Anthropology in Industry: How useful is Levi-Strauss in the world of Non-for-Profits?

Anthropologists are often derided for overtly academic musings that end up alienating those who, understandably, have little patience for a 40,000-word essay made up mostly of the word ‘binary’. Obscure theories can and will put a wedge between academia and industry, but does this mean that there is no scope for anthropological method, or anthropological understanding, in the Non-for-Profit sector, an industry that is built on harnessing understanding of and empathy for others?

The fact is that these ‘inaccessible’ theories come from long periods of ethnographic research, which ultimately have become the basis for ‘anthropological understanding’, an empathetic method that analyses society and the individual from the perspective of the peoples studied. It is therefore not anthropological theories that we should be applying to industry; rather it is the principles of empathy and contextual understanding that we should be endorsing.

March’s Anthropology in Industry event brought together three anthropologists who work for and with various Non-for-Profit organisations; and as they have demonstrated, anthropology, and more specifically the human-centric voice that anthropology has come to embody, has much to offer Non-for-Profits.

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Tangible Understanding

Traditionally, anthropology does good work in bringing to light the importance of identifying the dangers associated with labelling and representation, especially when talking about migrants, but it also has the potential for real, practical solutions.

Charlotte Seeley-Musgrave’s work with CHAYN and Empowerhack, NPOs that use tech solutions to tackle everyday oppression, shows that a thorough understanding of the day-to-day experiences of a migrant camp can bring effective and informed solutions to the table.

A tangible understanding of the intersection of the undocumented migrant and the state tells us that a) undocumented migrants are less likely to try to access healthcare for fear of deportation and that b) thousands of migrants have access to smartphones and Wi-Fi. Empowerhack uses app development to directly connect migrants with healthcare professionals; undercutting state regulations that are implemented to discourage migrants and refugees from crossing borders.

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Empathetic Understanding

This context-heavy understanding of ‘what the world is like’ and ‘how the world is perceived’ for an individual also has the capacity to influence policy within larger organisations that are often reliant on large quantitative studies. Helle Thorsen, an anthropologist at the Ipsos MORI Ethnography Centre of Excellence, has worked extensively with the NHS to understand the everyday lives of elderly patients who live with multiple long-term conditions. The NHS was looking to map out the care that people were receiving (or lacking) day-to-day in order to inform future policies for the provision of care.

What has now been labelled ‘The Double Care Burden’ lies at the heart of problem with the provision of care. Many NHS policies are built around assumptions that families and friends, within means, provide care and support to these elderly people. However, ethnographic interviews tell us that culturally specific notions of dependency often mean that people actively try not to be a burden on the NHS, or on their family; leaving them with no one to turn to. In essence, the NHS was able to use an empathetic understanding of elderly people with long term conditions, one that is rooted in culture, environment and emotion to create more meaningful, practical solutions to the way in which people interact with the care system.

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Re-packaging Anthropology for Industry

However, using a method that is academic in nature for an industry that is prey to funding cuts and public criticism means that re-packaging anthropology for industry does not come without its issues.

Charlotte Peel, a Policy Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (J CWI), an independent UK charity that campaigns for justice in migration law and policy, spoke of the struggle to incorporate rigorous qualitative research in a climate of time and budget constraints facing many smaller charities and NGOs. While the value of including the voices of those affected by legislation within lobbying and campaigning efforts is often recognised, securing funding to undertake in-depth qualitative research that illuminates the thought processes and experiences of a wide range of individuals can often conflict with other priorities.

As a policy officer, she conducts qualitative and quantitative research into the effects of current legislation, including policies that often view people ‘en masse’; dividing, cutting and distinguishing based on race, education, income etc., measures that generalise and dehumanise.

In 2015, Charlotte worked with a team researching the impact of the income threshold to sponsor a partner from outside the EU. Defending a methodology that included semi-structured, open-ended interviews was at times challenging when both time and resources were limited. However, the value of informing policy through a consideration of a range of experiences and addressing the root of the issue, rather than simply reinforcing dominant narratives through undertaking a tick-box exercise, cannot be understated.

‘Selling’ anthropology to larger organisations means being flexible in methodology as well as in terminology. Ethnography, and other qualitative methods, must be open to co-operation with quantitative methods. This means that anthropological method could be used as a scoping method prior to a larger survey or tracker or, perhaps to explain quantified results. Similarly, results must be reported in laymen’s terms that do not explicitly rely on theory or academic literature. Although this may point to a diminishing of rich and appropriately complex ideas that are rooted in the discipline of anthropology, if we are able to prioritise applied insight without completely breaking ties with the theories from which they have developed, anthropology may find itself at the forefront of policy change, technological advancements, and healthcare innovations.