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On the rise, and limits, of corporate anthropology

Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life by Gillian Tett. Avid Reader Press, 304 pages.

Cast your mind back to the copy room of the office you haven’t been to in months. It houses one of the most successful products ever: the copy machine, a product so revolutionary that it added a new verb to the corporate lexicon—to “Xerox.” The person responsible for its iconic green button was Lucy Suchman, one of the first anthropologists ever to be hired by a corporation, brought on to help them better understand their customers.

Or so the founding lore of corporate anthropology goes, as it’s told and retold at the start of every new article, LinkedIn post, and book marketing how anthropology can drive business outcomes. But, as Suchman has herself repeatedly testified, this never happened. If anything, she questioned the green button’s efficacy, arguing that it “masked the labor that was needed to become familiar with the machine . . . [for] which front-line workers usually bear the cost.”

Yet despite Suchman’s efforts to quash the tall tale, it has stuck around, and it is dutifully repeated in the latest rebranding of the idea: Anthro-Vision, a new book by Gillian Tett, editor-at-large at the Financial Times and the most famous public advocate for anthropology’s untapped economic potential.

So, why is the tale of Suchman’s button so sticky? What is so attractive about, as Tett puts it, the idea of anthropology having “practical value”?

The connection between anthropology and business is not new. Corporate support for anthropologists goes back to the very founding of the discipline in the 1920s. From the philanthropic funding of colonial expeditions led by anthropologists to the Rockefellers finding positions for anthropologists at the newly created Harvard Business School—itself founded in part with a Rockefeller donation—businesses have long supplied alternatives to the precarity of life as an academic anthropologist.

Corporate support for anthropologists goes back to the very founding of the discipline in the 1920s.

Throughout their intertwined history, corporations’ interest in anthropology has not been purely philanthropic. It’s often been a symbiotic relationship: in exchange for funding, for example, the Rockefellers were looking for a “social science” that would provide an empirical basis for increasing worker productivity and crushing union drives. This legacy continues today in the form of anthropology-influenced courses at Harvard’s and Northwestern’s MBA programs and dedicated degrees, like market and management anthropology, which aims to develop “socially responsible managers.”

Like most business-theory fads, corporations rediscover the value of anthropology every few decades, often coinciding with larger economic cycles and the strength of their balance sheets. After a fallow period during the Great Depression and World Wars, a succession of corporations—Motorola, Nokia, Herman Miller, Intel, and the aforementioned Xerox—all hired anthropologists to study their workers and customers. Microsoft, which brought them on in the early 2000s to figure out how to convince small businesses to adopt its products, was widely believed to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world. They were only behind the U.S. Army, which hired anthropologists to help them understand the enemy in conflicts ranging from Korea to Iraq. (The latter program, the Human Terrain System, ended in 2014.)

Gillian Tett’s own story is evidence of the continued fusion of anthropology and business. She carved a niche for herself as a financial journalist with a PhD in anthropology and cemented her status when her reporting in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis warned about the dangers of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. When I announced to my family that I wanted to major in anthropology, she was the only anthropologist who my father, a lifelong reader of the FT, had heard of. He proceeded to share every article she published. For him, Tett embodied the fantasy of someone who could reconcile the unmarketability of an anthropology major with a traditionally successful, influential career.

Tett has preached the power of anthropology throughout her career, and she expands her argument into a full-on manifesto in her most recent book. She coins the term “anthro-vision” to mean looking at the world from an anthropologist’s perspective, and she offers it as a solution to counteracting the silos and “tunnel vision” characteristic of governments and corporations. Using anthro-vision doesn’t have to mean hiring corporate anthropologists, instituting a mandatory requirement in business schools, or even adopting anything specifically from the discipline per se. Instead, she argues, it’s about three tenets: cultivating empathy and diversity, seeing yourself critically, and uncovering blind spots (what Tett calls “social silences”).

She opens her case for anthro-vision with her own experience transitioning from anthropologist to reporter. Researching Tajik wedding rituals, she argues, is not so different from observing bankers in their “natural habitat,” schmoozing at a conference in Nice. Bound together in a “Bloomberg village,” financiers are a “tribe” of their own, with their own creation myths and power structures.

But this being a book geared towards businesspeople, Anthro-vision jettisons ethnography and instead adopts the trappings of the business book genre. Tett’s case studies follow the arc of the corporate hero’s journey, in which a company faces a monstrous problem (the Japanese aren’t buying enough Kit Kats!), and an unlikely champion solves it by using his special power (listening to customers) to come to a spectacular insight (kids are trading Kit Kats! we should get them to do more of that!) that ends with the business book’s version of the Happily Ever After (more profits for all!).

The impacts of anthropology she cites range from precise statistics like “ productivity at the company rose 54 percent” to a vague “shift” in advertising campaigns, which came about after Duracell executives “embodied” campers near the Mexico border to better understand how they were using batteries.

