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Business Anthropology

New Area of Research in Indian Anthropology

M Romesh Singh ( teaches anthropology at the University of Hyderabad and is a visiting scholar at the Department of Anthropology, University of North Texas, United States.

This article highlights the potential use of business anthropology as an effective means of studying business orgnisations in India. There have been ongoing debates among anthropologists on the present trends and crisis in Indian anthropology. Many scholars have reflected that there is an urgent need for reorienting the direction of research in anthropology in India to arrest the decline of the discipline.

I sincerely thank the anonymous reviewer for their valuable and critical comments.

The term “business anthropology” emerged as one of the popular subdisciplines in applied anthropology during the 1980s. Prior to this, the term “industrial anthropology,” “anthropology of work,” or “applied anthropology in industry” were used more frequently to denote areas of research and practice focused on business-related phenomenon. More recently, the term “business anthropology” has begun to be used more generically to refer any applications of anthropology to business-oriented problems (Baba 1986; Jordan 2013; Moeran 2013). Business anthropologists can play a key role in the business world. They can help corporations develop culturally appropriate ways of doing business with suppliers, business partners, or customers and promote smooth working relationships among employees who are more and more likely, thanks to recent equal opportunity employment legislation, to represent different age groups, ethnic groups, and both sexes (Stewart 2011).

Business and industry are fundamental structures of organising economic activity to meet basic human needs in modern market societies. Business means the buying and selling of goods and services in the marketplace, also known as commerce or trade, while industry refers to the organised production of goods and services on a large scale. These terms, when used by business anthropologists in their practice, usually are related to one or more of the three major domains of business anthropological research and practice, namely (i) anthropology related to the processing of producing goods and services and the corporate organisations in which production takes place; (ii) ethnographically-informed design of new products, services and systems for consumers and businesses, and/or (iii) anthropology related to the behaviour of consumers and the marketplace (Tian et al 2014: 123).

Role in Business Education

Jordan (2013) has observed that since the 1980s anthropology’s influence within business schools has grown. Given the increased role of business anthropology, it needs to be emphasised more in business education. Anthropologists in business schools have played an important role in the development of consumer studies within business education. Jerry Saltman and Grant McCracken at Harvard, John Sherry at North-western University, Eric Arnould at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln, Barbara Olsen at State University of New York-Old Westbury, Janeen Costa at the University of Utah, and Annamma Joy at Concordia are some examples of anthropologists who have had an impact on the business education community.

On the other hand, business faculty like Ron Hill and Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, who received their training from business schools, have embraced the ethnographic method and employed it in their business research. From 2000–15, the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times each ran series of articles about why business enterprises should hire anthropologists and should do so immediately. These articles all shared a common theme: how to grow or change by hiring anthropologists to study your business culture and urging business schools to add anthropological training to business education (Simon 2016: 3).

Today, business anthropology as a subfield of applied anthropology is not only taught in graduate programmes in anthropology but also included in the curricula of a number of American universities offering the MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) degree. Business anthropologists at Wayne State University, University of North Texas, and Oregon State University have successfully integrated anthropology with business education by offering business anthropology courses and programmes. It is being taught as an elective in postgraduate courses in universities such as Swinburne University of Technology of Australia, University of Copenhagen in Denmark, University of Colorado Boulder, University College London, University of Aberdeen in UK; and University of Hyderabad in India, etc.

In addition, international journals such as International Journal of Business Anthropology and Journal of Business Anthropology were established in 2010. International Conferences on application of anthropology in business are being held in China since 2011. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC), which started in 2005, is being organised every year with the involvement of academics, researchers, and practitioners from corporate organisations like Intel, Microsoft, Apple and IBM, etc. Such events are playing a key role in linking anthropology with the business world.

Anthropologists like T Hamada (1995), Rita Denny (2002), G Ferraro (2002) and Julian Orr (1990), etc, have shown that failures in the international business settings frequently result from an inability to understand and adapt to foreign ways of thinking and acting. The world, furthermore, is changing quickly and decision-makers need to understand these developments and their implications. Utilising anthropologists and anthropological methods is an important way to address these issues.

