Why should I care about Anthropology in market research?

While conducting research in Okinawa, Japan, a Marine stationed at a local base asked what I was doing on the island. “I’m an anthropologist,” I said. “Wow,” he replied earnestly. And, after an awkwardly long pause, “I didn’t realize there were so many ants here.”

Funny as it may be (and it might only be funny to me), the Marine’s response is typical of a popular lack of familiarity with anthropology. 

Do anthropologists study dinosaur bones?

I routinely encounter this when I teach Anthropology 101; classes of well-meaning undergraduates, vaguely aware that anthropology might have something to do with humans, or finding buried tombs, or maybe dinosaurs (you’d be surprised how often students at midterm are upset they still haven’t looked at a t-rex skeleton). 

It’s not the students’ fault. Nor was it the Marine’s, for that matter. Anthropology doesn’t exactly have a PR department, and anthropologists are hard to spot outside their ivory tower habitats. 

So, what is anthropology? 

In theory, anthropology is the study of human differences. It is a systematic exploration of what makes one group of people similar to or different from another. 

In practice, it is an attempt to trace, catalog, and understand the numerous threads that make up a human being, their everyday life, and their culture. Some might argue that there is an element of impossibility to this. Human variation is endless. We change from place to place, era to era, even moment to moment. And human cultures are constantly in flux, evolving in response to internal and external stimuli. 

Here’s an example of human difference in action: Ask craft brewers what makes their breweries distinct? In the US, a significant proportion will say it’s their superior quality beer. In Japan, a nearly equal proportion cite their fuinki, the atmosphere, or vibe as the defining quality of their brewery. Two communities in the same industry, creating very similar products for very similar demographics, but with a very different interpretation of their value. 

But the anthropologist’s task isn’t really to create a definitive, essentialist statement on human nature. That would be like trying to point to a particular water molecule in an attempt to define a river. Even so, while that one molecule can’t tell you everything, it can tell you a lot. And anthropologists can likewise learn a great deal about patterns of practices and values at various scales by observing human behavior in action. 

Perhaps more critically, what can anthropology do? 

Particularly, how can the systematic study of endless human variation be applied to business? How can anthropological research improve marketing or customer experience? These are great questions, ones I’m still exploring myself. But I do have a few ideas. 

1) Anthropology can help connect with consumers. 

Anthropology employs an empathetic approach to human research. Anthropologists typically learn their trade by doing fieldwork, living and working alongside research participants to better understand the rhythms that compose their everyday lives. This can involve long-duration ethnographic studies by cultural anthropologists, or archaeologists collaborating on excavations and collection curation with descendent populations. 

Either way, it’s perhaps little wonder that this sort of intimate arrangement between researcher and research subject inspires empathy. On one hand, it’s a necessary strategy – a best practice to reduce friction and improve outcomes in tight working conditions. On the other hand, I think it’s just the basic fact of getting to know someone, of becoming a part of their context. It’s humans being humans.

Empathy is at the core of what anthropologists like myself do daily. Empathetic research can improve a business’ ability to connect with consumers. Empathy here is the ability to read the room, to capture spoken and unspoken sentiments, to interpret another’s experience toward meeting them where they’re at.  

I once worked with a client in the craft brewing industry that was having trouble connecting with local customers. The owners were veterans, and their military background shone through in their interior decorating, beer names, and gruff barside manner. When the owners looked around their taproom, they saw friends and former colleagues from the nearby base, but very few locals. They asked me to figure out what was keeping the locals away. Interviews with patrons of neighboring bars and breweries revealed the disconnect: town residents, most of whom were not affiliated with the military, felt unwelcome at “that military bar,” like it wasn’t for them. It wasn’t a matter of location or beer quality. Rather, it was a matter of empathy – neither owner nor patron understood each other. With some minor brand tweaking and design overhaul, that same brewery won a local choice award the following year. 

Beyond dollars and cents, empathy is also essential to ethical B2B and B2C research. Research is a sustained moment of vulnerability for participants. Even with all of the data protection and assured anonymity, it is an uncomfortable thing to be studied, to have aspects of your professional, social, and personal life on display and dissected by a stranger. Empathy is critical. Researchers should develop and employ an approach mindful of the needs, desires, and vulnerabilities of participants. Anthropologists, by nature of their unique training, are conditioned for this mindful practice. 

2) Anthropology can help untangle complex clients. 

Organizations are complex ecosystems, composed of diverse organisms moving across and acting in complicated patterns alongside and against each other. A business is a great example of this complexity in action. Businesses are constellations of professionals, administrators, and clients collaborating within and across various departments, operating with varied philosophies and methods. These actors come together to execute a shared objective – to succeed (however each party defines it).  

Anthropology as a discipline, especially when grounded in ethnography – i.e., hands-on, embedded, qualitative research – excels in extracting from the minutiae of everyday life the things that animate human interaction and meaning. This insight is invaluable in tackling complex real-world challenges that shape learning, and in developing engaging data-based, human-centered interventions to inspire and justify change.

Intimate knowledge of organizational flow has numerous applications. For one, a strong feel for the values and practices that animate a community is necessary for developing bespoke research that overcomes the inflexibility and alienation of one-size-fits-all solutions. 

Having a read for the room is also critical for communicating with diverse stakeholders. Research can’t be impactful if it’s not accessible, and anthropologists can be natural translators in the field and the boardroom. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a deep knowledge of client and consumer needs supports the design of engagement reports and versatile interventions that target not only what people say they want, but the unspoken needs and desires that will help them thrive. 

And alongside being a powerful tool for market research, ethnographic research, when pointed inward, can also be an insightful method for an organization’s own internal analysis and development.

3) Anthropology – and business – as a circle of care 

Finally, and building on the two previous points, I believe human-centered research can be more than fulfilling a set of quotas or objectives. It can be more than adding tomes to a dusty shelf or points to a stock portfolio. Research, especially anthropologically-driven research, can operate as a circle of care linking researchers and collaborators, mutually supporting and enriching stakeholders on either side of the table. 

Human research creates an ethical obligation. When people share part of their life with you, you share with them. This is why research should be above board in its process and objectives. More importantly, make goals and the research designs a collaborative process. Research alongside participants by creating a seat at the table for them and weaving education into the intervention. Through transparency and investment, researchers can work to empower collaborators so that positive outcomes can be maintained and expanded in the researchers’ absence. In this way, researchers collaborate with participants to design sustainable interventions.

Research that relies on people can – and should – seek to make an appreciable difference in the lives of those people. Researchers should take pains to develop a deep understanding of the context in which they work. I’ve often found that the goals dreamed up in the office don’t reflect the reality on the ground. Researchers should be flexible to the needs of their collaborators, designing protocols and synthesizing actionable insights that pursue better outcomes for those actually in need of a helping hand. 

I believe researchers should care for those who make their research possible, not exploit their pain, be transparent, and work to make their lives better. I believe researchers can honor this obligation by designing mindful, equitable, care-focused interventions. And, as I have observed, research that maintains these ethical commitments tends to produce better results for participants and stakeholders alike.

So why should I care about anthropology in marketing? In short, because anthropology (and anthropologists) help build authentic connections within and between communities of colleagues, stakeholders, and consumers. My goal as an anthropologist is to meet and understand what makes these connections flourish, and then work to collectively improve outcomes for all parties. Cultivating connections necessitates an eye for complexity, an empathetic framework, and a great deal of care.