Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Needed: Anthropologists in Insurance


I work in life insurance. No, I’m not an actuary or underwriter—I’m an anthropologist, and it’s a great fit.

I began my career working with refugees in the public and nonprofit sectors, then spent seven years teaching anthropology courses to undergraduates, and I’ll admit that insurance wasn’t on my mind. But now that I’m here the value of my background is clear: Anthropology has taught me to be a listener, a storyteller, and a holistic thinker. I use these skills every day in my job in customer experience on an insurance innovation team.

Another thing is clear: the insurance industry needs anthropologists, even though they might not know it yet. So, if you’re an anthropologist or ethnographer of another stripe, please consider applying for jobs in the insurance industry.

To do that you’ll need to get creative about where you look for employment and how you present your skills. Let me explain.

Insurance Companies Need Anthropologists as Listeners

Insurance companies are brimming with quantitative data on customers, but they need anthropologists to listen to customers and other stakeholders in order to capture new kinds of qualitative data rooted in story and context—what I call “small data” and others have called “thick data” (Tricia Wang 2003).

When I taught research methods classes, I required my students to practice listening to people and observing their behavior, keeping a field notebook, and recording and transcribing interviews. Back then, it would never have occurred to me to call this research “small data,” but in my insurance world, the term works for me for three reasons.

“Small data” is a useful elevator pitch and conceptual hook that resonates with colleagues and clients who typically do not know what an anthropologist is.

It allows me to highlight the value of small sample sizes and listening for qualitative information, whether I am doing research with a client company representative, a financial advisor, or an end consumer. My colleagues now introduce me to others as “the listener.” And they’re starting to agree that the insurance industry needs more listeners.

“Small data” links me to important conversations about big data, opening doors for collaboration.

When I started out in insurance, I spent a lot of time trying to differentiate myself as the person interested in uncovering “why” customers do what they do—in contrast to actuaries and data scientists who analyze correlations in big data sets to determine “what” customers do. But this framework is limiting. John Curran’s (2013) concept of “big ethnographic data” has given me a new paradigm for finding ways to work in relationship with the numbers people instead of differentiating myself away from them. For example, if the task is to help a client increase their sales volume, I can conduct interviews with customers who have dropped out of the process to understand why, while also working with data scientists to understand metrics around where most customers are dropping out of the sales funnel. Together, we can develop better hypotheses about what is happening, why it is happening, and how the problem might best be solved. As John argues, both small and big data should be seen as parts of our overall interpretive approach to understanding human behavior and culture.

“Small data” experts have an important role to play in innovation, especially in the design thinking process, which is still rather new in the insurance industry.

Christian Madsjberg (2017) takes design thinking to task as “innovation without any context.” Many of his arguments resonate with me, and I see the problems he uncovers as a golden opportunity for anthropologists and social scientists. Context is, after all, our bread and butter (see “holistic thinkers” below). In my experience, insurance professionals are looking for new ideas for better understanding and empathizing with the customer—what insurance really means to them. My colleagues have enthusiastically joined me in developing more robust research methods to listen to customers and gather insights about their social worlds before the design thinking workshops begin. The workshop itself then becomes an opportunity for the anthropologist to introduce key stakeholders to their customers, driving the whole process of ideation and prototyping that follows—which leads me to my next point.

Insurance Companies Need Anthropologists as Storytellers

Insurance professionals often get absorbed in spreadsheets and wordy Power Point decks that contain important information, yet lack a narrative rooted in the human experience. We need more stories to humanize abstract data, root companies in an empathetic understanding of real people’s needs and experiences, and inspire creativity in innovation.

Even if you have only taken one anthropology class in college, chances are you remember an ethnographic story from it. It might be Clifford Geertz’s (1972) story of a cock fight that reveals what it means to be Balinese or Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) stories of the collapsing granaries and the poison oracles that offer a window into how the Azande understand misfortune. One of my personal favorites is Harry West’s (2005) story of sorcery lions in rural Mozambique, which exposes local attitudes toward democratic reforms. As descriptions of culture, ethnographies are rooted in stories that illuminate cultural truths. The anthropologist listens and observes as a method for gathering data, but the insights are created through the interpretation of stories that order reality and construct meaning out of all the details of life.

A story about a real customer who has a problem that the business can solve is an extremely powerful way to sway your business colleagues. However, it’s important to recognize that “understanding the customer” is not enough. We must also understand and know our audience—the business stakeholders—in order to determine which bits of the story will resonate and have business impact. Cayla and Arnould (2013) argue that ethnographic stories are a powerful tool for market learning because they “bring a faceless market segment to life,” “give access to other worlds,” and “humanize organizational practice.” They can also help to create a common language that customers and business professionals both understand. For these stories to resonate, the anthropologist must earn the right to be heard and effectively translate meaning and value between customer and business worlds. You’ll need to study your own organization and stakeholders, too.

On the flip side, anthropologists as “storytellers” can also play an important role in translating insurance language to the customer in a more authentic and natural way. The insurance industry has recognized that its customer communications and policy information are notoriously difficult to understand, and many insurers are working to make things simpler, easier, and more transparent. Anthropologists who understand both the language of the customers and the language of the industry have an important role to play in crafting stories that show customers the value of insurance.

