Applied anthropology practically applies anthropological research, theories, methods, and insights to address real-world problems and challenges in daily life. It involves the study of human cultures, societies, and behaviors, focusing on finding solutions to complex issues by understanding and incorporating diverse perspectives.
Applied anthropology has become more important than ever in our increasingly interconnected and globalized world. It helps bridge cultural gaps, foster mutual understanding, and promote social equity by providing insights into different communities’ values, beliefs, and practices. Applied anthropologists work in various sectors, including healthcare, education, business, and environmental conservation, contributing to more informed decision-making and effective interventions.
Applied anthropology draws on theories and methods from various disciplines, such as design, business management, sociology, psychology, medicine, and public health to solve practical problems. This interdisciplinary approach enables applied anthropologists to develop comprehensive and contextually relevant solutions to complex issues by integrating multiple perspectives and areas of expertise.
Brief History of Applied Anthropology
Applied anthropology emerged as a distinct discipline in the early 20th century when anthropologists began using their expertise in human culture to address social issues and facilitate change. The field gained momentum during World War II, as anthropologists contributed to understanding different cultures and informing wartime efforts. Over time, applied anthropology has expanded its scope and influence, engaging with various health, education, and business sectors.
Applied anthropology is closely related to cultural anthropology, as both fields share a common goal of understanding human cultures and societies. However, within anthropology the primary distinction lies in their approach and focus. Cultural anthropology tends to concentrate on theoretical aspects of anthropology and the documentation of cultural variations. Applied anthropology focuses on utilizing this knowledge to address real-world problems and promote positive change in local communities.
Both applied and cultural anthropology contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the human experience in social contexts. While cultural anthropology helps build the foundation of knowledge about human history, cultural diversity and human behavior, applied anthropology further informs policies, interventions, and practices that benefit individuals and communities. Ultimately, the two fields complement each other, with applied anthropology often relying on the theories and findings of cultural anthropology to develop contextually relevant and effective solutions to human problems.
Key Concepts and the Anthropological Perspective
- Cultural relativism: A core principle of anthropology that asserts the importance of understanding and evaluating cultural practices and beliefs within specific social and historical contexts. It encourages empathy and open-mindedness, discouraging ethnocentric judgments or the imposition of one’s cultural values on others. Applied anthropologists use cultural relativism to approach problem-solving with a deep understanding and respect for their communities’ unique perspectives and experiences.
- Holism: A way of viewing the world that refers to the comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing complex issues. This approach acknowledges that various interconnected factors, including culture, environment, history, politics, and economics influence human behavior and social issues. Applied anthropologists can develop more nuanced and effective solutions to real-world problems by considering these interconnected factors.
- Ethnographic methods: Ethnography is the fundamental aspect of applied anthropology that involves systematically observing and describing human societies and cultures. Applied anthropologists use participant observation, interviews, and focus groups to gather in-depth, qualitative data about the everyday lives and experiences of the communities they work with. This rich, context-specific information allows applied anthropologists to develop culturally sensitive and informed interventions.
- Participatory action research (PAR): An approach used in applied anthropology that emphasizes the active involvement of community members in the research process. By collaborating with local stakeholders, applied anthropologists can gain valuable insights and ensure that interventions are culturally relevant and address the community’s needs. PAR also empowers communities by fostering a sense of ownership and agency in problem-solving.
- Ethics: Ethics are paramount in applied anthropology, as the work often involves engaging with vulnerable populations and addressing sensitive issues. Applied anthropologists must adhere to strict ethical guidelines to protect the well-being and dignity of their communities. Some key ethical principles include obtaining informed consent, ensuring confidentiality, respecting local customs and norms, and prioritizing the interests and needs of the community over the researcher’s objectives. By maintaining a strong ethical commitment, applied anthropologists can build trust and foster positive relationships with the communities they serve, ultimately leading to more successful and sustainable outcomes.
