

Or will there be an unintended, added positive benefit on the corporate sector of having anthropologists involved in workplaces? Will our presence affect work cultures in new ways that extend beyond the tired turn of phrase that human resource folk use when referring to the workplace culture?

We can only hope.


6 thoughts on “Why you need an Anthropologist in your organisation

  1. alexandra says:

    Thats great, thank you for your prompt reply AA. We loved your article and it will be soon translated and published on our site and the greek media, acknowledging obious the source. Will send you a copy. Best, Alexandra


  2. alexandra says:

    Hi, I am writing on behalf of the Social Anthropology Alumni Society – Panteion University. We would be very interested to translate your article ‘Why you need an Anthropologist in your organisation’ and publish it on our FB site and the media in Greece. I hope you will give us your perimission.


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