Corporate Market Research is not Anthropology

Is corporate sponsored research really
anthropology? I don't think so.
Image courtesy of NeighborhoodLink.
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on February 26, 2013
Anthropology is back in the national U.S. news, and yet again, the coverage does not cast the most flattering light on the field. New books by infamous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, and naturalist-turned-geographer, Jared Diamond, have been framed by the national press as igniting long-standing conflicts among anthropologists, about issues that include the role of science in anthropology, and the search for universals of human behavior and evolution. My experience within the discipline tells me that this framing by the national media is mostly overblown, although the attention has caused a good deal of discussion and hand-wringing among anthropologists.

My own attention at the moment is consumed with writing my dissertation (and teaching), and so I have not found the time to read either of the new books. And while I have read much of what people are writing about this latest splash of attention, without actually reading the new books, I have reserved my comments here and elsewhere. Still, one piece that I think is mostly missing from this latest discussion, has to do with ethics - the ethical considerations of not only how we conduct ourselves in the field, but also why we're in the field in the first place, and how and what we write about our work.

In the middle of this scrutiny, yet another piece came out in the Atlantic, Anthropology Inc., about the rise of corporate anthropologists. Again, the ethics of such work are left unexplored. The article details the approach of ReD, a market research firm that has incorporated the skills of anthropologists into their attempt to better understand consumer habits.

The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised, a set of techniques that make surveys and dinnertime robo-calls (“This will take only 10 minutes of your time”) seem superficial by comparison. ReD is one of just a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life—and everyday consumerism—as a subject worthy of the scrutiny normally reserved for academic social science.
In the wake of cuts to academic departments around the country, and the ever increasing competition for fewer academic jobs, this new avenue for employment could be a welcome addition to the list of job opportunities for anthropologists. But I question the ethics involved in taking such a position, and wonder if such work can even be considered anthropology. 

Let me explain. When anthropologists enter into the field, whether it is an indigenous community in the Brazilian Amazon, or a hipster community in Austin, Texas, they agree to conduct their research in accordance to a code of ethics. The most commonly followed code in the U.S. is that of the American Anthropological Association (you can read the entire AAA code of ethics here), and while there are others (for example, the Society for Applied Anthropology), they all share similar tenets of ethical conduct. There are seven core principles of the AAA code: 
1) Do no harm
2) Be open and honest regarding your work
3) Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions
4) Weigh competing ethical obligations due to collaborators and affected parties
5) Make your results accessible
6) Protect and preserve your records
7) Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships. 
In my understanding, hiring out your anthropological services potentially violates at least a few of these principles. The most obviously left at the curb is principle number five, "Make your results accessible." When an anthropologist collects data for a corporation (or consulting agency), the data becomes the property of the hiring entity. The data becomes private, proprietary information that will not be disseminated to the public (or to other academics) except through "improved" marketing techniques for specific products. 

There are other ethical problems with corporate anthropology as well, as your ethical obligations to your research participants are necessarily compromised by your obligations to the agency or corporation. Researchers may be able to obtain informed consent if they are in fact open and honest about their work, i.e., that it is being done for market research or some other corporate agenda, however, this type of work does not need to be approved by any kind of review board (as does any research conducted by a research attached to an academic institution), thus severely limiting the oversight of such research. 

Interestingly, the example described in the Atlantic article offers a great example of even deeper ethical considerations of this type of "anthropology." Researchers for ReD were sent out to house parties to observe the drinking habits of young adults. This research could have incredible value, in that it has the potential to lend insight into the issues of drinking and driving, binge drinking, underage drinking, and other serious social problems that are the result of drinking alcoholic beverages. Instead, the ReD research will actually contribute to such issues, as alcoholic beverages will now be better marketed, and thus potentially consumed at greater rates and by more people. There's that pesky "Do no harm" principle. 

In the end, I don't think corporate anthropology can even be considered anthropology. Yes, the work involves the use of anthropological methods, but sociologists, geographers, and other social scientists also use anthropological methods, and they're not considered anthropologists. And while the addition of corporate work for anthropologists may be welcomed by many as a clear route to a good salary, such work threatens the integrity of the discipline by ignoring the principles by which we work. These ethical principles are exactly what gives us credibility in the public arena, and they contribute to the trust many of us have gained in communities around the world. If word gets out that not all anthropologists follow these codes, all of us become affected, and our ability to understand and address human problems becomes greatly inhibited. 

This leaves us with a question. If corporate anthropology is not really anthropology, what should we call it? Any ideas? 
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  1. Anonymous3:48 PM

    How about call it what it is: market research? Just because someone studied anthropology does not make him or her an anthropologist for life, nor does it make everything that person undertakes anthropology.

    On a side note, I find the first item in the code of ethics peculiar. How would an anthropologist's research change if it was "Do good" instead of "Do no harm"? Sounds a little ethically hazy to me.

  2. i think anthropologists would be better choices for "market researchers" concerning the company owner, as they have more patience, broader observational and analytic skills and better adaptation to different environments. And in my opinion anthropologists should be free to do this for sakes of making a living but of course not under the title of anthropology. if i was a company owner with good profits, i would hire them definitely :>

    an amelioration would be, as you describe, a controlling institution, protecting people from any potential harms, and that inspecting any other ethical problem like consent etc. i don't think thus financed studies should ever be published as a formal academic research... if the academic people want to do a research on the same subject, they should do their own..

    and it would be nice (although for the uncritical eye, could also be misleading) if they shared their market research data but i don't think it should be compulsory.


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