In all their professional endeavors, anthropologists study human experience and behavior within a cultural context, which means that they can be employed in a wide array of settings. While the market for academic anthropologists has remained relatively limited, opportunities for nonacademic employment of anthropologists have expanded. The demand for those able to analyze and interpret the ever-increasing volume of data for government, business, and nonprofits is escalating. As a result, a new subfield, applied and practicing anthropology, is gaining ground within the discipline where anthropological knowledge, methodology, and theories are employed to initiate or facilitate action to address a community or organization’s problems. This entry describes the variety of settings and roles in which anthropologists work, the training and skills required, the nature of institutional support, and typical work conditions for this profession.
Globalization has altered the nature of the anthropological job market, with government agencies, transnational and international corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and nonprofits requiring a deeper understanding of diverse cultures and increased accountability and evaluation to compete for funds and sustainability as never before. With increasing migration and the resulting mega-urbanization, the preservation of culture and traditional lifeways remains an ongoing concern. Clearly, anthropologists’ training ideally suits them for this type of work. Anthropology is uniquely applicable to the 21st-century job market, which is increasingly global, diverse, and user oriented.
Anthropologists can pursue either the traditional academic arena or a career path as practitioners.
Academic jobs are based at universities and colleges, where anthropologists teach and conduct research, occasionally supplemented with some outside applied work. However, over the last 30 years, the majority of anthropologists with master’s and doctoral degrees have found employment in nonacademic settings, working as researchers, consultants, and advocates for communities, government agencies, organizations, and corporations. Practicing anthropologists most typically use their skills to facilitate action or to provide information for policymakers to better human conditions.
Anthropologists work in a variety of domains, including but not limited to agriculture, archeology, business and industry, criminal justice, cultural resources, development, education, energy development, environment, government, health care, human rights, museums, natural resources, law enforcement, nutrition, public housing, recreation, resettlement, substance abuse, transportation, urban development, and wildlife. Jobs vary greatly and often are not labeled as “anthropologist.” Instead, their position may be called researcher, evaluator, impact assessor, consultant, mediator, program director, administrator, manager, management analyst, human resources specialist, curator, historic preservationist, marketing expert, housing director, international development officer, development or environmental consultant, diplomat or local government official, police specialist, substance abuse counselor, human ecologist, forensic specialist, fundraiser, or cross-cultural trainer. All these roles may not be directly related to anthropology, but there are multiple ways an anthropology background can enhance a person’s job performance in these as well as other positions. According to a National Science Foundation survey, a majority of people earning sociology and anthropology degrees in 2000 in the United States found jobs only somewhat or not at all related to their field.
Some practicing roles may require technical knowledge of fields related to the job, such as familiarity with crop and livestock production, commodity markets, and related policy and regulation in the field of agricultural development. Typically, anthropologists also become educated in fields related to the domain in which they practice. For example, an agricultural anthropologist would most likely need to have a working knowledge of agricultural economics and plant biology related to food productivity. This interdisciplinary aspect often entails interaction among government agencies (at home and abroad) and their constituents, translators, and medical personnel; other social scientists such as psychologists and sociologists; public policy officials, statisticians, and market researchers; and the community or individuals being studied. The intrinsic collaboration of applied work requires that the anthropologist be skilled in negotiating competing interests and stakes. Anthropologists working in the private sector often have additional administrative or managerial responsibilities, such as handling budgets and staff, negotiating contracts successfully, and meeting marketing needs. They also figure prominently in decisions regarding policy and programs, acting as change agents by scrutinizing a topic and providing recommendations based on findings.
Training and Skills
The skill set acquired by anthropology students results in much flexibility in the job market. According to the American Anthropological Association, such students are trained in “careful record-keeping, attention to details, analytical reading,… [s]ocial ease in strange situations, [and] critical thinking,” to the more specific “range of social, behavioral, biological and other scientific research methods…supplement[ing] statistical findings with descriptive data gathered through participant observation, interviewing, and ethnographic study.” However, a career in which one is specifically employed as an anthropologist, either within the academy or without, requires an advanced degree. A doctorate can involve extensive time commitment in fieldwork sometimes entailing inconvenient transportation and poor living conditions. Fieldwork culminates in the writing of a dissertation, which is often the basis of a first book. Those interested in an academic career in anthropology should be aware of the level of commitment required: the length of time to complete a doctorate in anthropology after the under-graduate degree can reach 8 to 9 years, with as much as 12 to 30 months spent on a field project as the subject of the dissertation. Still, the many rewards of an academic career in anthropology are reflected in the increasing number of students in masters’ (from 297 in 1966 to 950 in 2000) and doctoral (from 109 in 1996 to 448 in 2000) anthropology programs in the United States.
A broad training in anthropology prepares a student equally for nonacademic and academic positions, as both roles require the same basic skills and knowledge grounded in ethnographic practices research, data collection, data analysis, secondary data use, and information dissemination. Since traditional long-term ethnography is still the cornerstone of anthropological work, data collection and evaluation methods require quantitative and qualitative skills such as interviewing and keen observation, data recording, transcribing, coding and analysis, and the ability to design research that quantitatively tests hypotheses. Quantitative skills, including facility with statistical analysis software such as SPSS or SAS, are critical for practicing or academic work. All anthropologists are expected to have a strong understanding of complex societies and anthropological theory and the ability to adapt to diverse settings and people.
