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May 24, 2005

Industrial Anthropology?

Last weekend's Financial Times featured a story on "social anthropologists" who study meanings in the daily life of workers. I was immediately interested in the article then became disturbed when I found out the purpose behind these studies:

But in the past few years, some have headed off to places such as accountancy firms and technology companies, partly because there are fewer unspoilt “native” cultures left to study. But the shift also reflects the growing complexity of public and private sector workplaces and the realisation by companies and governments that they must operate in a global environment. In America, anthropologists have been hired by technology groups including Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Xerox. In the UK, the “people watchers” can be found not just pacing the corridors of blue-chip companies, but also the Ministry of Defence, Immigration Services, National Health Service and Foreign Office, as well as non-governmental aid agencies.

But some academics are uneasy about the trend. Is it valid for anthropologists to use their skills to serve giant corporations and governments? And can a discipline better known for examining the culture of exotic tribes really have anything relevant to say about the modern world of companies such as PwC?

It seems US Tech companies are the ones taking most advantage of social anthropologists.

The biggest boost to applied anthropology in the corporate world has come from a surprising source - US technology companies. At first glance, that might seem counter-intuitive: modern technology often appears to transcend cultural barriers with ease - the internet, for example, can be found in homes from Japan to Jordan to Java. Yet that very universality has created a new emphasis on cultural differences, and some companies have realised they need to adjust their western mindset if they want to reach customers or clients. “Many companies assume that if they want to have a global website, say, all they have to do is translate it into different languages,” explains Martin Ortlieb, an anthropologist who now works at a global software group. “But that isn’t true - what works in German can’t just be translated into Japanese with the same effect.”

Intel, the US technology giant, is a case in point. Before the mid-1990s its designers operated with a distinctly American view. “People here used to talk about ‘the US’ and ‘the rest of the world’,” laughs Ken Anderson, an anthropologist at Intel. In 1996, the company created a “People and Practices” group of researchers, such as Anderson, who spend their time trying to understand the cultural context in which technology is used around the globe. The timing of this move was no accident: in the late 1990s, the sector was flush with cash to spend on non-core activities. Despite the tech bubble bursting, Intel has expanded its team of anthropologists and other large technology companies have followed its lead. This suggests the research is proving useful. “I’m not sure that people at Intel always understand what we do... but they have come to understand that we have an intimate relationship with customers that can translate into value for the company,” says Anderson.

May 24, 2005 in Working Today | Permalink


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yeah I think we can talk about anthropology in works, since ancient times the work has been part of the daily life of all humans, and with time the same work has changed, time, way to do the job, schedules, payments agreeds, is a real evolution, so I agreed with you put in this title to work.

Posted by: xl pharmacy | Oct 4, 2011 11:25:16 AM

Usually companies outside the us ask people for studies and bla bla but at the end they finish doing something completely different of what their titles said, I guess that they should know what are they gonna do or get shit salaries.

Posted by: generic cialis | Apr 25, 2011 10:08:12 AM

Yes, very disturbing. It reminds one of the way anthropology was used to subjugate "the natives" in colonial situations.

Posted by: tak | May 27, 2005 6:46:48 AM

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