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What Does Anthropology Have to Do with PR?

[fa icon="calendar"] 24-Nov-2014 09:00:00 / by Iliyana Stareva

"Social media is less going native with anthropology for PRabout technology and more about anthropology, sociology, and ethnography." – wrote Brian Solis in his book Engage. When I read that I was confused. Particularly with the anthropology bit and I thought to myself "What does anthropology have to do with social media and communications?" I did get it to a point, but I only fully got to grips with the idea once finishing a recent MOOC about anthropology. It was an enlightening experience and today I would like to share with you what I've learned.

Let's start with some definitions.

According to Philippe Bourgois, University Professor of Anthropology & Family and Community Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania:

"Anthropology is the study of humans by any means necessary ... to understanding what's around us, whether it's where we live or somewhere far away. The crucial thing is that anthropology has this insight; it brings to understanding human society and human culture, which is that everyone lives within their logic. Nothing is right or wrong. Our duty, to put it that way, as anthropologists, is to uncover the logic of the people or the setting that we want to understand."

As noted in the course materials, social or cultural anthropology is about people: the environments they inhabit and the things they get up to, examined from the bottom up, not top down to find different ways of seeing the world, inhabiting the world, and in fact different worlds altogether.

That's actually very similar to what PR is about. PR lives upon other people's behaviours and cultural interactions that are the very essence of one of the most fundamental PR activities – storytelling. This, in turn, goes hand in hand with Paul Stoller's definition of anthropology:

"Anthropology is telling other people's stories so that we can understand human difference. It's really very important for us to know how other people live – their passions, their desires, but also the conflicts in their lives, their issues basically... [and] put a premium on storytelling and narrative and how they bring us to the centre of what matters existentially in social life... What stays is ethnography: telling people stories, describing people in their particular locale, describing how they live, how they talk, their conflicts, their passions, their lives."

Another definition I like is by Daniel Goldstein who says that anthropology is about going out into the world and talking to people to meet them as equals and getting to understand their lives and their worlds through their perspective. The focus is on having conversations with those people and as a next step to tell these stories in order to understand the differences with others and the world.

So, in its very essence anthropology is not about you, it's about the others around you, their environments and social bodies.

To help you get the connection with PR and social, here's another insightful quote from Brian Solis:

“The only way to understand new culture and behavior is to go native. Going native refers to the process of observing, learning, and deepening the involvement of an anthropologist with their hosts and their hosts’ cultures through long-term fieldwork and participation.”

As you can see, social media, PR and anthropology have quite a few things in common, which is why it only makes sense for PR people to try and see things through the anthropological lens too. Such a sociological media/consumer behaviour approach allows to, first, understand and get to know your audience, and second, stay resilient and be more flexible to changes in behaviour.

But why is it so important to have such a deep understanding of others and their behaviours? What's the link between anthropology, PR and social media here? Well, relationships.

According to Robert Borofsky, Professor of Anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University, the role of anthropology is not only understanding others and describing it, but also sharing and building relationships that benefit both parties. Isn't that the essence of PR too? It sure is according to PRSA's definition:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

What this all means is that it could be quite beneficial for PR and social media professionals to get familiar with anthropology and use its tools, don't you think? Because if you want to build meaningful and long-lasting relationships with your customers, the people you're doing business with or your media contacts, be them journalists or bloggers and vloggers, you need to understand their needs and desires and learn to speak the same language. If you want to succeed in that, you need to not only dig deep and do your research, but you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes by immersing yourself in their reality. That's going native. And that's the best way you can learn, understand and find the best approach – by experiencing it on your own.

So, the next time you are about to get in touch with a journalists, a blogger, a client or a customer, don't just focus on the content, think about the context. Think about how what you are about to offer them is going to benefit them. Go on their Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, check out what they share, what they are interested in, find something in common, get interested in them so that they can get interested in you too. Don't forget that it's context that shapes behaviour.

A perfect way to finish this post is another quote from Robert Borofsky that really says it all:

"This idea of understanding how people live in their context, understanding the differences from us, what we can learn from them and what they can learn from us, how we can help them and how they can help us, it really, in a sense, is like a calling. It's a passion that allows us to really enrich the lives of those around us, as well as ourselves."


How do you think PR and social media professionals can benefit from anthropology?

Topics: Public Relations

Iliyana Stareva

Written by Iliyana Stareva

Iliyana Stareva is the author of Inbound PR - the book that is transforming the PR industry. She's also a keynote speaker and a consultant in inbound and digital for fast-growing companies and agencies. Currently, Iliyana is Chief of Staff to the EMEA President at ServiceNow. Before that, she held global and EMEA-wide positions at Cisco and HubSpot. She is also certified by the PMI as a Project Management Professional (PMP)®. In her free time, you can find Iliyana writing for her blog, dancing salsa or travelling the world.

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