Anthropology as Strategy: A Review of Jay Hasbrouck’s “Ethnographic Thinking”

Anthropology as Strategy: A Review of Jay Hasbrouck’s “Ethnographic Thinking”

Anthropology is flourishing outside universities. More anthropologists than ever before work in the commercial sector- as researchers, consultants, user experience and design specialists.  Techniques informed by anthropological practice  comprise an expanding  portfolio of  approaches widely used in commercial qualitative research.  The practice of anthropology within commercial contexts has implications for the ways that research is conducted and fosters new professional identities. Many anthropologists at home in the commercial world are actively engaged in EPIC whose successful annual conferences  attract  a growing number of  researchers,  as well as design, tech and industry insiders.

The activities of EPIC members may be largely under the radar of  anthropologists  situated  in academically oriented university departments  who don’t see themselves as working  with,  or for,  businesses (universities as businesses not withstanding).  Another  reason why  developments in the world of business anthropology may escape the attention of  those of us outside it is that much of their knowledge production to date has been directed towards commercial clients  and to developing the knowledge base for practitioners.  A number of  excellent introductory texts  provide accessible overviews for researchers  interested in entering this field.  Although business anthropology has yet to integrate itself within the mainstream anthropology journals,  the practice of  anthropology within businesses is  beginning to attract  scholarly attention.  Recent academic work  is starting to examine how ethnography is used by corporations  and how the business of ethnography is marketed, organized and delivered.  A longer established body of work, including the path breaking contributions of Marietta Baba, investigates businesses  as social organizations, ethnographically.

A newer practitioner literature  aims to move beyond  ethnography handbooks and ethnographic descriptions to demonstrate  the potential of ethnography as an organizational practice.  Jay Hasbrouck  is an anthropologist  based in the United States. His MA in Visual Anthropology focused on  the Radical Faeries, a community of gay activists exploring spirituality and ecological concerns.  His PhD in Social Anthropology examined the role of anthropology in shaping the ideology and actions of radical environmentalists operating as the Earth Liberation Front. For the past fifteen years he has  used ethnographic research to address challenging problems  for corporate clients internationally.  Hasbrouck’s book  Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset (Routledge, New York 2018)  is a manifesto for  using ethnography as a tool for strategic thinking which has value for businesses  and other kinds of organizations. Hasbrouck  uses examples based on his experience to demonstrate the  distinctive value of  the open ended iterative  approach  to understanding  derived from the  immersive engagement which characterizes anthropological research.

Ethnography for Hasbrouck is  not merely a method  to be selected from a set of research tools.  It is a situated practice which  fosters  the curiosity, analytical capabilities and adaptability of the researcher.  Using ethnography only to investigate  research questions misses its transformative potential.  Adopting ethnographic thinking within organizations, Hasbrouck suggests, can  be productive in generating strategically  useful insights and making organizations more adaptable. Ethnographic Thinking uses experience from commissioned research ranging from an investigation into the global fish supply chain to how  nurses carry medicines between patients  in a  busy hospital  to  show how  ethnographic approaches can  be used to identify and address real world problems.  The book  conveys a vivid sense of  what is satisfying and exciting about this kind of work and how ethnographic practice can reveal what hides in plain sight because `it goes without saying’.

The description of a research team working with nursing staff  to resolve the misallocation of  patient medication on a busy ward provides an excellent example of problem focused team work using ethnography.  Confusion over medication didn’t indicate a problem with  nurse training or knowledge,  or with the ways in which medicines were stored. It arose from  the ways in which pressured staff  managed their professional interactions  as they moved quickly  between other staff and patients.  Constant interruptions from staff needing to communicate with each other about patient care  meant  it was easy to lose track of  the medicines they were carrying. Part of the team’s role is to facilitate a solution. A carrying device  for sorted medicines is introduced, along with efforts to  increase awareness among staff about the risks of interrupting each other. Tales like these  are intended to convey the productivity of  ethnographic practice for business insiders.

The book has much to offer business outsiders also.  Hasbrouck is a skilled ethnographer whose  field experience  encompasses  rural Mexican communities  at risk of displacement from  eco tourism, apartment dwellers in an Egyptian city and Radical Faeries in North America.  Diverse experience of doing ethnography in different settings gives  applied ethnographers a unique perspective on  what helps such approaches travel.  Good ethnographic practice  which prioritizes a  relational understanding of  social processes  depends on the  skills and sensitivities of the ethnographer.  This book is packed with strategies for doing better ethnography through adopting  the attitudes and behaviors which cultivate curiosity, openness and the capacity for holistic analysis. Active listening and emotional intelligence enable the  quality of interactions that are the foundation of good ethnography.   What Hasbrouck  terms `ethnographic thinking’ is  a  kind of grounded,  problem focused curiosity  which facilitates the  quality of  dialogical interaction between ethnographer and participant that can move a question forward .

This book is  a committed argument for the holism  and embodied nature of ethnographic practice which  perhaps speaks more to  practicing anthropologists than to its intended audience of  executives and business strategists.  The ethnographic offer is clearly set out. What is less clear is the  means through which it could be taken up by those not already practicing it.  Businesses can obviously hire anthropologists and  commission ethnography. How people in business could incorporate ethnographic thinking into their professional practice  would benefit from more detailed explaining.   Ethnographic Thinking  presents a  convincing argument for  the  place of anthropology in organizations.

Note: This post was amended by Maia on June 6th 2018 to clarify details of Jay Hasbrouck’s postgraduate research.

Maia Green works on the anthropology of international development and issues of social transformation in East Africa. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. Maia Green teaches at the University of Manchester.

2 Replies to “Anthropology as Strategy: A Review of Jay Hasbrouck’s “Ethnographic Thinking””

  1. I think a big problem is a rigidity of scientific publishing. Yes, ofc, working in a business sector gave me an experience I would not have otherwise had as an anthropologist, the whole internal side/perspective on things. Yet, I do not even know if I could write a viable “scientific” article these days, because it often requires an obligatory homage to the … well whatever was going on scientifically in that field for at least last few decades, and that often is behind the paywalls, so not available for us, mere mortals. Also, without being a part of the institutional matrix and not being a native English speaker… well, then all the editing and other arranging is your own (expensive) problem… which pretty much ends up in “oh screw this, I’d rather blog”. 😀

  2. You make a good point here Aurelija. That rigidity comes from our own discipline and its conventions. The paywall which restricts access is something else. I learned a lot about the challenges of open access versus inclusion from some of the older posts on the previous site. Open access at least makes work available to readers. It doesn’t address the other barriers.