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The global financial crisis was forecast in 2006 by a journalist, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times. Two decades earlier she was an anthropologist researching nomads in Tibet and then wedding rituals in Tajikistan.
Tett drew on her experience as an anthropologist to map out the financial flows and compared that with the media coverage of the markets. She looked at what was not discussed in the news coverage, ignored as it seemed boring or irrelevant.
Social anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu termed this the "social silence" back in the 1970s, and was a theory Tett had drawn on in the 1980s when contrasting the cultural symbolism she observed in the Tajik village with how people discussed their wedding practices (there is a lecture by Tett here).
Later, in 2011, the Guardian carried out an anthropological study of the Square Mile, with the help of Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk, who continues to write a banking blog.
But it is not only the journalist researching a story who can benefit from such knowledge, anthropologists can also help news organisations understand audiences.
Anthropology is essentially the branch of social science that studies human cultures and societies and the social relations forged within and across them. Anthropology's primary research model is 'participant observation': researchers spend extended periods of time with their subjects within their natural habitats, to essentially be able to differentiate between what they 'say' they do and 'actually' do. Along with extended interviews, subjects' diaries, relationship mapping, and statistical sampling where needed, these observations are written up as 'ethnography'.
Journalism and anthropology both purport to observe and analyse human behaviour and experience, albeit in different ways and over extremely divergent timescales. And they both serve up their findings to the wider world in order to give it greater understanding of itself – and of what it 'means' to be 'human'.
Combining the two could make for more 'holistic' and context-rich news storytelling and challenge much of the received wisdom and orthodox commentary often taken at face value. Take for instance the popular idea that digital technology 'alienates' human beings and makes us less social. Full stop. No context. But anthropological research taking place right now throws up altogether different conclusions.
This commonality of purpose between the two disciplines is starting to generate a lot more interest within media production, following the lead of advertising, retail, design and communications technology industries in particular. In the latter, IBM has its Melissa Cefkin and Intel its Genevieve Bell, both seen as anthropologist superstars within Silicon Valley.
IBM's long-term use of anthropologists has informed its global technology services business over years. The tech giant sends the social scientists out to research the cultural environments of its customers, to ensure it creates the right offerings.
In the UK and Ireland, Intel has been observing the use of technology among the elderly in recent years, to come up with ideas of how it can be harnessed to alleviate loneliness and help manage well-being.
And it's no coincidence that the added interest in applied anthropology by the media is taking place at a time when the nature of both information and data gathering is becoming more complex.
Mail Online publisher is considering recruiting anthropologists
This year, at least one news outlet has discussed employing anthropologists to make sense of the analytics it has gathered through its online news service.
In June, Kevin Beatty, chief executive of DMG Media, which owns several national titles including the Mail Online, Daily Mail and Metro, told a conference how the business reaches 36 per cent of the UK population every week.
The company has "an increasing level of insight" on the 31 million people in the central database, he said. The Mail Online publisher might "learn 50 billion things about 43 million people over 10 days", as Beatty said, but who is going to be able to explain behaviours in the data? Anthropologists, of course. Indeed Beatty said in the presentation that the publishing business was considering recruiting anthropologists.
News anthropologists will not only be able to bolster the research process into stories and world events, particularly for long-form features and investigative work, but also complement the use of analytics and help drill down into so-called big data.
Within the news gathering process, that kind of understanding is becoming more necessary as we see the increasing globalisation of news: national media organisations like the Mail and Guardian increasingly span international borders in their uptake and coverage. And with that comes a corresponding rise in the need to map the complexities of these newly unfamiliar and different social, cultural and political contexts – both for finding stories and for managing news production. Anthropologists are trained to do precisely that.
Technology companies freely use anthropologists to gain insights into the lives of current and potential customers and get under the bonnet of the 'numbers' that quantitative research throws up. In the 21st Century, media content has become an extension of the communications technology that propagates it – a veritable fusion of media and message. Shouldn't news media companies therefore be just as curious about marketplace evolution as their tech counterparts?
Take TV news bulletins: we no longer watch them passively or partially engage with them post-transmission via moderated 'comments' posted at the bottom of the online version of a story. The proliferation of Twitter use, coupled with the smartphone and latterly the tablet, means that audiences are now voicing opinions and – more interestingly – challenging news producers in real-time.
Within the context of convergence of media technology and relatively recent resistance to the traditionally 'didactic' model of news dissemination, the changing nature of what 'news' means to its audiences would be a worthy topic of anthropological enquiry for any news organisation.
On a global scale, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos's recent purchase of the Washington Post perfectly exemplifies the confluence between technology and media and how both sides will eventually evolve beyond our current recognition.
To keep abreast of these changes, the news industry needs anthropologists: it should use their social science approach to add rigour to news gathering and broaden the nature and type of stories generated. Then, it must turn the anthropological lens onto the people it ultimately serves – its viewers, listeners and readers, at a time when they are more diverse and geographically further afield than ever before.
Walé Azeez is a freelance journalist and qualified digital anthropologist. He has worked for the Guardian, Channel 4 News, BBC News, Al Jazeera and Bloomberg TV and carried out ethnographic research into social media use on behalf of London-based strategic research agency Push Insights. He has an MA in anthropology from UCL. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Marshall is technology editor at Journalism.co.uk and has a degree in anthropology from UCL.