observacion participante

Business Anthropology: From the Trobriands to enterprises

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Soon after I had established myself in Omarakana (Trobriand Islands), I began to take part, in a way, in the village life, to look forward to the important or festive events, to take personal interest in the gossip and the developments of the small village occurrences; to wake up every morning to a day, presenting itself to me more or less as it does to the native. […] Quarrels, jokes, family scenes, events usually trivial, sometimes dramatic but always significant, formed the atmosphere of my daily life, as well as of theirs. […] Later on in the day, whatever happened was within easy reach, and there was no possibility of its escaping my notice. (Malinowski [1922], 1932: 15)


Applying anthropology to the field of business, consumption, and design is not something new. However, for many of us, anthropologists, fresh out of the academy, the idea of ​​conducting research as part of a company seems strange and difficult to address. Even so, and as has often been mentioned in this blog, the aforementioned areas constitute, at its core, social phenomena. Companies are comprised of rational beings, people, who perform various jobs: graphic and industrial designers, salespeople, CEOs, and at the other side consumers and users. As such, anthropology is able to approach the universes of thought that surround these activities and obtain useful information both to understand market dynamics at the micro level, in a single company, and to generate changes in the latter or to contribute to the design of better products and services based on the results of their research.

But how can anthropologists do it? How can they conduct research on or for companies? One of the answers is the application of qualitative research methodologies that have accompanied anthropology almost since its inception. As Sergio López (2017: 50) correctly mentions in his book Anthropology of the Company:

“[…] The methodological aspects that already appear in any ethnographic research, such as observation, participation, conducting interviews or documenting events, are reproduced in the world of the company with some nuances.”

In this article, I will present an approach to one of them: participant observation as a method for carrying out research by and for companies.

From the Trobriand Islands to business

If something characterizes anthropological work it is ethnography that, as a practice and research method, allows us to collect first-hand data. It seeks to understand social phenomena from the perspective of its members, get into the lives of those who enact it and try to learn and analyze how they live and think. This, added to one of the basic market principles: what consumers say they do is different from what they actually do, converts ethnography, and its component of participant observation, into an element of immeasurable value for companies. Therefore, the fact that I have included a quote from Malinowski at the beginning of this text in which the famous anthropologist describes what, according to him, was his field experience, is not to start a theoretical discussion but to invite readers to transfer these experiences to a business environment.

As for classical anthropologists, participant observation entails difficulties and limitations. For example, the presence of those who investigate can affect the way people act, which has been called the observer’s paradox or Hawthorne effect. It can also happen that the role of the researcher diffuses leading to biases about the observed. However, the systematic, orderly and constant review of research strategies are useful mechanisms to avoid these impasses and successfully achieve, from a less conventional way, to know the users thoroughly.

The private sector has already realized the value of ethnographic observation to such an extent that it is becoming a market standard. Observing and participating in business contexts involves performing activities that for an external observer may seem unsystematic, in such a way that it may bother the people who have hired us to solve a problem in their company.  From looking at the number of steps that someone must take to access a service or be attended by customer service staff, to sit down and eat with the workers of the company, interact with them informally and build personal relationships, are unconventional forms of research to which participants are not accustomed.

But it is precisely this, being there, experiencing and witnessing, which becomes the source of knowledge of the researcher. To observe implies to be attentive to everything that happens to the surroundings in a meticulous and controlled way, that is, not only being in a place, distracting yourself with what happens there but really paying attention and trying to understand in depth what is happening. Participate, on the other hand, puts emphasis on the lived experience and involves learning to carry out certain activities and develop them as the members of the company (the natives) do, trying to feel in your own flesh what they feel. Of course, this does not mean that researchers should become professional accountants or chefs overnight, nor that we should observe every movement of workers, but it does imply participating in activities that allow us to empathize with their experiences.

One of the best examples I have found in this regard is given by Sergio López in the book mentioned above. The author asks us to think in a movie theater and how the researcher must observe while participating in the activity that takes place there. In this case, not only will a movie be seen, but also to see what people do before, during and after it. What kind of people go to the movie theater, what do they consume, what do they talk about, if they talk during the movie or do they prefer to be silent, if they leave their waste inside or prefer to take it out. All this allows us to transcend the merely demographic knowledge of users and consumers, to go on to understand why and how they consume. In this particular case, participatory observation has value for the film industry, but it can also be applied to other industries.

Careful observation and participation in activities linked to what you want to investigate contribute, for example, to generate a better relationship between the employees of an organization or creating a marketing strategy that better fits what consumers of a specific product are looking for. Thus, if you want those who attend the cinemas to recycle the packaging of what they consumed during the film, you can observe what they are currently doing with them and try to find solutions that fit their habits, facilitating and motivating recycling.



López, Sergio (2017) Antropología de la empresa, ed. Bellaterra (Barcelona)

Malinowski, Bronisław, ([1922] 1932), Argonauts of the Western Pacific. An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, George Routledge & Sons (London) Available in https://wolnelektury.pl/media/book/pdf/argonauts-of-the-western-pacific.pdf

I am interested in applying anthropology in different areas of interdisciplinary research, especially the virtual and business worlds. I have done research in epidemiology, the design of products and services, virtual communities, knowledge distribution, comparative literature, and the “classic” socio-cultural anthropology. I believe that our discipline can offer something special to all research topics, hence my interest in it.

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