Anthropology: The Business Model

I had the good fortune to participate in a call organized yesterday by Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn.  This is an open discussion, the Yi-Tan, they hold by phone, addressing the big issues, intellectual and otherwise, that vex and test the tech community.

These are two sublimely smart guys, but it was clear they weren’t sure exactly what to ask me.  Join the club.  I mean, what, finally, does an anthropologist bring to the party?  No one is exactly sure, not even the anthropologist. 

Ethnography, that’s the easy answer.  This is the method of anthropology, so, hey, if you need an ethnographer, you probably need an anthropologist, and now that A.G. Lafley, M.S.I. Kodak, IBM, and Campbell Soup use ethnography, anthropology has a place in the world.

But what else?  Is there something to anthropology beyond ethnography?

Anthropologists are good at recognizing patterns in social and cultural data.  My clients get this about me.  They used to ask me to find the solution.  More and more, they ask me to find the problem.  How, they ask, should we be thinking about this?  Anthropologists are good pattern seekers, good assumption hunters.

Jerry and Pip were kind enough to ask if I would join in the call.  Please them for this confidence.  And here are the notes I scratched out for myself.  You may determine for yourself whether they identify a problem worth thinking about.

If we look at culture and commerce from a pattern-seeking, assumption-hunting point of view, we see two things:

First, a clarity is giving way to a fluidity.  I grew up in a world that for all of its modernist momentum had a certain order.  It was like something defined by a mechanical engineer: parts and wholes, relationships and processes, outcomes and feedbacks, all of these were relatively clear. 

This clarity is now at issue.  What are the parts?  What is the whole?  What are the relationships and processes?  Can we predict outcomes?  Are there feedbacks? 

What, for instance, is a corporation, now that it contains so many different moving parts, now that it changes so much and so often, now that it has, often, many objectives instead of one.  Does it have a boundary?  Or is just more porous?  And if it is porous, has it found a way to manage its new fluidity.

A friend and I were talking yesterday how much the corporation has changed inside, swapping personnel in and out, refashioning the employment contract now that "one size" no longer fits all.

What is a "brand" now that consumer are let into the moment of creation, now that the corporation spends so much more time out and about, sensing and responding to the world "out there?"

What is a "self," now that each of us is so crowded with diverse interests and the ability to negotiate the complexities of a dynamic world?

Each of these things has in a sense "gone global," embracing more heterogeneity in a more dynamic mix, trading clarity for fluidity.   

Fifty years ago, the specs for each was pretty clear.  Intellectuals were unhappy with some of the design particulars but the rest of the world just got down to business and got on with life.  Now, it looks as if someone had a Starbucks accident.  Blueprints drip with coffee from Sumatra, not to mention that latte and cinnamon.  Boxes and arrows run and blur.  Fluidity, to be sure. 

Second, it’s not clear that we have come up with a better way of thinking about a world like this, despite the fact that we have been on notice since the work of the Tofflers in the 1960s.  There are small inklings here and there, the Long Now Project, the complex adaptive theory that comes from the Santa Fe institute, the call for dynamism that comes from gurus like Tom Peters.  A big tech company recently asked me to rethink the B to B relationship.  But these are all mere inklings, and nothing like a formal shift. 

As I say, not everyone sees this as the anthropological "value add."  And that’s a shame.  Because the world is getting complicated in ways that anthropologists know how to reckon with.  As people survey the fizzing, teeming confusion of the contemporary world, they ought to be saying, "where can I find an anthropologist to help me think about this. " 

9 thoughts on “Anthropology: The Business Model

  1. peter

    Neat post, Grant. One feature of group-think is usually an inability to imagine appropriate questions or challenges to accepted beliefs and practices. An anthropologist, particularly one with wide experience with multiple clients and industry sectors, is well-placed to surmount this inability, to imagine the right questions and challenges.

    Of relevance to these ideas is a recent article in the “Journal of Evolutionary Economics” by Lane and Maxfield, which distinguishes 3 types of uncertainty:

    – truth uncertainty (whether a proposition is true or false)

    – semantic uncertainty (what a proposition means)

    – and, ontological uncertainty (what entities exist in the environment, and what relationships and interactions they have).

    We seem to have entered an era in which business, cultural and social environments have far greater, more frequent, more dynamic, and more pervasive, ontological uncertainties.


    David A. Lane and Robert R. Maxfield [2005]: “Ontological uncertainty and innovation”, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 15: 3-50.

  2. Charles Frith

    I’ve been thinking about the corporation a lot too recently and I think being handcuffed to the quarerly report is beginning to show signs of obsolescence. Either it’s fully transparent all the time in terms of reporting or we take a ‘long now’ view of things and take the pressure off to perform massively effectively in the short term and abysmally in the long term.

    Anyway rambly thoughts.

  3. Jared

    Great post, Grant. I know you don’t like it, but I think the solution to your second point will come out of postmodernism. Complexity theory is just the last gasp of modernism.

