Practicing anthropology primarily refers to anthropological work performed outside academia to address issues in areas such as community development, agriculture, health care, environment, resource management, housing, criminal justice, marketing, and technology. Although a majority of practicing anthropologists work in urban or other local settings, some work on international projects, especially in development and health. Practicing anthropologists can be employed by a university, but most hold positions in public and private sectors where they study community-related problems, help develop programs and policies, and implement solutions.
In 1941, Margaret Mead, Eliot Chapple, and others founded the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) in response to the growth of applied anthropology, which the SfAA defines as the application of anthropological perspectives through interdisciplinary scientific investigation of human relationships for solving practical problems. Originally a part of American Anthropological Association (AAA), SfAA became a separate entity to avoid traditional anthropology’s undercurrent of bias against applied or practicing anthropology. By the 1950s, applied anthropology was generally regarded as an academic, research-based subfield of cultural anthropology intended to inform policy, program administration, intervention, and development. Practicing anthropology, conversely, did not burgeon until the 1970s, spurred by an extreme shortage in academic positions in the United States, and by recognition of the potential for anthropologists beyond basic research in applying anthropological knowledge to help solve humans’ critical problems as practitioners of anthropology.
The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) was created in 1983 as a section of the AAA in acknowledgement of the growth of the practicing field. NAPA membership currently exceeds 700, and NAPA supports practicing anthropologists in public and private sectors, as well as those affiliated with academic institutions, whether or not in anthropology departments. It also promotes practice-oriented work by publishing the NAPA Bulletin and practitioner directories, sponsoring professional mentoring, networking opportunities, workshops, and interest groups around common themes, and assisting in the establishment of local practitioner organizations (LPOs) across the United States. Current LPOs include the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (founded in 1976), the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology (founded in 1980), the Mid-South Association of Professional Anthropologists (founded in 1983), and the Southern California Applied Anthropology Network (founded in 1984). These associations have successfully advanced the position of nonacademic practitioners within the discipline and professionally as witnessed in the AAA’s moving toward creating a new category for those members employed by organizations that would be similar to accommodations granted academic departments.
The actual term practicing anthropologist was not in common use until the appearance of the SfAA’s journal Practicing Anthropology (PA) in 1978, a publication originally intended for individuals with nonacademic employment. Eventually PA sought to establish practicing as part of the anthropology discipline and to bridge the gap between practicing in nonacademic and academic settings. It is still debatable as to whether there is a difference between applied and practicing anthropology, since both employ anthropological means to study societal, organizational, or programmatic issues, and to help facilitate change by influencing policy and practice. Shirley Fiske considers practicing as virtually interchangeable with applied in that both serve as testing grounds for theory of traditional anthropology subfields. Others contend that practicing is broader than applied because it incorporates all nonacademic anthropological work, not only the policy research of applied significance. Still others make a distinction between the two by describing the applied work of those employed in business and agencies as practicing and similar work of academically employed as applied. Robert Hinshaw views practicing as primarily separated from applied by being collaborative, while Erve Chambers relegates practicing to an element of applied, distinct only in its explicit intent to make anthropology useful through collaborative inquiry, knowledge transfer, and decision making.
The blurring of the distinction between applied and practicing is evident in the fact that the memberships of the SfAA and the NAPA overlap substantially. NAPA is also a frequent co-sponsor of the annual meetings of the SfAA and has participated in a joint commission comprised of representatives from SfAA, AAA, and NAPA. If the discipline itself were to make a distinction, it would probably be that applied work is primarily concerned with producing knowledge that will be useful to others, while practicing work directly involves anthropologists’ intervening beyond social-scientific inquiry, making their knowledge and skills useful and easily accessible. Despite the lack of consensus on a precise definition, practicing is a recognized area of anthropology, having become institutionalized through its increased relevance in professional realms and the establishment of professional associations and affiliated publications.
Because the academic employment crisis of the 1970s has not yet abated, anthropology programs are aware that increasing numbers of graduates are being employed in positions outside of universities. The government and private sector now offer more job opportunities for anthropology graduates with a master or doctoral degree than academic institutions. It is now common for doctoral students to contemplate future applied or practicing work as well as an academic position while progressing through their studies. Simultaneously, graduate programs with applied anthropologists on faculty are becoming more attractive to prospective students. There are now at least 25 applied anthropology programs in the United States, several of which focus their graduate programs on training future anthropologists for nonacademic work, and many that offer a master’s degree. In 2000, the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA) was established as a cohort of university departments involved in applied anthropology to foster professional exchange among faculty and to develop workshops for professionals and educators. It also assists students in finding professional opportunities in practicing domains through securing internships and practicums and supplying information on training for careers in applied and practicing anthropology.
