September 19, 2013 6:20 pm

Close observers of consumers

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A tilt shift view of Bristol's shopping centre Shallow depth of field toy camera©Alamy

The spies in our midst: anthropologists today are examining everything from shopping habits to local customs  

John Curran spent weeks shadowing British people going about their daily business. He was there on the school run, he followed them to the supermarket and lurked in cafés while they sipped cappuccinos. Mr Curran is not a private investigator hoping to uncover a dirty secret but an anthropologist – a social scientist who studies human behaviour through systematic observation – working on behalf of a greeting card company. His task? To discover events in need of commemoration.

The “informants”, as he calls the people he observed, revealed a need to remember deceased relatives. Many he discovered kept shrines, for example on pianos, and performed rituals on anniversaries, such as lighting candles. Some included cards at such ceremonies but found most greetings cards lacking because they were written in the present tense. Such insights, Mr Curran says, were unlikely to have been discovered using conventional market research methods such as focus groups – especially on the taboo subject of death.

Mr Curran is one of a growing number of anthropologists employed by companies researching new markets or designing products to fit with users’ lifestyles. “We take a sledgehammer to [received wisdom] and then piece it all together . . . It’s a challenging way of ruffling feathers, and from that opportunities arise.”

Sometimes referred to as “business anthropologists”, Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, estimates 30 per cent of his professional body’s 12,000 members work for business and non-profit organisations as opposed to academia.

This week, business anthropologists from all over the world descended on the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference at London’s Royal Institution, the historic site where Michael Faraday first demonstrated the power of electricity. Over three days, practitioners discussed applications of anthropology in the business world, covering such issues as big data and clinical trials. Addressed by such luminaries in the field as Genevieve Bell, who has worked at Intel for the past 15 years, the event is an opportunity to meet kindred spirits. As Mr Liebow observes: “Most anthropologists who work in industry are the only social scientist in the group. They are usually surrounded by engineers and designers.” One described the first conference as a “coming-out party” for isolated business anthropologists.

Mikkel Rasmussen, director of the European division of ReD, an innovation consultancy based in Denmark and the US that hires anthropologists, says that those who work in-house for big companies can sometimes lose their professional identity, taking on the characteristics of their peers. “The best anthropologists are so empathetic that they can be vulnerable,” he says.

Anthropologists contextualise products and services in terms of social and cultural meanings and practices, not something companies do on their own

In the US, anthropologists have been hired for more than two decades by technology groups including Intel, Apple and Xerox. Microsoft is said to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world, behind the US government. Technology groups descended on anthropology in order to understand the diverse markets they operated in. “Tech giants were really multi-local corporations,” explains Mr Liebow. “They realised that if they didn’t grasp the local culture they wouldn’t be competitive.”

Digital anthropology has emerged as a way of making sense of social networking and other uses of technology, especially to help explain the behaviour of digital-savvy youth to senior executives.

Rita Denny, a Chicago-based anthropologist who runs a consultancy that helps businesses develop new products and brands, says: “Anthropologists contextualise products and services in terms of social and cultural meanings and practices, not something companies do on their own. That can have significant impact on how managers think as well as conceive and develop products.”

Mr Rasmussen used to be sceptical of anthropologists’ contribution to business. A trained economist, he had no truck with anecdotal research, finding reassurance in statistical proof instead. “If qualitative studies showed that women liked chocolate,
I wanted to know that 76 per cent liked it.” But then he watched an anthropologist quiz her subject and his attitude was transformed. “It was an eye-opener,” he says. Unlike other market researchers who hold strong assumptions they wanted to prove, anthropologists “work without hypotheses”. They are, he says, “very open and spot the mundane detail that pass most of us by”.

For the past 10 years they have been key to his consultancy’s work. He cites an example of the difference between questions asked by a conventional market researcher and those of an anthropologist. A consumer goods group wanted to discover the eating habits of families. One mother described the food she made for her children as healthy – fresh vegetables, fruit, wholesome food packed with vitamins. After shadowing the family at home, school and work, the anthropologists discovered the truth: the family was eating fried eggs and baked beans on the sofa in between playing video games. It was not that the mother was lying but rather that she was deluded by her aspirations for her family’s health.

Spending so much time with research subjects means that they can gain trust. “It also places an ethical burden on the researcher”, says Mr Rasmussen. “People open up and cry. How much of that information do you share?”

In 2007, anthropologists hit the headlines when the US military developed a contentious programme known as the Human Terrain System. It hired anthropologists to study Iraqis and Afghans in an attempt to better understand the local culture, or “human terrain”. A group known as the Network of Concerned Anthropologists condemned these counterinsurgency efforts. For many, it was deemed too risky to send social scientists who lacked military training into a battle zone. Others charged that it sullied the discipline to use it as a tool of US militarism – a reminder that anthropology had been used as a tool of imperialism in the 1800s and early 1900s when evolutionary anthropology was employed to argue that an imperial culture was superior to that of so-called “natives”. In fact, Montgomery McFate, the HTS programme’s social science adviser, called anthropology a “warfighting discipline”, having been in its early years “the handmaiden of colonialism”.

There is a snobbery over qualifications within the world of business anthropologists. A PhD trumps a Masters, says Mr Curran (who holds a PhD).

And not all anthropologists are capable of working for businesses, according to Mr Rasmussen. “The biggest problem is finding good academic anthropologists who have some ideas on pricing or have seen an annual report.” Many, he adds, are ideologically opposed to capitalism.

Feeding research back to businesses that demand privacy in order to preserve their competitive edge can prove difficult for many anthropologists, says Mr Liebow. After all, he notes: “They like to share their work.”

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