It’s becoming trendy for Corporate Marketeers and Research departments to call themselves Anthropologists or call what they do Ethnography. And while I myself do this to some degree (I actually prefer phenomenologist but I’m basically doing the same thing) I totally understand the frustration expressed by academic anthropologists.
But the bigger issue for academics is the fear that corporate anthropology is an ethical free-fire zone. “If there isn’t an IRB [institutional review board], a sort of neutral third party that watches out for the interests of those who are being researched, then obviously there is cause for concern,”
Roberto González, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at San Jose State University, goes so far as to argue that those who don’t follow the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics should no longer be considered anthropologists at all. “Part of being an anthropologist is following a code of ethics, and if you don’t do that, you’re not an anthropologist”—just as you’re no longer fit to call yourself a doctor if you do unauthorized experiments on your patients. “Of course,” Hugh Gusterson adds, “we don’t license anthropologists, so we can’t un-license them either.”
Marketers can adopt the practices but if they don’t also adopt the ethics then it’s like security guards calling themselves police officers. One is hired to protect the people and one is hired to protect corporate property. There’s some overlap but it’s very superficial.
One of the main things I see lacking in corporate anthropology is the simple process of stopping and asking what harm this study might do.
A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologistsis to do no harm. It is imperative that, before any anthropological work be undertaken —in communities, with non-human primates or other animals, at archaeological and paleoanthropological sites — each researcher think through the possible ways that the research might cause harm.
It’s something that doesn’t even have to be done formally but it’s something I do personally. It’s one of the reasons I feel so much more comfortable using anthropological practices in my customer experience role than I ever did in a marketing role. By definition my job is to look out for the customer.
So if you’re out there doing applied anthropology, good on you. Keep it up, I fully support it. But at least take a few minutes and read the ethics.