A friend recently suggested that I write a short essay (maybe the correct post-degree term is ‘article’) explaining what it is exactly that ‘Anthropologists’ do and how their skills and knowledge can be utilised by businesses in Australia. He also suggested that I keep it under 1000 words and that I keep it ‘light’. “Maybe in the style of ‘What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?’” he suggested. I have to admit I failed when it came to the 1000 words!

For anyone who hasn’t ever seen the movie, that list turned out to be quite long and included major improvements to living standards, security and sanitation. So when I got to thinking about the contribution anthropologists have made to business and society over the years the list appeared at first to be much less significant. However, anthropologists are making positive changes to the worlds that they are engaged in. Before exploring these contributions in more detail however, it is obviously important to try to define and explain what anthropology is. Anthropology is a general term for the study of humans and can be divided into three main fields; Biological Anthropology, Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology. This article refers only to Socio-Cultural Anthropology and its applications outside of academia.

Socio-Cultural Anthropology is the comparative study of human cultures and societies around the globe. Socio-cultural anthropologists study what humans do, how they do it and why they do it, incorporating theories from sociology, psychology, and biology in order to understand how humans and the groups they belong to function.

Photo by Surya Prakosa on Unsplash

What started out, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, as a study of ‘exotic peoples’ quickly developed both an academic interest and practical application for colonial governments that often governed over areas occupied by a number of different groups and cultures. The separation of socio-cultural anthropology into academic and vocational fields created a division that can still be found today in some quarters. As the world of ‘Empires’ came to an end in the late 1940s anthropologists were forced to look for new peoples in new pastures. Academic anthropology took centre stage once more as practical applications for anthropology, linked to the colonial governments dried up. Many anthropologists took their knowledge of human societies and the methodologies they had created in order to understand them and they started to examine the world around them and closer to home. From the 1960s to the start of the new millennium, anthropology went through a myriad of changes and evolutions and created a plethora of new subfields within the academic framework, such as; Anthropology of the Mediterranean, Medical Anthropology, Legal Anthropology, Psychological Anthropology, Military Anthropology or Business Anthropology. The list is by no means complete and continues to grow as more and more anthropology graduates look for employment outside of academia.

So what are anthropologists doing in the world outside of academia? Since the start of the millennium anthropologists have been employed in Development, Market Research, Military Intelligence, Research & Development and Finance to name but a few fields and they are having a huge impact on the way companies are conducting business. When businesses hire an anthropologist, what they are not getting is some “abstract knowledge about a small insignificant tribe of primitives” as I once heard it being described. Instead the employer gains a set of methodological tools that can help them to understand their clients better, to understand their employees better, or how to understand socio-economic environments in the most unusual and unexpected ways.

In a book published in the year 2000, Professor Cris Shore predicted the possible break-up of the EU after he had spent years studying the European Parliament and its attempts to construct a common civil service for the EU. Shore predicted a number of possible complications that he saw on the horizon, such as economic and social problems that would be caused by the weaker member states in the case of economic collapse, problems caused by mass immigration into the EU from outside of the zone and problems caused by internal migrations. Shore even predicted the possibility of countries voting to leave the Union.

In 2004 the Cambridge University anthropology graduate Gillian Tett predicted the global financial collapse while working as an Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. At the time Tett was laughed at, ridiculed and ultimately ignored by the financial experts with their traditional education in banks, markets and number crunching, and yet the girl with the degree in anthropology was able to see patterns unfolding on a much larger scale that others deemed not to be important, that they didn’t notice or they weren’t able to grasp the connectedness of events and fields. Tett, as we all know, was proven right 4 years later.


Both Tett and Shore, using anthropological methods, managed to see what the experts using their traditional and quantitative methods were unable to see or predict. Since then events such as the Scottish Referendum, US Elections, British EU Referendum or the rise of the Ultra Right-wing AfD party in Germany are all major events whose outcomes have been wrongly predicted by the experts in the media over the last 5 years. This is not to say that there is no place in the world for quantitative methods, but it has to be understood that as soon as the human elements of ‘belief’, ‘thought’ and ‘action’ come into the equation, statistics tend to become useless. The problem is that traditional methods of trying to understand groups and markets produces ‘Big Data’ but methodologies haven’t been developed by marketers or business analysts to interpret and translate this information.


