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5.2 An Overview of the Relationship Between Anthropology and Industry

As Lucy Suchman (2013) observes, since the early 1990s in the USA and some European countries, anthropology has come to be recognised as a 'commercially consumable discipline'. In the early 1990s, articles on ethnography started appearing in business magazines and newspapers under such titles as 'Studying the Natives on the Shop Floor' (Business Week, 29 September 1991), 'Anthropologists Go Native in the Corporate Village' (Fast Company, October/November 1996), 'Into the Wild Unknown of Workplace Culture' (U.S. News & World Report, 10 August 1998), and 'Fieldwork in the Tribal Office' (MIT Technology Review, May/June 1998).

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) was launched in 2005 (Anderson and Lovejoy 2005) by the people conducting ethnographic research in and for industry under the sponsorship of Fortune 500 companies (Intel, Microsoft, IBM, etc.) as well as the American Anthropological Association as the organisational sponsor. This mirrors the trends taking place in business and shows well the popularity of the ethnographic method in industry. [1]

As previous literature has described (e.g. Schwartzman 1993; Jordan 2003), the close relations between anthropology and industry in North America can be traced back to the period between the late 1920s and early 1930s. As is mentioned in the introduction of this volume in the Hawthorne studies, the research group organised by Elton Mayo recruited an anthropologist, Lloyd W. Warner, and conducted research on human relations in the workplace by anthropological observation (Chapple 1953; Wright 1992). Later, the involvement of anthropology in industry and business decreased for several reasons.

As anthropology grew more institutionalised, anthropologists going abroad for long-term fieldwork were called 'real anthropologists', while 'those conducting research in the United States (such as the industrial anthropologists) were relegated to second-class citizen status' (Baba 2005: 228). Exotic fieldwork abroad attracted anthropologists more than fieldwork for look-alike companies and plants inside the USA (Moore 1988).

Political and ethical factors also encouraged the above trend. The US military forces financially supported Project Camelot and other secret research projects undertaken during the Vietnam War. Disputes arose concerning the ethics of conducting research under the sponsorship of the government and large companies. At the same time, negative aspects of the business operations of multinational companies in developing countries came to the fore, and the tendency of regarding business research sponsored by large companies as 'unethical' became widespread (the American Anthropological Association laid down the code of ethics in 1971), making industrial anthropology lose momentum without having established a solid position.

Anthropologists then began to involve themselves in industry research (this time, in diverse ways) during the 1980s. This was partly because the USA became interested in analysing the success of Japanese companies in the USA in the 1980s from a cultural perspective (Jordan 2003). Indeed, anthropologists were hired to investigate aspects of corporate or organisational culture as well as consumer culture in firms such as General Motors, Proctor and Gamble, Motorola, NYNEX, and BBDO, to name a few. In addition, anthropologists started to participate in a variety of activities in fields such as industrial design based on the analysis of user behaviour for product development and improvement at firms such as E-Lab and Sapient. Since then, the focus of anthropology has been on such practical matters, rather than subjects of potential ethical concern. This shift is well epitomised by pioneering research conducted by anthropologists, such as L. Suchman, who led the ethnography group of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Silicon Valley, in the 1980s and 1990s. In this way, anthropological knowledge – ethnography in particular – attracted attention as a useful and helpful business tool. Many business anthropologists today continue to work in large global corporations including Intel, Microsoft, and IBM while others run their own firms, most notably Practica Group, LTG Associates, and Weinman Schnee Morais, Inc.

Nevertheless, the 'ethical' tendency mentioned above is still continuing and going strong today. Moeran and Garsten note that:

[A]nthropologists who work in, or with, various forms of business organizations are tainted by their perceived 'commercialism'…The implication here is that either they are paid by the business organization concerned, or their research will be used to further that organization's business aims and profits…(the idea is) that money is the root of all evil (Moeran and Garsten 2012: 8).

Traditionally the subjects of most of anthropologists are marginalised people – examples include indigenous peoples such as the Ainu and Maori, both groups whom I researched for my MA and Ph.D. Anthropologists are apt to have sympathy not with the 'central' but with the 'peripheral'. From my perspective, this tendency may lead to avoiding profit-making-oriented ethnography for major companies, and, to my thinking, this tendency is comparatively stronger in the Japanese academic circle.

  • [1] I was a member of the local committee of EPIC 2010 in Tokyo and was the only Japanese academic anthropologist in the committee.
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