Domains of Practice
One must look beyond job titles to find the roles taken by practicing anthropologists. Unless the position is academic, job announcements rarely use the term “anthropologist”; however, many nonacademic positions are well-executed by practicing anthropologists. At the same time, anthropologists may have to precisely define what they bring to the job, in contrast to professionals from other disciplines. A survey conducted by NAPA in 2000 of those with master’s-level training in applied anthropology found that practicing job categories included (in descending order by number of responses) government, private, education, and other sectors, and archeology, medical, development, and environment substantive areas. The NAPA Web site offers a list of Areas of Practice that details even more settings in which practicing anthropologists work: agricultural development, environmental policy and regulation, product design and program management in business and industry, software and database design in computer science, human factors engineering in information technology, cultural resource management, curatorial activities in museums, forensics in law enforcement, and nonprofit and social service work, including management and policy implementation and grant writing.
Practicing anthropologists often play multiple roles. The most common include researcher, research analyst, evaluator, impact assessor, needs assessor, planner, change agent, advocate, culture broker, information specialist, administrator, and manager. Therapist and expert witness roles are rare but have also been a part of practicing anthropology. Other roles include educator and consultant: anthropologists have long been involved in personnel training (for example, the cross-cultural training of administrators, managers, or other social scientists in anthropological techniques such as social impact assessment) and have frequently performed long- and short-term consulting.
According to the 2000 NAPA survey of master’s-level graduates in applied anthropology, more than 30% of respondents reported having researcher occupational roles. Practicing anthropologists working as researchers use their training in data collection to supply information to analysts and decision makers, but they may also operate as research analysts and policy makers. In fact, contributing to analysis elevates the status of practicing anthropology and enables anthropologists to have an impact on decision-making. Thus, practicing anthropologists can participate in the entire policy-making process—research performance, data analysis, and finding-based decision making. Practicing anthropologists may also use their acumen as specialists involved in program implementation and evaluation. These roles require skills in research design, data collection, quantitative and qualitative analysis, personnel supervision, and writing. As evaluators, practitioners assess the outcomes of a project or program that has been implemented and determine its impact on a community. The 2000 NAPA survey showed that 31% of members used evaluation skills on the job, which indicates that the evaluator role is common among practicing anthro-pologists. Possible areas of employment for evalua-tors include education, health care, human services, and community development. Impact assessors usually work on the front end of a project, researching ways a community might be affected by alterations in its surroundings (for example, zoning changes, new development projects, or highway construction). Areas such as energy development, fisheries and water resource management, and transportation may require research and impact assessment.
Practicing anthropologists also work as agents of change who attempt to transform a community, sometimes on behalf of a development agency and often through new technology introduction. This can be as simple as showing villagers in a remote area how to build a well for a ready supply of water, or as complicated as helping a community deal with relocation and resettlement because of dam construction. In many roles, an anthropologist may be considered a change agent or may become one after fruitful research leads to advocacy. Advocacy can be an anthropologist’s only role or an important part of other roles, since it is often the impetus for anthropological participation. Anthropologists involved in advocacy serve as liaisons on behalf of a community or group because the latter are often not accustomed to dealing with the agencies that offer them services or have power over them.
Culture brokers also serve as liaisons between two diverse groups, but their communication is always two-way, from community to decision makers and vice versa. Because of the inherent capacity for conflict in such situations, anthropologists as culture brokers strive to act as neutral mediators, with allegiance to the solution of the present problem rather than the particular interests of one group over the other. This role may involve helping public health officials better understand a particular ethnic clientele while assisting community members in comprehending proposed health intervention. Culture brokers may favor one side, especially in situations in which loyalty is tied to a shared heritage with the particular group being served, but ultimately the anthropologist in this role is responsible for assisting both parties in making a transition.
Performing as culture broker is often not the sole position of a practicing anthropologist; it may arise concurrently with other roles, such as public participation specialist. These specialists provide expert input in the planning process to disseminate information to the public through town hall meetings or media outlets. For example, a culture broker may work as a liaison between Native American tribes and the federal government in handling policy or legal issues, tenure and land use negotiations, and program subsidies, while simultaneously informing locals about incentives or opportunities, and policy makers about needed programs or project adjustments.
Program services and planning are broad roles that may include media anthropologists, who may be public participation specialists working in broadcasting or media production as “translators” of cultural knowledge, informing media outlets on news stories from the expert perspective of an anthropologist. This is an example of the trend within anthropology of practitioners being called upon to communicate their knowledge and expertise in the public sphere more often. Such expanded roles require consideration of improving training of new practitioners.
