Frequently anthropology faculty point out that they do not know how to include examples from anthropological practice into the courses they are teaching. Fortunately, making this pedagogical change is not difficult and well worth it. As someone who has split his career between the academy and advertising agencies, I offer this case study as an example. 

First, you ignite students’ interest by starting with a real-life problem.

The Art of Shaving is a high-end men’s shaving brand sold at Macy’s and other stores for $120.00. It has a small but growing following of men who purchase it. Their purchasing behavior, however, runs counter to the wide-spread trend of discount brands, like Harry’s razors or the Dollar Shave Club which retail for around $10.00, in online mail orders.  Gillette, the global personal-care product company, lost market share because their razors were deemed too costly, compared to these low-cost competitors. So why do some men behave contrarily, spending much more for a high-end shaving product, like the Art of Shaving?  Gillette was about to purchase the brand and wanted to find out and asked my team at BBDO to study a small niche of men. 

Art of Shaving

Second, you introduce students to the methodological choices that are made to ensure validity and reliability.

We conducted 24 in-home interviews in the NY, NJ, CT area with shaving enthusiasts we found online, asking the enthusiast to invite two friends or work colleagues unfamiliar with the high-end brand to his home. There, these enthusiasts described shaving, not as a chore as most men did, but rather as a highly engaging experience that was savored. They also claimed, as lawyers, computer technicians, and bankers, that their appearance mattered in their daily workday encounters with clients, what Erving Goffman described as the presentation of self to others.  

Third, you compare traditional anthropological fieldwork with fieldwork that occurs in industry (or nonprofits, or government).

In our research we did not just listen to these enthusiasts talk about shaving but watched how they performed shaving to convince their colleagues to try the brand. They detailed nuances of how to shave properly, describing for instance the sound the double-edged blade makes as it is held at the precise angle and glides over the skin. They showed us tips like adding olive oil to the shave cup when frothing up the lather to further soften skin. They shared with us the Sandalwood, Lavender or Sea Kelp aftershave lotion and mentioned that the scent woke them up to ‘be ready’ for their work world. 

Next, you teach students how to conceptualize the emergent data. 

Shaving brought them into a sensory moment, and the Art of Shaving offered a transformative ritual process that involved precise sequential steps: wetting the face, frothing up the cup with the shaving brush, applying the lather, shaving in short strokes, rinsing the face, applying the scented aftershave lotion to sooth their skin. Since most rituals operate at a high level of sensory stimulation, the sequential steps of the shaving ritual lent itself to an increase in sensory awareness.

Then you explore the connections between theory and practice.  

Rather than focusing on ritual for its symbolic and expressive meaning, where bodily movements, gestures, and postures are “read” objectively as sign carriers, we focused instead on how rituals do things to people, creating a performative presence that links cognition, emotion and embodied experience. Performance is rooted in the body and is contingent on interactions with others, objects present, and the environment in which action takes place, so it carries its own “immanent intentionality” as Tim Ingold describes. This means ritual experience “comes into being” each time, open to new expressions, adaptations and modifications, even as it follows the same sequence of actions. Men adding olive oil to the lather, or discovering new shaving blades from Japan, meant Gillette could also introduce new shaving innovations that would appeal to these performance-oriented men and enhance the ritual experience.  

Finally, you lead the students in a discussion of the study’s contributions to both scholarship and practice.

To scholarship:  We developed a new model by shifting our theoretical approach in gathering our insights. Rather than study rituals for their symbolic meaning, we explored ritual processes and experience as performance and practice. In other words, we let men “perform” the shaving ritual to us and others in presenting the value and benefit of the brand.

Ethnography is not just a study of a people, community, or a market segment of consumers. Tim Ingold argues that ethnography studies with them, drawing them into a conversation about how to live. It’s a way of knowing someone or something from the inside.  

To practice:  Our shaving ethnography was valuable because it created a new sensory-experiential consumer model for Gillette that they hadn’t known before. Moreover, this new model came from inside discussions with men for whom the experience of shaving was valued.

Gillette loved our analysis and our sensory model of ritual action. Our subsequent advertisements from BBDO welcomed men to the Art of Shaving brand and “the brotherhood of shaving,” where they experienced “The Perfect Shave.” The sensory-experiential model of the ritual helped us understand the shaving experience from the inside and convey the brand and shaving as a multi-sensory experience in which men could perform at their best.

This example is one of many in which anthropologists in industry, nonprofits, and government contribute to the development of the field. If you are short on examples, consider my instructional book, Business Anthropology: The Basics, or articles from the Journal of Business Anthropology, the Annals of Anthropological Practice, and edited volumes such as Profiles of Anthropological Praxis: An International Casebook which contains chapters by Praxis Award winners.


About the Author: Timothy Malefyt

Timothy Malefyt
Timothy de Waal Malefyt (PhD Anthropology, Brown) is Clinical Professor of Marketing at Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University. Previously, he held executive positions as VP, Director of Consumer Insights at BBDO and D’Arcy advertising agencies, where he led teams to explore cultural approaches to consumer research for developing brand and strategic insights. Tim was conference co-organizer for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC 2014) and has hosted the Business Anthropology Summit (2019) and AAA Career Readiness Commission Conference (2022) at Gabelli. His six books include Advertising Cultures (2003); Advertising and Anthropology (2012); Ethics in the Anthropology of Business (2017); Magical Capitalism (2018); and Women, Consumption and Paradox (2020), and Business Anthropology: the Basics (2023) as well as numerous other publications. A Fulbright award grantee, he enjoys frequent presentations at conferences, and serves on a number of editorial boards.