What you need to know
Long considered a pointless pursuit, companies are now turning to experts in the hope of understanding the roots of consumer behavior.
At academic conferences in China, scholars who belong to my field — business anthropology — are still few and far between. Not long ago, I, along with several thousand other anthropologists from across the globe participated in the 2017 Annual Meeting of the U.S. Society for Applied Anthropology at a hotel in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico. Standing in the spacious, decadent lobby, I realized that this meeting would be a life-affirming experience.
The truth is that in China, anthropology — let alone sub-branches such as applied or business anthropology — is still not considered a well-known field. The former sub-branch refers to the use of anthropological theories and methods to solve practical issues; the latter hones this definition further, limiting it to business contexts only. Most Chinese parents don’t let their children pursue careers in anthropology, believing that it is not a lucrative industry.
Anthropology’s lack of popularity in China is linked to its development as an academic field. It was introduced to China only very recently, and even now there are only 20 or so Chinese universities that offer the subject as an undergraduate major. As you might expect, doctoral programs in anthropology are even harder to come by.
Secondly, in Chinese schools, anthropology is often spoken of and taught in terms of how it relates to other fields, such as ethnology and biology. National societies related to anthropology have names like the China Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, indicating that the two disciplines are often seen as interchangeable. Furthermore, in contrast to disciplines such as management or psychology, which have always been welcomed in Chinese business, anthropology has yet to establish a reputation for itself as a discipline with a wide scope of practical application.
Of course, it’s a totally different story in the United States. Since its early days, anthropology in the U.S. has been an independent field of research with its own methods and theoretical traditions. In the public mind, anthropologists are people who do fieldwork among remote tribes and who have adventures that most of us can hardly imagine — a stereotype popularized by films and TV shows such as “Indiana Jones” and “Bones.”
However, anthropology has the potential for application in a vast range of contexts. This includes not only billion-dollar businesses such as Apple and Microsoft, who often hire large teams of anthropologists to study consumers and markets, but also anthropologists who assist hospitals, schools, and museums in their attempts to understand human behavior and interaction.
In business contexts, anthropologists have a knack for spotting subtle differences in consumer lifestyles, as well as for collecting necessary data to describe those differences and explain their origins. We place a greater emphasis on individual experiences than sociologists do, but we are more inclined to explain human behavior on a macro level than psychologists are. By carefully documenting human activity, anthropologists are able to provide in-depth insights into the everyday lives of different groups of people.
That said, applied anthropology is an extremely recent concept in China. In 2008, the Shanghai office of American technology corporation Intel contacted Fudan University in the hope of recruiting an anthropologist to help them complete a study on computer usage habits among rural Chinese. This was the first time that Fudan’s anthropologists had officially participated in a commercial undertaking.
Even rarer are anthropologists who work for companies, either on a contractual basis or as full-time employees — so rare, in fact, that such work is not thought to be a viable career path in China.
It was at Fudan University in Shanghai, where I had a role as a teaching assistant in the “Marketing to China” class of a renowned anthropology professor, Pan Tianshu, that I first understood the essential role the subject played in explaining the commercial cultures of different groups of people. But when I decided shortly after completing my doctoral degree to seek employment at Rhizome, a business anthropology company, my family was dumbfounded that I thought my major would be of any value to a business. My decision was also regarded with skepticism by some of my friends in academia. Why, after finishing a doctorate in anthropology, would someone choose to work for a business instead of contributing new theories to their field?
To be honest, even I came to doubt my decision during my first year on the job. I had no one with whom to compare my experience, and I wasn’t sure if I had chosen the right path. However, around the beginning of my second year at the company, the many experiences I had helping my co-workers determine policy made me realize that anthropological knowledge can be applied almost anywhere and has a very real impact on the world. Regardless of whether they aim to make a profit, all organizations require this knowledge if they want to make people’s lives more convenient, relaxed, and fulfilling.
Along with realizing my own potential, I have also seen the field of applied anthropology achieve rapid growth in China over a remarkably short period of time. In the past few years, the commercial institutions on the Chinese market that have been willing to employ anthropologists for research purposes have virtually all been transnational corporations, such as Microsoft, McDonald’s, and L’Oréal. However, these days, a growing number of domestic companies have begun to seek out research experts who are capable of analyzing problems from an anthropological or cultural perspective.
Companies are realizing that consumer behavior is influenced by more than just the functions and cost-effectiveness of their products; they’re also discovering the need to consider markets from perspectives such as cultural attitudes, economic conditions, and government policies. This has led to greater demand for insight into social development trends, local culture and history, and human behavior.
These days, the role that anthropologists play in Chinese companies is no longer limited to the finer details of product design. Rather, their role has expanded to include practically every aspect of business strategy, allowing them to have a greater impact on commercial activity.
Meanwhile, the company where I worked in Shanghai, Rhizome, has transformed within the short space of a few years into one of the consumer research industry’s most influential players. We not only tell companies what kind of products their consumers need but also teach them how they, as entities that exert a significant influence on people’s lives and values, should consider society. This includes the path that they take throughout their development and the values that they communicate, as well as their social responsibilities.
Working for a company hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for anthropology; on the contrary, my job has made me even more passionate about my field. Anthropology boasts a unique set of methods and theoretical traditions, and has allowed us to develop profound insights into people, societies, and ourselves. Now, an increasing number of Chinese anthropologists have begun working for companies. In doing so, they are shaping more humane commercial values and the means by which these values are disseminated, while at the same time realizing the common pursuit of all anthropologists: to change people’s lives for the better.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
TNL Editor: Olivia Yang