While an understanding of the cultural context of domestic business is invaluable, the importance of culture is even more vital within the international sphere. After all, in international business, the magnitude of the cultural differences is vastly greater than in domestic situations and, as a result, the probability of misunderstandings or inappropriate actions/decisions becomes higher. When studying both domestic and foreign societies, anthropologists are especially skilled in finding and explaining patterns of behaviour that impact strategies and tactics. Thus, anthropological insights can be used to improve business operations across the globe.

Historical Appraisal

Though many academics and practitioners assume that the field is a recent offshoot of applied anthropology, its roots lie further back in the 20th century. Baba M (1986) links the origins of the field to a set of experiments that took place within Western Electric Company (now part of Lucent Technologies) and its Hawthorne Works. Starting in the early 1920s, the executives of Western Electric tried to figure out how to improve working conditions and set up experiments to test their hypothesis that manipulating just one variable (such as factory illumination, incentive pay, or number of rest breaks) would generate a better understanding of the organisation. Unfortunately for the company’s management, the test results of experiments conducted were almost always highly contradictory.

Afterwards, Elton Mayo, a Harvard psychologist, was asked to help interpret the results. What he and his colleagues observed was a much more complex social system at work where changing just one variable affected several other variables. Mayo knew about anthropology and its potential usefulness in understanding these social systems through his friendships with anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and A Radcliffe-Brown. Mayo was introduced to W Lloyd Warner, one of Radcliffe-Brown’s students, who consulted with Hawthorne researchers to develop the next phase of the experiment—the Bank Wiring Observation Room (BWOR) in 1931. Baba argues it was this event which gave birth to what we now call business or industrial anthropology (Tian et al 2014).

In a uniquely anthropological approach, the BWOR used ethnography to observe what workers actually did rather than listen to what they said they did during interviews. It became the “first systematic observational investigation of a work group’s social system, or, as we would call it today, the work group’s organisational culture” (Tian et al 2014: 223). The experiment also revealed a complex, and up to that time poorly analysed, relationship between management objectives and the work group’s own productivity. The Hawthorne conclusions provided the first empirical evidence of “informal organisation,” defined as the actual patterns of social interaction and relationships among the members of an organisation that arise spontaneously and are not determined by management.

The field of business anthropology in the 1940s was dominated by the human relations school of thought which posited that any conflict between management and employee was due to a disruption of a natural equilibrium. Therefore, the aim of this school was to balance the equilibrium between manager and worker and create beneficial relationships that ensured optimal performance.

Declining trends of business anthropology: However, in spite of its early successes, the field of business anthropology faded from the anthropological landscape in the 1950s and did not return to prominence until the 1980s. Baba lists four primary reasons for this decline (1986: 123). According to him, one of the reasons was the failure of the first generation of industrial anthropologists to produce a second generation. A theoretical shift from the human relations school and the rise of the contingency theory, which based findings on primarily quantitative research and statistical analysis, was another reason cited by Baba. The decline could also be attributed to changes in academia where more anthropologists were able to find tenured work due to increased number of students seeking college admissions. Lastly, political and ethical issues were raised by anthropologists who viewed working within corporations as unethical. This had a devastating impact as the American Anthropological Association instituted principles of professional responsibility in 1971 that prohibited any research that could not be freely disseminated to the public. Baba notes that since industrial research can often be proprietary, “this code of ethics virtually banned anthropological practice in industry for the next two decades.”

Rise of business anthropology: By the early 1980s, other economies began to compete with the dominance of the United States (US). Industries in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore expanded. This meant not only new competition but new markets for the US goods as well. The US-based companies knew very little about their new international customers but recognised the importance of what we have come to understand as globalisation. Two important developments helped resuscitate the field of business anthropology at this time: first, industry wanted tools to better understand new cultures and their markets; and second, an overproduction of PhDs relative to few academic positions was forcing changes in the professional code enabling anthropologists to accept jobs within industry (Jordan 2013; Tian et al 2014; Baba 2012).

