Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Exotic Anthropologist: Reflections on Working in Corporatelandia (SfAA 2013 presentation draft)

The following text is a paper I recently presented at the Society for Applied Anthropology annual meetings in Denver, CO on Saturday, March 23rd, 2013. The title is: "The Exotic Anthropologist: Reflections on Working in Corporatelandia". The audio podcast of the entire session entitled "Anthropologists' Perspectives on Corporate Culture" is available here, and features audio of the other presentations made by Dipak R. Pant, Timothy De Waal Malefyt, and Barbara Olsen, as well as a lively post-presentation discussion.

Please note that this version is an in-progress draft that I plan on developing into a publication for release in 2014. As such, I would love to hear your feedback and ideas for areas to expand on or revise. I would also love to hear from others about their experiences as anthropologists in the private sector. 

Abstract: Anthropologists and anthropology students spend a lot of time discussing (and criticizing) corporations and how they affect the world around us. But not everyone knows what it is actually like to work in one - not just as a person, but also as an anthropologist. This paper will explore my time working as a consumer research analyst and token anthropologist at a large insurance company in the Midwest. Themes of identity, power, exoticism, corporate culture, disciplinary advocacy, and perceptions of anthropology and anthropologists in a corporate context will be reflected upon.


In the summer of 2011, just a couple months after receiving my MA in applied anthropology from the University of Memphis, I excitedly accepted a position as a consumer research analyst for a Fortune 50 insurance and financial services company in the Midwest. A month and a half later, I stepped foot into my new job. I was eager to begin, excited that my years of education were finally paying off, and thrilled at the prospect of doing interesting research that could potentially impact millions of consumers across the country. Like many other new graduates accepting their first jobs, I was energized at the feeling of also having found an employer that would hopefully value my passion, skills and perspective as an anthropologist. 

Of course, most things don’t always work the way you think they will, and the potential for the application of my skill set went mostly unrealized. Today I’m here to reflect on my experiences at this company, not just as an employee or researcher, but as a budding practitioner who struggled to find a niche within a massive, hierarchical corporation, while also attempting to maintain my identity as an anthropologist and a valued human being. By the time I decided to leave the company last October, I felt somewhat jaded because of my inability to “do anthropology” at my job. As I understand it, this outcome was the result of both systemic forces at the corporate level, as well as my own failure to do better at advocating for myself and my skills, and to educate people about what anthropology could bring to consumer research. It is my hope that the lessons I learned will be useful to those considering or currently working in a similar context. 

When I started my new job, my role was essentially to design and conduct research to learn more about consumers of insurance and financial products to improve the overall customer experience, and to find ways to differentiate the brand from competitors. My typical work involved surveys, online community activities, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and project management. I got to work on a lot of really interesting projects ranging from web and mobile usability to billing systems to customer preferences for interacting with the company. I did one short ethnographic project, which looked at agent sales processes and face-to-face interactions with customers in their offices, and some contextual work with call center reps. 

During my interview for the position, the interviewers seemed quite interested in my background. When I was hired, I was not told I would be “doing anthropology” or working only on ethnographic research. But based on my interview and conversations with coworkers once I started, I was under the impression that there was an increasing interest in using ethnography in our department. For example, I came to understand that other anthropologists had been hired in the past, and that there was currently another on staff. I also heard that one of the managers was planning on forming an ethnography team in the fall, which I of course wanted to be a part of. I was told by my hiring manager that my coworkers were “very excited to have me on board and excited about my skill set”. And a colleague of mine said that I could expect to be asked about my expertise by others in the department. In meetings, I would be introduced as “The Anthropologist”, which differentiated me and my skills as special, even mysterious. My anthropology counterpart even told me that ethnography was “becoming a hot buzzword” in the company. All of this informed my perception that I would have the opportunity to “do anthropology”, at least for some of the time.

Not surprisingly, most of my coworkers didn’t really know what anthropology was, let alone what it could do for the business. Some of them had been briefly exposed to it in college and through popular media, while others had no idea. At the most, they thought it meant interviewing people in their houses. When they found out about me, I got the usual puzzled reactions involving dinosaurs, archaeology, Indiana Jones, and the TV show Bones. Still, people seemed honestly intrigued and excited to have me there, and when they asked, I happily gave an explanation. Managers would actually brag about the two anthropologists on staff, which contributed more to an allure about our existence than to actually using us for our skills. 

After about six months, I began to wonder about my role at the company. As a new graduate, I wanted to “do anthropology” and “be an anthropologist”, which to me meant working on at least some qualitative and ethnographic projects, being sought out for my perspective, and feeling like I was able to contribute in a constructive, useful way. This was true to an extent with some of my work, but more and more, I was assigned to projects that did not match my skill set rather than made available to do more specialized things. The lack of knowledge of my colleagues and managers about the applications of anthropology to consumer research did not help with this. In hindsight, I could have done a better job teaching people about what I could do. As anthropologists, we know what we can do and what we’re good at, but we have to be able to communicate to people how our training is relevant to solving real-world problems. Part of the issue was my being new to both the company and to corporate research. I spent the first six months adjusting to my role in a whirlwind of overwhelming new information and ways of doing things. Because I lacked insider knowledge of internal processes and systems, it was often difficult for me to make informed recommendations for how to incorporate my skills. 

