3 Reasons Companies Want Anthropologists

March 7, 2016

Anthropology is a holistic science that studies humans, particularly their biology, culture, language, and material remains both past and present. Although anthropology is a diverse field, several preconceived notions persist about what we actually do.


Anthropologists only study "exotic" and faraway cultures. 

Anthropologists study people isolated from modern technology.

Anthropology is only interested in preserving the "primitive".

All of anthropology is archaeology.

Anthropology has no utility outside of academia.

Non-academics only work in museums, cultural resources, or heritage preservation.

 

Most students, professors, and practitioners of anthropology are not strangers to these misconceptions. However, some students and recent graduates might be pleasantly surprised that major corporations like Microsoft (which is the 2nd largest employer of anthropologists in the world) are not confused by what we do. In fact, they see our unique skillset as essential to the development, usability, and growth of their products and services. 

Read on to learn three reasons why companies hire anthropologists.

 

1. Anthropologists Can Contextualize Big Data 

Numbers matter, but they cannot tell you about human emotions, desires, values, and connections. Whereas big data can easily answer the "What?" question, small data collected and analyzed by anthropologists and others help answer the "Why?" and "How?" New York Times article "How Not to Drown in Numbers" explains how small data (derived from consumer surveys, interviews, observation etc.) can find holes in big data. Humans are complex, and both forms of data are needed to effectively produce consumer insights. 

 

2. Anthropologists Understand Consumer Needs 

How do businesses know if their products or services are wanted or even needed? Marketing, user experience, and other forms of research help tackle this question. The skillset anthropologists possess uniquely position them to inform companies about what consumers want. This insight is critical because, "What customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different, but it can take an anthropological lens to learn why" (see Business Insider article). This emic (or cultural insider) lens comes from anthropologists placing themselves in the consumer's shoes. Such immersion enables companies to learn what role their products or services should play in consumers' lives.

 

3. Anthropologists are Systematic Observers

Anthropologists are in high demand in business due to their expertise in systematic observation. Anthropologists are uniquely trained in ethnography. This methodology traditionally involves in-depth participant observation, surveys, interviews, and "thick description" notetaking—or detailed documentation of observational findings. Ethnographic data can shed light on consumer motivation and behavior, and inform businesses on ways they can make their products more user-centered and culturally appropriate.

 

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