Anthropology of business

Last Wednesday, I went to a discussion seminar on Business Anthropology arranged by the Danish Association of Anthropologists. With Business Anthropology, the organizers actually meant the anthropology of business – as in the ethnographic study of corporate culture and leadership, which became clear as the two presenting researchers gave their talks to initiate the debate.

The two were Jakob Krause-Jensen, assistant professor at the Danish Pedagogical University, and Karen Lisa Salamon, until recently an associate professor at the Danish Design School – a position she quit at the beginning of 2008 as a protest of the terms on which she was expected to do research. More about that later.

Both researchers are anthropologists and did their Ph.D fieldwork in corporate environments. Krause-Jensen among workers at Bang & Olufsen studying how culture concepts are used in management practices; Salamon among leading designers and design managers studying new age tendencies in management. And these studies proved to be their point of departure to discuss “How is anthropology in business different from the typical Human Resources work that is now an integral part of any corporate organization?

In his talk, Krause-Jensen sought to answer that question by first comparing the differences between the two disciplines, before presenting “an idiosyncratic canon of the anthropological profession.” Firstly, he pointed out that what he and Salamon had done was anthropology in organisations rather than organizational anthropology. As he sees it, all anthropology is in some way the study of how people organize themselves, so the phrase organizational anthropology is merely a tautology.

The main difference, Krause-Jensen argued, between the Human Resources approach and the Anthropological approach, is the differing end goals of each discipline, and the questions they ask to get there. Salamon likened the differnece to that between a pharmacist and a biochemist. One is an instrumentalist, the other a scientist.
Human Resources ask: “How can we make the system more efficient?” A good example of this approach is Edgar Schein‘s idea of organizational culture, which was a big hit in 1980s management theories. Schein defines culture thusly:

The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, 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.

As Krause-Jensen argued, this definition of culture draws upon the old structural functionalist theories of anthropology where culture is seen as a normative consensus through which the organizational functions of a group appear. This is the instrumentalist approach, or, as Krause-Jensen puts it, “the colonial administrator approach” where only the functions of culture are relevant for study. “That’s what we’re up against”, Krause-Jensen remarked.

The anthropological approach, on the other hand, seeks to answer the ever-widening question “why do people do what they do?” And it is the manner in which anthropologists go about answering that question which fundamentally differs from the HR approach. And that was the real core of the discussion: What is anthropological quality? And in which can we as anthropologists use it to set ourselves apart from other practitioners?

To get the discussion rolling, Krause-Jensen presented their own home-rolled canon consisting of 9 tenets of anthropological quality:

1. Descriptive involvement
What Clifford Geertz calls “Being there” – not just observing the field but taking the time and effort to sense the field through smell, touch and taste. To “offer an impression of the people you’ve studied.” To convey the field with thick description.

2. Analytical distance and perspective
Use the anthropological “theories and notions which offer distance and perspective to the field.” When having left the field, it is necessary to use a theoretical perspective to gain distance to the field. Krause-Jensen made the analogy to the stereogram, where it is possible to see new depths and images in an image. Similarly, the anthropologist should seek to see the new in the familiar through the general theories of the discipline.

3. Wonder
It is essential that the anthropologist takes wonder as a point of departure when in the field. This is often expressed in the way anthropologists ask ‘questions of curiosity’ (goal: Understanding) rather than ‘questions of evaluation’ (goal: find solutions to already defined problems) often asked by HR researchers.

4. Contextualization
It is central to analyze the difference between between what people say, and what they do, as the relations and connections between the two. A central challenge in this is to contextualize this both thematically and regionally as needed. Salamon gave one example of this from her fieldwork among design managers and designers where she sought to compare the values which the two groups consider important for designers. Design managers considered responsibility and efficiency to be vital, whereas designers thought that freedom and the ability to do the unexpected was the essence of design. Her analysis of the context of this say/do gap was central to her dissertation.

5. Empirical particularity
Anthropologists focus on offering perspectives rather than generalizations. Krause-Jensen gave an example of one of his students studying Danish ergo-therapists. She was planning to travel across Denmark, spending two days in each of three different cities to study lots of different therapists in order to be able to say something general about all Danish ergo-therapists. Krause-Jensen suggested that rather than spending her time in many different cities, getting to know lots of therapists, that she would stay where she was and study the local therapists, delving into their lives for a longer period of time. Thus offering her a deeper perspective to better understand what it means to be an ergo-therapist. And though it is not generally applicable, the deeper perspective may reveal notions and practices which may also prove useful to other therapists in other cities.

6. Reflexivity = ‘objectivity’
As anthropologists are their own tools for collecting data, all the data is subjective to some degree. Being conscious of your position as anthropologist and your relationship to your informants and communicating that subjectivity in your analysis is as close to any form of objectivity possible within the discipline. It is vital to embrace that fact.

7. Focus on power and difference
Anthropology has a long tradition for paying attention to those whose voices are heard rather than others’ – and how. Analyzing hierarchies and power relations is a fundamental part of the discipline.

8. Focus on language
The anthropologist needs to be well aware of the power of language, and reflect upon how he uses his terms in the field. The distinction between emic and etic terms are another vital consideration.

