business anthropology

Anthropologists on business? Five testimonies from Spain, Argentina and Peru

Co-author: Oswaldo Morales Tristán

PhD in International Studies from Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies from the University of Waseda, Japan. MBA from ESAN. Master’s Degree in Economics and Regulation of Public Services from the University of Barcelona. Master in Business Law and Lawyer from the University of Lima. Director of Distance Education at ESAN and Professor in the Administration area. Currently, he studies organizational culture and work climate in companies from different sectors and is a proponent of the importance of culture as a determining factor in the strategy of companies.

Translated by: Florencia Belloni


The appearance of organizational anthropology

Professionally established at the early 20th century and knew as the Total Science of Man, Anthropology is the study of human beings. Owing to the complexity of its object, it has many branches: Political Anthropology, Economical Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Educational Anthropology, among others. One of those branches is Organizational Anthropology.

Organizational Anthropology is not a recent invention. At the same time that the first anthropologists explored exotic societies (16th – 19th centuries), different large-cap companies – such as the British East India Company – employed them because of their in-depth knowledge of the sociocultural environment. However, it was only in the 1920’s, during the famous project Western Electric, leaded by industrial psychologist George Elton Mayo (named “the father of the human relations theory”), that Organizational Anthropology was set as a professional specialty. In that project, anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and William Lloyd Warner took part.

On the first half of the 20th century, Organizational Anthropology was expanded by means of the constitution of professional societies dedicated to research and consultancy – Society of Applied Anthropology (1941), Anthropological Club (1941, Harvard University), Committee on Human Relations in Industry (1943, University of Chicago), Social Research Cooperation Company (1946) -. Such organizations systematized anthropological knowledge, making possible to establish the first scientific journal of organizational behavior, named Human organization (1942), as well as the first book which was entitled Organizational behavior, published by William Foote Whyte in 1969.

As its name says, Organizational Anthropology is not different from Organizational Psychology, because it is also developed within several organizations (companies, schools, universities, institutions, governments). However, it is characterized by a particular ethnographic approach based on deep observations, a panoramic overview and constant comparison exercises. In this regard, we can define Organizational Anthropology as such specialty of Anthropology focused on the study of human organizations. Theoretically speaking, it is the matrix from where anthropological applications nowadays knew emerged. Some of them are knew as Corporate Anthropology or Business Anthropology.


From organizational anthropology to business anthropology

Since mid-20th century, Organizational Anthropology has been branched in several subspecialties, such as Corporate Anthropology or the Anthropology of Consumption. Such development had allowed a strong presence in areas such as advertising (De Waal Malefyt & Morais, 2012), marketing (Orozco, 2016), industrial design (Vinkhuyzen & Cefkin, 2016), technological innovation (Flichy, 2007), consumer behavior (Martin & Woodside, 2017), user experience (Reyero, 2018), community relations (Cochrane, 2017), conflict management (Avruch, 2007), human management (Hansen & Lee, 2009), international business (Herrera, 2015), social responsibility (Dolan & Rajak, 2016) or organizational culture (Jordan, 1994).

At the same time, scientific production have been expanded through journals such as Human organization (1942), Human relations (1947), Practicing anthropology (1979), Anthropology of work review (1980), Ethnographic praxis in industry conference proceedings (2005), International journal of business anthropology (2010), Journal of business anthropology (2012) or the Journal of organizational anthropology (2012), and books such as Inside organizations (2001) by David Gellner and Eric Hirsch, Business Anthropology (2012) by Ann Jordan, A handbook of practicing anthropology (2013) by Riall Nolan, Handbook of anthropology in business (2014) by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland or Antropología de la empresa (2016) by Sergio López.

Such development had generated that media such as Forbes, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Financial Times or Business Insider had dedicated some lines to this specialty. Thanks to this impact, names as the ones of Marietta Baba, Melisa Cefkin, Andrea Simon, D. Douglas Caulkins, Christian Madsbjerg, Michael Henderson, Gillian Tett, Robert Tian, Brian Moeran, Christina Garsten or Barbara Czarniawska were important references on this subject. In Spanish language, even though the works are lesser than in English, Ángel Aguirre Baztán and Sergio López have contributed greatly with their works.

