Anthropologists on the job
Whether to design software or study eating routines, their academic skills are in demand
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The team went into homes to watch the breakfast routine. Instead of whole-grain foods, they found multicolored cereal. Or snacks eaten in the minivan on the way to school or work.Skip to next paragraph
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As a healthy and portable alternative, they came up with Go-Gurt, a yogurt packaged so that it doesn't require a spoon and can be frozen or refrigerated. It has enjoyed national success, says Dr. Squires, who was one of the consultants.
Ed Liebow, who wrote his dissertation on the urban Indian population in Phoenix, now runs a research and consulting firm that helps government agencies and private companies liaison with local communities. His firm has developed Web sites where the public can learn how contamination affects them, or where welfare recipients can see how their finances will be affected if they go to work.
"There's this classic role to play as a culture broker," Dr. Liebow says. "We know something about private industry and the local community and can bridge the gap."
That cultural sensitivity has become especially important with the rise of the diverse workplace and global marketplace.
"Most business students have never taken a cultural course," says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "Some of the stupid mistakes that corporations have made cross-culturally have raised an interest in people who understand those differences."
Anthropology in the corporate world
The current wave of jobs for anthropologists outside of academia is not the first in United States history, as this selective timeline shows:
1930s: During a time of labor-management unrest and union formation, anthropologists try to help by using their people skills to reduce conflict within companies.
World War II: Anthropologists are called upon to help industry become more productive.
1940s-1960s: Working in companies as organizational consultants is an accepted part of the field of anthropology.
1970s-1980s: Applied anthropology falls out of favor with the rise of US involvement in the Vietnam War. "There was the fear that they would be used as spies in Vietnam, collecting data under the cover of being a researcher," says Marietta Baba, chair of the anthropology department at Wayne State University in Detroit. "If we get the reputation of hurting people, we won't be able to talk to the people any more."
The mistrust of applied work extends to industry. The American Anthropological Association's ethical guide includes a provision that any research performed by an anthropologist has to be public, which essentially bans working for a corporation, Dr. Baba says (the provision would later be removed). Most academic departments support that stance, sometimes warning students off jobs in the corporate sector.
1990s: The number of anthropology majors rises significantly. A split evolves between the academics who still discourage working at corporations and those who want to go where the problems (and money) are.
With a global business climate and a greater sensitivity to cultural differences, businesses recognize anthropologists as ideal "cultural brokers" who can help with product design, marketing, and communication with local populations. Major corporations employ staff anthropologists. University departments add more applied courses to their anthropology programs to better prepare graduates for work in the private sector.
2000: Listings on the Internet job board Monster.com for jobs in information technology include want-ads for anthropologists. Anthropology PhDs can earn starting salaries pushing six figures working for corporations.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society