For the past seven years, anthropology has become the central theme of my life. My undergraduate thesis was focused on problematizing career opportunities in anthropology. Around that same time, I started a project aimed at making the career opportunities of anthropology visible, promoting the professionalization of this discipline and claiming the theoretical and methodological role that business anthropology can and will play in the future. A few months after, that project was transformed into a research agency specializing in business anthropology called… Antropología 2.0. I assure you that many days I feel that anthropology comes out of my ears.
During these years I have met many people with university training in anthropology who are engaged in consulting or doing research for companies. Contrary to the vox populi erroneously accepted by the guild, there are many people working as anthropologists outside academia. Very professional people, respected, well paid, loved by their clients and who, like many of my academic colleagues, share the idea that their work contributes to creating a better world.
Something as simple as the previous paragraph took me almost two years of empirical research that we might well call ethnographic. I remember that at first, in that tender 2016, it was frustrating not to find profiles of people practicing anthropology in the company. Again and again, I went to Saint Google, and Linkedin writing “business anthropologist”, “corporate anthropologist”, “job offers for anthropologists”… The result was always the same:
a) Critical articles that described business anthropologists as “prostituted” anthropologists working in pro of capitalism.
b) Some articles that talked about anthropologists who worked in companies that then seemed inaccessible to me, and that were linked to the Silicon Valley culture: Intel, Microsoft, Google, Amazon…
I remember a strong sense of frustration in those early moments. How is it possible that there are not more anthropologists working for companies? Have they not realized the value of the products and services in their hands? Are they hiding or do they not exist? What do they do? What do they live on? How do they rate their services? What difficulties do they encounter? And more importantly… why don’t I find them? My answer, or at least my humble hypothesis, is this: business anthropologists don’t like to call themselves anthropologists.
Perhaps I have rushed. It’s not that they don’t like it. They think they can’t call themselves anthropologists. And I assure you that it is not due to the “capitalist complex” that we are so often blamed on. In general, we carry this tara with a certain resignation and with time the only consequence, fatal from my point of view, is a progressive move away from the most institutionalized anthropology.
The main reason is that anthropologists believe that anthropology does not sell enough. When you’re looking for a job or are going into freelancing you soon discover that your academic degree matters little. What the market is really looking for are specific skills. Knowing how to do ethnography is a skill. Knowing how to extract Thick Data through interviews is a skill. Even strangeness is a skill. What is not a skill is anthropology. Anthropology is a discipline, precious indeed, that has centuries of tradition, a broad theory, a fertile intellectual debate and methodologies that are constantly questioned in order to make them more and more rigorous. Those who discover anthropology fall deeply in love. How many of you don’t have an acquaintance who has recently told you that his dream has always been to study anthropology (but they don’t do it because there are no opportunities)?
Anthropology carries an implicit multitude of skills that, surprise!, are many of the most demanded by the market: adaptation, innovation, creativity, collaboration, emotional intelligence, difference management… And yet, anthropology has not been able to sell itself as a discipline. In this blog, we have talked a lot about the reasons why anthropology remains unknown, for example, here and here, and I will not delve into them. I invite you to explore our position on the subject.
But I will say that our main technique and methodology, ethnography, has far surpassed us. Traditionally, the cool thing in the corporate world has been to be an ethnographer. Therefore, it is not surprising that the association that most corporate anthropologists hosts in its bosom is EPIC: “Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference”. EPIC also defends (in an excellent way) the value of ethnography in companies, but not necessarily anthropology.
The hegemony of ethnography over anthropology has an immediate effect on the labor market. Companies are not looking for anthropologists, they are looking for ethnographers. And as the algorithm commands, anthropologists find it smarter (and rightly so!) to define themselves as ethnographers. Or, following Autumn D. McDonald in an article whose reading I recommend, as “user experience researchers”, “design researchers”, “shopper insights researchers” “research consultants”, “strategists” … and the list goes on.
Why should we start calling ourselves business anthropologists?
Let it be known that I have nothing against any of the above descriptions, including that of “ethnographer”. Behind these Anglo-Saxon words, there are people who carry out research, ethnographic or not, of great quality and rigor. But we also run the risk that ethnography becomes banal and ends up being a toy in the hands of profiles that present it as “5 field interviews”. Any minimally informed person would be horrified by such a definition, but I assure you that the example is real and, unfortunately, habitual.
I’m one of those who think ethnography loses a lot without anthropology. Our discipline has endowed this technique with a theoretical and practical content that allows us to understand in an infinitely deeper way the phenomena we are analyzing. It is difficult for me to imagine someone doing an ethnography without understanding the slightest thing about functionalism, about Turner’s symbolism, about Strauss’s binary oppositions, about Harris’s materialism, without emic, without ethic, without reflexivity, without all those things so much ours, so much of anthropology. Doing ethnography is more, much more than being on-site doing interviews and taking field notes.
In addition, I think that non-anthropological denominations, despite being tremendously tempting (I have fallen several times into their honey), do a disservice to communication and the professional development of our discipline. Simply because we will continue to perpetuate the ignorance of it, which we remember, is much more than ethnographic practice. It is true that anthropology is still very unknown to the general public, but it is also true that the new generation of anthropologists can put an end to this if they really set out to do so.
Anthropology is not a hackneyed discipline in the labor market. Its isolation in the cloistered convents of the ivory tower has preserved a certain pristine halo that innovative companies begin to look at with curiosity. Being an “anthropologist” today is not the same as it was five years ago. Many companies and organizations welcome the incorporation of consultants-anthropologists or internal anthropologists. And I am not referring exclusively to great references such as IBM, Nissan, Microsoft or Intel, but to medium or large companies that are a reference in innovation in their global markets.
In short, the field of anthropology is fertile and full of opportunities. It is the occasion to claim not only the value of ethnography, but also that anthropological gaze that makes us so sensitive to reality and prepared to capture all kinds of strategic insights.