In 2013 anthropologist Tricia Wang coined the term ‘Thick Data’ in a paper that attempted to address the problem of interpreting the vast amounts of information produced by ‘Big Data’. Wang who had been conducting research at Nokia borrowed her idea from the term ‘Thick description’ coined by US anthropologist Clifford Geertz, which he developed as a way to describe his method of conveying cultural context and meaning to people’s actions. Wang’s ‘Thick Data’ does the same, attempting to provide understanding to the data collected by businesses who are trying to gain an advantage over their competitors. This is done by adding cultural contexts and meanings to the data through ethnographic research. During Wang’s period of research she advised Nokia that their business model was floundering, pointing out that high-end mobile phones markets would soon be a thing of the past and that producing low cost mobile phones for emerging markets such as China at the time was the way forward. Nokia ignored Wang’s advice and subsequently lost their leading share of the mobile phone market to their competitors. By the time that Microsoft bought Nokia in 2013 their share of the market was down to just 3% of global mobile phone sales according to Wang.

Nowhere is understanding the data more important than in the world of marketing. While most Marketing businesses follow traditional lines when it comes to market research, spreadsheets and Big Data. ReD Associates, a consultancy firm based in Copenhagen, doesn’t rely on any of that. ReD was established by a number of social scientists, among them political scientists, ethnographers and anthropologists. Setting up on their own they brought parts of anthropology’s unique methodology to market research employing other anthropologists, sociologists as well as arts and social science graduates. And while many in Australia might never have heard their name, they will have heard of their clients, such as: Adidas, Bayer, Intel, Samsung or the brewers Carlsberg.

According to an article published in BusinessInsider.com.au on the 31 March 2014, when Adidas was attempting to move ahead of its main rivals they brought in ReD to try and help them understand why their market share was decreasing. Research conducted by ReD gave the firm an understanding as to why consumers bought the products they did. As it turned out buying the company’s products had little to do with Adidas’ brand philosophy of being “The Brand of Champions” and had much more to do with the consumer’s desires for personal health, fitness and wellbeing. This insight enabled the company to create new products and to formulate new marketing strategies which lead to campaigns targeting consumer’s realities rather than relying on the antiquated campaigns built on false assumptions.


When Nissan entered into the world of driverless smart cars, it wasn’t engineers or programmers they called on to lead the project but rather anthropologist Dr. Melissa Cefkin. Cefkin is a design anthropologist working for Nissan at their Technical Centre in Silicon Valley, where she leads the research into human-machine interaction. While machines and computers are rule followers humans are not, Cefkin says, and in order for driverless technology to be successful in the future it is vital for Nissan and other car manufacturers to understand the human element that occupies the same public spaces as the driverless technologies.

Beyond the worlds of Academia and Business, anthropology has also made forays back into the world of the military. In 2006, alarmed at the lack of progress US troops were making and the mounting number of civilian and military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus created what would become known as the Human Terrain System (HTS). This involved embedding social scientists, primarily anthropologists, with frontline combat units where they would act as cultural translators for the unit commanders and use their cultural knowledge and methodologies to interpret and analyse intelligence gathered on operations in real time. While the programme drew some criticisms from both inside and outside of the military, it shows just how flexible and important anthropological research can be when trying to operate in the world that surrounds us.
So, while anthropologists might not have done as much for us as the Romans did, they are having an impact and are adding value to the businesses and enterprises that they are involved with. Anthropology can predict what might at first appear to be the unpredictable, it can help to bridge cultural and social divides and it can help to predict future trends in human behaviour. Unfortunately all of this is happening away from Australian shores. While Australia has some of the highest ranked anthropology schools in the world and turns out some of the worlds best qualified anthropologists it seems to be at a loss for how to employ them or gain the most from their knowledge and skill sets.


Anthropologists have the ability to give your business an advantage when it comes to being competitive. This could explain why companies like Microsoft, Apple, Intel or Nissan are turning more and more to anthropology for answers and solutions to their business problems.

If you would like to know what an anthropologist can do for your business and how they can give your company a competitive advantage please feel free to contact me for a ‘no obligation’ chat. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Kevin Porter
Consultant Anthropologist