Business Anthropology 101

In his sixth book, Business Anthropology: The Basics (Routledge 2023), Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Ph.D., author and clinical professor of marketing at the Gabelli School, explores anthropological theory and its real-life applications. He shared his thoughts with Fordham Business on the value anthropology brings to the industry, government, and nonprofit sectors and how business anthropologists can engage the public and make a lasting difference in addressing today’s most pressing societal issues.
Front book cover of Business Anthropology: The Basics (Routledge 2023) by Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Ph.D.

Q: Why is studying business anthropology essential to our understanding of business?

A: As businesses have increasingly become integrated on a global scale and have extended their reach across humanity around the world, it has become critical for anthropologists to be actively engaged in influencing them.

The first premise of this book is to inform anthropology students, beginning practitioners, and curious non anthropologists about the ways in which anthropology provides an intellectual and practical framework for seeing and dealing with the larger ‘why’ questions of human behavior in business and society. It shows ways of addressing issues holistically, identifying with people empathetically, acting reflexively, and understanding situations from an insider’s point of view.

Q: How does business anthropology differ from traditional anthropology?

A: While it stems from mainstream academic anthropology, it promises exciting new directions for students and practitioners seeking a career in one or more of the fields of technology, finance and banking, healthcare services and medicine, user experience, design and product development, data science, marketing and advertising, corporate business, workplace culture and organizational change, law, or engineering, among other fields. Most importantly, it uses anthropological theories and methods to identify and solve real business and social challenges, such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and the rise of misinformation.

Q: How can anthropology be used as a problem-solving tool for businesses?

A: Anthropology offers an essential way of thinking and doing for solving issues; it provides a means for instigating change in the world to address the pressing issues we face today. In addition to a reflexive perspective, holistic systemic thinking—the ability to see the integrated picture, to pull back from the specific problem, event, or situation under study, and to put it in a larger context—is one of anthropology’s most important contributions to business. A holistic approach considers how the parts of an organization are mutually influential and interconnected to other parts, larger processes, and whole networks; if one part is tweaked, then the effect ripples out to affect the rest of the system. Issues are frequently integrated with other issues so that to understand museum attendance, for example, one must look at use of space, types of visitors, and placement of objects, not just museum attendance.

Q: How can business anthropology benefit the consumer?

A: A way for anthropologists working in business to capture public attention is to compare their work with other scholars studying the same business or compare work across other cultures, whether applying theoretical topics to a study of a brand community, a hot topic on Twitter, or a family-run business. Greater impact can be made, however, through informal comparisons, such as through anecdotes, parables, and stories of people and their tendencies, which also gain public interest.

For instance, what are the analogies to be made between cult brands, current brands, and the communities they represent? Saab and Harley-Davidson online sites offer strong brand communities whose members tend to share more rituals, history, and tradition when compared with less cultish brands, such as Ford or Toyota. Their rituals and traditions take forms in greeting rituals, coded language associated with the brand community, celebration of special events and member milestones, sharing the history of the brand, and brand stories. Applying anthropological theories to modern-day ritualized communities lets anthropologists address the ‘why’ questions of strategic importance for corporations. Anthropologists can also build off such comparisons to help the public better understand similarities and differences in family-run businesses or online community formations among brands in the world around them.

Q: What are some career paths for business anthropologists?

A: One of the goals of this book is to inspire anthropology and business students to work in fulfilling careers in industry. Many decide to transfer from academia to industry or from B.A., B.S., or M.A. degrees into research jobs. Since opportunities for permanent employment in academia and tenure-track positions are becoming increasingly scarce, more students are making the move to business. Especially now, the industry offers many choices in the healthcare and technology sectors, marketing and user experience, design, and organizational sectors.
Timothy de Waal Malefyt is a corporate anthropologist who held executive positions at BBDO and D’Arcy advertising agencies before joining the Gabelli School in 2012. His other books include: Advertising Cultures; Advertising and Anthropology; Ethics in the Anthropology of Business; Magical Capitalism; and Women, Consumption and Paradox.

Miracle of Effort: Thalia’s Autism Journey

John Fortunato, Ph.D.
Professor John Fortunato, Ph.D., has written extensively on sports media, sponsorship, and crisis communication throughout his career in higher education. His recently released sixth book, Miracle of Effort: Thalia’s Autism Journey (Archway Publishing 2023), inspired by his own family’s experience with autism, is a labor of love.

“This is a family story,” Fortunato said. “Thalia is my cousin’s daughter and her unique journey with autism is truly inspirational.”

Thalia was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was two years old. Miracle of Effort chronicles her life from her toddler years to graduating college and becoming an elementary school teacher. Through the lens of the family’s personal experience, Fortunato offers a glimpse of the lives of children with autism and their families—their emotions, challenges, sacrifices, and the difficult decisions they face at different stages throughout a child’s life. He intended the book to be an offering of hope to the many families and individuals who are touched by this developmental disorder. “The idea,” Fortunato noted, “was that the time and effort to do the book would be worth it if we could help just one family better navigate this situation.”

Through her obstacles with early childhood development, schoolwork, and the emotional challenges of growing up, Thalia and her parents show what can be achieved with perseverance, hard work, a positive outlook, and the unwavering support of family. “As Thalia says, ‘an autism diagnosis does not mean that a child cannot be successful,“ Fortunato said. “It just means that he or she will see the world in a different light.’ Thalia’s simple hope in telling her story is ‘to inspire autistic individuals to live up to their full potential and provide optimism to families.’”

Front book cover of Miracle of Effort: Thalia's Autism Journey (Archway Publishing 2023) by John A. Fortunato, Ph.D.
“As Thalia says, ‘an autism diagnosis does not mean that a child cannot be successful. It just means that he or she will see the world in a different light.’”
—Edited by Gabrielle Simonson