Beyond the first world, there is a growing anthropological work in countries like Argentina, Colombia, México, Chile or Peru, that already, pays off. That said, it is possible to find specialists that, by doing academic research or applied work, carry out anthropological works on business environments.


Anthropology in the face of a changing world   

Currently, we live in an ever-changing world that affects the development and management of the organization. However, for the Anthropology that ever-changing world is its natural niche. According to Fabián García Nicora, Head of the Human Resources degree at the University of Morón, who has a MA in Anthropology from the University of Buenos Aires, and is also the director of the consultancy firm García Nicora,, the core of Anthropology lies in its methodology, which is able of apprehend the most dramatic social changes:

“In a world that every time it is more accelerated in terms of transformation, I felt that the knowledge I had at that point was not enough. I needed to explain results and behaviors beyond the traditional methods; I needed to recover or seize other level of language towards the interior of the organizations, and what I did not want to seize was more MBA. Anthropology allowed me to give another look, other approach; its added value relays on that oneself have more resources to explain behaviors that, in my opinion, the traditional literature cannot reach to explain. The important thing with Anthropology is that allowed me to explain and understand. Without the Anthropology I can keep with the anecdote; with the Anthropology I keep the meaning.”


From organizational ethnography…

Ethnography is a description technique based on deep and systematical observations, and its goal is to comprehend how an organization works. Perhaps the most representative landmark was the work of Bronislaw Malinowski, who in 1914, lived together with the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands (Papua New Guinea) for two years, to study the kula ceremony. Currently, thanks to the Ethnography’s holism, the Anthropology recognizes that cultural diversity not only exists outside companies (in the form of segmented consumers), but also inside the company (in the form of structures, hierarchies, areas, habits, leadership styles or experiences). For Anthropology, every organization is, at the same time, a set of micro organizations or subcultures that compete for hegemony. Because of that, it is no casual that, apart from academia, the greatest employer of anthropologists at a global scale, during the whole history of the discipline, is the US government (Fiske, 2008), followed only by Microsoft. If thanks to Ethnography, anthropologists can understand cultural systems, thanks to the so-called organizational ethnography (Carneiro da Cunha & Saidel Ribeiro, 2010), we can give a better appreciation of our organization. For Antonio Espinoza, Anthropologist from the National University of San Marcos, MA in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability from the Centrum Católica Business School and Head of Social Management of GyM, Anthropology is capable of understand the functioning of an organizational system thanks to Ethnography:

“I learnt to appreciate Ethnography, to start working this approach of relations, of systems, and that surprised me. When I communicate with other areas, I realize that they do not handle it. Everything is too specialized and compartmentalized. Nobody goes from one side to the other. And companies, processes are totally concatenated. There are companies that pay lots of money to a trainer, for him/her to tell you something, that us, as students of Anthropology were always told: everything is part of a system. Ideas that are part of the education of an anthropologist are sold as great training courses for companies. I think that the success that many anthropologists have achieved here owes to see things as a system. I think that the anthropologist identifies systems very easily; that complexity, that position, that structure, processes. That is its value.”

… to the consumption ethnography.

As well as with the organizational ethnographers, if Malinowski lived together for 2 years in the Trobriand Islands to understand kula, nowadays, the anthropologist specialized in consumption observe consumer trends, by living together with them. Thanks to that approach, companies like Xerox, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, BeerCo, Adidas, Lego, Nissan, Netflix, Coca-Cola, Accenture, Novo Nordisk o Pfizer have enormously grown by closely understand the needs of their users. To this respect, the role of ReD Associates – a strategy consultant that uses anthropological methods – have been fundamental. Otherwise, it was because of disobeying the recommendations of the anthropologist Tricia Wang, that Nokia ceased to be the giant of mobile communications from one day to the next. According Pablo Mondragón, Anthropologist from the University of Granada and Head of Antropología 2.0, the anthropology of consumption pays its attention towards the persona, before to pay it to the product:

“It changes a lot when the goal of business is the person than when the goal is the product. What Anthropology on the field can do is precisely that: shift the idea of the product – the “product centrism” – to focus the attention on the client. This is something that us, as anthropologist, are suitable for, because of our training and our capacity of empathy, not only because of methods and techniques, but also for the genetics of the discipline that we have.”