Major Subfields of Applied Anthropology
- Medical anthropology studies health, illness, and healing practices across different cultures and societies. Applied medical anthropologists work in various settings, such as public health, health care systems, and community health programs, to develop culturally sensitive and effective interventions, address health disparities, and promote health equity.
- Urban anthropology examines urban environments’ social and cultural dynamics, exploring migration, urban planning, and community development. Applied urban anthropologists collaborate with city planners, policymakers, and local organizations to create inclusive and sustainable urban spaces that respond to the diverse needs of urban populations.
- Environmental anthropology explores the complex relationships between human societies and their environments, including resource management, conservation, and climate change. Applied environmental anthropologists work with communities, NGOs, and governments to develop sustainable solutions to environmental challenges, promote environmental justice, and facilitate cultural and ecological diversity preservation.
- Educational anthropology studies education’s cultural and social dimensions, including learning processes, educational systems, and pedagogical practices. Applied educational anthropologists collaborate with educators, policymakers, and communities to develop culturally responsive educational programs, address educational inequalities, and promote inclusive learning environments.
- Business anthropology is the application of anthropological theories, methods, and insights to understand and enhance organizations, marketing, consumer behavior, and design. By studying culture and its impact on human behavior, business anthropologists help companies make informed decisions and create products, services, and strategies that resonate with their target audience. This field is crucial in addressing organizational pain points, understanding consumer motivations, and improving user experiences by incorporating cultural context into design.
- Design Anthropology bridges the gap between anthropology and design, focusing on understanding users’ needs, behaviors, and cultural contexts to inform the design of products, services, and systems. Applied design anthropologists work closely with designers, engineers, and stakeholders to create human-centered and culturally sensitive solutions that address real-world problems.
- Digital Anthropology explores the impact of digital technologies on human societies and cultures, examining topics such as online communities, digital identities, and the implications of artificial intelligence. Applied digital anthropologists work in various sectors, including technology companies, marketing, and policy development, to help organizations understand and navigate the rapidly evolving digital landscape.
- Cyborg Anthropology is a relatively new subfield that examines the complex relationships between humans, technology, and society. It explores topics such as human augmentation, the ethics of technology, and the co-evolution of humans and machines. Applied cyborg anthropologists contribute to developing ethical guidelines and policies related to emerging technologies and their integration into human life.
- Action anthropology is a subfield of applied anthropology that emphasizes active collaboration between anthropologists and the communities they work with to address real-world issues. This approach focuses on creating tangible outcomes and positive social change by prioritizing the needs and well-being of the communities involved in the research process.
Examples of Applied Anthropology in Action
Applied anthropologists work to solve real world problems in local communities. Some examples include:
- Gender Relations: Applied anthropologists often work to address and improve gender relations within communities, focusing on gender roles, power dynamics, and access to resources. They may conduct research, facilitate workshops, or create programs to promote gender equity and empower marginalized groups.
- Indigenous Rights: Applied anthropologists play a significant role in advocating for indigenous rights and preserving cultural heritage. They collaborate with indigenous communities to document and promote traditional knowledge, address land rights and resource management issues, and ensure their voices are heard in policy-making processes.
- Public Health and the Underground Economy: Applied anthropologists work to address public health challenges in local communities, often focusing on marginalized populations involved in the underground economy. This may involve researching the factors contributing to health disparities, designing interventions to improve access to healthcare, or working with community organizations to address substance abuse, mental health, and other pressing issues.
- Collaboration with Government Agencies and Non-Profits: Applied anthropologists often partner with government and non-profit organizations to tackle social, economic, and environmental challenges. They may provide insights into community needs, help design and implement programs, or evaluate the effectiveness of existing initiatives. These collaborations enable anthropologists to use their expertise to inform policies and create positive change in the communities they serve.
- Working with Business: Applied anthropology is increasingly relevant in the business world, where anthropologists inform marketing strategies, enhance organizational culture, and improve product design. By understanding the cultural context in which businesses operate, applied anthropologists can provide valuable insights that help companies better connect with their customers, optimize their operations, and develop innovative solutions. This collaboration between anthropology and business ultimately leads to more effective and inclusive products and services that cater to diverse populations.
