What is Anthropology Part 2

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”. Ruth Benedict’s now-famous dictum echoed so artfully by Nancy Schepher-Hughes (see this post) is a powerful way to conceptualize what purpose anthropological practice can play in the world at-large.

Yet, what role does anthropology play in the day-to-day dealings of agency or business life? Does an anthropological focus perform the same work–does it educate, inform, and contextualize diversity?

laptop iphone notebook and pen
Agency Anthropologist essentials

Agency life, as you can well imagine, is far removed from the walls and lecture halls of academia. More often than not I’m face-to-face with executives rather than students trying to explain the value of anthropology generally or an anthropological perspective particularly. If only I had a dollar for every time I was asked: “Wait, I thought you dug stuff up?”

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Source: Wikepedia

Do anthropologists go on “digs” to uncover the past? Sure, archaeology is one of the four fields of anthropology (social/cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological, and linguistic). I may have wanted to be Indiana Jones (who, by the way, is not a shining example of an archaeologist) when I was young, but what I found in social/cultural anthropology was much more attuned to who I am: a critical thinking, question asking, never-closed-to-rethinking-my-position type of person. Anthropology asks a lot of those who choose to develop the dispositions of an anthropologist. What you learn you cannot unlearn, the inequalities and the enduring legacies of social, economic, and political misuses of power and privilege leave a permanent mark. I’m by no means lamenting this stain. I feel very fortunate.


From my perspective, as an agency anthropologist, it’s easy to feel like you’re being bothersome. Constantly exploring the “tensions”, the underlying currents and themes expressed through discourse, and the theoretical linkages with what is happening corporately, it becomes a matter of being selective about which lines of inquiry to follow and which to leave alone. I like the way Sunderland and Denny put it: “One’s lot is to never stop ruminating” (2014:20). This speaks to what anthropology is or at least can be: a disposition towards asking why; towards attempting to make the ‘strange familiar and the familiar strange’ (a common way of describing the work anthropologists do).

Regarding business anthropology Sunderland and Denny suggest that, “Anthropology in business is a global endeavour, taking place within the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology and social science as well as business schools and in business” (Sunderland & Denny 2014:14). Moreover, they argue that there “is not one kind of anthropology, just as there is not one kind of business, and like language at the root of metaphor, both are polysemic: there are multiple meanings associated with and attributable to both” (Sunderland & Denny 2014:16). What is anthropology in a corporate context? A provisional response: it is a challenge and an incitement to find new ways to translate and transliterate anthropological understandings.

Questions for another time: Does an anthropological disposition in corporate contexts serve the world-at-large or the interests (and profit motives) of corporate clients? Is this a false dichotomy? Meaning, can it do both at the same time?

Until next time.

Denny, Rita and Patricia Sunderland (Eds). 2014. Handbook of Anthropology in Business. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

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