Business Anthropology: a pending subject in Academia

In this article I will defend the incorporation of the “business anthropology” in the training plan of the different degrees and studies in Social Anthropology, either as a subject or as a postgraduate course. This would be an important step towards the professionalisation of the discipline.

Did you know that in Denmark anthropologists are higly valued? Danish anthropologists often have no problem integrating into the labour market, whether in the public sphere, in private companies or in international cooperation projects. Those who don’t, can set up their own ethnographic consultancy. Red Associates has offices in Copenhagen. And Antropologerne. And Maple. And many, many independent anthropologists.

It is possible to live from anthropology.

One of the reasons for this is because Danish anthropology is professional per se. The university itself helps its students to find a job through their years there, and at the end of their studies. A very clear example of this is Anthroanalysis, a group dependent on the Derpartment of Anthropology in the University of Copenhagen where students of anthropology carry out real projects of applied nature for companies and organizations in Copenhague. In this way, the students get real contact with the agents involved, build some experience and make a professional curriculum, but always guided by the teachers who mentor the project. Not bad, right?

This proactive attitude on the University´s part, is also reflected in its training offer, specifically in postgraduate courses. In Denmark you can find a Master in Techno-Anthropology (University of Aalborg) or a Master in Business and Organizational Anthropology (University of Copenhagen), both highly valued academically and by the students themselves. With this, the University is committed to the development of business anthropology, applying ethnography to fields as diverse as design, human resources, project management, market research and social entrepreneurship.

To find out what an anthropologist can do in a company, see our article “The 4 functions of anthropology in the company“.

But what happens in Spanish universities and in general in the Latin American context? Well, it’s no great shakes here. Business Anthropology is very rare in Spanish-speaking departments, is constructed as an abysmal otherness and even a kind of disciplinary heresy. It is the famous “anthropology at the service of capitalism” (as if there were some that were not integrated into this system) that must be fled from as if it were the plague. The premise seems simple: Everything that smells like business is bad by nature. In a discipline so self-conscious as anthropology, it is no wonder that such reasoning finds a safe hide-away

However, beyond epistemological and moral debates -which may well merit another article-, I would like to place myself in a pragmatic framework in line with our main objective at Antropología 2.0: the professionalization of our discipline. Starting with the idea that the university should be able to combine humanistic teaching with preparation for the labour market, as we have seen in the Danish model, it is surprising that the subject of ” Business anthropology” is not included in the curricula of the various degrees in Social Anthropology.

“No professionalization will be possible if anthropology does not begin to look to at businesses without guilt.”

Some people might think that this is due to the fact that the intellectual production on business anthropology in Spanish is very poor, and therefore there is not enough bibliography to put together a subject. This is only half true, since although Latin America does not have as long a tradition as the American, British or Danish traditions, there are books, articles, field studies, doctoral theses and other materials that can be incorporated into this hypothetical subject. In fact, as early as 1984, Claudio Esteva Fabregat, one of the “fathers” of Spanish anthropology, published a work entitled “Industrial Anthropology”. After him, Aguirre Baztán, Roca i Girona, Greenwood, Rafael Cuesta, Carlos Bezos, Jordi Colobrans, Maria Jesus Buxó and Sergio Lopez have continued to develop works that could well be part of the ethnographic activity linked to companies in the Spanish context. If we add Latin American production, we might as well end up with ten pages of specialized bibliography on business anthropology.

We have the theory in books, perfect. And what about the people involved in the education? Are there teachers specialized in business anthropology in the Spanish speaking context? When one looks at the subjects taught in the Anthropology degrees, it might not seem so, but the reality would be surprising. Thanks to this project I have had the pleasure of meeting a good number of teachers who have related their experiences in the field of private enterprise and who undoubtedly could contribute a great deal to the hypothetical subject. There are also many non-academic professionals who could well teach as associate professors. But, for whatever reason, the context has not been on his side. Unlike health, heritage, migration or the urban, the anthropology of business has never been a trend. And many of these experiences have been timidly watered down, replaced by much more popular lines of research.

This situation leads to a kind of confrontation with Ibero-American anthropology. A whiting that eats the tail whose direct consequence is the lack of training on business anthropology. The fact that there are few teachers specialized in studies applied to business means that students are unaware of this kind of anthropology. Even those who self-taughtly discover and show an interest in Business Anthropology will find it extremely difficult to find a tutor willing to accompany them in their work. Most often they say: a) that’s not anthropology, b) that’s not my field. For this reason, many of the students who would have chosen this path of specialization are discouraged and end up integrating other types of research, more accepted and in keeping with the anthropological habitus.

In addition to ignoring a sub-discipline with a rich historical tradition, the lack of training in business anthropology acts directly against professionalization. It is surprising that a discipline with such a low take-up rate allows itself the luxury of scorning companies, which are the main agent of job creation. When students in Anthropology were a minority and the Academia was able to absorb most of the graduates, transforming them into professors and researchers, this whole issue was probably secondary. But with ten degrees and nineteen specific postgraduate degrees in Social Anthropology (only in Spain) and a precarious and saturated university, the debate on the incorporation of business anthropology in the training options, is more relevant than ever. Students should know that they can work in areas such as organizational anthropology, corporate social responsibility, design thinking, user experience, trend research, Lean Startup, export departments or innovation. There will be no professionalization possible if anthropology does not start to look at companies.

The solutions require a complete commitment on the part of the agents that make up this micro-world called Social Anthropology. University departments should consider the incorporation of this subject, or even the creation of specific master’s degrees on it, as is natural in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain, the United States or Australia. In the event of not having specialised teachers, the Spanish University could pull on associate professors, as the University of Barcelona already does with Jordi Colobrans.

On the other hand, experienced professionals could offer workshops or courses in collaboration with the universities themselves. This formula is not new either. Business Schools have been incorporating courses and workshops for years by professionals from different fields (including anthropology) in order to offer their students greater applied experience. And it seems that the Degrees in Anthropology are also beginning to embrace this solution. Without going any further, a few months ago the Complutense University of Madrid organised a workshop called “And then what?” with the participation of Anthropology 2.0.

This commitment must also be extended to students. I think it is important that we stop perceiving anthropology as a dead-end race’ in a world where data has become more important than ever. And although I understand that anthropology can be considered a vocational career (it is), this is not incompatible with developing a professional future. After all, a career is an investment. You deposit your money in an institution hoping to get a degree that allows you to…. Exactly! Find a job.

I am fully in favour of incorporating business anthropology into university education, either as a subject or as a postgraduate course. There are many students who silently yearn to learn more about the applications and career opportunities of their discipline in the private sector. There are teachers and professionals with the experience to teach the subject. What more do we need? The will. The willingness to explore the “dark side of the force” and, of course, to be critical with it, but with knowledge of the facts, beyond the tiresome colonial clichés and that kind of ideological purity that many claim for our discipline. In this way we will move towards a more plural, richer and more professional anthropology. Like in Denmark.

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