Applied Anthropology

By Asya Anderson, Ph.D. Anthropology

When I was in graduate school, plenty of people asked me the dreaded question every anthropology student hears: “What are you going to do with that?”

The question is a good one. In 2012 Forbes ranked anthropology as the worst college major for getting a well-paying job. In 2011, Florida governor Rick Scott called cited anthropology as one of the more useless college majors, encouraging college students to go into STEM fields. In fact, his words were: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

It’s true that finding a job in anthropology can be hard, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real need for anthropologists, particularly applied anthropologists. This post will help explain some of the other ways cultural anthropologists work in applied fields.

Here are some examples of work applied cultural anthropologists are doing:

Conducting business across cultures
Culture is an anthropologist’s bread and butter. At Alelo, anthropologists work to train militaries, business people, aid workers, and many others how to be effective in a culture they are unfamiliar with. Applied anthropologists are adept at analysis from qualitative data and able to distill important cultural lessons into pragmatic tools for getting business done in an unfamiliar culture, while respecting that culture and being attentive to local needs.

Designing user-centered products and services
Anthropologists often focus on an “emic” perspective, meaning they examine people and cultures on their own terms. This makes anthropologists especially good at identifying the needs in a community and the gaps that a new product or service could fill. For example, I once worked on a volunteer project to assist a company trying to improve patient-centered care during radiation treatment for cancer. My colleague and I interviewed patients who had been through treatment and worked to identify the areas where they could be better served during the process. Anthropologists add value, while at the same time adding humanity back into products and services.

Market research and strategy
On the other side of design is understanding what kinds of people a product or service could be marketed to. Anthropologists use ethnography and other qualitative data collection and analysis to identify markets and strategize how to best serve these markets. This is an especially growing field as products and services become more targeted to specific subcultures of people.

Developing soft-skills and valuable organizational culture models
One of the key parts of anthropology’s methodology is participant observation, meaning that an anthropologist immerses herself in an environment and observes how that culture works. This is how anthropologists do studies of whole communities, but it has also been valuable in understanding smaller or more narrowly defined groups, like a corporate culture. Anthropologists can help to identify the values of an organization and then develop ways to communicate these values across an organization.

Human computer interaction
As computers become integral parts of everyday life, many companies are working to understand how people are using computers, from how they move around a website (called user experience design) to what emotional attachment they have to their devices. In fact Microsoft is said to be one of the largest employers of anthropologists in the world. Anthropologists have been hired to see how people interact with their smartphones, and how this differs in different cultures, as well as to design ethnographies with online communities and average computer users to design products that better fit consumers’ needs.

Public policy and development
Did you know the current president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, is an anthropologist? Anthropologists work with other social scientists at think tanks, NGOs, international organizations, and with government departments helping to make smart policy that works for a particular community. Unlike many demographers or other policy experts, anthropologists are able to do more than just identify a social pattern that needs a public policy solution. Often they can also identify why a pattern is taking place in a certain community, and sometimes they can tailor solutions that really fit a particular cultural community.

Anthropologists add value through critical thinking and analysis to diverse fields. They help businesses, governments, and organizations think through the cultural implications that can have unintended consequences in many aspects of policy, design, or production. Applied anthropologists use the methodology and theory of anthropology to have real impact in the world. It’s not all underwater basket-weaving!



Alelo helps organizations close the cultural, communication, and skills gaps in employees at scale. Learn more about Alelo’s artificial intelligence upskilling and reskilling solutions.

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