As the employment opportunities for practicing anthropologists in new work settings increase, anthropologists are increasingly occupying positions of authority as administrators and managers, setting goals, supervising others, delegating tasks, and allocating resources. In many instances, practicing anthropologists have advanced in a natural progression from their research, evaluation, or planning policy roles to high-ranking positions as key decision makers in government and public administration or corporate executive ranks. Others work in academic settings in administrative rather than faculty roles, often directing applied or practicing units that serve universities in community outreach efforts. An evaluator of a hospital’s nutrition program may easily slide into the role of liaison, media specialist, public relations representative, assessor, or administrator with all the working knowledge required for planning, policy decision making, and budgets and staff management, as well as clientele interaction. This advancement reflects the success of anthropological training, the effectiveness of its methods, and the relevance attributed to practicing anthropology.
Skills Required for Practice
Practicing anthropologists need substantial training in ethnographic research to be able to effectively collect community and group-level data. Quantitative skills, including statistical analysis, are invaluable for practicing and academic anthropologists. Similarly, grounding in social science research for fieldwork beyond ethnography, such as sampling, survey research, and computer-aided analysis, is essential.
In addition, globalization and the corollary emergence of transnational and international nongovernmental organizations , government agencies, and corporations, combined with the inherent collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of practicing anthropology, requires that practicing anthropologists have strong communication skills for information dissemination, collaboration, and funding requests through grant proposals.
Finding a mentor already working in a chosen field can help direct a student to the additional training needed for success in that realm. Informal and formal networking is of the utmost importance for practicing anthropologists on the job, and should also be a routine part of anthropology education. Networks can be formed or enhanced through professional associations, online forums, and other means used to connect with colleagues within, and outside of, anthropology. Developing professional relationships not only prepares students for finding employment and offers a knowledge base, but also engenders skills in the collaborative work one should expect in any practicing anthropology career. Collaboration should not be considered an innate ability, but one that requires practice and training through education and experience. Communication, networking, and collaboration are desirable components of graduate training in anthropology that can be garnered through practical experience. Faculty projects, various institutes and programs already in place, and contributing time to volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps, UNICEF, the World Bank, and local grassroots groups or neighborhood associations are opportunities for such experience prior to graduation. As both students or working professionals, practicing anthropologists require field-specific knowledge, which can be achieved by keeping up with relevant books, journals, newsletters, and other trade publications; networking with practitioners from a particular field of interest; and studying domain-relevant laws, policies, and regulations.
An essential aspect of professionalism is ethical conduct. Practicing anthropologists must realize that anything they do or say may have positive or negative repercussions on people’s lives. The ability to make professional judgments must be developed. Actions and words must be carefully scrutinized; choices must be informed. Anthropologists must be able to overcome potential conflicts in their roles, particularly when they feel compromised by client wishes and cannot base their decisions on science alone. To safeguard ethical decision making on the practitioner’s behalf, a professional framework must be built to guide sound judgments and to help balance science, morality, and client interests. This framework should consider the ethical guidelines of professional associations (AAA, SfAA, and NAPA), and related laws and policies such as those provided by Institutional Review Boards, the U.S. National Research Act of 1974, and field-specific mandates such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
The direction of research and timelines of funded work are typically controlled by the sponsoring agency; likewise, findings and field notes are proprietary, rendering study subjects vulnerable to public disclosure. To reduce these risks, professional conduct demands incorporating informed consent and thoughtful consideration of the impact the research may have on the client, the study subjects, the anthropologist, and the discipline of anthropology. Adhering to ethical guidelines assures the reputation of anthropologists everywhere, while failure to do so can seriously undermine the discipline as a whole. This is the primary responsibility facing practicing anthropologists—to positively transform communities and individuals through anthropological means, ethically, with consideration for all parties involved.
- Bushnell, J. (1976). The Art of Practicing Anthropology. In M. V. Argrosino (Ed.), Do applied anthropologists apply anthropology? (pp. 10-16). Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Chambers, E. (1996). Practicing anthropology. In D. Levinson & M. Ember (Eds.), Encyclopedia of cultural anthropology (pp. 1009-1014). New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- Fiske, S., & Chambers, E. (1996). The inventions of practice. Human Organization, 55(1), 1-12.
- Hinshaw, R. H. (1980). Anthropology, administration, and public policy. Annual Review ofAnthropology, 9,497-545.
- Price, L. J. (2001). The mismatch between anthropology graduate training and the work lives of graduates. Practicing Anthropology, 23(1), 55-57.
- Sabloff, P. L. W. (2000). NAPA Bulletin 20-Careers in anthropology: Profiles of practitioner anthropologists. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
- van Willigen, J. (1987). NAPA Bulletin 3-Becoming a practicing anthropologist: A guide to careers and training programs in applied anthropology. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.