At the same time, business anthropology also received a lift as the concepts of “corporate culture” and “organisational culture” surfaced in the business lexicon. As American industrial superiority began to decline in the face of challenges from foreign companies, executives in the US sought viable reasons and solutions. Two bestsellers published in 1982 by Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy (Corporate Cultures) and Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman (In Search of Excellence) highlighted the role of culture and its connection to successful and unsuccessful businesses.

However, by this time, studying organisational culture was no longer solely an anthropological activity. Business efficiency consultants, organisational development specialists, and other social scientists were poised to offer insights into the issue of culture. While each discipline has demonstrated its own particular strengths within business, it is important to point out the special capabilities that anthropology delivers to help organisations better understand their customers and their employees. There are three primary knowledge domains that anthropology brings to business: general knowledge of culture and culture theory; competency in the practice of ethnography; and specialised knowledge of particular cultures and languages.

Current Trends

Anthropology in India is poorly known outside of fairly narrow academic circles. It is taught in a few dozen universities in India, and hence struggles for recognition, especially outside university teaching. Traditionally, anthropologists carried out their fieldwork in remote tribal areas and returned with fascinating, but often arcane, intricate analyses of kinship, swidden agriculture or warfare among “the others.” If one examines the trends of research in Indian anthropology, it is found that it is predominantly carried out among the tribes and rural people around the country.

In India, people identify the discipline of anthropology as synonymous with tribal studies. Therefore, it is important to recall Peacock (1997) who spoke about the issues of decline, downsizing, and extinction of anthropology departments. He put forth three scenarios for the future of anthropology: first, he discusses the possibility of extinction; second, the discipline does not die but seeks refuge in its own enclave, “hanging on as living dead;” and third, “a redirection of our field into a prominent position in society.” Hence, we need to give more attention to Peacock’s third aspect which may help in resurrecting the discipline.

Declining trends of anthropology in Indian universities: Current trend shows that the majority of students prefer career-oriented subjects such as engineering, computers, management, and biotechnology. Downsizing of existing anthropology departments is occurring because vacant positions are not being filled in several colleges and universities. New central universities have come up all over the country, but establishing anthropology departments is not on their agenda. For academic administrators of new institutions, proposals for starting new anthropology departments are not attractive due to lack of demand for these courses.

The private universities that may proliferate in future may not take interest in disciplines like anthropology (in its present form), especially in those sponsored by business and industrial houses. In this context, it becomes important to find out to what extent the discipline is willing to reorient itself in the post-globalisation scenario (Venkata Rao 2012: 208). This trend of declining enrolments has affected not only anthropology but also several sister disciplines.

Incompatibility with market requirement: The existing university courses offered in various anthropology departments are largely based on the traditional view of an anthropologist as an academic researcher and do not provide requisite training to work in emerging areas in development where anthropologists can profitably contribute. Keeping in mind the career prospects of anthropologists, there is a need for a relook into the curricula and training needs in order to realise the full potential of anthropology in the context of contemporary social issues and development initiatives (Venkata Rao 2012: 209). In addition, anthropology needs to expand beyond academic arenas, to take more interest in public affairs and participate more in public debates. The need is to erase the image of anthropology as a product of the colonial era, a tool of Western imperialism, or a discipline more interested in the exotic and esoteric.

Though anthropology began in the West as a discipline to understand and explain human diversity, by the time it reached India, it became a means to get academic jobs and government employment. Self-employed anthropologists (consultants) were relatively unknown in the early days of Indian anthropology. Apart from employment in universities and colleges, anthropologists look for government jobs. Mathur (1977) suggested that the state is considered as the main avenue for anthropologists to find employment.

Writing on the crisis in Indian anthropology, Debanth (1999) pointed to a lack of interest in contemporary social problems among anthropologists. Though opportunities are expanding in the social sector, students are not trained or equipped to take advantage of them. He indicated the need for innovative courses. The participation of anthropologists in contemporary issues and debates is limited, and social problems are left to activists and the non-governmental organisations. Traditional interests have dominated the agenda of anthropology in India.

