Applying Anthropology

There are a number of fields of study that we can think of as “standard” in Western culture, from English to physics to history. People simply have a general knowledge of what these graduates do — and what their transferable skills are.

Physics major? Make them an analyst!

When students take physics, even as an undergraduate, we know that they can probably do math, extrapolate effectively from data sets, and think about problems in a relatively objective way. We know that they can manipulate numbers, think certain types of problems through, and understand complicated technical information.

English major? Make them an editor!

Students who major in English, on the other hand, have good vocabularies, can write, communicate, and improve other people’s communications. They know how words fit together for the “average” person, and can read effectively (a skill that we don’t think too much about, but which is actually both uncommon and useful).

History major? Make them a researcher!

When students have completed a history undergraduate degree, they will be well versed in plumbing written sources, analyzing sourcing flaws, and digging out some kind of truth — with the added ability to put together some kind of understanding of the reliability of the answers. These are the same skills that put everyone else’s google-fu to shame.

Anthropology major? Make them a…

But the cultural anthropology major? Anthropology, even more than sociology, is an esoteric topic. Anthropology has traditionally focused on whole areas of knowledge found outside of Western culture.

Where more traditional areas of study have focused on the core strengths of the West, from literature to science, anthropology has gone out and looked at the whole human experience, not just the “cool” stuff.
Anthropology looks at areas of knowledge that are difficult to even talk about in Western culture. They study the hard-to-study, from the religious beliefs of groups that don’t even have a word for religion to the nature of human interaction and the observer’s effect on it. These are areas that have often skated past the eyes of Western culture.

Transferable Skills

For the average anthropology major, even those who plan to go to graduate school and pursue a “life of the mind,” there will come a time when the wheel hits the road and it’s time to enter the job market. We know that the English majors can read (really read), the history majors can research, and the physics majors can perform (relatively) objective analysis.

How about the anthropologists? Well, as it turns out, there are a number of skills that a cultural anthropology major can do pretty well.

Read Technical Literature

Like I mentioned before, English majors are trained to read and analyze texts. Not only can the anthropology major do the same, but the text doesn’t even need a plot!

Research and Analyze

The topics that anthropology addresses almost always cross disciplines. An anthropology graduate can not only find out what people say, but also rate the sources of information (people, texts, or data) in terms of reliability.

Anthropologists have been trained to work from “what people say” to build frameworks that reflect whole ways of thinking. Further, they’ve been weaned from the two great fallacies of this kind of work: the belief that all people think alike, and the related mistake that “all people think like me.”

Combine Objective and Subjective Data

While the archetypal physics student above was trained in turning the physical world into numbers, his anthropology counterpart was trained in combining objective and subjective data. This is why some anthropologists are working in such varied areas as marketing and UX (user experience).

Collect Data that Was Being Missed

We’d like to think that a usual pattern for solving a problem is:

Analyze problem → Develop solution → Develop process → Apply process → Move on

While that model looks sharp, neat, and clean, it may not be terribly efficient in the long run. Anthropologists (those voracious technical readers) are be helpful in developing more complex processes: ones that have feedback loops, are self-correcting, and take advantage of the expertise of those actually performing the work.

An additional problem that anthropologists are trained to tackle (with the delicacy of an anthropologist) is that these “processes” may or may not address underlying challenges, hidden resistances, and “social” issues that don’t come to light immediately.

Analyze a problem → Develop a solution → Develop a process → Apply the process →
Test the results over time to increase efficiencies and determine how users have had to modify the process for “real world” application

The Takeaway

Anthropologists aren’t people who wear baggy, inexpensive clothes with lots of pockets and jewelry from around the world. We’re more than that. Our value added:

Anthropologists are risk takers who are trained to deal with complex and messy systems, real-world, non-static processes, and those pesky problems that always happen whenever primate reality meets carefully crafted abstract systems.


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