Education and Career Opportunities in Applied Anthropology
Academic programs and degrees
Many universities and colleges offer academic programs in applied anthropology at undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels. Bachelor’s degrees in anthropology often allow students to choose a specialization or concentration in applied anthropology. Master’s programs, such as the Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Applied Anthropology, provide more focused training in the field. Doctoral programs (Ph.D.) in anthropology may also offer opportunities for students to engage in applied field research and projects. In addition to formal degree programs, some institutions offer short courses, workshops, and certificate programs in applied anthropology and related fields.
Professional organizations and networks
Numerous professional organizations and networks support the applied anthropology community by providing resources, networking opportunities, and advocacy for the field. Some notable organizations include the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA). These organizations often host conferences, workshops, and online forums, allowing applied anthropologists to connect, share knowledge, gain information, and collaborate with colleagues from various sectors and regions.
Job opportunities and potential employers
Applied anthropologists can find employment in various sectors, such as public health policy research, education, business, international development, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies. Potential employers include healthcare organizations, consulting firms, technology companies, marketing agencies, environmental conservation groups, and cultural heritage institutions. Depending on their expertise and interests, applied anthropologists may work as researchers, program managers, policy analysts, consultants, or educators.
Skills and qualifications required for a career in applied anthropology
A successful career in applied anthropology typically requires combining technical skills, soft skills, and the practical application of specialized knowledge. Some essential skills and qualifications include:
- Strong research and analytical skills: Applied anthropologists must be proficient in various research methods, particularly qualitative approaches such as ethnography and participant observation.
- Cultural sensitivity and adaptability: Understanding, respecting, and adapting to diverse cultural contexts is crucial for building trust and fostering effective collaborations.
- Communication and interpersonal skills: Applied anthropologists often work in multidisciplinary teams and need to communicate complex concepts clearly and effectively to various stakeholders.
- Problem-solving and critical thinking: The ability to analyze complex issues and develop creative, contextually relevant solutions is essential for addressing real-world challenges.
- Project management and organizational skills: Applied anthropologists must be able to manage multiple tasks, meet deadlines, and coordinate resources effectively.
A background in anthropology or a related academic field is often required, along with relevant work experience or internships in the desired sector. Depending on job requirements and career goals, advanced degrees and specialized certifications may also be necessary.
The Difference Between Applied and Practicing
Both applied and practicing anthropologists work on real-world problems, but the distinction between the two lies in their professional settings and the nature of their work. Applied anthropologists are university-based, like traditional academic anthropologists. Still, they apply anthropological methods, research, and knowledge to address practical issues, often working on external projects while maintaining their university positions. Practicing anthropologists, though, work for external organizations or clients, applying their anthropological knowledge and skills to various issues and problems.
Therefore, the primary distinction is the professional base of support. Applied anthropologists usually enjoy more security and support from their university positions than practicing anthropologists, who are part of the workforce. There are three significant areas of difference between applied and practicing anthropologist’s work:
- Purpose and focus: Practicing anthropologists work for clients, addressing problems defined by those clients’ needs. Their work focuses on producing results and solutions rather than academic publications and often has real-world consequences for people’s lives.
- Collaborative work: Practicing anthropologists usually collaborate with other specialists, co-thinking to develop workable solutions. Their colleagues scrutinize and review their work, methods, opinions, and results.
- Engagement and responsibility: Practicing anthropologists are more deeply engaged in their work, participating as active agents rather than spectators. They often bear responsibility for the results they create and must deal with the consequences of their actions.
Understanding the distinctions between applied and practical anthropology can provide valuable insights into how anthropological research, knowledge, and skills can be applied to address real-world challenges.
Future Directions for Applied Anthropology
Applied anthropology continues to evolve, with new trends and emerging areas of applied research, reflecting the changing needs of our increasingly interconnected and complex world. Some current anthropology trends and research areas include:
- Globalization and transnationalism: As the world becomes more interconnected, applied anthropologists are examining the implications of globalization on culture, identity, and migration patterns.
