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What anthropologists can add to business

When I finished my undergrad degree in 2007, it was not very sexy to go on the job market with an anthropology degree, not even to think of a job in the business world. The perceived value of my education to employers seemed to increase when I applied with degree from London School of Economics, ironically the academic home to some of the most famous anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard. The situation has changed: With the rise of participatory and human centric design, the demand for anthropologists in business seems to be higher than ever before. Microsoft, for example, is said to be the largest employer of anthropologists globally. What is it that suddenly makes the perspectives of anthropologists attractive to actors from Silicon Valley to corporate board rooms? This article tries to explain the ‘the rise of the anthropologist’ in business, diving deeper into the anthropologist’s tool box.

‘Sense making’ – A look into the anthropologist’s toolbox

Never before did decision makers have the amount of quantitative data as today. Technology advances such as sensors, artificial intelligence, and the ‘internet of everything’ drive the ‘big data’ revolution. While the excitement is big that the amount of data helps in developing customized solutions and democratized access to all kinds of services, many are recognizing that ‘big data’ require sense making. Large data amounts help decision-makers to understand WHAT people do, but they do not explain WHY people do what they do. For this reason, methodologies from humanities and social sciences are increasingly borrowed in the business world to help turn information and data into knowledge and meaningful insights.

Ethnography and the need for ‘thick data’

Originally coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in 1973, ‘thick description’ has gained renewed recognition in recent years. In contrast to quantitative data, thick data is gathered using ethnographic research methods to uncover how people give meaning to the world around them. In this sense, ‘thick data’ captures not just raw data or facts but the context around those facts. Especially to uncover less formal or ‘tacit knowledge’, which much more difficult to capture or verbalize, qualitative research approaches are needed. While big data can tell us what people purchase, it does not tell us the nuances behind the why  – here is where ethnography can help.  Thick data collection hence involves a range of qualitative and generative research approaches, tools or techniques that help gathering granular knowledge about research subjects such as deep dialogue, focus group discussions and interviews, timelines and diaries, visualization techniques, games, or videos. A number of good online toolkits exist that explain these methods.[1]

Immersion and the power of ‘participatory observation’

Immersion into the context of interest and participatory observation is a key method borrowed from anthropology to understand research subjects, their lives, truths, and rituals. While traditional market research applies methods such as surveys and interviews to understand user or consumer needs, immersive research approaches help to not only understand what people say, but also help understand what they think, feel, and do as well as what external influences they are exposed to that may shape their action. Observation reveals contradictions and hence helps to understand complexities to solution development. Immersion can mean a day, a week or longer in the context of interest, shadowing the people of interest, have them explain their daily lives, certain work flows or experiences, or just play fly on the wall and observe their actions. Tools such as the empathy map or customer journey maps have gained popularity to capture the insights derived from participatory observation.

Why now – and why in the impact ecosystem?

It seems like a paradox to me to ask this question. When I entered the impact investing and social entrepreneurship ecosystem, I was convinced that this would be a place where social scientists contribute to solution and business model development with their deep understanding of people and context. However, I found myself surrounded by economists, investment professionals, technocrats, engineers, and MBAs and surprisingly few social scientists and anthropologists. While a number of rural development organizations have been applying action research and participatory rural appraisal methods to involve the beneficiaries in solution development, these methodologies have for a long time not entered into the ‘business for development’ mainstream.[2]

With the rising popularity of design thinking and human centric design in development through organizations such as ideo.org this has started to change. Corporate and startup innovators as well as donor programs have realized that the complexities of issues they are aiming to solve at the ‘Base of the economic pyramid’ requires a different set of methods. In a time, where increased hopes and expectations are on the power of technology to solve social challenges, it is important to involve users in the solution design process. To bridge the gap between the tech developers and the beneficiary, the demand for service design and user experience design experts is hence increasing.

However, the service provider landscape in emerging markets is still scarce, especially for startups and small and growing businesses. Many design firms are largely catering to multinational companies and Fortune 500 companies with deep pockets. As qualitative research and human centric approaches are generating deeper insights, they are priced as premium offerings. The time is ripe for to think of new service offerings to integrate more anthropologists in the development of business solutions for low income contexts.

[1] See e.g. NESTA DIY Kit, Ideo Design Kit or Service Design Tools

[2] See e.g. Robert Chambers 1994