Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Sales-Driven Soothsayers: Corporate Anthropologists as Trending Trope in Today’s Public Imagination


My colleagues and I at ReD Associates, New York, nearly elbowed each other out of the way trying to snag our office’s copy of Tom McCarthy’s sleek new novel, Satin Island. Beyond making sense of the colorful oil or island-like blobs on the cover, we wanted to know: Is U., a “corporate anthropologist” tasked with writing an ethnographic report on our current era, anything like us?

Most people take at least a passing interest in how others perceive them, and corporate anthropologists are no exception. While forensic and medical anthropologists are arguably the most conspicuous kind of anthropologist in America’s public imagination today, corporate anthropologists are increasingly visible in everything from fiction—à la Satin Island—to popular media outlets, such as The New York Times’ recent coverage of Genevieve Bell or Danah Boyd.

Does it matter how corporate anthropologists or, for that matter, any other kind of anthropologist, are popularly perceived? In a recent issue of American Anthropologist, Weston et al (2015) argue that fictional anthropologists are both shaped by and active in shaping popular understandings of anthropology, and that “[i]t would be beneficial for the discipline to play an active role in discussing the ways in which we are represented in popular culture” (317). But fictional anthropologists are not the only ones shaped by and shaping public opinion; real, flesh-and-blood anthropologists are too.

At least some of them are anyway. According to Di Leonardo (2006), “the press has a preference for certain procrustean anthropological personae, among which she includes ‘Human Nature Experts,’ ‘Last Macho Raiders, and ‘Technicians of the Sacred’” (quoted in Gusterson 2013: 12). These popular personae refer to anthropological “Halloween costumes,” “into which, since the 1960s, the public has tended to squeeze all anthropological knowledge” (Di Leonardo 2009: 164).

Inspired by Di Leonardo and Weston et al in thinking about dominant depictions and descriptions of anthropologists in American popular culture and media in the last few decades, I identified six prominent tropes that cover the gamut from archaeology to biological and sociocultural anthropology:

  1. Alpha-Male Archaeologists
  2. Forensic Aficionados
  3. Med-Anthro Megastars
  4. Military Mediators
  5. Passionate Primatologists
  6. Sensual Socioculturals

This list is by no means exhaustive, and does not account, for example, for well-known anthropologist-journalists such as Tanya Luhrmann, Gillian Tett, or Paul Stoller.

Here a note on archaeologists is also necessary. As Weston et al (2015) point out, “archaeologists are often, but not always, anthropologists” (317). Still, when asking around the office, I found that many people intuitively included Indiana Jones on a list of famous anthropologists in popular culture. While Holtorf (2007) identifies four major representations of archaeologists—the adventurer, the detective, someone who makes profound revelations, and someone who takes care of ancient sites and objects—I suspect that most popularly imagined archaeologists are brawny, white alpha-males the likes of Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. or Lawrence of Arabia.

Next in alphabetical line are forensic aficionados, rendered especially visible in the last decade due to the popularity of television crime series like Bones, CSI, and Criminal Minds. These anthropologists, portrayed as experts acting as channels between social worlds, “are often given the clunky lines that explain what is going on, allowing the plot to move forward” (Weston et al 2015: 320). In real life, med-anthro megastars like Paul Farmer or Jim Kim are arguably the most publicly visible of all anthropologists, though as Gusterson (2013) points out, “when anthropologists become public figures whose mission and expertise is at odds with the [falsely exoticizing] ‘pith helmet’ trope of anthropology, the anthropological component of their personae is often erased in media accounts” (13). Thus, Jim Kim is known in the media primarily as a doctor and not an anthropologist.

Military mediators are those who, like Colonel Creighton in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim or Montgomery McFate of the United States Army’s Human Terrain Program, are especially memorable due to their controversial blending of ethnographic and military endeavors. Passionate primatologists like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, on the other hand, are remembered more for their activism and hirsute friendships than they are their backgrounds in anthropology.

Lastly, we have the sensual socioculturals. I use the term sensual because those sociocultural anthropologists—whether fictional or real—most visible in American popular culture today tend to be sensualized women, as in the case of Lily King’s 2014 novel Euphoria (loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead) or the anthropologist characters Charlotte Lewis in Lost and Annie Braddock (played by Scarlett Johansson) in The Nanny Diaries. Or, if you’re more of an ’80s kind of person, perhaps you remember the following dialogue from the movie When Harry Met Sally:

Sally Albright: Is Harry bringing anybody to the wedding?
Marie: I don’t think so.
Sally Albright: Is he seeing anybody?
Marie: He was seeing this anthropologist, but…
Sally Albright: What’s she look like?
Marie: Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.

Leading us, in the end, to our own line of anthropological work, and how we are portrayed and portray ourselves in today’s public imagination. As McCarthy writes in Satin Island:

“What does an anthropologist working for a business actually do? We purvey cultural insight. What does that mean? It means that we unpick the fibre of a culture…and let a client in on how they can best…sell their product.… In essence it’s not that much different from what soothsayers, ichthyomancers, did in ancient times.… The difference being, of course, that soothsayers were frauds” (2015: 23).

And so another trope—that of the sales-driven soothsayer—has taken literary flight. While anthropologists have worked in industrial research and development in the United States since at least the 1970s (see Suchman 2015), and popular articles like Anthropology, Inc. and The Rise of Corporate Anthropology have helped make what we do marginally more understandable and apparent to non-anthropologist audiences, only recently has our work captured the imagination of fiction writers the likes of Tom McCarthy. In Satin Island, the main character, U., who has been rescued “from the dying branches of academia” and is a representative of the “growing diaspora of PhDs forced to find gainful employment outside the academy” (Marcus 2105), is believable and farcical in equal measures. Although he never explicitly describes himself as a strategy consultant, there are glimmers throughout the text that U. does more than just research. He also “[advises] other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products, …cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas” (15). In other words, U. deals in strategically crafted narratives.

Even if he represents little more than anthropology’s newest “Halloween costume” in the end, U. is a compelling enough character to liven up the public conversation about what exactly it is corporate anthropologists do, and why we do it. Whether readers recognize his work as strategy consulting per se, however, is up for debate. We might just need another “in-house ethnographer”—either fictional or real—to bring us more squarely into the limelight.


Di Leonardo, Micaela. 2006. “Anthropology’s Past and Present in American Media.” Anthropology News 47(2): 23-4.

———. 2009. “The Trope of the Pith Helmet: America’s Anthropology, Anthropology’s America,” in Alisse Waterston and Maria Vesperi, eds. Anthropology off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing. New York: Blackwell.

Gusterson, Hugh. 2013. “Anthropology in the News?” Anthropology Today 29(6): 11-13.

Holtorf, Cornelius. 2007. Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Marcus, David. 2015. “Men in Space: The Novelist of Disenchantment Finds Meaning.” New Republic.

McCarthy, Tom. 2015. Satin Island. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Suchman, Lucy. 2015. “Consuming Anthropology,” in Andrew Barry and Georgina Born, eds. Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences.

Weston, Gavin, et al. 2015. “Anthropologists in Films: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’” American Anthropologist 117(2): 316-328.



Sarah LeBaron von Baeyer, ReD Associates

Sarah LeBaron von Baeyer is a consultant at ReD Associates with special interests in globalization, race and ethnicity, immigrant identities, class, and gender. Before joining ReD, she taught anthropology and conducted research on transnational migration between Japan and Brazil.