Friday, 13 July 2012

The "boomlet" in anthropology-inspired business consultancy...and a useful byproduct

I found myself promoting consultancies run by or employing PhD anthropologists in the early noughties boomlet for such companies described by a new post by Laurel George here: They wanted to cultivate a mystique around anthropology/ethnography and position bone fide academically trained practitioners and their approaches to research as essential to solving certain business problems relating to marketing and R&D.

This goal was somewhat undermined by a legion of rivals newly describing their own qualitative approaches as ethnography, making it hard to bring attention to the particular skills possessed by anthropologists and further removing the process from anything the academy would recognise (Simon Roberts lists many of the approaches lumped under the umbrella of ‘ethnography’ in the book edited by Sarah Pink ‘Applications of Anthropology’, pg.86). That's not to ignore the prior adoption and adaptation of ethnography in the hands of other academic disciplines.

Arguments about what is or isn’t ethnography aside, the boomlet did help to spread the word about anthropology. On a personal level, without it my interest in anthropology may have never been piqued to the extent of pursuing a Masters in digital anthropology at UCL.

At a time when some in anthropology are asking "why the discipline has not gained the popularity and respect it deserves" (, those in Laurel's past position and the third of anthropology PhDs for whom there are no academic positions at all (Spencer et al., 2005 – have surely contributed to getting the word out. Beyond inadvertently turning people like me on to the subject, whatever their doubts about participating in commercial activity they, along with other applied anthropologists, are arguably also helping advance the grander goal of “making [culture] available as a scrutinizing lens for our society at large,” a useful byproduct (


  1. I'm currently doing the Visual, Material and Museum Anthro position at Oxford and now quite interested in tech/research/consultancy work but I am baffled as to how to go about it (it's generally frowned here).

    1. Hi - if you can, attend an EPIC conference - next one is in New York in September. Packed full of people who would be happy to talk about the various routes in (typically design/research/innovation departments of tech giants or more generalist research consultancies). The most common first step is ethnography grunt work for a research consultancy, either as a freelancer or on staff - but be prepared for commercial ethnography's shortcuts. As an aside the UCL material culture department is less anti-employment outside academia. Everyone has to earn a living, especially if there aren't enough academic posts to go around...

  2. I love the way you write and share your niche! Very interesting and different! Keep it coming! Business consultancy