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

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliography
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Anthropology of Industry and Bureaucratic Organizations
  • Organizational Culture
  • Organizational Anthropology in Global Context
  • Anthropology of Finance, Trading, and Wall Street
  • Critical Reflections on Capitalism and Corporate Encounters

Anthropology Business Anthropology
Marietta L. Baba, Christine Heyes LaBond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • 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 20th 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-20th 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 contemporary intersections of anthropology and business, offering a wide range of critical essays and case studies, suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses, that reflect state-of-the-art 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 2013 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. Briody’s co-authorship contributes several new dimensions, including a shift throughout the text from an international to a globally integrated business perspective. Sunderland and Denny 2006 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.

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

    Contemporary 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. 2013. The cultural dimension of global business. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    This edition maintains the basic structure of previous versions while including updated material throughout based on interviews with business anthropologists and other professionals. A new chapter focuses on the complex organizational environments of the global arena. Other chapters treat anthropological concepts, communication, values, negotiation, culture shock, and developing global leaders.

  • 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.

  • Sunderland, Patricia, and Rita M. Denny. 2006. 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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