Why Anthropology?

23 Jan 2005|LiAnne Yu

These days I see plenty of ads for people with advanced degrees in anthropology to fill brand and product design roles. For someone like me who spent years in grad school wondering what options I had outside of academia, this is very gratifying. Truth be told, it’s fun to finally be associated with a popular discipline! Back when I was in the early stages of job hunting, it seemed only the MBA’s got the cool, international jet-setting jobs. I just got asked if I dug up bones for a living. But with popularity comes one inevitable tendency: the proliferation of fakes.

It seems everyone is jumping on the ethnography bandwagon. These days, anyone who can operate a video camera or has taken a class on interviewing seems to be claiming to have anthropological fieldwork experience. The problem is that once it comes time to deliver a synthesis of findings, those without a solid background aren’t able to go much beyond telling stories about what cool things they saw while hanging out with the interviewees. That’s just not enough. And it misses the point of why anthropology can be such a relevant perspective for design and brand innovation.

This doesn’t mean that only people with anthropology degrees should be conducting ethnographies. I have worked with plenty of people (many of them at Cheskin) from design, business, and market research backgrounds who have taught me so much about how to adapt and expand ethnography for business. What I believe this does mean is that we need to continually integrate more of the very best anthropological practices into business and design strategies. Or risk becoming a passing fad, as anthropology’s contributions are minimized to cool anecdotes and MTV-like video clips.

My colleague, the very talented anthropologist Tim Plowman, reminds me that one of the most powerful things we can do is go back to our methodological roots. What are the perspectives that differentiate us from usability specialists or cognitive scientists or market researchers? For me, one of these fundamentals is that anthropology is the study of culture. Not culture in terms of “Oh that’s Donald Trump, he’s so stylish and cultured!” But rather, culture in the way defined by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.”

If we consider a small business, a group of instant messaging buddies, or fashionable working moms examples of shared cultures, we can look beyond the obvious “ahas” of what they’re explicitly doing and saying. We can start to uncover the symbols they use in their speech, accessories, and actions, that generate meaning for them and others in their tribe. And we can see when they struggle to find the right symbols, because the stuff that they know and the habits they practice don’t yet support the meanings they want to communicate. These are fertile areas for innovation. This is where anthropology’s deep concern with the symbols people create through their actions and artifacts can inform the design of products, services, and brands, in order to create truly meaningful experiences.

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