How Anthropological Thinking Can Help Make Business Greener and Just Better

Photo: (CC) townofchapelhill on Flicker

Business leaders are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their commitment to people and planet. In a 2010 McKinsey and Company Global Survey, just 3% of CEOs reported that sustainability was a top priority. In a follow-up survey four years later, 13% of CEOs reported sustainability as their number one priority and 36% placed it as one of their top three priorities.

The upshot is that growing numbers of corporations are realizing that sustainable business practices are not only good for our common survival but also good for business. Among other benefits, commitments to sustainability can help businesses cut costs, push innovation, get a step ahead of new government regulations, enhance reputation and community relationships, and improve job satisfaction for a new generation of employees who are increasingly eager to be part of the solution. But despite the growing prioritization of sustainability, business leaders often find it challenging to envision their best, most innovative opportunities to invest in sustainability initiatives.

This is where I see a big opening for anthropological thinking.

In this article I will briefly describe three core elements of anthropological thinking that can help business approach sustainability with fresh perspective. These are critical reflexivity; holistic-systemic vision; and the “emic” way of knowing.

Critical reflexivity

As a general rule, anthropologists are introspective. While most of their focus is on studying other people, they’re also trained to critically examine themselves and their own profession. Some of this is epistemological; anthropologists recognize that the ways people live and work in the world influence their perception of what’s going on. This is true whether we’re anthropologists, or steelworkers, or CEOs. By reflecting on this, anthropologists seek a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of their own conclusions. There’s also an important ethical dimension to their self-reflection: they have a nearly obsessive drive to understand if and how their work affects other people’s lives and to make sure that they are not causing harm.

Anthropologists call this ongoing introspection their reflexivity.

Reflexivity is a foundation of the anthropological way of thinking and is hardwired into every cultural anthropologist. This contrasts sharply with the foundational mindset of business thinking. Business moves fast; it doesn’t have much time for philosophical self-contemplation. In most business contexts, people are rewarded for working very linearly and straightforwardly, without looking back.

But these two mindsets — anthropological reflexivity and linear business thinking — are not at odds with each other in the pursuit of sustainability. On the contrary, they can be wonderfully complementary. Anthropological thinking can help businesses reflect on themselves in ways that are unexpected and provoke fresh consideration of what’s going on. In doing so, anthropological thinking can help business leaders define new business opportunities and strategic goals that improve their social and environmental footprint, especially in areas of practice where they wouldn’t normally take time to look.

This is where holistic-systemic vision comes in

Another foundation of anthropology is holism — the idea that every little thing humans do or experience is intimately interconnected with a much larger whole. It’s basically a systems perspective. In anthropology, holism is most commonly used to understand the interconnectedness of different aspects of cultures or communities, but it’s just as applicable for understanding other complex human-made systems such as businesses, industries, or production processes.

This holistic-systemic view is standard in anthropological thinking and is infused in just about everything anthropologists do. In contrast, business professionals are more typically conditioned to focus on parts rather than systemic wholes. Yes, it’s true that many corporations celebrate leaders among them who are seen to be systemic thinkers— but these leaders are celebrated, arguably, because they’re the exceptions.

Focusing on parts rather than whole systems usually makes perfectly good sense in business. A tightly focused vision helps business people do their specific jobs without getting in the weeds. But this normal business thinking also tends to perpetuate business-as-usual and constrains businesses’ potential for conscientious change. This is because sustainability issues are typically systemic in nature. They’re caused by the compounding effects of a broad range of practices throughout a whole business or a whole industry — which makes sustainability issues very difficult to understand, solve, or even see if you aren’t viewing things systemically.

By looking holistically at the interconnected facets of sustainability, anthropological thinking can help businesses more effectively understand their own contributions to social and environmental challenges and envision changes that are far reaching and truly impactful.

Which brings us to the “emic” way of knowing

Anthropologists recognize two very different types of knowledge about what’s happening in the world around us. They refer to these as etic and emic. (These peculiar terms are borrowed from the science of linguistics, but we don’t need to go into that here.)

Etic knowledge is what we could call the objective, rational way of understanding things. It’s the kind of knowledge we expect to find in textbooks, and news reports, and scientific articles. The other type — emic knowledge — is quite different. This is the way people personally experience and feel what’s happening around them. It is the subjective, emotional, and cultural point of view. Anthropological thinking values both ways of knowing, but places special emphasis on other people’s emic knowledge. This is core to the practice of anthropology. It is how anthropologists learn to see things through other people’s eyes and “stand in someone else’s shoes”.

Over the past several decades, business leaders have increasingly taken interest in their customers’ emic knowledge. This has helped many companies gain powerful insight and bring about stand-out innovations in product design and marketing. However, as far as I can tell, the business world has yet to appreciate the value of this type of knowledge for sustainability strategy. This is unfortunate, because sustainability issues are not simply rational, objective problems that can be solved by scientists or engineers or visionary CEOs. They are also subjective, human problems. Regular people’s emic points of view are essential for understanding sustainability through the eyes of those who actually live with the social and environmental consequences of industry. And emic points of view are key to helping businesses envision sustainability solutions that have real value and resonance for all their stakeholders — customers and community members as well as employees, outsourced workers, and others, wherever they may be.

Getting greener and better with anthropological thinking

Sustaining people and planet is the challenge of our time. I believe that smart companies — the ones that will be admired, patronized, and welcomed in our communities tomorrow — are those that make sustainability a key consideration in their work today.

These three modes of anthropological thinking can help business leaders imagine their best opportunities to be greener and better:

  • Applying critical reflexivity to question how their profession shapes their own perspectives of what’s going on, and dare to wonder about the ways they could be causing harm
  • Taking a holistic-systemic view to more effectively see the complex ways their business is interconnected with social and environmental challenges locally and globally
  • Seeking out emic ways of knowing to more deeply understand how social and environmental issues impact the lives of ordinary people and communities, and imagine a better world

It doesn’t need to stop there — there’s much more to anthropological thinking than these three modes. But this is a good start.

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