- Climate change and sustainability: As climate change becomes an ever-pressing concern, applied anthropologists are working with communities to develop culturally sensitive and sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.
- Social justice and activism: Applied anthropologists increasingly engage in social justice initiatives, using their expertise to address systemic inequalities and promote social change.Mental health and well-being: As mental health becomes a more prominent global issue, applied anthropologists are exploring the cultural dimensions of mental health and developing culturally relevant interventions.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human-machine interactions: As AI technologies continue to advance and permeate various aspects of human life, applied anthropologists are increasingly interested in exploring AI’s social and cultural implications. This includes studying how AI systems interact with and shape human behavior, the ethical concerns surrounding AI development and deployment, and the potential impact of AI on labor markets and social inequalities.
Technology will also play a significant role in shaping the future of applied anthropology. As digital technologies become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, applied anthropologists are exploring the impacts of these technologies on human behavior, culture, and society. Both as a field site and a tool to enhance the practice of anthropology, information technology will shape the future of the field in many ways.
Challenges and Opportunities for Applied Anthropology
The future of applied anthropology presents challenges and opportunities for practitioners in the field. Some challenges include securing funding for research projects, navigating the ethical complexities of working with vulnerable populations, and staying abreast of rapid technological advancements.
However, these challenges are accompanied by numerous opportunities. As the world grapples with complex, interconnected issues, the demand for applied anthropologists who can offer culturally informed and contextually relevant solutions will likely grow.
Applied anthropologists can play a critical role in shaping a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future for all by embracing interdisciplinary collaboration, engaging with new technologies, and remaining committed to social justice and ethical practice.
Where to Look for Applied Anthropology Jobs
If you are looking for an applied anthropology job, finding one can often seem daunting. When looking at the large job boards, you will rarely find the word anthropologist in the job title. If you are lucky, the word ethnography will be included in the job description, but that is not always true either, as many HR departments are not aware of what anthropologists do. Given that, it can help to look at specific job boards that cater to these types of jobs. The following pages, which have been put together by the leading anthropology organizations, may help.
Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC)
The EPIC job board can help you find full-time, part-time, freelance, or internship positions in business, the public sector, and NGOs (non-academic positions). The jobs posted are often for some of the leading companies in the world, are frequently more senior roles, and often have a technology focus. It is great for those of us who work in business, technology, or design anthropology.
National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA)
The NAPA site, unlike many of the others on this list, offers a number of resources beyond just a job board. Included in the career section are resources on:
- Anthropology Mentoring
- Career Development
- Position Listings
- Career Resources
- University Programs
- Anthropology Talking Points
Given all of these resources, it may be an ideal place for an anthropologist who is just starting out and lacks work experience.
Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA)
The SfAA is an organization dedicated to practicing anthropology. Likewise, it seems like an ideal place to look. But despite SfAA being focused on applied anthropology, I often noticed that many of the jobs are academic in nature. Regardless, it should be a site any applied anthropologists checks given the applied nature of the organization.
American Anthropological Association (AAA)
The AAACareer Center brings together employers, academics, and students. While it is not strictly targeted at applied anthropology jobs, it should not be overlooked given the size and scope of AAA.
Applied anthropologists are crucial in bridging the gap between anthropological ideas and real-world applications. Utilizing their deep understanding of human societies and cultures, they can effectively address many practical problems local communities, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses face daily. Applying anthropology in various sectors allows for developing innovative solutions that consider the cultural complexities and nuances of the issues. The work of applied anthropologists is essential in creating a more inclusive, empathetic, and well-informed world where anthropology’s rich insights foster positive change and build a deeper understanding of the human experience.
Nolan, R. (2003). Anthropology in Practice, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. [A textbook for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students outlining what anthropological practice is, and how to prepare for a practitioner‘s career].
Nolan, R. (ed.). (2012). A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology, Boston, Wiley-Blackwell. [An edited collection of articles by practitioners describing what they do and how they do it, from various sectors].