After this initial phase of adjustment, one would expect to have enough insider knowledge to contribute more significantly to research design and business strategy. While this might be true under normal circumstances, about two months in, a major internal restructuring began in an effort to drastically change the way we did business. This effort involved sweeping changes that affected all levels of the organization, including individual job functions and workloads. In such an environment, it became practically impossible for me to even suggest ethnographic research, mainly because my workload did not allow for it. Certain types of research had to be done in order to meet specific goals to inform the strategy guiding these changes, and this research needed warm bodies. It was much like a game of chess in which there is no strategy for how the pieces are employed. Decision-makers had no choice but to put anyone they could onto a project, even if it did not make sense for their skill set or level of experience.

In addition to our evolving job descriptions, most of the researchers, including myself, took on additional roles as consultants to various internal business teams to provide what was commonly referred to as “the voice of reason” for important business decisions. My existence became defined by wasting time in meetings to which I could not contribute, working on projects that did not reflect the core of my abilities, and frequently doing no research at all. Ironically, because the two anthropologists on staff were unavailable, the few ethnographic or contextual projects that were done were farmed out to vendors. My project assignments felt arbitrary, rather than focused on using my skills to do potentially really insightful research. 

These systemic changes exacerbated the bureaucratic elements of corporate culture that might have already been a bane to researchers under normal circumstances. Timelines that were already rigid became even shorter, and because upper management needed information so quickly, there was an unhealthy reliance on using research methods that yielded so-called “actionable insights” in the quickest amount of time – namely, surveys, focus groups, and rapid usability testing. Because of this focus on immediate results, decision-makers were blinded to the value of other approaches, and we were literally unable to do anything that would take more than a few weeks from start to finish. Perhaps things would have been quite different had it been business as usual. 

One action I took to try and improve the situation was creating a document, at the request of a manager, about ethnographic research to distribute to the higher-ups in charge of research decision-making. Ironically, the two-page document I created proved to be unacceptably long for the manager’s preferences, and she ended up appropriating it into an even more watered-down, one page summary. As the author, I wasn’t even allowed to present it at the meeting where it was distributed because there was “not enough time”, and the manager, who had limited knowledge of the approach, did it for me. Essentially, the opportunity for me to represent my work and advocate for anthropology was simply not an option. It did not fit within the existing, time-based framework that demanded high-level, easily digestible documents, while prohibiting interactions that were deemed inessential to business operations. 

Reflecting back on my experience, I have a number of recommendations for anthropologists considering work in a similar context. First, be prepared to go into a new environment and talk to people about the applications of anthropology and ethnography. This can be tough for newly minted practitioners or those who have never worked in the private sector. Applied anthropology graduate programs usually teach students the strategies and language for doing this, but not often for a corporate context. Second, be sure to confirm the details of your job description prior to accepting and starting the job. And while forming opinions when you first start, take what you see and hear with a grain of salt until you have enough insider knowledge to understand how and when things work, and who makes the decisions. This will help to set realistic expectations for yourself, your coworkers and your managers about what you’ll actually be doing. Third, expect that things will change in a market-driven workplace. Anthropologists always say they’re flexible and good at adapting to change, so show it. Fourth, build relationships with key decision-makers to educate them about your skills and equip them with enough information to know when it makes sense to use ethnography. Fifth, take and make opportunities. Do presentations on ethnographic methods for coworkers, and take every chance you get to advocate for how the discipline can help your organization. Of course, that means you need to have a good understanding of that yourself, which may take a while as a new employee. 

For a recent graduate with a strong professional identity, this was a trying yet teachable experience. I am very grateful for it because I learned how to function in a big organization, worked on some really interesting projects, gained professional experience in business and applied research, and learned to navigate the crazy world of a corporation in transition. I was reminded that being an anthropologist isn’t just about doing ethnography, but about doing good research, providing a holistic and inclusive perspective, suggesting alternative ways of thinking and doing, communicating effectively with others, and solving problems. And although I wasn’t “doing anthropology” as my job, I was actually “doing it” all along in understanding the culture, language, norms and worldviews of the corporate world

One of the biggest challenges we face as anthropologists is to enhance the brand image of our discipline and inform the public's perceptions of what we do. We're all aware that the public has mixed understandings of the discipline, but we can do better at convincing people we have something special to offer, that we are value-added. At the same time, corporations undergoing major restructuring would be wise to incorporate careful planning of change adoption processes so alternative perspectives and approaches are not left out.

As for the professional anthropologist identity, recognition is always appreciated because it is validating, but it cannot always be expected, especially in contexts where anthropologists are an exotic species. In this sense, we should find ways to be anthropologists in whatever capacities and contexts we find ourselves, whether or not we are legitimized as such by others. 


  1. This is great! I've experienced a lot of the same things, especially having to explain what Anthropology is and what it can offer. I've even had a conversation that started with a public health researcher saying, "qualitative data isn't based on facts." A great point you make here is that Anthropologists (and really anyone) have to take on the responsibility of advocating for themselves and their skill set. Well done!

  2. Thanks, Carrie! I'm glad to know my paper resonated with you, and would love to know more about how you responded to the public health researcher's comment.

    Hope all is well with you!

  3. Any new books in anthropology in market........?