April 19th, 2013

On Business Anthropology, Ethics, and Practice.

Ethnography has been growing in popularity in the last few decades, so much so that there is a professional conference dedicated to corporate ethnography–the Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations Conference (EPIC). There are even firms that specialize in the ethnographic method, hiring anthropologists to research consumers and understanding why people do the things they do. Last month The Atlantic featured an article by Graeme Wood that discussed anthropology’s place in the corporate research world.

In his article, Anthropology Inc., Wood follows researchers from ReD Associates, who are anthropologists sent out to perform ethnography–in-depth observation and participation with people.

On a hot Austin night last summer, 60 natives convened for a social rite involving stick-on mustaches, paella, and a healthy flow of spirits. Young lesbians formed the core of the crowd. The two organizers, who had been lovers for a couple months, were celebrating their birthdays with a Spanish-themed party, decorated in bullfighting chic. It was a classic hipster affair, and everyone was loose and at ease, except for one black-haired interloper with a digital camera and a tiny notepad.

The anthropologist at the celebration was studying how people consume alcohol at home in social environments, the culture surrounding social drinking. This case explains that the anthropologist employed by ReD had left academia, something that has been happening more and more in recent years as the job market for university anthropologists has been shrinking with falling department budgets and positions that can last a lifetime.

The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised, a set of techniques that make surveys and dinnertime robo-calls (“This will take only 10 minutes of your time”) seem superficial by comparison. ReD is one of just a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life—and everyday consumerism—as a subject worthy of the scrutiny normally reserved for academic social science. In many cases, the consultants in question have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia…

These anecdotes of practicing anthropology are quite entertaining. But they give a superficial idea of what anthropology and ethnographic research are.

The real interesting part of the article, at least to me, was not how ethnographic methods and trained anthropologists are employed in the private sector (as they have been, though more quietly, for decades), but where professional ethics is concerned–which is one of the leading topics in the debate over anthropology outside of academia.

In many cases, the consultants in question have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia—and some of its ethical strictures—for work that frees them to do field research more or less full-time, with huge budgets and agendas driven by corporate masters.

Roberto González, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at San Jose State University, goes so far as to argue that those who don’t follow the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics should no longer be considered anthropologists at all. “Part of being an anthropologist is following a code of ethics, and if you don’t do that, you’re not an anthropologist”—just as you’re no longer fit to call yourself a doctor if you do unauthorized experiments on your patients.

As a practicing anthropologist, I don’t think there needs to be a line between practicing anthropology and ethics. Just because an anthropologist works in the private sector does not mean that the anthropologist has forsaken the ethical codes set forth by our professional organizations. The question of what makes an anthropologist an anthropologist–whether it be ethics or training–is part of a larger debate. The EPIC Conference brings attention to this, where employees of marketing divisions with some training in ethnography meet cultural anthropologists (who use their skill sets in ethnography, anthropological analysis methods, and ethical codes in an applied setting) meet and discuss how ethnography can, and should, be used in the private sector.

Regardless of the point of view that Graeme Wood puts forward in his article, which seems to be relatively ambivalent about anthropology’s place in marketing research, he does do a good job of giving a quick overview of anthropological research and the issues that have arisen as anthropological ethics have become more central to defining who and what an anthropologist is.

To read Anthropology Inc., head over to The Atlantic.

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