Anthropology is going to save your business

Abdo Lopez Business AnthropologyBusiness Anthropology or how can anthropology help your company or business idea

Applied anthropology, where Hipopotesis is framed under, works on understanding in depth the problems users face in order to provide solutions. When we develop a useful solution to the problems a human group faces and we generate profit, we are running a successful business.

Let’s not fool each other here, in order to create a successful business, you don’t need to start with a pile of money, or hiding your idea so no one steals it before you place a patent order, or perfect maturation of the market, or even “the right place at the right time”; what you firstly need is clients and to understand to perfection the gravity of their problems to be able to produce appropriate solutions while generating a functional business model.

Before we continue discussing what anthropology can do for your business, let’s talk about what anthropology is and what an anthropologist does.

I’m an anthropologist= astronaut = metaphysical aerospace engineer = spectral maritime nephrologist = hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

Let’s face it, virtually no one knows what anthropologists do or what anthropology is; It’s more common and easily understandable what a psychologist, a lawyer, an archaeologist or a doctor does. Why is it so difficult? How can an anthropologist help you? There are as many misconceptions on the discipline and the work it entitles: do anthropologists study “primitive cultures”? Do they search for fossils? Do they help solve crimes – á la Doctor Temperance Brennan on Bones?

Why is it difficult to understand what anthropology is useful for?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there many sub disciplines and specialties, from Forensic Anthropology, historical or linguistic, to more specific fields like conflict or education anthropology. At first glance, it seems these different study fields have nothing in common so it is reasonable to question what is the basic objective of anthropology. Perhaps, traditional media has exposed some of the essential notions necessary to have an idea on the matter. Perhaps, the employment opportunities anthropology has created in Spain don’t move outside academia or civil service.

You don’t find an anthropologist plaque next to a building door that indicates that in the third floor you’ll find a professional waiting to offer his/her services. Where are they? How do you hire them and for what? Do you go looking for them in case of an emergency? To go on diet, or on therapy? To solve business problems?

This situation has left most anthropologists vulnerable and in search of their place in the market.

So, what is anthropology and why is it useful?

Anthropology can be applied to diverse fields precisely because it’s methodology and techniques on production of information are so effective they can serve in any realm. In my opinion, anthropology is an academic discipline that before anything else teaches us to research: research people, with people and from people through a scientific method. It teaches us to conduct social research, understanding in depth a group of people with shared characteristics and to become aware of contexts. It teaches to interview, observe, participate, reflect, question, defamiliarize and to create a summary that shows conclusions and results.

Beyond its methodology and techniques, anthropology adheres to various schools and produces diverse knowledge. Upon studying a particular human group, an interpretative anthropologist’s conclusions might be very different to the ones of a biological anthropologist. The good thing is that, as a scientific method, it’s constantly under revision, interpretation, critique and adaptation.

When producing knowledge through social research anthropology takes the study process very, very seriously. So much that, in my opinion, it is the most reliable method to understand human behaviour, who, how, why, when we do what we do. Its ability to work in an interdisciplinary way and its widespread view are impressive, being able to examine the micro and the macro, the global and the local, the space-time context in a given situation to fears that an individual could experience on certain topics.

problema y solucion user research

If we have anthropologists at war, why not have them in business? – a big part of the next paragraph is inspired by Jordan Anne T’s book Business Anthropology.

Applied anthropology in business was born in the nineteen thirties in both Harvard University and Chicago University, named Industrial Anthropology and highly inspired by Human Relations studies.

During the nineteen forties the first applied anthropology association was created, the SFAA. Garden B.B, pioneer on this new discipline, became an entrepreneur and founded Social Research Inc., a management consulting firm of great success that is officially the first one founded by anthropologists and a reference in using anthropological methodology to analyse issues in organizations and behavioural of consumers.

From the sixties to the eighties anthropology’s reputation suffered a setback due to some scandals relating anthropologists to espionage and counterinsurgency, sparking a debate concerning anthropology’s code of ethics and resulted in some companies choosing not to work with anthropologists in fear of having their information sold to rival businesses. 

When the storm died down and the reputation crisis was over, the comeback was absolute with the publishing of William Ouchi’s Theory Z in 82 that opened doors to Japanese management school in North America. Soon after Anthropology of Work was born and anthropologists began working in company internationalization, consumer behaviour and product design, using ethnographic methodologies.  They even starting joining business schools as professors.

In the nineties and 2000’s the anthropologists began moving into bigger companies, such as Xerox, General Motors, Kodak, Motorola, Hawlett Packard, Intel, Microsoft and many other giants in The United States, U.K, France and all over the globe.

So, what do we do in Hipopotesis?

As you can already tell, anthropology’s potential is huge. In Hipopotesis we have worked hard to bring the research power this discipline has over to the business world, falling under the concept of Business Anthropology, Corporate Anthropology or Organizational Anthropology. We combined ethnographic research with the agility of a lean process and the design thinking techniques to offer rich and deep user research. Direct observation, deep listening and learning and cohabitation are at the centre of our work in understanding what is creating a positive or negative impact in consumers.

Next you will find some resources to comprehend Business Anthropology better. There are at least two big conference gatherings in the world, two specialised magazines and many reference books.



  • EPIC was born in 2005: Etnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, under an anthropology focused on design, founded by anthropologists Ken Anderson (Intel), Tracey Lovejoy (Microsoft), Jeannette Blomberg (IBM) and Christina Wasson (North Texas University).

  • Consumer Cultural Theory started back in 2006 with the purpose of understanding cultural significances in consumer behaviour.


Books –Links to Amazon-

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