9. Good language: Well written analysis
The ethnographic text isn’t art, but it should be close. Presenting the personal experiences in the field and shaping them into a coherent analysis based on anthropological theory and insight is a textual challenge that should not be taken lightly.

As Krause-Jensen summed up his presentation, the slide on the screen behind displayed a quote by Marcel Proust:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.

That, he argued, is the essence of anthropology: The Aha! moment. The epiphanic moment where you have exotized yourself from the familiar and see it anew. Where you are able to wonder about the things that we usually take for granted: the understanding, the notions of our everyday lives. This allows us to perceive what happens as part of a certain cosmology. Thus, Krause-Jensen concluded, anthropology is not a hammer to be wielded. Rather, it is a pair of glasses: A new perspective, which allows us to describe and analyze the world anew – with wonder.

Following this impassioned plea for anthropological quality, Karen Lisa Salamon discussed how anthropology is actually used in businesses today. The managers hiring anthropologists expect “user studies”, which typically consists of two parts:

One is the the hammer approach to anthropology, where the qualitative methods of the discipline is seen as function to be applied to achieve certain results. It is pure method and often very little reflection.

The other is what she called “helicopter ethnography” – a sort of ethnographic administration where the anthropologist designs and plans qualitative projects for others to undertake, only to do random quality checking and analysis of the material of others. This is typcially the case in big organizations with short deadlines where much of the core ethnographic work is done by students rather than the actual ethnographers, who in this way miss the actual experience in the field and the sense of “being there”.

Neither of these approaches allow for much the anthropological quality stated above. And in Salamon’s view, this ‘hammer approach’ is now entering academia as well. This is what has infuriated Salamon so as to quit her job:

We need only to do ethnographic work if we are allowed to say: This field is in motion: This is a social reality which never stops moving. Nothing stays fixed and certain. (…) The world isn’t made of functionality and economic rationality. We are facing a new, stronger, even more reductionistic positivism. We need to oppose it.

Salamon argued quite determinedly that this new positivism is inspired by the corporate environment and its focus on function and efficiency. “We need to be allowed to study that which isn’t functional,” she proclaimed, offering the example of a tea cup: A central function of the tea cup is the handle – that is the obvious, planned way through which people are supposed to interact with the cup. But some people bold the cup rather than the handle. If we only study the function of the cup as it was intended to be, through questions of evaluation rather than questions of curiosity, we won’t see that. “We need to remain true to the fact that anthropology is a complex science.”

Salamon underlined that this was not to say that all anthropological analyses have to live up to all 9 tenets of the canon. And she fully recognized the challenge of reducing anthropological complexity to useful information in a business context. But she argued that it is vital to stay true to the anthropological discipline: “We don’t have to show all the difficult intermediate steps, but it is still important to make them. Besides, it is also the part that we enjoy as anthropologists.”

She concluded that it is vital that the proper anthropology graduates take these tenets to heart. Especially since there is no anthropological Hippocratic oath to ensure this anthropological quality, which means that any fool can call himself anthropologist – and many people in the industry do without having any knowledge of anthropological theory or quality.

A brief but intense discussion followed, with my recent co-worker Jens Pedersen noting that in the whole discussion, capitalism had been sitting like the proverbial elephant in the corner, and that basically ethnographers working in business have to come to terms with the fact that creating ethnographic knowledge for clients is a different, slightly more reductionist proposition. He then raised the obvious criticism that the whole presentation was basically integrating anthropology inwards while policing its boundaries outwards, and that though the reductionist tendency shouldn’t be taken lightly, he couldn’t see how presenting such lofty ideals would help much.

With that, the time ran out and the seminar ended with confused clouds of discussion dissipating slowly within the auditorium. But a a number of interesting questions remained:

  • Where are the boundaries between doing anthropology of business, doing anthropology for business and doing anthropology with business? This was discussed at a recent design anthropological network meeting, but that’s another discussion…
  • How do corporate managers managing ethnographers and the ethnographers themselves perceive the central qualities of their work? What differences are there in their perception of ethnographic work?
  • How can anthropologists rethink their discipline as a practice which they no longer define on their own? How can anthropologists retain the core qualities of the discipline without simply retreating into an ivory tower of arrogant complacency?
  • I think a great part of these problems stem from the fact that anthropologists aren’t used to collaborating actively with other professions. Indeed, if anthropologists see any sort of compromise with other professions as a loss of quality, then there it doesn’t seem like there is much room for positive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Exactly that has been the main challenge of emerging discipline of design anthropology: Learning how to make necessary compromises with our ideals in order to have an impact, while making the positive pedagogical effort to change the quantitative positivist tendency of modern management.

    Maybe it is time consider alternatives to the current ideal of the anthropologist as the lone stranger writing his clever analyses for the meager audience of other anthropologists. And to rethink anthropology as a profession, which not only describes and analyzes the problems of the world, but which also can collaborate with others to effect real change. But that, too, is another discussion…

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    (I’ll do this in English since your post was in English). Thank you for the recap. I was ill, so I wasn’t able to be there myself. Doesn’t seem like a missed much anyway. I think it’s sad that so few of these events discuss what “good” business anthropology might be. The closer I get to entering the job market myself the more tired I grow of disciplinary border-patrolling (which anthropologists are very good at) and arguments that merely seem to repeat the old worn out academic/applied divide.

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