Anthropologist and author Alexandra Hamlet discusses business, cultural and political trends
By Reen Waterman | Photo by Stephen Walker
Since the dawn of the “New Millennium,” corporate America’s marketing of new products has rapidly evolved. Called “data mining,” it is a highly sophisticated and effective process that combines the meteoric explosion of social media with the development of advanced technological abilities to track consumer spending. Data mining, in the social and cultural arenas, has become one of the world’s most precious and powerful commodities, now spilling over into the political arena.
But who is behind this study of voluminous mountains of combined data? One such person is the highly specialized Cultural and Corporate Anthropologist. This is the individual who assesses the data, identifies trends, and helps the influencers understand what consumers and voters think and desire. This invaluable assessment of human behavior allows advertisers to craft messaging and design campaigns that resonate with consumers and trigger instinctive “buying decisions.”
Masterful communicator and Eastern Shore resident Alexandra Hamlet is one of these “data interpreters” and is a Cultural and Social Anthropologist concentrating in Defense, U.S. culture, and corporate entities. Soft spoken and eloquent, Hamlet earned bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Journalism from the University of Richmond and a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology from Harvard University. Her extensive professional background includes international lecturer, print and television journalist, executive search specialist, and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard. She is also author of the suspense thriller “The Right Guard,” which has won nine book and literary awards.
Enjoying a frosty glass of iced tea on her back deck, I asked her how she became interested in anthropology. “Anthropology is not one of those fields into which you accidentally drift. From the time I was eleven, anthropology has simply captivated me. My father bought me a massive book, ‘The Wonders of Life on Earth.’ I read it from cover to cover so many times that the book finally fell apart! I was particularly fascinated by early man and cultures, why they adapted to so many ways of living, and how they worked out cultural differences and problems.”
Asking about the opportunities in this field, with a laugh she replied, “The opportunities in this expanding world economy are endless. Many parents are surprised that their children can earn a good living in this field, and that the field has expanded into so many different adjoining fields. Some anthropologists earn their master’s degree, while others go on to earn their doctorate. It simply depends upon your plans — whether to do research, teach, or work in the corporate world. There are many great schools for pursuing this track, and among the top are Harvard, Marquette and Texas State.” After taking a refreshing sip of her own tea, Hamlet responded, “Not all of us trek out into the jungle anymore...but, yes, we do work on location and still do close-up field work.”
When asked about her career in anthropology, Hamlet leaned back in her wicker deck chair and shared, “With a desire to explore the world, I started off as a Defense Anthropologist. My positions ranged from the Pentagon to the Far East and the Pacific Rim. Much of what I did was confidential, but I can share this — most of what I did was intriguing! It involved seeking out the origins of complicated situations and assisting with strategizing solutions. I was always amazed that usually at their core, each of these situations could have been resolved early with relatively few resources and little difficulty. But they were not. Just as inflammation advances in the human body, a culture can also become inflamed. Symptoms in both arenas need to be recognized and remedied before they advance into full biological or social chaos.”
Hamlet eventually moved on from this to stateside work in the corporate sector. Asking how she made this transition, Hamlet explained, “It is quite simple. If companies continue to make and sell products, we are in demand. When a company wants to launch new products, they first study the demographics of the likely buyers. This helps them create products that will sell and equips them to reach their specific audiences.
“For example, if Ford chose to design an even more popular pickup truck than the iconic F-150, someone in my field would study the data on the folks who buy the F-150 over other popular brands, and identify features that are important to these buyers. Then the company would develop improved features or adaptations that would allure them.”
Intrigued, I asked the question that so many of us on the Shore are asking right now, “In this politically charged environment, what will it take for things to become civil again…and what might this look like in the future “new normal?”
Hamlet waded into this complicated and controversial question with the ease of one strolling through a minefield. “I would need a crystal ball to fully answer that question. What we are experiencing now is the ‘perfect storm’ of a variety of events and causes that have coalesced into mass chaos: COVID-19 has shut us in, fear of an invisible death causes us to shun gatherings, Millennials, to Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z all want to socialize but cannot, our economy is stumbling and businesses are struggling to survive.
“Movement, touch, and closeness are highly regulated within social distancing — something that is alien to the human species in general. Unresolved and serious social issues are arising. It is a time when people are not back at work and are free to travel and take part in ‘action group’ gatherings. Finally, we are in an election year and politics has become particularly thorny.”
The Eastern Shore, like many areas in the nation, includes those of both great wealth and great poverty. Creating public policy that works both for the affluent and the needy is a challenging issue. Considering this, Hamlet stated, “History has taught us that governing decisions made in haste and based in chaos are rarely a good idea and they resolve nothing. Our lives are now so complex and interconnected, serious community problems need to be recognized and addressed when the symptoms appear. Waiting, ignoring the problem, or simply moving too quickly on a financial initiative without any analysis just complicates matters.”
Seeking advice for readers, I asked Hamlet to discuss life going forward. She energetically responded, “While this ‘New Normal’ has upset our lives and devastated the lives of many others, this time of community lockdown and isolation has also been a much-needed season of contemplation and reflection. It has proved a much overdue respite from the fast paced, “business as usual” environment with which we have long been overly preoccupied. Across the nation, no matter race, background, or socio-economic strata, we have all been forced to reexamine our lives, careers, family, and relationships. There is an opportunity for some good to come out of this.”
In a serious tone, Hamlet added, “We are experiencing unparalleled internal conflict and stand at the crossroads of significant national change. Longstanding issues passed along from previous state and federal administrations that should have been addressed long ago, now must be resolved. But these changes must be in the best interest of our nation. Our Constitution states that we are a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” We need to hold firm these principles that founded our nation and make a new way that can lead to a brighter future for everyone.”
Taking a final sip of her tea, Hamlet shared her last cultural observation of America with the fervor of a pastor encouraging his congregation, “Adversity brings about new pathways, new ways of problem solving, and ways of releasing bad habits in favor of new ones. The world recognizes that when the going gets tough, Americans excel at high levels of creativity and adaptability. We think more outside of the box than many cultures around the world…and we are darned good at it! We are also well known for high levels of compassion and personal commitment to making our own lives…as well as the lives of others…better during a bad time.”
So, as we consider the challenging issues of our culture today, we can take great comfort in knowing that an entire career field of individuals stand waiting to offer informed and educated solutions. All we need to do is apply the timeless principles they share, no longer afraid that our nation’s complex issues are unable to be resolved. There is hope.