What is the Role of the Anthropologist?

Image source: cultureby.com

On Saturday, I got to hear Grant McCracken speak at the AIGA GAIN conference in New York.
I documented that I was going to the talk in my usual way of writing a quick note in twitter, which gets dumped into my facebook status.

“At AIGA, just heard Grant McCracken say smart things on design & culture, and the role of the anthropologist”

I got two quick responses from friends of mine who are working on their dissertations in anthropology, who basically asked what is the role of the anthropologist?

Of course, their requests had a bit of tongue and cheek, who am I to tell anthropologist what is their role? And I hope that they understood, that the talk was about the role of the anthropology within the context of design and culture. Nevertheless, the question is worth a response, because it is an interesting one, and perhaps the answer is not so obvious, although it is after hearing the talk.

During his talk, in a conference room mostly full of designers, McCracken refers two kinds of practitioners of anthropology. Anthropologists with an upper case A, and anthropologists with a lower case a. McCracken is an Anthropologist (PhD U Chicago) just as my friends are training to be Anthropologists. As well, there are many anthropologists (I would count myself in that group) who have the opportunity to practice anthropology in their work.  For designers, that practice is decoding culture and explaining it back to the design or marketing client. Although many in the Field (uppercase F) might have a problem with that, McCracken does not, and in fact encourages it. Although, it must be done in a smart way.

Decoding culture is crucial to the designer, because “culture provides infrastructure” to how we understand the world.  McCracken divides culture into the “above” (Malcolm Gladwell, Coolhunters, trendsetters) and the “below” which is all the rest.  Culture below is more hidden, and is made up of the assumptions people make in their construction of their worlds. The culture below is so obvious to the individual that they don’t even realize it exists. It remains in the domain of the unknown, until the anthropologist enters and maps out assumptions that. He cites the example of what makes a Harley more than “just” a motorcycle.

What does this have to do with design?

The designer must consider more than the cultural relevance of her creative output.  She must also consider the people who will see, hear, try, and her designs.  The successful designer will have an intimate knowledge of her end-user/audience/market and the culture surround the products and services that use in their daily lives. She will then use that knowledge to create a relationship with that person.

McCracken began with the question, “who owns culture in the corporation?” His claim is that designs probably don’t, but they should.  And today, the answer is probably nobody, which makes that there is an opportunity for the designer to lay claim to that corporate group.

What does this have to do with the Anthropologist overall or in training? McCracken often talks about the missed opportunities of Anthropologists because, they could provide insight in a post-modern world of flatten hierarchies (high-low, East-West) where known cultural structures are eroding.  In their place is an ad-hoc, but quite real, infrastructure of culture that is ripe for mining. Although they may not be the traditional domain of Anthropology, these cultural norms have a huge influence on the every day lives people in a post-industrial, consumerist culture. There is a great need for these changes to be explained back to the corporations that are creating that culture.  Whether for the corporation or academia, there is an opportunity for both Anthropologists and anthropologists to weigh in on the issues of the bagginess or skinniness of jeans, the identities of our vehicles, or personalities of our beverages.

Perhaps, there are Anthropologists in training who are already tackling these issues. If that is true, that would be great. For those who are designer or marketers who are (aspiring) anthropologists, there are also many opportunities as well. For both parties, McCracken has just created a blog conpendium on how to be an anthropologist for hire.

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2 Responses to What is the Role of the Anthropologist?

  1. Frank says:

    I often find it helpful to distinguish between cultural modes of explation and more individualistic, “rational choice” models. Individualist explanation can account for lots of the spending decisions we make. But when something as ineffable and abstract as “brand value” has to be explained, group dynamics and internalized norms strike me as much better explanations than simple individual rational calculation.

    The anthropologist sees the whole and sees how it affects individuals; the economist sees the individuals and tries to predict how their mutual interaction and individual pursuit of self-interest affects the whole.

    Fortunately, behavioral economists like Dan Ariely are exposing just how little we tend to think when we make “economic” decisions. Rather, spending patterns are driven much more by what our peers have, by what cultural norms dictate (such as: a “serious” woman in the fashion industry must have a $500 bag or some vintage item that playfully and obliquely comments on such a bag). When you get right down to it, we have very few needs dictated by biology. As Veblen realized, much of buying comes down to figuring out a way to play a game of “keeping up appearances.” But as globalization pressures US and European and Japanese consumption into line with Chinese/Indian levels, it will be interesting to see how long that game can be played. All hail recessionista!:


  2. Ray says:

    Frank: On a related note, I think the challenge is how to determine the potential of how “big” a trend is, and identifying a fad from a paradigm shift… the earlier one can do that, the better. I think the larger array of tools from anthropology to behavioral economics can help. I’m reading McCracken’s Flock and Flow, which came into the mail yesterday and looks like it takes a closer look at predicting versus explaining after the fact.

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