Where do all the anthropologists go?

February 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Whether the product is being sold by a private company or by government, it is a question of branding; an anthropologist can offer an organisation insights into the culture of their target audience. (A participant at last night’s meeting of Apply, the ASA Network of Applied Anthropologists) [see reference 1 below]

Last night I attended a meeting of Apply (I saw this meeting advertised through the Anthropology Matters mailing list, widely – albeit unofficially – regarded as the mailing list for anthropology in the UK). I found myself sitting round a table in the upstairs room of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) with a group of individuals united by an active interest in bringing anthropological thinking and methodologies into work beyond ‘pure’ academic anthropology.

Sharing this common interest did not mean those present necessarily agreed on what this meant. Indeed, one of the agenda items for the meeting was whether this network – which has existed for a decade – should change its name to reflect current interest in ‘engaged anthropology’ or ‘public anthropology.’ One of the reasons offered by those who proposed a change was that the idea of ‘applied’ anthropology implies that there exists a ‘pure’ anthropology, and that this kind of a binary opposition does not reflect the reality of the discipline and needs to be transcended. Others argued that the idea of applied anthropology is relevant precisely because anthropology is taught in universities by individuals who continue to talk about the discipline as if the real anthropologists are, like them, ‘pure’ anthropologists teaching in universities and writing articles published in academic journals, while those who study anthropology but do not follow this career path are not anthropologists at all. A recent research report titled “Where do all the Anthropologists go? Research training and ‘Careers’ in Social Anthropology” (available here), by Jonathan Spencer, Anne Jepson and David Mills, indicates that this way of thinking about the discipline is out-of-touch with the reality: the vast majority of individuals who complete PhDs in social anthropology do not go on to academic careers in social anthropology. What is more, even those who do pursue academic careers in anthropology departments are under increasing pressure to demonstrate the value of their research to non-anthropologists and non-academics (Knowledge Exchange and Knowledge Transfer being key buzzwords here).

In this context there is a need for a network like Apply for those anthropologists who work outside anthropology departments, whether they work in other university departments or outside the university altogether. What is more, the need for such a network is growing: UK academia is changing rapidly and, as one of those present at the meeting suggested, the idea of staying within academia for one’s entire career may soon disappear completely because “it is about to become a lot less attractive as a career option; it might be something you can put up with for ten years before moving on.”

It was worth attending the meeting just to learn the stories of those present, which illustrated some of the options and routes available to ‘applied’ anthropologists. I will mention only a few. One participant worked for many years as a social development consultant with a number of International Financial Institutions. A deeply tanned woman introduced herself as an anthropologist working within what the US military calls the “Human Terrain System” program; anticipating criticism [see reference 2 below], she explained that she sees her role as “helping the military not to kill people.” Another participant is engaged in social impact assessment and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes for a mining company, having initially been accepted for a temporary position as an Executive Assistant before she was offered her current job when her boss found out she had a PhD in social anthropology. One more has set up Anthropologies In Translation, a website committed to an anthropology (or anthropologies) accessible to non-anthropologists. Two others had conducted research projects for a number of big companies before deciding to set up a business, Visual Signo, to help companies benefit from design and anthropological approaches, partly by maintaining a network of specialists from whom they can identify and match a researcher to a company’s needs. (For profiles of other applied anthropologists see the Apply website).

Anecdotes recounted after the conclusion of the formal meeting highlighted some of the things applied anthropologists are ‘up against.’ First, ethnography, the research method most closely associated with anthropology, is currently a fashionable but much-abused buzzword. One woman left a job with a company after they asked her to “do ethnographic research” into their product’s target audience by spending one afternoon with one family; she explained that when she told them that ethnographic research is rather more substantial and rigorous than that, they did not listen, so she left. The picture she painted was of a burgeoning industry of charlatans claiming to be ethnographers and conducting ‘research’ in precisely this manner. I asked her how she expected to convince a company to hire her to conduct fieldwork over a number of weeks or months when other researchers were offering to conduct fieldwork in an afternoon. “You have to be able to make companies understand that you are offering a vastly superior product,” she said. “We’ve presented our product to a number of companies; you gradually get a sense of how to do it, of what they need to hear from you.”

Second, there is a tension between the anthropological imperative to grapple with complexity and the urge to simplify in order to arrive at policy prescriptions. Another woman said she was now coming to the end of a three-year research project worth three-quarters of a million pounds, and had been told by her team leader that the final report should include a list of good points and a list of bad points, to which she replied that all the things she had identified were simultaneously good and bad. She was told that policymakers, the intended audience of the report, would give it ten minutes of their time; in such a context there is simply no scope for complexity. “But don’t get put off applied anthropology, what I have just described is only one side of this,” she added. “That is how these things work, but the point is that the research done will make an impact elsewhere; the ten-minute presentation of the report’s findings is only one output of the project, other outputs will include academic publications and reports and presentations that will reach and potentially influence other non-academic audiences.”

Finally, the meeting gave me several ideas for what I can do next. There are a number of bodies that I can go through in my search for work as an applied anthropologist, including the Open Anthropology Cooperative, the Anthropology In Action mailing list, and Cognitive Edge. In addition I am going to have to accept that getting a job in applied anthropology may require cold-calling and/or keeping a persuasive sales pitch to hand, in order to market myself as a provider of a useful product that many organisations do not even know exists.


1. Gillian Tett is US managing editor and an assistant editor of the Financial Times, and an anthropologist by training. She has written a number of articles in the Financial Times about ‘corporate anthropology;’ a good introduction is her article “Office Culture”, published May 20 2005, and available online at http://www.antropologi.info/anthropology/copy/Office_Culture.html. While I find her article interesting I do not agree with everything that she or her interlocuters claim.

2. See the following on anthropologists embedded in the military: http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1190886475101&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7042090.stm, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/world/asia/05afghan.html, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0907/p01s08-wosc.html

Other Sources:

http://versatilephd.com/, http://kishorebudha.wordpress.com/, http://www.1hq.co.uk/, http://semiotics.co.uk/index.html


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