In addition to better business in the commercial sense of the word, Tett also includes case studies that end with better businesses in the moral sense of the word, such as Amazon scrapping a proposal to build factory-floor cages for their “ghost workers,” the “unseen low-paid humans who perform vital functions to support AI.” She attributes this change to a chart depicting the labor context around Alexa that was created by two NYU professors and later acquired by MoMA. It’s telling that the most concrete result Tett relays is not even attributable to corporate anthropology per se, as is the fact that every other example of creating a better world through anthropology she provides is a counterfactual, not something that actually happened.

Tett’s strongest counterfactual—the one she made her career on—is the financial crisis. She writes:If only financiers had operated with an anthropologist’s lens before 2008, the financial bubble might never have become so large—and then burst with such terrible consequences.”

But people, anthropologists and otherwise, including Tett herself, did warn that the bubble was unsustainable. What Tett’s certainty about the value of anthro-vision misses is the possibility that people don’t want to see alternate perspectives, or that they just don’t care, not that they don’t have the tools to see them. This also seems true of the climate crisis, in which the problem is less an inability to foresee and more of an inability, or unwillingness, to act. 

Tett proposes that anthropological insight could have helped create a social media free of conspiracies and fake news. As evidence, she cites Jack Dorsey saying that if he were to travel back in time and cofound Twitter again, he would have hired social scientists earlier. But who is to say he would have listened if anthropologists had suggested other ways of structuring the platform? And who is to say no one said anything about the platform’s susceptibility to misinformation? Even if Dorsey had adopted anthro-vision, those warnings would have competed with incentives for more engagement, more tweets, and more growth.

Ultimately, there is a crucial difference between the Tajik brides Tett once observed and the investment bankers in Nice—the anthropologist’s relative position within the social hierarchy. Anthropologists refer to this as “studying up” and “studying down.” The challenges of studying up are often framed as those of access: it’s easier for academic anthropologists to show up at a Tajik village than to get financiers to chat with them.

But the difficulties of studying up are more than just those of access; they are also related to the incentives of the subjects in question. In the run-up to 2008, financiers weren’t even talking freely to each other, who they saw as competition. It was only Tett’s position as a FT reporter—independently compensated and paid to ask questions—that allowed her to see the emerging cracks in the financial system. But even in journalism, anthro-vision doesn’t come easy. Tett herself relents it’s “scant resources” that constrain journalists in asking hard questions and elevating unheard voices, not a lack of desire or awareness. If anthropology is about looking for the contours of a paradigm, then the ability to think like an anthropologist is not just a matter of a conceptual toolkit or training, it is also a matter of positioning and resources.

Business anthropology, like its funders, is obsessed with “creating value,” or as Tett puts it, being of “practical value.” But what happens when two different ideas of value clash? Would any corporation implement anthro-vision if its insights are not small, minor changes in marketing strategy—to account, for example, that the “webs of meaning” around bulls are different in the United States and Japan—but instead more drastic recommendations like, don’t build that product, regardless of how profitable it promises to be? As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

“Impractical” social sciences risk their own obsolescence by trying to legitimize their study on the grounds of economic returns.

When Lucy Suchman explained  for the umpteenth time that, no, in fact, she did not invent the green button at Xerox, to a Business Week reporter, he asked: “Did any of your work . . . lead to any new products or product improvements that made things easier to use or more useful?” But Suchman’s recommendations, which were in the interest of workers operating the unwieldy machine and not the people buying them, do not fit into those neat narrative arcs.

Might this be why, despite the long history of corporations using anthropology, anthropologists’ insights have often not been “valuable” enough to justify keeping their purveyors around?  Anthropologists’ relationship to the businesses they serve has always been contingent on their ability to increase profit and thus limited the questions they can ask. Their fluctuating employment is a warning to the discipline and other “impractical” social sciences who risk their own obsolescence by trying to legitimize their study on the grounds of economic returns.

It’s easy enough to pretend to be ethnographical, like a friend of mine who justifies his work in private equity and management consulting as “purely anthropological” while pulling in the real money and real status that comes with it. And just like corporations “greenwash”—that is, continue unsustainable practices under the guise of environmentally friendly PR—it’s easy to imagine “anthro-washing” as yet another way for companies to use the veneer of anthropology to justify potentially harmful decisions, since, well, they’ve been doing so from the discipline’s founding.

Is it possible for a corporate anthropologist to speak “truth to power” without getting co-opted by it? Tett glances by this question in the postscript, the only time she directly addresses other anthropologists. She acknowledges that the idea of working for businesses might leave a sour taste in the mouths of many, who, having seen “how power works in the political economy,” tend to be “antiestablishment,” “cynical and/or angry,” as Tett puts it. But she has no answer to their ethical concerns, as she can only imagine the anthropologist’s fate as one caught between academic irrelevance and real-world impact, no matter how minimal or detrimental.

Perhaps the idea of the corporate anthropologist lures so many because it straddles perceived opposites: wild/civilized, academia/business, impractical/practical. But its longevity is evidence of anthropology’s potency as a marketing tool more than a measure of business’s use to the humanities and social sciences—which is as illusory as Suchman’s green button.