The future of organizational anthropology, a field I have identified with for over 20 years, has claimed more attention for me over the last year or two. One result has been two fascinating roundtable sessions I co-designed with colleagues* for conferences that brought together anthropologists working with organizations. While organizational anthropology has existed as a practice or sub-discipline for almost 50 years, this field has received less recent attention outside the academy than, say, design anthropology or user experience work. Yet there continues to be a community of people working with organizations across a variety of sectors—not-for-profit, healthcare, corporate, and government. These anthropologists are doing impressive things in the world (e.g., in work on projects, speaking, writing) and developed innovative ways of working, ideas, tools, and methods that draw on anthropology and allied fields. Melissa Fisher’s current explorations on the future of work stand out, as do Matt Artz’s forays into artificial intelligence in anthropology.

One session was held at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Seattle in 2022 and focused on three broad topics:

  • Establishing goals, aspirations, and metrics,
  • Collaborating across boundaries—anthropologist/client, researcher/practitioner, theory/practice, and
  • Innovating our tools/methods—while considering the role of change and the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging across the above.

The discussion was robust and broad, reflecting the diverse group of practitioners in the room and our varied experiences. It felt like we tapped into a rich well of information, though without the time to really organize and synthesize what had sprung forth.

Our recent session at the Global Business Anthropology Summit (GBAS) in Mexico City in June was energizing and engaging, building on the Seattle Roundtable. It examined a range of domains across organizational practice, including “Organizations as Process,” “Organizational Research Methods,” “Inclusive Leadership,” and “Creating Alternative Futures.” A mix of participants, from students through seasoned practitioners, joined the group of presenters. Our experiences were broad and varied. The terminology employed and concepts raised ranged widely, reflecting the diversity of backgrounds and work foci among our group.

Session at GBAS 2023 in Mexico City

Session at GBAS 2023 in Mexico City

A few insights from these two conferences:

  • Organizational anthropology is flourishing, although under different labels, across multiple sectors, with different strategies, yet still hangs together as rooted in anthropology.
  • Organizational anthropology lives under the radar in public discourse, educational domains, and even in the organizations representing the field of anthropology.
  • Organizational anthropologists use a diverse set of tools drawn from multiple disciplines and histories, including organizational development, business strategy, design thinking, visualization, network analysis, sensemaking, futuring, big data, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and, of course, ethnography.
  • Organizational anthropologists draw heavily on anthropology (what a surprise!), using an ethnographic mindset and global sensibility, seeking out in-depth narratives, conducting interviews, observing culture and power at work in organizations, thinking about and intervening in organizations both bottom up and top down, observing and creating rituals, and thinking reflectively and reflexively about their own role in the research and intervention process.
  • Organizational anthropologists believe that what they offer organizations is important for doing good in the world and creating sustainable, engaging, and inclusive work environments.
  • Organizational anthropologists thirst for ongoing connection with each other and to counter the potential for isolation some may feel from stepping outside the academy and the supports those institutions offer.

I look forward to ongoing interactions with this fascinating yet diffuse community and feel grateful for those I have been able to meet and collaborate with through these recent gatherings. And yes, it does feel that sessions like these advance organizational anthropology into the future.

*Note: I was honored to collaborate with Matthew Hill on designing and facilitating a session for the AAA meeting in Seattle in 2022, and with Matthew Hill and Steven Thomson on a follow-on session at the Global Business Anthropology Summit this past June. Thanks to the following additional colleagues for their contributions and participation in the two conference roundtables—Robert Adams, Elizabeth K. Briody, Melissa Fisher, Julia C. Gluesing, Ed Liebow, Derek Newberry, Tara Schwegler, and Carlos Vélez-Ibañez.

About the Author: Barry Dornfeld

Barry Dornfeld
Barry Dornfeld, Principal, has been a strategic advisor to organizations in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, and is an expert on organizational culture and change, strategy, leadership, and governance. He draws on his many years of consulting, teaching, and industry experience to help guide clients through complex organizational challenges, using ethnographic skills to analyze challenges and engage groups and develop strategies for change. Barry speaks to a wide range of groups across healthcare, non-profits, and higher education in the US and internationally, and leads CFAR’s Higher Education practice. He teaches extensively, leading executive programs on culture and change, strategy, influence and persuasion, and leadership and governance in places like the Harvard Macy program “Leading Innovations in Healthcare,” AAMC’s Advanced Leadership Program, the Chief Nursing Officers Academy, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Organizational Dynamics program. Barry’s experience as an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker trained him to listen and ask insightful questions, working with executives in ways that are attuned to their needs, culture, and leadership styles, and help them reach their organizational goals. These skills help him connect to clients easily, work productively in a variety of settings, and effectively advise and teach executives. His recent work in healthcare and higher education has focused on ways to help leaders maximize value within and outside of their institutions—with particular depth in universities, academic medical centers, and professional associations. Barry is co-author of The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future, published by PublicAffairs Books in October 2014, and has authored many other articles and papers and produced documentary works. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Economics from Tufts University and a Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania, and has been a faculty member at New York University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.