Everyday Anthropology: Business Anthropology

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What is Business Anthropology?


Business anthropology is perhaps one of the most concrete examples of how anthropology can be applied to “the real world” (outside of academia).

According to a 2010 article written by Robert Guang Tian on the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) website, business anthropology is:


“a practical oriented scholastic field in which business anthropologists apply anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve real business problems in everyday life.”


Business anthropologists study a wide variety of topics, including marketing, localization practices, and company culture. They work to solve issues in business internally and externally. Their subjects of study may be employees, executives, customers, or a combination of all of these.


laptop on table
Business anthropology seems to be a trending field! Photo by Alesia Kazantceva on Unsplash


In 2014, Business Insider released an article titled “Why Businesses Are Desperate to Hire Anthropologists.” This article does an excellent job of outlining some of the unique perspectives that anthropologists bring to companies they work for. For example, anthropologists are often very skilled at determining what customers really want, based on qualitative data and direct customer interactions. In addition, anthropologists and other social scientists can apply theory to test new approaches to communication with customers and within a company.

Examples of Business Anthropology in Action


According to a post on the Simon Associates Management Consultants site, anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell coordinated a study for her company, Intel, on driver behavior, in a joint project with Jaguar Land Rover. Her insights about driver’s use of smart devices helped spur the creation of “a system of car-to-device synchronization.”

person driving
Anthropology has had a hand in how some auto companies view their customers’ driving experience. Photo by why kei on Unsplash


Anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth K. Briody has a consulting agency called Cultural Keys. According to the Cultural Keys website, the agency’s goal is to help organizations “diagnose and solve organizational and cultural issues, and strengthen their connections with customers.” I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Briody speak to the Applied Anthropology course at the University of North Texas twice (once as a student and once as a TA). Dr. Briody has worked with a variety of organizations including hospitals, corporations, and non-profits. You can learn more about Cultural Keys’ projects here.


This article from Financial Post details how anthropologist Johanna Faigelman’s consulting company, Human Branding, helped a food-production client realize “a need to respect deeply held emotional and intellectual positions” when launching a new product. Faigelman’s company helped their client work through the assumptions they had about customers, and re-shape those notions to better fit customers’ reality.


Companies That Should Have Consulted an Anthropologist


Although navigating shifts in local marketing strategy is only one example of what anthropologists can do in business, it is an important one. There are many humorous examples of companies that failed in international expansion due to a failure to research cultural differences in new business areas.


fancy mcdonald's sign
A business anthropologist could tell you why not every country in the world is “lovin'” McDonald’s. Photo by Joshua Austin on Unsplash


This post by Firmex lists a few companies’ “epic” cultural fails. CNBC has an entire YouTube video series on why specific brands failed in certain countries. The reasons for these brands’ failures are not always purely cultural, but usually, culture plays a part. I like this video about why McDonald’s and other fast-food chains failed in Vietnam.



Did this post help you learn more about business anthropology?

What are some examples of business anthropology, or principles of anthropology being applied to business, that you know of?

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