The Relationship between Anthropology and Design

We live in a time of blending boundaries between professional and academic disciplines. For instance, business schools want to become more like design schools and design schools want to become more like business schools. Along the same lines, anthropologists want to be in the design business and designers are anxious to become anthropologists. Exactly when and how did the present connection between anthropology and business and design begin?

Throughout the 20th century social and behavioral sciences have had a relationship with corporate industrial America. From 1913 through the early 1930’s  Edward Bernays used Freudian psychology to invent modern propaganda and advertising. Starting in the 1924 AT&T’s Western Hawthorne Plant in Illinois conducted a variety of performance studies on workers to increase productivity. The data collected during that time was studied by anthropologists and Psychologists for the next ten years. These studies on the Hawthorne Experiments helped management see the working man less as an economic beast of burden and more of a social being.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s companies hired anthropologists to study a variety of labor related issues. Sears, IBM, Container Corporation of America, and many others sponsored studies on labor relations and the link between social and technological factors and striking workers.

In the spring of 1966 an event happened that caused the American Anthropological academic community to reconsider it’s mercenary ways. The Department of Defense and CIA had recruited social scientists from Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious universities to explore civil and political unrest in Latin America. Called Project Camelot, the plan was but one of many new experiments within an emerging new US political-military strategy to abate Soviet expansion overseas. An agency known as Special Operations Research Office (SORO) set out “…to develop a study that would use the systems analysis approach to study internal war.” Using anthropologists and psychologists in academic camouflage to recon for fissures in the social cohesion of foreign national groups sounded like a sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

However, a Chilean newspaper learned of the plan before it could become fully implemented. It published a story that resulted in stinging questions for professional social and behavioral scientists around the world. Should the international academic community now suspect every American academic abroad of being a spy or asset of the CIA? Would the DOD/CIA sponsored research be considered top-secret and therefore not publishable to the rest of scholar community? And most importantly, how could any conscientious anthropologist allow their work to be used in the possible exploitation or hurting of the very people they were “observing?” As a result of the backlash, the six million dollar “Camelot Affair” came to a sudden end.

Two years later the US government once again called upon the Anthropological community. This time the job was with Psychological Operations in Vietnam to evaluate enemy propaganda and to test the effectiveness of US propaganda on local populations. Once again the anthropological community was outraged at the idea that a colleague would be part of a foreign war.
During the 1960’s, while the CIA and Department of Defense was engaged in containing communism overseas,  American Corporations were expanding their reach overseas. As was the case in government and military related research, the 1960’s were not a happy time for corporate sponsored anthropology. First of all, anthropologists were growing uncomfortable at the sight of US factories being built in foreign communities for the purpose of cheap labor. Secondly, anthropologists were appalled at corporate indifference to the social and physical impact American businesses were having on other cultures. Marietta L. Baba, Dean of the College of Social Science at Michigan State University records the following episode in the Encyclopedia of Anthropology:

“One notorious example of such tragedies was the malnutrition and infant death
that followed Nestle’s introduction of infant formula in the developing world. Often,
Third World women could not afford to continue to buy formula in the amounts
recommended, nor could they ensure that bottles were sterile or that water to mix the
formula was pure. Formula often was heavily diluted with contaminated water, leading
to infant diarrhea, malnutrition, and outright starvation. Women who relied on formula
instead of breastfeeding could not switch back to the breast, since their milk supply dried-
up when not used. Nestle was aware of these problems, yet would not withdraw the
formula from countries where these problems were manifest, triggering a massive global
boycott of Nestle products. Such instances of unethical corporate behavior further
alienated anthropologists from industry, and caused some to begin labeling any work for
industry as ‘unethical’.”

As a result of these clandestine transgressions Anthropologist not only stayed out of war, but also stayed out of business for the rest of the 1960’s and 1970’s. But science and capitalism can’t be kept apart for very long. By the 1980’s US businesses began employing anthropologists to study such things as Japanese business culture, and other emerging global concerns that kept international business leaders up at night. What was different about this anthropological expansion was that the research was published in respected journals. By the end of the 1990’s it was acceptable in the social science community to not only conduct research on the culture of business organizations, but to help these organizations understand and sell to their consumers. Soon anthropologists were working for product manufacturers, technology firms, and advertising agencies.

Ann T. Jordan, in her book “Business Anthropology” writes, “Today, consulting in marketing and consumer behavior is one of the fastest growing job markets for Anthropology.” As her book title might suggest, Business Anthropology is now a legitimate area of scholarship in business schools. Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management has said that ethnography, a central method of anthropology, is an “essential tool” for business.

In the year 2004 two business anthropologists felt that their specialization needed it’s own worldwide conference. What resulted from that idea was the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC). It is held annually in different countries and represents the blending of disciplines that Anthropology for business and design has become. I’ll close this post with EPIC’s mission statement:

“EPIC is the premier international forum bringing together anthropologists and other social scientists with artists, computer scientists, designers, marketers, academics, and advertisers to discuss recent developments and future advances around ethnographic praxis. The EPIC Conference promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings. By understanding people, what they do, how they do it and how these change over time, we can create better business strategies, processes and products, as well as enhance and simplify people’s lives.”

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