using tools from the applied anthropology toolbox can help organisations of all kinds, by enhancing their ability to sift through the layers of individual, social and cultural meaning that shape so much of what they do

The future of being human

By Ezri Carlebach, communications consultant, writer and lecturer, member of the PR and Communications Council, and Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communication and the Royal Society of Arts. 

As we approach the third decade of the third millennium, there seems to be a powerful narrative informing the zeitgeist (“an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch” says Wikipedia).

That narrative is all about the future and, in a nutshell, it’s telling us that somehow, ‘the future is already here’. There are plenty of variations on that theme, from ‘the future has arrived’ and ‘tomorrow is today’ to, in an alternative slant, the suggestion that the future is hurtling towards us at great speed.

It all contributes to a feeling of temporal dislocation. What happened to the present, if we’re already living in the future? Maybe it’s a case of understandable exaggeration, given that we’re fed a constant stream of stories about futuristic sounding technologies — artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, robots and automation, the internet of things… it’s the fourth industrial revolution, dontcha know.

We may not actually be living in the future, but there is a widespread belief that we know what the future is, in a way that previous generations could not. Or, as Robert Skidelsky put it in an article for Social Europe last year, “the future was more unknowable in the past”.

How can human beings cope with this new kind of future? And what might the implications be for us in the current business environment? These are questions that fall squarely into the remit of anthropology – the systematic study of human beings.

I recently had the pleasure of addressing the Advisory Board of specialist corporate communications recruiters Comms Leaders, on whether anthropology can be helpful for business generally, and for PR and corporate communications in particular.

Epistemologically filthy?

There’s a whole field of ‘anthropological futures’, focused on applying anthropological methodologies in an imaginative way, to see what insights can be gleaned about how we might live and work in the future. See, for example, the excellent collection of essays Anthropologies and Futures: Researching emerging and uncertain worlds, which begins with a ‘Futures anthropologies manifesto’ whose authors warn, “we may be epistemologically filthy, improvisational and undisciplined”.

The discussion at Comms Leaders, framed by the ‘future-is-now’ narrative, was intended to explore the profile – and proliferation – of anthropologists working in business settings, who bring with them insights from the scientific study of human relationships, cultures, and systems of organising. In this future-led context, with its ceaseless demands for innovation and improvement, more and more companies are hiring anthropologists to help them influence stakeholders, increase effectiveness, and achieve objectives.

To be clear, there is a distinction between the roles of academic anthropologists, who see business as a legitimate area for study; and applied anthropologists, who work within the business environment. In other words, academic anthropologists work on business, while applied anthropologists work in business (for a fuller discussion of the terminology, see Brian Moeran’s chapter ‘Theorizing Business and Anthropology’ in Handbook of Anthropology in Business, edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sutherland).

This is not particularly new. Applied anthropologists started working in industrial settings in the 1920s, and it’s no surprise that their recent increase in profile is linked to the rise of the big tech businesses — particularly the so-called FAANG companies. They’re hiring anthropologists, research ethnographers, designers and other related professionals, often under the heading of User Experience Research.

Integrating new technologies into consumers’ day-to-day lives is obviously a major area of interest for them, not least when it comes to today’s non plus ultra for big tech, the ‘autonomous’ vehicle. But however smart the technologies get, businesses will always rely on people to deliver their results. And people, particularly in large organisations, often make sense of their situation through their immediate peer group, or, to borrow the anthro-argot, their ‘tribe’. They get some information from managers or supervisors, and perhaps a little from senior leaders. Hence the endless quest to align people and strategy.

That much is common knowledge among internal comms professionals. But in the absence of fit-for-purpose internal communication, and even sometimes in its presence, people tend to resolve issues as best they can by making things up as they go along, drawing on feedback or resistance from their immediate environment. Some – often the bright sparks – will go and observe what others are doing. That way, they can establish what works and what doesn’t, and create a story which they share to varying degrees with colleagues. They end up doing a kind of informal, internal version of user experience research.

