Culture 101: A New Era for Anthropology

Why might the same marketing strategy destroy competition in America but fail to engage people in other countries?

The primary factor in global marketing is culture.

But how can we understand another culture? Culture is intangible. It is not a single thing. It changes over time. Every person has their own. Numbers can’t reflect cross-cultural business etiquette. Culture is the most underrated topic in business as global marketing begins to transition to social media. If culture is so important, how do people study something that’s intangible?

One word: Ethnography.

Ethnography is an umbrella term for the scientific study of people and cultures. A wide variety of research methods are used to understand culture. Some methods include participant observation and interviews. Ethnographers are like overly personal journalists. The person doing the research is just as much a part of it as the people being studied.

Historically, ethnography was used by academics to understand how other groups of people live and organize their societies. Franz Boas, one of the fathers in ethnography and anthropology, determined that the best way to learn culture is to study it in its local context. To do this, you have to strip away judgmental tendencies towards other cultures.

Thai culture is weird because they eat bugs! Gross!! I could never do that.

Or try this one: American culture is so strange. I can’t believe they put ice in their water. Even in the winter!

Either of these phrases sound familiar?

As you can see, it’s easy to judge a culture based on how you think a culture should be. But so many things get overlooked in this mind-set. We are ALL human beings, and we ALL have our reasons for doing things. Which explains why it was so difficult to interact with different cultural groups back then. This judgmental view towards other cultures caused a lot of problems in the past and even today.

When we focus on differences, we see people as “others.”

But when we are optimistic, we see people as people. Just like us.

Unfortunately, the information ethnography provides is far too valuable in the game of power and politics. When you understand ones culture, you have the key to their heart. It’s the same as shaking someone’s hand when you meet them and making eye-contact in America. It shows you are open to their views.

People are flattered when someone from another culture knows their customs and speaks their language. It opens people up. While this is great for learning about other cultures, it also creates vulnerability. Depending on the agenda, ethnography can be used as a weapon. Especially against those without any political or military power. It’s all psychology. Wouldn’t it be much easier to get people to work for you then to work against you?

The same thing happened during colonialism. In the case of Viet Nam, native people to the Central Highlands were important for many reasons. First, the missionaries came to convert them to their religion. Then under French colonialism, they needed to keep people under control with a small French army. During the Vietnam-American war, the Central Highlands were strategic to the military, so they needed to gain access. They did this by studying the Highlanders to meet them on their own terms.

The people who practiced colonialism realized that, person to person, they were far outnumbered. The reason they were able to maintain control happened because they deceptively convinced those they ruled that they were there to help. Not to steal their resources.

Ethnography was used, and created, to solve all of these problems. And it did. Understanding culture gave the French power, especially over the resistant ethnic minority groups. While the French ultimately failed, ethnographic methods are tried and true in all walks of life.

Thus, culture studies become two-sided: On the one hand, it allows us to address and solve problems, such as world hunger and poverty. On the other, powerful people can use this information for their own benefit. Which is why anthropology, the newest rendition in the history of ethnography, is not mainstream. Yet. If this field was as popular as the sciences, the information would be widely known, and therefore, not an effective “weapon.”

Businesses and corporations have already realized the potential of culture research in their quest to expand globally. The internet is here, folks. Businesses can spread their influence and reach almost anywhere with virtually zero cost. Whether that is successful, however, is another story.

As technology advances, the costs and obstacles associated with global marketing go down. With businesses turning to global, we will start to see a need for understanding culture. Marketing tactics in America will not necessarily work in Cambodia. And vice versa. Which is why people who study culture will have the best opportunities in an increasingly inter-connected world market.

Anthropology is on the verge of becoming mainstream. Which means we must be more careful with our research than we have ever been before. I am fine with Anthropology entering the business world. All I ask is remain vigilant and critical. We must always consider the consequences of our work. After all, knowledge is power.

For it has the potential to both crush or empower.




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