Global business anthropology summit

 April 24, 2018 (This conference page has been retained for archival purposes.)

Business anthropology is defined by the use of anthropological concepts and tools to solve practical problems in contemporary enterprises, including business, public entities, and civil society organizations. As an academic specialty, it additionally interrogates the place of business in the larger society and surrounding institutions of government and civil society. As business anthropology engages with these sectors not only to solve problems but also to discover new opportunities and to develop new theoretical insights, it is perhaps the most rapidly growing branch of the discipline of anthropology today, as evidenced by employment growth and new publication venues.   

Business anthropology embraces concerns with product development, marketing and consumer behavior, organizational performance, international business, user experience (UX), design, innovative financial instruments, sustainability, and new forms of business in emerging economies. Several hundred applied anthropologists on all continents around the world are working in domains such as these. We propose to bring their experience and insights to the greater attention of academic anthropologists, with the goal to help inform the future of academic business anthropology programming.


About the conference

The purpose of the Global Business Anthropology Summit is to bring together an international group of practitioners and scholars to reflect on future directions for the field, training priorities for the next generation, and ways to strengthen our global networks.   

The summit will have multiple objectives:

  • Critically examine the concept of business anthropology, recognizing that the terms "enterprise," "business" and "anthropology" have multiple complex connotations for different audiences
  • Identify leading practices of anthropologists in such areas as change management, design, environmental and cultural sustainability, user experience research, marketing, and consumer behavior, and other specialties
  • Build a consensus on research and training priorities for the next generation of business anthropologists
  • Identify current research priorities in the sectors of the industry that use anthropological and ethnographic methods, and what unique contributions anthropologists can make
  • Strengthen a global network of academic and practicing business anthropologists: at present, as evidenced by occupational titles, and publications in business anthropology journals, there are more than 300 business anthropologists around the world, and probably hundreds more beyond these
  • Work with established and emerging networks and organizations that are friendly to business anthropology, e.g. AAA, EPIC, NAPA, and SfAA, as well as the Ethnography Hangout on Slack and, to advance all of the above


In its beginnings more than three decades ago, business anthropology was an exotic specialty, with only a handful of practitioners and academics concentrated primarily in North America. Recently with the growth of academic programs not only in the United States but also in numerous countries around the world, and numerous business anthropology publications in multiple languages including not only books and academic journals but also blogs and social media, and anthropologists working at numerous firms including Google, Hewlett-Packard, Ford Motor Company, Nissan, Steelcase, Hitachi, Herman Miller, and many other firms, it is clear that business anthropology has emerged upon the world stage. Inasmuch as business anthropology represents an intersection between the interests and priorities of the academic world, anthropology's original home, and the leading institutions that will be employing anthropologists in the years to come, we judge it not only timely but urgent to bring these two communities together for a shared understanding of the nature of the field.

The global business anthropology summit will represent the apex of a process that has been underway for more than a year within the American Anthropological Association (AAA). This has been an ongoing discussion of the character of business anthropology, its relationship to other fields of learning and practice, and its challenges for future development. A major initiative at the 2017 AAA, "Business Anthropology Matters" (, which includes an executive session ("How Business Anthropology Makes Anthropology Matter More"), an invited session, other sessions, eight workshops, and a presentation at the Chairs' Breakfast on December 2, will be a milestone in this ongoing discussion.

In the next month, we will be launching this discussion with a web forum in which we will be discussing these issues in the eight months leading up to the summit. Anthropologists from around the world and members of the Wayne State community are invited to join this ongoing discussion and participate in its conclusion at the summit on April 24, 2018. Prior to the summit, we will be prioritizing the issues identified above, and at the summit in April, we will both attempt to reach a consensus on certain issues and identify appropriate vehicles and media for the discussion of others.

In preparation for the summit, we will develop a list of planned actions to help the community move from concerns to solutions. One key priority following the summit will be to create a tool that reconsiders current design research, product development, and marketing and consumer behavior methods and approaches to better align with the expectations and standards of the Business Anthropology discipline.

Summit steering committee

  • Marietta Baba, Michigan State University (ret.)
  • Carmen Bueno, Universidad Iberoamericana
  • Ed Liebow, American Anthropological Association
  • Robert Morais, Columbia Business School
  • Inga Treitler, Anthropology Imagination LLC
  • Hugo Valenzuela, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona
  • Christina Wasson, University of North Texas
  • Keiko Yamaki, Shujitsu University


Wayne State University, Hitachi, Fjord, ReD Associates, Intel and Nissan.