anthropology and customer service

As an anthropology student, the question I fear the most, right after “What is anthropology?”, is the question about my future career. I get to hear both questions equally often, and equally often struggle to find answers. I have been studying the subject for 3 years, but its widely diversified field makes it quite difficult to come up with a satisfying definition. 

Generally speaking, anthropology is “the study of human societies and cultures and their development”. This sounds about right in the traditional sense, but nowadays anthropology is a lot more. The diversity of the seminars I took part in during my studies have shown me the complexity of my subject and made it even more fascinating to me. Yet, the more I studied it, the more the question about my future career gave me a headache.

Though the seminars I have taken have given me a variety of approaches and insights in which anthropology is not only possible but necessary and important, all of these come down to one career only: traditional ethnographic fieldwork. 

What is Ethnographic Research?

I have always found anthropology hard to describe, due to its far-reached nature and a broad variety of topics and possibilities. When thinking about anthropology, a lot of people picture adventurers in safari hats, fighting their way through the thick jungle, observing the local natives. This image is long outdated, though some of the research methods have survived until today.

The most common ethnographic method is “participant observation“, in which the researcher gets involved with the environment of the people he aims to study. He participates and observes at the same time. This observation also does not have to take part in a jungle. It can be anywhere; in a hospital in Columbia, in a public sauna in Finland, or in the local grocery store.

Participant observation involves a deeper level of interaction and trust between the researcher and the participants. It is a lengthy process; the research period sometimes takes several months or even years (though not always on end). The research method originates from a time in which the people in the world did not know much about each other. There were thousands of societies and communities out there that were completely unfamiliar to Western scientists. Travelling there and staying for a longer time would guarantee the highest amount of information. Taking part in the everyday life of people so unknown and unfamiliar, living with them, witnessing their rituals, habits and behaviours was like entering a completely different world.

Participant observation was a revolutionary approach, especially regarding the fact that before this, “anthropologists” would only listen to stories and tales they heard from travellers, merchants and adventurers, and would never visit the people they were writing about themselves. This was called “armchair anthropology”, a quite fitting name in my opinion.

Nowadays, anthropology does not have to be as exotic as it used to. Though there are still many foreign cultures and societies, who we know little to nothing about, scientists have realised that research objects do not have to be far away and strange but can also be right in front of your eyes. Looking at things that are already familiar and maybe even part of your everyday life with the eyes of an outsider can be just as interesting and eye-opening. It can lead to new interesting results and insights and might make you realise and understand things that you did not even pay attention to before.

So now, anthropologists are everywhere. They do research on whaling in Norway, family structures in Nigeria, online societies in video games, right-wing extremists in Berlin… Funnily enough I have had seminars on all of these topics during my studies. Anthropology is a very broad field and the researchers can give meaningful insights into the lives and the culture of the people they study. On top of that, they know how to collect, analyse and interpret data and can develop ideas and suggestions for improvement.

Modernizing Anthropology

Traveling the world to do research among different societies in the name of science comes with different hardships and obstacles. Researchers often deal with constant fears about permits, financial resources, and the ethical question of their work. Though it is highly rewarding, incredibly exciting, and still kind of adventurous at times, ethnographic fieldwork is far from being a stable job. Building trust and getting access to the field is a long-time process. Sometimes you might spend months getting to know different people, gaining their trust, and still get denied access to their lives. Sometimes the foundations and comitees will not fund your research project. Sometimes you are denied a research permit or you are not allowed to enter a country. There are many ways how your project can fail.

And if it succeeds, you spend months abroad, in an unfamiliar environment, away from friends and family, surrounded by strangers, just you and your notebook (and maybe a camera). For some people this is a dream come true. For others, it is more of a nightmare.

So what do you do when you not only have a passion for anthropology, but also for financial stability?

The knowledge and the skills anthropology students gain during their studies can be applied to a lot of fields outside the actual science. When you finish your studies, you are able to conduct surveys and interviews, you know how to observe (participating or not), how to gather data, analyze and interpret it and how to use it going forward.

All of this is extremely useful and enables you to do more than write highly ethnographic books about your equally ethnographic research projects. You do not need to be a freelancer or work for a university or an organization in order to find a job within your abilities. This realization did not only give me a peaceful night’s sleep, but it also finally made me able to answer this accursed question about my future.