The real power of culture.

One of the most popular definitions of Anthropology, is the one that defines it as the “science of culture”, because of the explanatory nature that this concept gave it: beyond its personality features, people act according to its culture. Whereas the Anthropology highlight the organizational significance of culture, at the end of the 19th century, Psychology discovered it by mid 20th century, and business management only during the 1980s.

Nowadays many companies drain their accounts for the sake of a solid organizational culture or in favor of the so-called cultural fit, but only the Anthropology recognizes the real power of culture: it is not a psychological variable nor a set of administrative values, but the nature itself of an organization. What makes it be more than a set of grouped individuals. From this approach, items like social responsibility, internal communication or work environment are only phenomena of that culture. While many companies reduce the management of organizational culture to holding bimonthly company events or tedious integration dynamics, only the most competitive companies at a global scale have been capable of integrate culture to its organizational structure, thanks to departments of innovation and development comprised by anthropologists (Microsoft, Intel, Google). For Anthropology, culture is not something you have, but something you are. According to Christian Virrueta, anthropologist and MA is Social Politics with mention in Social Project Management from the National University of San Marcos, MBA from Centrum Católica Business School and Head of Institutional Relations for a hydrocarbons company in Peru, the wealth of Anthropology it is on its nature:

“Anthropology gives an opportunity of knowledge, of shared learning that makes questions and questions itself. What a company names as ‘continuous improvement’ is on the chip of the anthropologist: to look, to look oneself, to cross-examine, to be self-critical and go to the epistemology itself. I think that what have given the Anthropology a very powerful added value in a company. In this scenario, if there is a great difference with other professionals – civil engineer, manager, economist – we have more tools on hand to interpret what is going on in a company. What awaits anthropologists is a very hard work at a human resources level, especially now with the ‘millennial culture’. There are like three or four very different cultures competing and that is a pretty diverse breeding ground. When you stop to observe, you understand why some things work and why other do not. That is little studied. You know it exists. But, determine how things connect is work more suitable for an anthropologist than for a psychologist.”


¿Anthropological skills?

The key of the silent success of anthropologists on business environments not only relays on their particular profiles, but also on their skills. Because wherever they are, is a key part to rethink the used strategy. Either on marketing, institutional relations, social responsibility or in staff selection, the anthropologist will know how to adequate thanks to its particular skills. Taking into consideration that the whole issue of a business it is on how to self-organize their elements (individuals, roles, functions, departments, structures, etc.) to satisfy the need of consumers, will exist any relation between the Anthropology’ comprehension capacity and business success? For Nicolás Ortiz, MA in Anthropology from the National University of San Marcos, professor at Peruvian University of Applied Sciences and ESAN Graduate School of Business, and Head of Etnomarketing, the Anthropology is superlative:

“Anthropology is a tool, a chip, a way of seeing things. It is and should be a way of thinking and a way of operating; something that everyone should incorporate. It is a transversality. What does imply this? Relativistic thinking, new information generation, a clearly inclusive logic either for human resources, marketing or to manage groups. It is a knowledge of being there not only for research, given the qualities of an anthropologist, but also to develop in a certain context with social intelligence, being on the top of a hill or in an exclusive space. There is no way that an anthropologist do not know how to be there and not only theoretically; there is no way that he/she do not have the social codes to move in any given situation. And that is key in a business.”



The goal of Applied Anthropology in businesses is to bridge the gap between the knowledge generated by means of the cultural analysis of the environment where people live and the proper characteristics of organizations. Trying to generate a language proper to managers and directors allowing them to see that there are multiple realities, but also shared cultural patterns by different social groups within a geographic area or inside an organization, is the main task of this type of Anthropology.

Having more than a century of specialization, how can we (re)boost the development of Anthropology on business environments? Considering the value of the testimonials presented here, we would add: avoiding stereotypes that limit the professional development, generating a change in business culture for the sake of work diversity, to stop having psychologist underemployed in functions they were not trained for and admitting that, once and for all, that people as well as organizations inhabit rich cultural environments.



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