It is important to re-examine our perception about the role we have to play and how well we are equipped for it, that is, trained for it. There is no clarity on the role anthropologists can play and there is a mismatch between the potential of the discipline and its actual role. It has been claimed that applied anthropologists have been functioning as analysts, consultants, administrators, and co-administrators (Vidyarthi 1978: 176–77).

A good number of research degrees are awarded in anthropology on development-related topics. A considerable numbers of papers and books have been produced on applied and developmental aspects. The research projects completed by anthropologists are supposed to provide information useful to planners and policymakers. Apart from studying government programmes, a small number of anthropologists are employees in projects and consultancies of Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Department for International Development (DFID), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), etc. But not many anthropologists are directly involved in planning, policymaking, and development administration.

Many scholars’ writings state that anthropology is expected to move towards market-centric research for its survival. If anthropology is not going to adapt by not reaching beyond academics and government focused research, the discipline will be the loser. The need is to provide good training to students, and carry out research relevant to the contemporary society. Curricula should reflect the dynamic changes in the society, and books prescribed should relate to national, regional, and local issues.

The focus of applied research shifts rapidly with market trends, and anthropology textbooks need to be updated in accordance with the changing scenario. Alternative material based on current practices in field and society becomes more relevant and should be augmented by anthropology textbooks. Upham et al (1988: 206) stated that the “major concern of anthropology curricula should be the role of anthropology in the market place and the employment of anthropologists.” Pointing out that there are several saleable and marketable skills that can give even undergraduates a wide range of opportunities, they suggest reorienting anthropology curricula in tune with market needs.

The declining opportunities in the academic field, and the inability to take advantage of emerging opportunities has caught the attention of several scholars. Many envisage a shift in focus in the post-globalisation context, similar to the shift anthropology earlier witnessed when there was change from colonial period to postcolonial period. The observations made by Debnath (1999), who made a critical appraisal of the anthropology scenario in the country, need to be mentioned here. “Every academic discipline has a responsibility to rehabilitate its practitioners which in turn ensures its sustenance. Anthropology has largely failed in this effort.” He further added, “A crisis in an academic discipline occurs when the discipline starts lacking direction and its usefulness becomes suspect. A situation like this prevailed in Indian anthropology for a long while” (Debnath 1999: 3110).

The crisis is that of a lack of demand from students and of not getting good students. In many cases, students reluctantly join anthropology as a shelter course (to be on the university campus) after they have failed to enrol in other courses. Detractors in universities make fun of the discipline saying anthropology is the study of leftovers by the leftovers (those who could not get admission into any other discipline).

Both fundamental and practical aspects are important for anthropology. Applied and development anthropology or any other specialised area of anthropology cannot have an existence independent of anthropology. At the same time, we need to consider the relevance of what is taught to the students, from the point of view of their prospective employers. Students from universities are deficient in practical experience. There are several areas which can potentially employ anthropologists. But there is no scope in the present scenario for providing practical training to students so that they can stake a claim to these opportunities. Imparting some job-oriented skills combined with on-hands training or internships will change the image of anthropology altogether (Venkata Rao 2012).

Several non-anthropologists are thriving recycling and popularising our methodologies and insights. Participatory methodologies which anthropologists are relearning from non-anthropologists, recognition of emphasis on importance of indigenous knowledge for sustainable development, use of anthropological insights in management schools, etc, can be mentioned here. While there is no threat to the future of anthropological knowledge, the issue is about the future of the upcoming generations of anthropologists. We need to seriously consider the advice of Peacock (1997: 9) who says,

Society needs anthropology. If we did not exist, we would be invented; in fact, we are often reinvented under different names. But in order to address that societal need our-selves, we must redirect our focus.

Another anthropologist Siva Prasad (2007) writes that there are no shortcuts for a healthy development of anthropology.

There is a need for serious introspection, and anthropologists need to identify the problems and their solutions collectively. There is an urgent need today for capacity building at the level of departments, updating curricula, reinforcing the fieldwork tradition, and evolving collective responsibility. Anthropology is a science of democratic learning and sharing, and it is a humanising science. Given that Indian anthropology is struggling to create, implement, and maintain positive impacts on issues of local, national and global importance, initiating research in business anthropology is both crucial and relevant.


