Why are more and more companies resorting to Anthropology for answers about consumers?

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Here is Marketing’s great interest in Anthropology: to get to know consumers in depth and comprehensively in a way that few research techniques can accomplish.

In the last decades, consumer goods companies have shown great interest in Anthropology professionals and in research with an Ethnographic approach. Among the various technological innovations that can help consumer behavior research, such as eye tracking features and others, the market has increasingly turned to classical anthropological research which is based on Ethnography. But why is that? What is the relationship between Anthropology and Marketing professionals?

Marketing has understood for quite some time now that they must know consumers in order to communicate with them, offer them the right products at the right time, in the right place and in the right manner. To do so, marketing managers deal constantly with questions that might clarify what type of consumers they are: why do they buy? How do they buy? How do they make their choices? What are their buying decision factors? Market research attempts to address these issues with different approaches, which, when in combination, can explain and map the profile of the target groups. However, among the so many quantitative and qualitative methodologies, one cannot always find the expected answers.

Qualitative research can provide a deeper understanding of consumers and attempts to answer the reasons why, as in-depth interviews that consider consumers’ discourse to explain why they prefer one product to another, for example, or how their process for choosing food is. An anthropological view, on the other hand, may reveal that although the head of the household may explain that he or she chooses a food item for its “quality”, “quality” is referential and therefore a relative concept, it depends on who considers it (hence the use of quotation marks). In Anthropology, this is called the native category, and one must use analytical categories to understand its meanings that can only make sense in a given context. “Quality” may be, for example, related to 2 health, modes of production, beauty, prices, and some brand. It can mean vegetables without pesticides or a perfectly round and red apple. What lies underneath these choices and concepts are symbolic logics that are different in each culture. Thus, when eating a sandwich while walking on the street between one meeting and another, after arriving home in the evening, a Frenchman may claim that he did not have lunch, while an American may say the opposite, both versions being true. This is because the French and the Americans have quite a distinct understanding of what lunch or a meal is. Roughly, for a Frenchman, eating a sandwich on the street is eating, but not lunch.

The purpose of Ethnography is to understand meanings, representations, classification categories of different groups, by interpreting cultures so that it is possible to understand what people do and think. One of the great objectives of marketing professionals is to get to know consumers, understand what they do and think while they consume, and then develop effective marketing strategies. Here is Marketing’s great interest in Anthropology: to get to know consumers in depth and comprehensively in a way that few research techniques can accomplish.

On the other hand, Consumer Anthropology which focuses on the interpretation of modern consumption as one of the main cultural phenomena of our time has only gained relevance in the academic world more recently, which also explains its late presence in connection with the market. In our modern, industrial-capitalist society, consumption takes up a central place, no one disagrees with it, but has occupied a depreciated, negative place, being considered by many as the evil of our time, the representation of degradation and social inequality. Consuming has become a problem. What is valued in our society is labor, the world of production and reason. The world of consumption is that of damnation, waste, and for that reason it has long been rejected as a field of study by social scientists who failed to be relativistic, falling into a “modern ethnocentrism”.

Since the 1970s, several Anthropologists have been trying to remove consumption from this forgotten and condemned place, demonstrating that it is a fundamental phenomenon of our society, a classificatory and meaningful system that articulates our social dynamics and deserves to be studied and comprehended. By understanding 3 production and consumption as parts of the same sphere of symbolic exchanges, the act of exchanging products and objects – no matter if it is through the buying and selling formula or barter is an act of alliance between people, connections, and formation of social bonds. The world of consumption, where objects gain purposes, uses and meanings, allows people to communicate and connect. By studying and understanding the circulation of objects as the basis of social relations, Anthropologists have laid, over a few decades, the foundations of the field of Consumer Anthropology as an essential line of research in Social Sciences.

The English Anthropologist Daniel Miller, who studies material culture, presents in his book “Theory of Shopping” an ethnography of supermarkets in north London that reveals how the act of buying can be interpreted as an act of affection, of love. Buying can reaffirm affective relationships, either by the choice of products in an attempt to satisfy family tastes or by the acquisition of something special as a gift at the time of purchase, or even by the economic strategy to save money. Choosing a product that is cheaper than another may be related to the goal of saving money for family vacations at the end of the year, for example. Miller’s argument buries the idea that some utilitarian logic prevails in the act of buying, related to needs and desires, but he shed light on the socio-cultural logic behind the phenomenon that consumption says more about the social rather than the individual.

It is precisely this trained and specialized look of an Anthropologist capable of relativizing and unveiling systems of symbolic meanings and logics that interests marketing professionals, who try to communicate effectively with consumers. The proposal of anthropologists is to offer a less ethnocentric view to these professionals and present issues that are often imperceptible, presenting consumption as a social and cultural process and less as an individualized and isolated act.

Although Anthropology is a classic discipline of Social Sciences, the line of consumption studies has only been consolidated in the recent decades and gradually distanced itself from the place reserved to it in the academic sector.

Although Anthropology is a classic discipline of Social Sciences, the line of consumption studies has only been consolidated in the recent decades and gradually distanced itself from the place reserved to it in the academic sector. The relationship between market and the academic sector is not yet effortless, and companies that hire Anthropologists for their marketing positions or to lead their market research are seen as innovative and revolutionary. It should be said that as in any relationship between 4 strangers or between those with little knowledge of one another there is suspicion and fear as the relationship gets closer. Being raised in the traditions of the Social Sciences, Anthropologists often carry a negative view of the market, being harsh critics of the Capitalist system and large consumer goods companies that invest millions in advertising and consumer communication tools. However, just as Consumer Anthropology has consolidated itself as an important field of study even though it suffers from the lack of relativism within the anthropological academic environment it depends on the new relations between Marketing and Anthropology to establish themselves in a place where there is reflection and relativism, with the understanding that consumption is a fundamental part of our social dynamics, and that companies and those who work for them are important agents in the creation of meanings, categories and sociability. Such understanding is truly a win-win relationship between the two disciplines Anthropology and Marketing and between these two worlds academic and the market that can best combine theory with practice, intellect with action for the mutual evolution of both fields.

Some academic references to look further into this theme:

APPADURAI, A. A Vida Social das Coisas: As Mercadorias sob uma Perspectiva Cultural. Niterói: Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2008.
BARBOSA, L.; CAMPBELL, C. (Org.) Cultura, consumo e identidade. Rio de Janeiro: FGV, 2006.
BARBOSA, L.; GOMES, L. G. “Por uma antropologia do consumo”. In: Dossiê Antropolítica (Introdução). Revista Contemporânea de Antropologia e Ciência Política. Niterói: PPGA/UFF, n. 17, p. 11-98. 2o sem, 2004.
DOUGLAS, M.; ISHERWOOD, B. O Mundo dos Bens: para uma antropologia do consumo. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ, 2009.
FISCHLER, C. Manger: Français, européens et américains face à l’alimentation. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2008.
MILLER, D. Teoria das Compras. São Paulo: Nobel, 2002.
ROCHA, E. Magia e Capitalismo: Um Estudo Antropológico da Publicidade. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1984.
ROCHA, Everardo. Totemismo e mercado: notas para uma antropologia do consumo. Logos, UERJ. V. 3, n. 2, 1996.
ROCHA, E. P. Q., Barros, C., & Pereira, C. (2005, setembro). Perspectivas do método etnográfico em marketing: consumo, comunicação e netnografia. Anais do Encontro Nacional da Associação Nacional de Pós-Graduação e Pesquisa em Administração, Brasília, DF, Brasil, 29.


Luciana Freire Murgel
PhD in Anthropology