  4. Guy Gould-Davies

    The climates (cultural, economic, technological, commercial) are indeed as you characterize them. This is a time of flux: dizzying fluidity, change, creation and unraveling.

    I am not one, but I would have thought that during these heady times anthropologists would offer two kinds of unique value that other disciplines do not:

    1) Anthropologists have an astute understanding of human nature, in particular the aspects of behavior that seem wired into the species to give it grounding. I am thinking here of rituals, rites, traditions, object significance, etc. People are creatures of habit and the brain an advanced patterning machine, so these tendencies will still be present even if expression are in emerging (and possibly) novel forms

    2) Anthropologists have an understanding of how (wo)man is shaped by the environment and how it in turn shapes her/him. Even though the radically changing ‘environments’ in today’s modern world are perhaps less of a physical nature than the past, surely there is wisdom for the more intangible, fluid forms we interact with today that can be gleaned from the past?

    Imagining there is a timelessness with 1) and a relativism with 2) anthropologists are in the position to recontextualize the murky present as it unfolds – out of the apparent chaos it might otherwise seem to an untrained observer and into a broader landscape of evolving humanity

    And having written the word ‘anthropologist’ many times in this response I realize the danger in omitting the ‘s’.

  5. srp

    As a non-anthro person, I’ve read that one theme of anthropology is the way various groups set up social boundaries–in-group vs. out-group, sacred vs. profane, etc. Somehow that expertise, if any of it is transferable, ought to be useful in thinking about organizations and corporations, as well as brands and their promises. I would look for general theoretical principles that could be applied across cases.

    For example, in Grant’s “value tax” post earlier he criticized Microsoft for setting the boundary of its responsibilities short of providing device drivers for Vista. That raises an interesting question more generally: What makes buyers place responsibility on side or another in a given context? Why does it seem reasonable to bitch at Microsoft about HP’s lousy Vista print drivers but it is less common to blame DirecTV for the many lousy TV shows carried on its satellites?

    Another boundary: How do we (and do we) distinguish “commercial” from “charitable” activities? This is a profane vs. sacred type deal. What mechanisms are used to keep these categories separate? In general, when to cultures strive to maintain such boundaries and when do they allow them to blur?

    In a way, an increase in fluidity, if it were really happening, would imply a breakdown of this basic cultural function of category separation. Is that anthropologically possible, or is there instead always an equilbrium with somewhat stable cultural categories, so that apparent periods of fluidity are just transient states?

    If anthropology can cut into those questions, it will be very useful.

  6. klinqueen

    Nicely stated, Grant.

    These are the very issues I find myself grappling with as I attempt to write my dissertation proposal. I am studying the changes happening in the entertainment industry, primarily those wrought by consumers + technology, and the smaller subset of those who are trying to make such ventures their primary employment/money-making venture.

    As I am working on grant applications and pleas to faculty to be on my committee, I am continually asked “what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” And I have to tell them that I don’t always know; I’m trying to study the changes happening in order to FIND the problem or more likely, problems. I don’t know that I can actually find a solution, but I am pretty sure I can do some significant work toward finding those patterns that we can then use to make more sense of how the entertainment industry is going to evolve, and maybe, just maybe, this research will have something to say about how cultural practices that involve technology will affect other industries as well.

    Yes, it’s messy, it’s new, and there’s a lot to be learned. Those very qualities make it incredibly hard to articulate a “solution” or even a clear “problem” to be studied. I think a lot of anthropologists (even those with some business background) don’t really grasp the fluidity among consumers, industry, technology, creativity, politics, and culture that is happening around us, and I feel a bit panicky at being forced to narrow down what I want to study to a “question;” it makes me feel like I’m going to miss something important along the way.

    A tip of the academic tam to anyone who is working in this area. Leave breadcrumbs!

  7. steve crandall

    Hi Grant
    I caught the Yi-Tan call and enjoyed listening to your thoughts (as always).

    My background is working on very simple things – nothing complex like the social sciences. We attempt to understand these things deeply enough that new and deeper questions emerge to provide better insight. The basic framework is simple and fixed – the scientific method – but there have been dramatic changes in understanding as well as the techniques It impresses me that this very simple invention has endured for so long and moved thought so far.

    But the relationship with the “consumer” is changing and I’m concerned how trust is established in both directions and people make appropriate changes (thinking of global warming as an example). People have always been content to have technology develop from basic science. Now basic science is telling people they need to make changes in their use of technology and there is very little trust.

    curious times…

  8. Seth

    Very interesting post. If “The Support Economy” is anywhere close to correct, anthropology (and ethnography) is where we begin our support of our users: understand them better; support them better.

  9. Lucy Fisher

    This is fascinating but would be much easier to read if it had margins. (White bits to left and right, nothing to do with liminal zones, marginal groups, marginalisation, the Water Margin etc.)

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