Why business anthropology research in India? Against this backdrop, the importance of theory and practice of business anthropology in the Indian context needs to be discussed. In today’s scenario, this is crucial, with the entry of multinational giants affecting the Indian markets and culture. Some of the largest corporate enterprises in the world are attracted to the Indian markets for obvious reasons—India constitutes one of the world’s largest consumer base.

The Indian economy is becoming increasingly globalised, and its diverse workforce and markets demand participatory management, decision-making and communication skills. Anthropology is a contemporary discipline that approaches human questions from historical, biological, linguistic, and cultural perspectives. The rapid pace of technological change along with the globalisation of economic systems have changed the world we are living in. When we discuss the future of anthropology in general, and business anthropology in particular, we must think in broader terms of the global political economy, local demographic trends, prevailing cultural preferences, and the social and ethnic backgrounds of consumers.

Research, especially in the Indian context, can be proposed in three areas—ethnography in the workplace, ethnography in the marketplace, and finally, and more importantly, cross-cultural studies in international business arena. The word “ethnography” is a deliberate choice, highlighting the importance of anthropological methodology in understanding corporate cultural scenarios. Ethnography in the workplace involves anthropological investigations in a corporate setting. The corporation is treated as a kind of subculture that can be investigated with many of the same techniques that would be used to study a rural or tribal culture. Ethnography in the marketplace is relatively new to anthropology. It involves the observation of consumers to determine how the placement and arrangement of products affects sales. Finally, the third research area of business anthropology, and a key one, involves cross-cultural studies in business to facilitate negotiation and contracts between companies in countries which have different cultures.

It is important that anthropology departments and organisations in India should work together to prepare more qualified business anthropologists for the future to meet the needs of the corporate organisations. By doing so, the future of business anthropology should be very bright and promising as an anthropological approach is applicable in all business functions.


In the global market, demand for business anthropologists is stimulated by a growing need for analysts and researchers with sharp thinking skills who can manage, evaluate, and interpret the large volume of data on human behaviour. Many corporations look explicitly for anthropologists, recognising the utility of their perspective on a corporate team. A corporate anthropologist working in market research might conduct targeted focus groups to examine consumer preference patterns not readily apparent through statistical or survey methods.

Unique methods and approaches: Baba (1986) presents some important aspects of the value proposition that anthropology brings to any business. According to him, it offers a “holistic” approach integrating a wide range of social and behavioural phenomena in describing and explaining culture. It recognises that “history” is an important factor in understanding the origins of cultural patterns and what shapes them over time. It values multiple “insider (or emic) perspectives” as a way to understand the varied layers within a culture, and offers cross-cultural “comparisons” that generate insights into how different groups relate to each other.

Competency in ethnographic practice: Ethnography is a term gaining prominence in business circles, but with this increase in awareness comes a danger in it being poorly executed. Anthropologists are trained in ethnographic practice and Baba notes some of best practices described by others. He states that ethnographic practice requires that anthropologists conduct significant fieldwork. The degree of fieldwork needed or possible within a business organisation is usually dependent on time and fears of distraction and disclosure of confidential information. It uses multiple methods and techniques. These include interviewing; direct observation and video recording of behaviour, events, and situations; census and surveys; focus groups; and network analysis.

Ethnography captures “detailed and nuanced portrayals” of a field site. It searches for and provides details and conclusions that are unexpected or counterintuitive. Business decision-makers need help discovering issues that may be hidden or unknown. Ethnography can be exceedingly helpful in making sense of contradictory data.

It offers a model or theory. Ethnography goes beyond just surface-level description and aims to provide explanations as to why something is the way it is.

Again, ethnography is holistic in its objective and relates human thoughts and behaviours to multiple contexts of history, geography, environment, society, politics, and economics. It emphasises both what people say and what they do and the disconnect between them. Some of the most valuable insights anthropologists gain through their ethnographic work is locating discrepancies between verbal behaviour and actual practices.

