The Added Value of Anthropology for Business Impact: Reflections on the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit – a guest post by Autumn D. McDonald

Autumn McDonald

On May 29th and 30th of this year, roughly 160 people (including myself) attended the 2nd Annual Global Business Anthropology Summit in New York City. I had been looking forward to the conference for quite some time! Admittedly, the path that led me to the summit may have been quite different than others in attendance who work in business anthropology.  I spent roughly 20 years as an employee and team leader at various Fortune 500 companies, spearheading research in the Insights and Analytics realm to drive impact in areas such as marketing, sales, product development, research and development, supply chain/logistics, and finance. Then I launched my own consulting company to lead research initiatives for clients of all sizes that span a wide range of industries.  

After approximately two decades working in large companies and leading Insights and Analytics research initiatives (utilizing qualitative and quantitative methods like observation, primary research, syndicated data, and first party data), I pivoted. I love research and it has always excited me! But during my prior experiences as an Insights Researcher (Market Research), I often felt that there could be more to how we do research and what we learn from it. In the field of Insights and Analytics, we have developed and honed phenomenal expertise in uncovering “what” people are doing, and evaluating their relationships with brands, retailers and categories (e.g., toilet paper, baby strollers, medical devices, storage software). When designed and executed properly, our work achieves great outcomes in that realm. At the same time, we don’t quite hit the mark when it comes to understanding humans more holistically or eliciting the “why” behind observed behaviors, reactions, or feelings. My yearning, as both a business-person and as a researcher, for that greater depth in insight led me to anthropology.

Propelled by that yearning, I enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas in May of 2018. I was absolutely thrilled to attend this year’s Global Business Anthropology Summit as both a graduate student in anthropology and as the Owner of ADM Insights & Strategy research consultancy.

Conference Recap

The conference was unique in that there were no presentations. Instead it featured panels and workshops, organized around engaging discussions about doing anthropology in business. I attended the following sessions:

  • What is Business and Organizational Anthropology in the 21st Century? (panelists: Rachel Laryea, Grant McCracken, Gillian Tett, Christina Wasson, Caitlin Zaloom)
  • Anthropology at Work:  Using our Toolkit to Tackle the Toughest Business Challenges (panelists: Turi McKinley, Kaylie Wilson, Tom Maschio, Martha Bird)
  • (Re)Defining the Value of Anthropology in Business (facilitators: Susan Kresnicka & Karis Eklund)
  • Networking in the Industry: Combing Anthropological and Coaching Tools to Create Strong, Powerful Connections
  • Rebranding and Building a Marketing Strategy for Business Anthropology  (facilitators: Adam Gamwell & Melissa Vogel)
  • The Unintended Consequences and Social Implications of Company Actions:  How Anthropologists Might Engage

If you are interested, you can find more information and the full agenda on the conference website

While many themes emerged over the course of the summit, I was most interested in the discussions on the value of anthropology in business and anthropological identity.

The Value of Anthropology in Business

Anthropologists are trained to listen and ask questions. We take a human-centered approach to studying the world through the perspective of the people we seek to understand. We connect with our research subjects in-context and on their own terrain.  

Anthropology is different from other fields in its commitment to holism and breadth and depth of understanding. This is the value we bring to business endeavors.

Importantly, our work makes the invisible visible by utilizing the powerful lens of culture to uncover and understand human values, desires, needs, and contexts.  Anthropologists are able to harness the critical meanings around reactions, experiences, products, services and symbols to fuel business growth. We provide the “why” accompanying the “what”. And in a world inundated with big data, anthropology empowers businesses with much needed “thick data” as coined by Tricia Wang.  

I’ve been fortunate to see this come to life in my own efforts to merge anthropology with the field of Insights & Analytics over the past year. Rather than simply informing clients which of their conceptual ideas are strongest, and what their customers say in reaction to those ideas, the anthropological lens bolsters the richness of the Insights & Analytics work, teasing out otherwise invisible dimensions such as social control, freedom and flexibility, urban fatigue, etc. to understand the unspoken “why” behind the observed “what”.  This deeper understanding empowers business teams to move forward with greater impact. 

The Anthropological Identity

Despite the tremendous power that results from an anthropological perspective, many of us in the discipline do not self-identify primarily as anthropologists. Instead, our community members may self-identify as user experience researchers, design researchers, consumer insights researchers, shopper insights researchers, research consultants, strategists, and the list goes on.  

Coming out of this year’s summit, I realize it’s time for a change. The exponential strength of our insight resides in our anthropological orientation, so it’s time to claim that proudly! Our anthropological expertise and culturally grounded lenses are unique and powerful assets. So, after 20+ years identifying myself with multiple titles (consumer/shopper insights researcher and research consultant), I now claim the added title of anthropologist with pride! I hope we will see more and more anthropologists in business doing the same. The tremendous added value that anthropology delivers for business impact is clear. I am energized by the truly incremental human understanding anthropology empowers each of us to harness! 

About the Author

Autumn D. McDonald is the owner of ADM Insights & Strategy, LLC. With over two decades of experience in Insights and Analytics (Market Research) she leverages her multifaceted expertise to aid clients in bolstering research capability, developing research plans, harnessing impactful learnings, and identifying actionable paths forward.  

Previously, she led the consumer research functions worldwide at both The Hershey Company and Revlon. Autumn was also responsible for spearheading research initiatives at Mattel, Kraft, Colgate Palmolive, and Procter & Gamble, where she designed and deployed insights, tools, methodologies, models, and analyses needed to develop superior marketing, sales, and product strategies grounded in consumer and shopper understanding.

In addition to her work in the for-profit realm, Autumn holds a position on the Board of Directors of the National Brain Tumor Society.  Autumn earned a Dual Degree in Mathematics and Spanish from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently developing her Master Thesis in Applied Anthropology at the University of North Texas, with a focus on Socio-Cultural Anthropology.



  1. Great article. A small point. The term ‘Thick data’ was originally coined by the pioneering anthropologist Clifford Geertz. I think Tricia Wang cleverly juxtaposed the concepts of Big Data and Thick Data in the linbk you gave.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s