Friday, July 26, 2013

Applied Anthropology - The Second Branch

A recent comment appearing in The Anthropological Network stated the following about the role of applied anthropology and business. "In particular, it seem to me that anthropology hasn't been very successful at 'marketing' its method to industries and businesses (with some exceptions, of course). The author of the comment then asked  

"Would you agree?" 

The fact that the author was looking for an explanation of this state of affairs speaks volumes about the realities of the anthropological profession and how it approaches its role in society and to society. The traditional third world, non-literate, socially isolated, tribes and bands that spawned the development of cultural anthropology and ethnography, are today very rare and for all practical purposes no longer isolated. Instead we find ourselves today entering fields well populated by the multitude of social and behavioral sciences that arose during the 20th century. As a late comer, the professional institutions established to recruit, train and support anthropologists have been faced with a crisis of identity.  Is anthropology simply an academic discipline or does it have a distinct application to the real world?

The Institutional Structure:


I would say the problem is to be found in the formal professional institutions controlled by Academic anthropology -- professors, departments, and the "professional" associations. These institutions do not understand the business world or its language. Even more than the lack of understanding is a narcissistic moral "contempt" directed toward business and government organizations displayed by academic anthropology.

For those of us, and there are thousands of us, who have found a home in these non-academic institutions based on our anthropological perspective and training -- we have long ago accepted that fact that our academic colleagues look down on the work we do. We know that we are often judged by their applying academic standards that have no significant meaning nor add value to our work. 

Fifth sub-discipline or Second Branch:


 Applied anthropology is not academic anthropology. That is, it is not the 5th sub-field. It is the second branch of anthropology. It is client focused, service orient, and problem solving. It uses the anthropological perspective but is not constrained by academic orthodoxy, fadism or current fashion. Instead, it is pragmatic, realistic, specific and ethically relativistic. Most of all the applied business anthropologist lives in the world and culture of business and a business institution. The applied anthropologist can have many different status names and play many different roles. In this environment, these names are determined by the local organizational chart. Rarely is the name "anthropologist."

The academic lives in the world of the university, college, research institute or the museum, also known as the ivory tower. Here anthropologist have a few, well defined statuses and roles they can occupy based on the academic social structure. One of these status/roles is based on the discipline one was trained in and hire for within the institution. Most often this is as an "anthropologist."

Preparing for a Career in the Business world: 

There are similarities between academic and applied anthropology. Applying anthropology to the business world begins with the basic steps that one would take to do an ethnographic study of a tribe in some far off location.

1. Learn the language
2. Read up on the history and context in which the tribe exists. Since businesses are literate institutions, read the basic business literature (such as a text book or popular "how to" or history book on the business subject area you are interested in studying
3. Read what applied anthropologists have written about business cases that are related to your area of interest from the anthropological perspective.
4. Study the business media to keep up to date with the social, political, and economic forces affecting your particular business interest, subject, or institution.
5. Find a problem that THE BUSINESS wants to solve and apply an anthropological perspective to solve that problem for them (not just the reviewers for the American Anthropologists)