Insurance Companies Need Anthropologists as Holistic Thinkers

Insurance companies are typically old institutions with deeply siloed systems. They are trying to remake themselves to serve customers in the digital age and they need “holistic thinkers” to help them create new, customer-centric systems. They need to understand context and connections.

On the first day of every anthropology class I ever taught, I would tell my students that anthropologists never study a person or phenomenon in isolation, but always seek to understand how everything connects. For example, we read Peggy Levitt’s (2001) book The Transnational Villagers to learn about how the worlds of Dominican immigrants to Boston and their families back home in Miraflores were interwoven, with a constant and evolving exchange of new American and old homeland ideas about childrearing, gender relations, financial obligations, and the law, church, and politics. This is just one example of the way anthropologists inhabit ecosystems to understand and explain people and contexts holistically.

Insurance company systems are typically set up around tracking policies from sales to underwriting to policy maintenance to claims, which works for understanding the product cycle but not for understanding the customer or the wider implications of insurance products and service experiences in people’s lives. Even when insurers want to focus on “the lifetime value of the customer,” their siloed lenses often get in the way of focusing on how people’s risk management needs are shaped and evolve in context—focusing, like Levitt, on the relevance of childrearing, gender relations, financial obligations, the law, church, and politics.

My company’s research shows that life insurance customers regularly experience jarring handoffs, duplicate communications, and gaps in communication between one department and the next. Too often insurers try to improve the customer touchpoints one department at a time, or even one letter or email at a time, focusing on distinct stages of the customer journey in a linear fashion with organizational silos remaining intact and fragmenting customer experience. Anthropologists can help companies overcome these challenges by baking a customer-centric view into the whole insurance cake, rather than sprinkling a few customer insights on top when a product goes to market.

The trend in insurance is also to transform customer experience through adopting emerging technologies within digital ecosystems. Insurers get very excited about the potential for these ecosystems to generate new sources of data, new business models, and new value. Ken Anderson, et al (2015) discuss the tendency for big companies to place themselves in the center of the ecosystem, which provides a limited view. Instead, anthropologists can identify and understand key communities within the ecosystem. New technology and big data analytics allow insurers to know a lot about customers, but this knowledge needs to be complimented with stories of how human beings actually experience the ecosystem and the meaning and value they assign to its offerings as a whole.

The temptation for insurers is to simply provide customers with a policy and an app in hopes that this will equal digital customer engagement and access to new sources of data. Success will require a more concerted effort to provide risk management solutions to customers in the digital spaces where they already are, making it easy for them to assess the value of insurance as it relates to their health, their finances, and their families. Data is king in these spaces. But instead of just sourcing and optimizing data, customer-centric companies will invest in understanding digital ecosystems from the point of view of people and their multidimensional lives. It will take listeners to uncover the human stories that shape the way data is created and fill it up with meaning.

Reframe Yourself. Reframe Your View of Insurance Companies.

If you are an anthropologist or ethnographer of another disciplinary stripe and looking for a new challenge, consider the insurance industry. Job postings for ethnographers and credentialed anthropologists in insurance companies are beginning to appear. You can also find ways to translate your skills to fit customer experience jobs, marketing positions, innovation roles, and potentially even a new kind of data scientist.

Think of insurance companies not just as places to work but as cultures to explore, a context for participant observation, your “village” to study, understand, and explain. And just like any anthropologist who goes off to study a culture near or far, you will feel disoriented at times, and you will struggle at times to understand the language and customs. But if you keep your anthropological lenses on, you will find many ways to use your skills to add value to people and the organization.


Andersen, Ken, Peter Levin, Brandon Barnett, and Maria Bezaitis. 2015. “Bridging Ethnography and Path-finding Business Opportunities.” EPIC2015 Proceedings pp. 268–89.

Madsbjerg, Christian. 2017. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books.

Cayla, Julien and Eric Arnould. 2013. “Ethnographic Stories for Market Learning.” Journal of Marketing 77(4):1–16.

Curran, John. 2013. “Big Data or ‘Big Ethnographic Data’? Positioning Big Data within the Ethnographic Space.”  EPIC2013 Proceedings pp. 62–73.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. [1937] 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Levitt, Peggy. 2001. The Transnational Villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wang, Tricia. 2013. “Big Data Needs Thick Data.” Ethnography Matters,13 May 2013.

West, Harry. 2005. Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



What Happens when you Mix Bankers, Insurers, Consultants, Anthropologists and Designers, Alice Peinado, Magdalena Jarvin & Corinne Jouanny

Limitations of Online Medical Care: Interpersonal Resistance and Cultural Hurdles in the Face of Technological Advances, Pensri Ho

Not-So-Blind-Watchmaker: Evolution by Design in Corporate Culture, Kate Barrett

A Seat at the Table of Social Change through Service Design, Jeanette Blomberg & Chuck Darrah



Shelly Habecker, Swiss Re

Shelly Habecker works for Swiss Re in its life insurance business, which is a great place to create and develop better financial safety nets for people. She is Swiss Re’s VP, Consumer Experience Strategist, working as part of a New Solutions Group innovation team to help shape and implement Swiss Re’s strategy for enabling clients to more effectively engage consumers in digital ecosystems. Prior to this, she spent two decades working on African migration and economic development issues in the public sector and academia. She holds a DPhil in Development Studies from Oxford University. The common thread in her career has been her passion to use an anthropological lens to understand people better, to communicate what she learns effectively, and to apply insights she has gained to make things better wherever she can.