THE BLOG
09/21/2014 10:51 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2014

Applying Anthropology Concepts to Business Models

Anthropology is a field of scientific research that most people think has no impact in their daily lives. Despite the efforts of some very well-known anthropologists, we still understand very little of what this type of investigator does and less about how to apply any of their insights to business models.

Broadly speaking, anthropology is a study of humans that draws upon knowledge from both the social sciences and the biological sciences. An anthropologist may even need an understanding of social sciences and the humanities in order to posit theories and conduct research. Under this wide umbrella, individual fields of study may include cultural anthropology, social anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics. These are the tools which are used to understand a culture and the ways that members interact within it.

One of the most famous cultural anthropologists was Margaret Mead. Her research in Samoa led to startling insights about the role culture plays in adolescent development. She went on to apply these understandings to the struggle for women's rights. Clifford Geertz was a cultural anthropologist who focused upon the meaning we give to the "things" within our lives. His insights are reflected today in the work of anthropologists who provide extraordinary understanding into how we interact with our digital devices and modern-day technologies. When marketers understand this relationship more fully, they will better be able to capitalize on it.

Ethnography is another branch of anthropology which deals with the scientific description of individual cultures. The object here is for the ethnographer to be completely immersed in a particular culture in order to provide a detailed description of everyday life. He or she will then try to understand and explain the society's cultural constructs from an insider's point of view. This field of study can be particularly helpful to businesses as they are trying to develop marketing plans. Instead of trying to change consumer behaviors to adopt a new product or service, the business which relies on ethnography plays into existing behaviors and builds on them. This effect can be seen in marketers who successfully incorporate social media influencers and advocates as part of their overall strategy.

From understanding cultural background to building tribes, anthropology could have a massive impact on the business world of today, but you hear surprisingly little about its applications in the boardroom. Why is corporate America virtually ignoring a field of study that could provide them with so many insights into how the mind of the consumer works? Perhaps they didn't have the time to comb the academic research to find anthropologists whose work could be applied to their business.

Well, they don't have to worry about that problem anymore, with the publication of the Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland, this book is an incredible compilation of some of the brightest minds in business anthropology today. Sunderland and Denny are anthropologists themselves who run a consumer research and strategic consultancy, Practica Group. Clients they have worked with include SC Johnson, Whirlpool, Nissan, Pernod Ricard, Target, PepsiCo, Samsung, and Darden Restaurants. This Handbook is another example of the ways they are trying to bring ethnographic research and cultural analysis to the commercial arena. They brought together some 60 international scholars who contributed their insights and understandings to help businesses better interact, engage and innovate.

Follow the Anthropology Handbook Model to Business Success

Designed to appeal to a wide range of business mentalities, from anthropology newbies to seasoned marketing executives, the Anthropology Handbook applies cultural fundamentals to a variety of business models in companies around the world. It includes a glance back, a study of the current business environment, and a look ahead at the challenges that will be faced in bringing businesses closer to their consumers. A quick perusal of the sections offers an enticing view of what to expect:

  • Dynamics of Tension, Forces of Change: With "Big Data" coming into the forefront, what is the anthropologist's role in sorting through, applying reason, making sense, and ultimately turning it to a productive business use?
  • Boundaries Breached and Blurred: Where does anthropology come into play when we are dealing in a global marketplace? Can our interactions with other countries be enhanced with better cultural understandings?
  • Plying the Trade: Who are the anthropologists that have managed to successfully insert themselves into the business paradigm? How do they co-exist with the number crunchers and old-line sales mentalities?
  • The Energy of Memes: How do ideas, products, or behaviors circulate through a culture? Is there a way to enhance the process?

Muses for Engagement: Ideas from advanced thinkers to get readers pondering on their own about how they can apply these principles in their specific business situations.

Each section begins with an introduction by the editors, who then wisely let loose some of the most renowned experts in their fields. In a realm that is slowly gaining critical business acceptance, Denny and Sunderland have provided what is probably the definitive guidebook that will be studied by generations of upcoming business executives and marketers. Along the way there are plenty of case studies to dissect, examples to follow, and lessons to be learned.

In particular, social media and blogs are perhaps the most contemporary example of memes, and the newest ways of disseminating information throughout a culture. In their forward to the "Muses" section, the editors point to a chapter on the blogosphere, noting that "bloggers post as a way to think with and through ideas; as a nexus for collaborative thinking; as a vehicle for sharing resources; and, when outraged by shoddy practices or a pundit's opinion, readers (and blogs) become tacit support groups not bounded by geography or places of employment."

These are words that should be taken to heart by all businesses trying to connect and communicate in the new culture. Those that don't understand the power of the blogger to influence, motivate and effect change may be doomed to failure.