One of my favorite seminars I have taken at university was about the anthropology of video games. We talked through the emergence of online societies in and around video games, the development process, the disposal of gaming devices, and marketing strategies. The professor who taught us was great. He put a lot of effort into the seminar and invited a lot of people from all over the gaming industry.

One of these people was Michael, a User Researcher who worked for WB Games. He talked about his work; he cooperated with the development team, invited participants and gathered their feedback on the game, analyzed and interpreted it, collected ideas, and reported back to the developers. And he gave me ideas. He gave me ideas for a whole other anthropological career besides traditional fieldwork.

Welcome to Customer Service

So, why was I never told that there are anthropological careers besides traditional fieldwork? Big companies have been specifically hiring anthropologists for quite some time now to gather customer information and insights which can then be used to improve their products in a way that actually benefits the customer.

Did you know that anthropological research largely contributed to the invention of the Swiffer? When P&G aimed to invent a new way of cleaning a floor, the team in charge decided to take a step back from what they knew about cleaning, and started from scratch. They ventured out to the homes of their costumers (though this is probably not the preferred method of anthropologist working in Customer Research, Service or Development) and observed how they cleaned their floors. They figured, that it is often more work to clean the mop than it is to clean the floor in the first place, which let to the development of the Swiffer – a cleaning device that does not need cleaning itself.

But why do you need anthropologists for that? Sounds like a normal customer service job. The important difference is where you meet the customer in order to gather the data you need. Do you observe them in their current situation to understand their needs and wants or do you invite them into a designed setting? 

Surveys are one of the easiest ways to get quick feedback on your product or service, but it is also not a secret that people like to present the best version of themselves, even in settings where it does not matter at all. Especially when it comes to answering questions about themselves, people aim to make themselves look better than they actually are. The feedback they give is not always authentic. In these cases, it can be helpful to observe the customers where they currently are in order to see how they use a product and identify possible flaws. These observations can then be used to develop ideas for improvements.

Another aspect about anthropologists that is especially interesting for customer service settings is that we are taught not to take anything for granted. Sometimes people are so used to what they are doing that some things just are not obvious to them anymore. There might be errors, flaws, or complications that have become invisible to the consumers. The neutral eye of an anthropologist might be able to identify these problems and contribute to making the lives of the customers easier and more comfortable by unveiling the things they have become so used to that they do not see them anymore.

Corporate Anthropology

Anthropological work in a company of course does not necessarily have to be external. Instead of directing the research towards the costumers and their interaction with the company and their products, it can be just as insightful to observe the company itself. This is what “corporate anthropologists” do.

Many companies have their own way of “doing things”, they have their own habits, behaviors, and ways of communication. They have their own culture, if you will; an anthropologist’s specialty. By observing and understanding these ways and the meaning behind them, anthropologists can help to improve the working environment within the company. 

Conflict management, employee well-being, product development, marketing strategies and workspace diversity are only a few aspects which can benefit from an anthropological researcher’s work within a company. Questions about the effectiveness, happiness and productivity of the employees can best be answered by observing at the workplace and in their current setting, because even employees are not always truthful when answering survey questions.

Improving a company’s work environment on different levels is only effectively possible if you understand the network behind it. Observing what is going well and where there might be errors, complications or conflicts is important and fundamental for developing the company into a well-working machine. 

Anthropologists are not only able to conduct meaningful and in-depth research using a variety of ethnographic methods, including observation, interviews and surveys, they also know how to interpret and analyse the data they collect and provide ideas for improvement als well as short term or long term strategies to keep the company on track internally as well as externally by identifying needs for employee training regarding customer interactions or other hard and soft skills. Overall, almost every company can benefit from having an anthropological expert on board.

Into the Future

Ethnographic research in the traditional sense may be what convinced many anthropology students to start their studies in the first place, but it is not necessarily for everyone. Certainly, it is not for me. Learning about alternatives, about careers outside the academic field and traditional fieldwork is important and rare at the same time. It took me 3 years to find a career path that fits my academically aquired skills, makes me feel useful and impactful and lets me sleep at night without having to worry about permits, finances or the next time I can see my family.

Working as a corporate anthropologist allows me to stay within the field of my studies while also having many job opportunities and a certain level of stability. I am able to apply my knowledge, my skills and my anthropological expertise to a company’s benefit and help them develop for the better – inside and out. 

Though corporate anthropology might sound like a nighmare to some other anthropology students,it is the corner in the broad field of my studies that interests me the most. This is how people are different and it is these differences that anthropology exists for and lives from.

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