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Anthropology Degrees Are a Hot Commodity

A February 1999 article in USA Today claims that anthropology degrees are becoming more and more in demand as the economy turns global and companies are forced to deal with an extremely diverse workforce.

Anthropology can be defined as the science that deals with humankind. Anthropologists study communities and groups to analyze and try to explain behavior and characteristics. They collect their information through observation, usually by living among a group for a period of time and learning the language.

Objective observation means you separate yourself from the data you are collecting, and that is what anthropologists are trained to do.

The career direction for anthropologists at one time was limited to the world of academia. Jobs in museums or teaching at universities were the only hopes for gainful employment. For many, this is no longer the case. The term "corporate anthropology" is now becoming a well-used phrase.

According to a news release from the Arizona State University, about 50 percent of all anthropologists with postgraduate degrees are employed in other professional endeavors.

John Barker, who works in a university anthropology department, says, "People trained in anthropology find work in a wide variety of professions. The trick seems to be learning how to transfer the skills one picks up from an anthropology class to skills desired by other employers.

"In my experience, anthropology provides a very good training ground for people who work in jobs that require them to generate reports, undertake research projects among people and work with personnel."

Ralph Bolton, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College, agrees. "Anthropologists are being hired in record numbers by businesses to engage in market research, organizational planning, and product development," he says.

Bernard Wong, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University, believes that anthropology is important for the modern world. "Because of economic globalization and transnational migration, peoples of different cultural backgrounds are placed in the same workplace. The discipline that can help the most in intercultural communication is anthropology."

Bolton agrees that anthropology degrees are a hot item today. "Whereas understanding cultures other than one's own was a curiosity earlier in the century, such understanding is now critical to most political and economic endeavors. In these matters, necessity has replaced mere curiosity."

Katherine Burr, CEO of The Hanseatic Group, confirms that her degree in anthropology gave her a special understanding and competitive edge in the corporate world. "A holistic philosophy governs how I understand any organization," she says. "Seeing the whole as well as the parts, how they are interconnected, and how they change over time."

Cathleen Crain, a managing partner with LTG Associates, Inc. believes that an anthropology degree has given her a special understanding of the business world, but also a special handicap. "People often don't know what anthropologists really do. They have a stereotyped image based on TV and an introductory class they took 20 years ago," she says.

Crain agrees with Burr that anthropology gave her a sense of the wholeness of the world, but her answers to certain situations and problems, while honest and essential, are complicated and time-consuming. She feels this can create a disadvantage when dealing with people who are looking for cookie-cutter answers.

"Anthropologists must be better disciplined and better prepared to function in a corporate setting. We seem to have a bias against business in anthropology," claims Crain. She also believes that business must be better informed about what anthropologists can do. "I think that there is a general lack of such understanding, leaving anthropologists as an exotic species."

Crain believes that anthropologists must be prepared to represent themselves to the business world in a clear and articulate way. "We have to communicate what we do, how we do it, and what outcomes can be expected. This is frequently a failing both of the discipline and of individuals," suggests Crain.

The Iowa Anthropology Newsletter reports that Allison Werner, a senior with the University of Iowa's anthropology program, plans to enter law school after graduation. She sees several possible ways in which her background in anthropology can fit into a legal career.

"The possibilities range from legal issues surrounding the patenting of organisms to the rights of indigenous peoples," she explains. These issues are the types of things anthropologists can study, but would have a hard time changing without a legal background.

Wong believes that the methodology used in anthropology is extremely transferable. "Many high-tech companies are looking for anthropologists to do marketing research, as well as the assessment of products and services." Last summer, for example, he was contacted by a company in Silicon Valley that wanted him to do research about immigrants working in the high-tech industries.

"It is anthropologists with a solid background in research methodology, fieldwork, and applied anthropology who will prosper. These are the people who will be able to tackle and help solve practical problems for corporations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and research institutes," notes Bolton.

Burr, who also has an MBA (master's in business administration), believes that the skills she learned as an anthropologist are sadly lacking in the business world. "Business education goes terribly awry because of its failure to come close to real-world dynamics. Few of my MBA professors ever ran a business, but all my anthropology professors did fieldwork. It is a requirement of the discipline."

Burr emphasizes that the ideal education for someone entering the corporate world would be an undergraduate degree in anthropology followed by an MBA. "The MBA is necessary to learn the layout of business, not how to practice it. The MBA is like a language that must be learned to understand the world of business, just like the native language must be learned to begin to profoundly understand a new culture."

Peter Stephenson, professor of anthropology, confirms that most of their graduates do well. "If they are good, their skill set eventually sets them apart from other students."

U.S. statistics show a total of 263,000 people employed in related fields, but over half of those are listed as psychologists. The number of anthropologists would be significantly less. Their wage rate varies from an average of $35,000 to a high of $67,700.

Not all anthropologists interviewed for this article agree that anthropology degrees are a hot item. Anne Goodfellow, an anthropologist, reports, "It is very difficult to get a regular job with an anthropology background. Jobs in academia are getting scarcer and scarcer and much more competitive than in the past.

"Sessional teaching and contract work is about all I've been able to manage, and I have applied for many private sector jobs."

The anthropological discipline is able to identify the true social leaders within an organization and recruit them as supporters for change. It is easy to understand why this particular skill would be valuable to many corporations.

Where is this trend going? Stephenson believes that most universities are still training many of their students for a world that no longer exists, using hopelessly old models of human behavior. He reasons that as long as this continues, anthropology degrees will remain a hot commodity.


American Anthropological Association
Covers careers, publications, resources, ethics and the latest material on anthropology

Fast Company
Online magazine about work and life

Society for Applied Anthropology
Gives job postings and info on scholarships and awards

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