In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Business Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliography
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History of Industrial and Organizational Anthropology
  • Organizational Culture
  • Organizational and Institutional Anthropology in Global Context

Anthropology Business Anthropology
Marietta L. Baba, Christine Heyes LaBond, Emily Altimare
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0033


Business refers to an institutional field comprised of privately and publicly owned firms, public organizational entities (e.g., regulatory bodies), and other actors (e.g., consumers) that engage in market-oriented interactions resulting in mutual influence. In the broadest sense, business anthropology encompasses inquiry or practice related to some aspect of the business domain that is grounded in anthropological epistemology, methodology, or substantive knowledge. In the early twentieth century, anthropology, as a discipline, was encouraged by American business interests to develop as an empirically based social science that could provide a scientific basis for social welfare. Partially as a result of this influence, anthropologists’ research and problem-solving interests in the business domain focused primarily on manufacturing productivity and the contexts of economic growth, and they were shaped by the traditions of other disciplines, such as industrial psychology, through the Human Relations School, a theory of organizational management. After World War II, anthropological research on industry became more independent intellectually and fragmented into several streams of literature, including neo-Marxian approaches and studies of industrialization in non-Western societies. Since the end of the Cold War, anthropological studies of business have been reinvigorated, as increasing numbers of academic anthropologists have acknowledged the marketplace and its attendant activities as worthy subjects of study. At the same time, anthropological epistemology and methods have been assimilated into corporate venues as more anthropologists engage in research or become practitioners in the private sector, stimulating self-reflection on the discipline’s relationship with business. As a result, the field has become increasingly complex, with linkages to several other disciplines and traditions. Another consequence is that anthropological perspectives gradually have shifted from the mid-twentieth century view of business as an external and potentially hostile “other” to more varied and nuanced views, including the perspective that business is a field in which anthropologists may hold engaged positions. Because of this evolving situation, the worlds of business are recognized as deserving of our understanding, interpretation, and critical assessment; yet, this dawning awareness brings its own quandaries with respect to positionality and ethics. Accordingly, items have been selected for inclusion here on the basis of three criteria: understanding the context for the historical development of business anthropology as one of the institutional anthropologies; gaining an overview and an in-depth perspective on the major dimensions of the field; and/or providing access to literature reflecting empirical research, practice, and/or theoretical and critical reflection in relation to the business domain.


Business anthropology has emerged recently as a professional subfield that joins together several streams of literature related to multiple dimensions of the business enterprise. Few textbooks provide an even-handed coverage of the entire field. Denny and Sunderland 2014 presents a refreshingly original perspective on the intersections of anthropology and business, offering a wide range of critical essays and case studies, suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses, that reflect contemporary views on theory and practice, the nature of the work, the methods used, and the implications. Jordan 2013 is one of the few textbooks that provides a general overview of business anthropology that is suitable for undergraduate classes. Ferraro and Briody 2017 is a revised version of a long-running textbook that offers an introduction to the value and role of anthropology in global marketing and management, suitable for undergraduates, and brings a globally integrated business perspective woven throughout the text. Sunderland and Denny 2007 introduces advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students to the ethnography of consumer research, arguing for the value of anthropological analysis in ethnographic approaches to understanding consumer behavior. Malefyt and Morais 2017 discusses key concepts in anthropological ethics through a set of case studies on ethical issues across industries written by anthropologists in business and academia.

  • Denny, Rita M., and Patricia Sunderland, eds. 2014. Handbook of anthropology in business. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

    Illustrations of anthropology in business reflect the emergence of the field in countries across the globe. A useful introduction explains how the volume may be approached as a textbook for advanced undergraduates or graduate students by linking chapters to subfields such as design or organizational anthropology.

  • Ferraro, Gary P., and Elizabeth K. Briody. 2017. The cultural dimension of global business. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315411019

    This edition maintains the basic structure of previous versions while including updated material. The volume contains new chapters on organizational culture and culture change, and customer engagement, with fresh case material drawn from around the globe. Other chapters treat anthropological concepts, communication, values, and negotiating and partnering across cultures. Further resources are provided on a companion website.

  • Jordan, Ann T. 2013. Business anthropology. 2d ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

    This textbook familiarizes undergraduates with the concepts and methods of business anthropology, focusing on the anthropological way of knowing the business world. The text provides an overview of the field, with an emphasis on marketing and consumer behavior, design, and organizational anthropology.

  • Malefyt, Timothy de Waal, and Robert Morais, eds. 2017. Ethics in the anthropology of business: Explorations in theory, practice, and pedagogy. New York: Routledge.

    Contributions from anthropologists in business and academia provide an overview of ethical issues in business through case studies across industries such as advertising, market research, and design. Key terms in the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, such as “do no harm” and “informed consent” are examined through the authors’ experiences in businesses. Ethical dilemmas arising in practice within “harm industries” and in teaching business anthropology are explored.

  • Sunderland, Patricia L., and Rita M. Denny. 2007. Doing anthropology in consumer research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

    A case study approach is taken to bring together the realms of consumer research and anthropological inquiry. Rather than a “how-to” guide, the text compiles first-person examples intended to explain why ethnographic methods alone are not sufficient to acquire an understanding of consumer behavior—cultural analysis is crucial.

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