Practicing jobs require more time-sensitive research, since those supplying the funding for research often set the deadlines. This means practitioners must be prepared to adapt to a chosen specialization at any time and learn new methodologies that incorporate more efficient practices such as rapid assessment procedures (RAP) and participation action research (PAR), which involve innovative forms of direct observation and participation by the study population using focus groups, streamlined surveys, aerial photographs, satellite imagery, GIS or spatial mapping, and role playing. In addition, students are encouraged to gain training or take coursework in a substantive field related to their career objectives, such as health, nutrition, agriculture, environment, administration, law, economics, education, technical writing, communications, computers, and public speaking. For example, an individual with interests in environmental justice would be better qualified with additional education in environmental science, or someone with an interest in health care could pursue additional training in public health.
Written and oral communication skills are equally essential to professionals in anthropology; however, many programs do not specifically teach these skills. While student teaching and preparation of term papers, theses, and dissertations, journal articles, and conference presentations can help build communication skills, these activities alone cannot teach proper proposal and report writing, which are crucial for obtaining funding and functioning as practicing anthropologists. Neither do they fully prepare professionals in training for producing the type of accessible exposition demanded for the dissemination of findings—bulletins, brochures, monographs, policy reports, press releases, formal letters, persuasive reports, educational videos and informative radio, and so on. Most anthropologists are compelled to learn these skills on the job.
Finally, gaining applied experience helps students practice their skills in a real setting, obtain feedback on methodologies employed, and see the connections between research policy decisions and the impact of those actions on individuals and communities. Traditional anthropology is often characterized by extended trips to remote locations; however, the present-day reality of anthropological research frequently involves short-term research projects and consulting. Instead of face-to-face time being necessary for fieldwork, researchers can now use technologically advanced systems for survey and analysis and communication via Internet and telephone. Students can gain experience in such practical application through a number of venues: enrollment in a master’s practicum; conducting research with faculty; securing paid or unpaid work with cooperative education programs, groups like the Peace Corps, or community or local human service agencies; or through finding relevant internships.
Key sources for job listings vary, depending on sub-field and area of interest. The primary means for finding employment as an anthropologist include online networking forums like AnthroTECH.com’s AnthroDesign or on anthropological association Web sites such as those of the American Anthropological Association (AAA: aaanet.org), the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA: sfaa.net), the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA: practicing anthropology.org), and the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA: smcm.edu/ wapa); and in various publications, such as the AAA Anthropology Newsletter. Networking continues to be a significant source for locating career opportunities and enhancing skills.
Joining professional associations and attending and participating in meetings, forums, and conferences helps individuals entering the field gain recognition within the discipline and the latest information on emerging methodologies and technological innovations, all of which can aid in finding work or in advancing professionally. At the national level, such organizations include the AAA, SfAA, NAPA, WAPA, and the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology (HPSfAA). At the local level, groups like the Northeastern Anthropological Association and field-specific groups like the Society for Medical Anthropology, the Political Ecology Society, and the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association are often equally helpful. In August 1948, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) was founded to meet the need for a worldwide network. In 1993, anthropological groups from the United States, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Canada, and the former USSR, among others, developed the Commission on Anthropology in Policy and Practice within IUAES to develop a similar network among the exponentially growing applied and practicing fields. Reflecting the breadth of interests involved, the IUAES has 27 committees, several of which indicate the changes in anthropology over the last century and include Aging and the Aged, AIDS, Documentation, Food and Food Problems, Cultural Dimensions of Global Change, Medical Anthropology and Epidemiology, Museums and Cultural Heritage, Tourism, Urban Anthropology, Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainable Development, Mathematics, Bioethics, and Human Rights and Primatology.
Anthropologists commonly work with others outside their discipline. The intrinsic interdisciplinary nature of their nonacademic work demands collaboration and translates into competition for jobs not only from other anthropologists but also from those with whom anthropologists often work, including sociologists, psychologists, statisticians, market researchers. In terms of salaries, those who work in institutions of higher learning in the United States could expect a salary from mid-$30,000 to $70,000 or higher for an academic year, depending on the years of experience and institution of employment. According to the National Education Association, the average salary for anthropology faculty in 1999-2000 was $56,391 for public and $60,085 for independent 4-year institutions. Nonacademic work for government and private sectors offers slightly higher salaries in comparison, also dependent upon years of experience and employer. According to the AAA biennial survey of anthropology PhDs, 29% of 1997 U.S. PhD graduates took nonacademic jobs. Interestingly, respondents employed in nonacademic positions were slightly more satisfied with their employment situations than those who were academically employed.
Applied anthropologists sometimes experience problems in their roles relative to sponsors’ demands and possible resulting ethical dilemmas, as well as incertitude when it comes to power or control. Occasionally, practitioners complain about not having enough power to ensure follow-through with recommendations for action or policy, but few seek positions of power. In 2000, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) sponsored a survey of members with masters in applied anthropology, in which 22% identified their current roles as managers and about 10% as administrators. Anthropologists need to realize that they must take positions that enable them to make decisions without losing the dynamic that is at the heart of anthropology—the relationship with the study community or individuals. There are instances where anthropologists cannot simply make a scientific decision. They may feel constrained by client wishes and fall into the role of social technician or social engineer without much input from the study population. Alternatively, practitioners may choose to make moral judgments regarding their work by preselecting clients with similar ideologies.
Anthropologists must use existing ethical guidelines (especially from professional associations such as AAA, SfAA, and NAPA), laws, and policies to make sound professional judgments by relying upon a framework that can help balance the pulls between positivistic science, morality, and client needs. It is important that anthropologists understand that though ethical considerations must be part of any professional decision, they are not the sole determinant. Such a professional framework is an essential foundation to building sound judgment for pursuing a successful career in anthropology.
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