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How Anthropology Can Explain Business & Life.

This month Marget Gilsenan, Chief Strategy Officer gives us her opinions on “How Anthropology Can Explain Business & Life” by Gillian Tett.

In Anthro-Vision Gillian Tett reveals how anthropology can make sense of the corporate world.  That it is not just a tool to study tribes and cultures in far flung places, but rather a powerful way to understand human behaviour, identify webs of meaning and complement and enhance how we understand the world and the larger cultural context of our business decisions.

Using diverse examples from pre-school selection, Cambridge Analytica, the 2008 crash, Trump, working from home, petfood, soup, laundry habits, sustainability – Tett shows how anthropology can be used to help us observe the tribes and rituals and exist all around us “hidden in plain sight” and help us make better decisions in our business and personal lives.

What did I think

This book champions two fundamental truths that I subscribe to in business. One, that as quoted from Meg Kinney, “Every business problem is a human problem, and every data point represents some human behaviour at its core”; and two, to provide truly creative solutions to those problems, each of us will be better and more open to new thinking if we are compulsively curious.

The book is divided into three sections, each peppered with examples and insights from Tett’s own experiences, huge social issues and the corporate world.

  1. Making the “Strange” Familiar. It challenges us to stop shying away from that which seems strange, but rather work with it.  To recognise that your worldview is not everyone’s. There is a nice example to do with in-car technology.  Car drivers had been asked direct questions about technology which they claimed to be using.  Engineers installed embedded voice command systems in cars to reduce distracted driving.  They were starting with their own world view of it. But subsequently when observed, drivers were using the technology but not through the in-built in-car tech, they were actually using their personal handheld devices.  So, the solution which we see in most cars nowadays is the ability to sync our own personal devices with our cars i.e. looking at the world through the user’s eyes.
  2. Making the ‘Familiar” Strange. As Anais Nin said “what we are familiar with, we fail to see”.  With Tett’s experience as The Financial Time’s, Editor At Large – there are numerous examples from the financial world and how that familiarity or normalising of certain behaviours, acronyms etc within the financial ‘tribe’ played a significant role in the 2008 crash.  She challenges us to think and study our own WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic) to help understand (and stop missing) behaviours and triggers that shape our decisions, with examples including how after an anthropological study of food preparation, Campbell’s Soup successfully moved their marketing emphasis from convenience (the reported benefit) to creativity (the observed benefit) of their brand in its users lives.

  3. Listen to Social Silence and see what is hidden in plain sight. To see beyond the words that are being spoken and create frames of analysis that help us make sense of all that is going on… examples here from Trump (and why his use of the word ‘Bigly’ should not have been dismissed) and Cambridge Analytica.

It also helps us use Big Data more effectively, “We have been forced to rethink some of the ways we use data, at the beginning there was a lot of excitement about Big Data and we still firmly believe that getting better statistics is very important and technology can do amazing things.  But we cannot be naïve – understanding the social context matters”, Melinda Gates.

This book provokes each of us to ask the right questions.


Who should read it

  • This is not a marketing book; it is for anyone who recognises the importance and value of being compulsively curious. Across all disciplines.
  • Anyone who is working with Big Data as a deeper cultural understanding or open-mindedness will complement and give context to that Data making it more valuable.