The tools of anthropology can be used to study cultures that are external to the organisation but that affect or are affected by its decisions. For example, anthropologists can assist in several aspects of the marketing research. They are trained to understand the factors that govern the behaviour of customers and their responses to advertising, purchasing trends and dynamics of product usage. In the global age, most business affairs involve more than one nation, more than one government, and more than one culture, making the human side of business multidimensional and complex.

Anthropology and Indian Industries

In recent time, companies are always striving to increase sales, increase their market share, and increase their profits. One of the ways to accomplish all this is to improve their products. While the idea of improving existing products sounds simple and easy, the reality is starkly different. Companies often see their products as “perfect.” Therefore, they cannot identify areas for product improvement.

The benefits and the value of business anthropology are so immense that global companies are using the services of anthropologists. Some of the companies that are actively using anthropology to design new products are: IBM, Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, Intel, Volkswagen, TESCO, Toyota, etc. The competitive advantage gained by an anthropological study is so valuable that these companies would not admit the fact or even publish the results of a study (Cefkin 2010; Simon 2016).

Business anthropology studies show how customers use a product and what they do with it, and why customers do not use certain products. However, being a business anthropologist is not easy nor is it natural. It takes certain special skills to observe and enquire, and an anthropologist needs to be thoroughly acquainted with business language and culture. Andi Simon (2016) correctly pointed out that business anthropology research is one of the basic and the best tools for innovation. It also provides limitless opportunity for continuous product improvement, and occasionally one can come up with radical innovation based on customer observations. Apple and Nokia, for example, have developed several bestselling products based on the anthropological study of customers. For instance, Apple’s iPod customers often complained that they hate to carry two devices—a cell phone and an iPod. This prompted Apple to release iPhones and Nokia to release its “N-Series” cell phones.

Such studies are not easy for companies to conduct. There are very few external agencies that are willing to do such studies, and the organisations’ internal departments often are not equipped to conduct a full-fledged ethnographic study. However, Ninedots Consulting in Bengaluru, India is presently offering consulting and training services to enable companies to do customer-oriented studies, which are strongly based on anthropological approaches. They use ethnographic methods as an alternative to more formal methodologies. Specific tools include participant observation, informal and structured interviews, and other “naturalistic,” informal, and face-to-face methods of investigation. Hence, they are playing a key role in developing culturally sensitive policies and strategies in companies.


The above discussion proves that anthropologists can and have made significant contributions to the business world (Jordan 2013; Tian 2014; Simon 2016; Cefkin 2010). However, in India, it is sad that the theories and methods of this qualitative research have not been as widely incorporated into business research practice as they could and should have been. The most powerful tool that business anthropologists can employ is an ethnographic study. Ethnography is an approach used by anthropologists when studying groups of people. Nevertheless, Indian anthropologists need to be trained to understand business vocabulary to interpret the speech and other acts they encounter, regardless of organisational behaviour, marketing, product design, or technology.

The dominance of the other fields is also a reason why useful findings by anthropologists have not been sucessfully implemented in India. However, now researchers in business have increasingly begun to employ qualitative methods such as the ethnographic method. Marketers and consumer behaviour specialists have not yet developed ways to employ the techniques of ethnography and participant observation within the context of the marketplace. Considering its importance, there is pressing need for Indian anthropologists to produce trained anthropologists who can efficiently apply ethnographic methods to help business firms to improve their performance.

Our research should be directed towards finding a better place in the corporate world and market research areas so far untouched by Indian anthropology. It will help in providing better academic value to the discipline in the future. As Venkata Rao (2012) has rightly pointed out, the discipline needs to find a place in private universities sponsored by business and industrial houses that are going to play an important role in the near future. If we want anthropology to survive, we need to adapt. We need to go beyond academics.

It is important to give more emphasis to business anthropology as it is a rapidly growing field that can contribute to the understanding of human issues in era of globalisation. As Jordan (2013) rightly mentions—when our discipline provides the skills to understand the complexity and the moral issues involved in globalisation, do we wish to opt out of the dialogue? If as anthropologists we are to make our work relevant and our voices a part of the multinational conversation on the pressing issues in our contemporary world, we must engage in business anthropology.


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Updated On : 9th Nov, 2017


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