Anthropology in Entertainment Research: Asking and Answering Meaningful Questions amid Global Crises

From the Series: Technology and Anthropological Ways of Knowing

Photo by Talin Wadsworth, 2018.

“A moral science of possibilities”—that’s what anthropologist Michael Carrithers (2005) calls the field of anthropology. I wholeheartedly agree with that translation of this elusive social science, which is why I have been researching utopia and utopian communities for over a decade. Such communities push the limits of what is possible as they strive to build alternative worlds tailored to fit their imaginings of ideal community and family life. In business terms, utopians are asking very pointed questions about the user’s experience of life on Earth and then provide actionable recommendations and, most importantly, tangible results based on the data they find most appalling or inspiring. For example, a Black utopia project called the Freedom Georgia Initiative located outside of Atlanta is based on principles of sustainability and anti-racist philosophies that will help birth novel school, housing, and governing structures. It was founded in July 2020 in direct response to the unending violence against Black people in the United States and it is an effort to generate answers to how to build twenty-first-century institutions not based on white supremacy. Historically, such “utopias” have often been written off as fanciful pursuits, but there is no doubt that the data utopians generate about how to respond to particular problems on a community level is invaluable. With climate change, and the rapidly growing class, racial, and gender inequalities that threaten the planet, the work of anthropologists researching people at the margins is well positioned to address how industries can learn how to become more inclusive change-makers.

Indeed, my training with those who imagine and build alternative worlds is the type of training that has found utility in industry. The research and interpersonal skills I draw from are classic anthropological ones, such as an ability to listen, watch closely, and ask nuanced questions. My work with utopians has helped me furthermore feel comfortable making tangible recommendations for change based on individual and community feedback. Because anthropologists are able to forge close relationships with our research participants and can synthesize social theory, we are well positioned to identify problems and recommend solutions based on the target demographic’s needs. I discuss two examples below of my transition into industry and how my anthropological training, my research, and my perspective as a Japanese and Black social scientist has shaped my career beyond the formal academy.

Anthropology in Industry

At the start of the global coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020, academic jobs across the United States froze. Unemployment more broadly rose to twenty-three million by April. Amid this job market and financial crisis, I was more than surprised to find consulting firms in California advertising freelance positions for anthropology PhDs. It was unclear how I would make the leap into business and how I could effect change, but after talking with colleagues who had already transitioned, it was clear that a successful departure from academia into meaningful business research was possible.

At the onset of the pandemic, I started my first position in the entertainment world researching COVID-19. I freelanced for a boutique firm that large entertainment firms hire to carry out anthropological research of entertainment consumers. This client wanted to predict what effects COVID-19 would have on various international markets. It was a tall order to forecast a coronavirus future and help create a model to lead the client’s marketing team. But the skills acquired as an anthropology PhD and an anthropologist of utopia and world building helped me create an action plan: I began to dig into history, sociological research, and the news sifting through other crises globally and in local markets to better predict and help create a streamlined model for how robust the governmental and social responses would be to this particular crisis in each market.

Another project began with “mobile ethnography” (video ethnography shot with consumers’ cellphones) with Black consumers to help ascertain what they need from entertainment. As a Black researcher it is rare to see people who reflect certain racial or ethnic aspects of my identity in higher circles within academia and as I am personally discovering, this dearth exists in business as well. With the surge of calls for corporate responsibility for combating issues such as racism against Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC), it is heartening to see active recruiting of BIPOC experts to conduct research, most especially when it concerns historically underserved populations. This intervention for the diversity of the research team is important because all data has a story and the analyst’s job is to discern the message. When dealing with qualitative data, crucial data-driven stories may be lost if no one on the team shares crucial aspects of identity with the target community. One way that anthropologists can effect organizational change in business is to drive home this point in their companies because group membership knowledge affects every stage of the research and ultimately the products produced and sent to market. For example, due to my membership in the Black and Japanese American communities, BIPOC consumers not only spoke more candidly about their critiques of media, but I was able to ask follow-ups to their responses because I was familiar with the content and experiences to which they were referring. These data are valuable within the entertainment business.

Since anthropologists are highly adept at locating the links between the self, the worlds we build, and the material artifacts and ideas we let populate our lives, industry is a space where anthropological insights can help move the needle of change. Answering questions such as “How can entertainment change for the better regarding Black people?” is a worthy question to be asked and anthropologists should be at the tables where those inquiries can be asked and answered.

The two projects I have highlighted here are quite different, but they both required a range of anthropological research skills. In my first year working in business, I have been able to draw from my research in critical race studies, utopia, and anthropology more broadly to creatively and critically help businesses develop actionable services that impact millions of viewers and push the limits of what is possible. In many ways it feels like business is the new frontier for anthropology as a science of possibility, which is why I am excited to build perhaps not a utopia, but to help design alternative worlds that centers those who have been shunt aside for far too long.


Carrithers, Michael. 2005. “Anthropology as a Moral Science of Possibilities.” Current Anthropology 46, no. 3: 433–47.