An Anthropologist Walks Into an Agency

Posted By Stephen Chase on March 20, 2015

We love food. It connects us, soothes us and nourishes us.

But man, do we also love to hate it. This hatred creates complex situations for governments, corporations, consumers, farmers, manufacturers and regulators. For scores of issues management folks, marketers and PR types, food keeps us engaged in, well, not solving world hunger, but otherwise working at cracking some pretty big nuts. As an anthropologist and PR practitioner, I share in this effort from a standpoint that yields insight on stakeholder perspective, messaging nuance and the larger strategy. 

Anthropologists have a unique view of the world. We see things for why and how they are rather than simply for what they are. We’re curious; we study the answers rather than the questions. We’re obsessed with dichotomy, hegemony, epistemology and discourse. We think differently. We crave knowledge. We can never shut it off.

As a young PR person, my anthropological mindset gives me a unique way to contribute to the conversation. I approach a challenge by first taking a step back. Anthropology requires us to cast ideology aside, to take a holistic approach in gaining knowledge about a certain subject and conveying that knowledge in an impactful and meaningful way. Thomas H. Eriksen stated that, “what anthropologists do is to convert stories into analysis.” PR practitioners, I believe, do the reverse—adapting the analysis into a substantive and pointed story. I realize that this is only one facet of public relations work but it is a dimension that I can speak to based on what I've learned so far.

I began with a narrative about food because it is an intricate issue faced by many communications professionals. I fell into the public relations world by chance, and have found that my anthropology background has helped me dive in as a part of the team that directs food-related issues management campaigns.

Sitting in a conference room with seasoned PR strategists and crisis communications pros is, at first, daunting. But the anthropologist is not one to shy away from a conversation. We can talk ourselves out of a box, and then talk about the actual box.

For the PR pro, an anthropological analysis of any issue allows for the sharing of knowledge in a more meaningful, impactful and true manner and messaging that gets to the root of what matters for each of the stakeholders.  The story is relatable, relevant and comprehendible by a much larger population.

The relationship between the anthropologist and the PR pro is one that is mutually beneficial. Anthropology aids PR in elevating the significance of the “story” while PR allows the anthropologist to create an impact. Though my degree is not in a specialized field like communications, my anthropological background brings a different dimension of thinking about and communicating today’s most pressing issues—I’m just not as brief.


Stephen Chase is an Assistant Account Executive with the Karma Agency and anthropologist.