Obviously, it would better for the organisation if that experience and that story is, as far as possible, intentionally shaped and aligned with business strategy. In-house anthropologists can help businesses with that process, by systematically observing group behaviours, whether of employees or customers. Personally, I’d rather be observed at work by a human being with a training in the ethical practice of ethnography than by an algorithm programmed by someone who, most likely, didn’t think about how their own cultural biases might influence the uses, and abuses, of their code.

Tett’s tech titans

But there’s a further value in employing anthropologists, as Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett – who trained as an anthropologist – recently pointed out. “[A]nthropologists try to use patient observation, without preconception”, she writes, “to see how all aspects of ‘culture’ fit together, including those parts that nobody usually talks about. The core aim is to see the world through somebody else’s eyes and to understand cultural patterns.

“Doing this enables them to comprehend other ways of life. But it also delivers a second — crucial — benefit: when you think yourself into the mind of someone who initially seems different, or ‘alien’, you don’t just give yourself a chance to understand them, you also obtain a fresh perspective on your own culture.”

It’s not only the “tech titans” – to use Tett’s term – getting on board with an anthropocentric approach. There are applied anthropologists working in enterprises across sectors, as well as in dedicated consultancies, within other types of agencies, in local and national government, and in charities and NGOs. What this tells us is that using tools from the applied anthropology toolbox can help organisations of all kinds, by enhancing their ability to sift through the layers of individual, social and cultural meaning that shape so much of what they do.

I concluded my comments at the Comms Leaders event with a whistle-stop tour of three practical tools borrowed from the applied anthropology toolkit; ethnography, semiotics, and frame analysis. There are clear implications for us PR and comms people, as I have previously noted, if we don’t pay attention to their growing popularity in business. The anthropologists will eat our lunch, if we let them. Instead, we should focus on the opportunity to freshen up our proposition to clients and employers by positively engaging with these tools – provided we take seriously the underpinning concepts that afford applied anthropology the degree of legitimacy it enjoys, along with the usual caveats that come with adopting any new tool.

I added futures workshops as a fourth tool, not from anthropology but from futurology (as it was known in the past). Note the use of ‘futures’ in the plural. That’s because there is never only one possible future. Also, futures workshops are not about predicting the future – we leave that to astrologers and sci-fi writers.

Space Jungk

Futures workshops were developed in the early 1970s by Austrian writer and futurist Robert Jungk, to tackle complex questions in a way that would result in action plans commanding a high degree of support from different stakeholders. His original aim was to enhance local democratic decision making processes, so he designed the futures workshop format specifically to tackle issues involving multiple contradictory views, which somehow have to be fitted together.

Jungk, and others who have subsequently built on his ideas, set out a structured but adaptable way to develop a range of possible futures, agree on the most desirable options, and then implement the necessary actions.

Futures workshops are most effective when they involve people from different backgrounds who share a common interest. Holding a futures workshop on, say, the social consequences of autonomous vehicles, and only inviting techies, would be of limited value. But by bringing in customers, suppliers, regulators, civil society organisations, law enforcement agencies, psychologists… maybe even some PR and comms people… it becomes possible to design a range of future end states, and figure out which will best meet the needs of all.

What applied anthropology and futures workshops have in common is that they draw on a deeply human-centric philosophy. This is also apparent in something Robert E. Brown, a long-time PR practitioner and now Professor at Salem State University, has written about, in relation to the future of the public relations profession.

In his book The Public Relations of Everything, Brown wrote that PR – and, by extension, corporate communication – is not just about “managerial abstractions like objectives, strategies, and tactics”. Rather, it’s about “the lived, dramatic experience of human beings in the social world”. I think that suggests the existence of a valuable bridge between PR and communications professionals and applied anthropologists, and I have begun taking that message to both the comms and applied anthropology communities.

If you’d like to know more, or have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments field below.

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