Anthropologists on the job
Whether to design software or study eating routines, their academic skills are in demand
If your child announces he's majoring in anthropology and you picture subsidizing him for life while receiving postcards from exotic locales, it's time for an update. On the heels of the initial shock, the reassurances will start to filter in: Anthropologists are just as likely to be well-paid corporate consultants as they are to be hanging out with monkeys in the rain forest.Skip to next paragraph
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Even in this high-tech era, people trained to understand other people are in demand. But the field's image is still playing catch-up.
"Nobody, still, relates anthropology to the real, contemporary world," laments Cris Johnsrud, an anthropologist at the Southern Technology Application Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Nobody, that is, except the people doing the hiring.
From environmental groups to dotcoms, employers are realizing that the competitive edge they're after may come in the unlikely form of an anthropologist. Graduates find
jobs designing software, developing breakfast foods, and helping to form one happy family after a corporate merger.
"Even most academic departments don't know the range and variety of careers out there," says Susan Squires, president of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.
But colleges and universities are starting to adapt. As the University of Florida anthropology club's motto reads, the field has moved "Beyond Bones and Stones."
In the decade from 1987 to 1997, the number of anthropology majors more than doubled, according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), with the number of PhDs up by more than a third. But until recently, it was rare to see a job advertisement for an anthropologist. Most are trained for scholarly work, but academic jobs are practically nonexistent.
"The responsible departments are now admitting that there are no jobs in teaching," says Bill Young, managing editor of Anthropology News.
Fortunately, private-sector jobs are more than picking up the slack. Sapient, a company that develops software and electronics, has more than two dozen anthropologists on staff. House anthropologists can also be found at such companies as Intel, Kodak, Whirlpool, AT&T, and General Motors. Hallmark, for instance, hired an anthropologist to go into people's homes and study family relationships.
Detroit's Wayne State University reorganized its anthropology department for survival during a 1980s recession. Now, doctoral students in its Business and Industrial Anthropology program are often lured away by high-paying jobs.
"A new PhD just got a job paying $76,000, working for a big tech firm," says Marietta Baba, chair of the department. "That entry-level salary used to be unheard of for an anthropologist."
What do anthropologists have that companies want? Is it, as the AAA says in one of its brochures, "social ease in strange situations"? When Dr. Johnsrud started working to find practical applications for new technology, she says, "Everyone would look at me and scratch their heads and say, 'What's an anthropologist doing here?' "
Three things set anthropologists apart: They're trained to look at a larger context, they have a multicultural perspective, and they use a technique called "participant observation" (e.g. studying monkeys by joining their clan) that exposes what people do and want in a way surveys and focus groups do not.
"Engineers look at technology without looking at the broader social or cultural context, so they are often surprised when something fails" in the real world, Johnsrud says. "Anthropologists take a ... more holistic approach. We help people make connections...."
General Mills had heard from moms in focus groups that they wanted to serve their families whole-grain breakfast foods. But when it hired a team of anthropologists last year to look deeper, it got quite different results.