The other week, a former coworker of mine (I’ll call her R.) emailed me to ask a favor. The son of a woman she works with needed to “interview an anthropologist” for an assignment for his Forensic Science class, and R. wanted to put him in touch with me. How cool, I thought, to talk with a curious high school student about my chosen career path. So, of course, I said yes.
The “interview” comprised a list of four questions sent me via email. I noticed right away that the questions were very broad, rather than focused on any specific kind of anthropology, which was fine. Second, since they were for a forensic science class assignment, I wondered if he was expecting me to answer from that perspective (I didn’t, and don’t anything about such work). I would leave it up to him to think critically and make the necessary connections himself. I enjoyed answering them though because it allowed me to spend some time reflecting on the past 10 years of my life, what I’m doing now, and how I got here.
Here is what I wrote back.
1. What made you decide to be an anthropologist?
When I was in 5th grade, one of my favorite computer games was Amazon Trail. It’s a lot like Oregon Trail, except it takes place in the Amazon Rainforest. The player is charged with canoeing down the Amazon River in search of the ancient civilization of the Incas. As you progress on your journey, you are taken further and further back in time. Along the way, you interact all kinds of people, from various indigenous peoples to Western historical figures including Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Russell Wallace. One of the characters I met was an ethnobotanist (ethnobotany looks at the relationship between culture and plants, and how people use plants for their everyday needs). When I met the ethnobotanist in the game, I wanted to know more about that area of study, which led me to the field of anthropology.
Since I was already interested in people, culture and world travel, there was an instant connection. I began to research more about it, and went to the bookstore and bought my first anthropology case study by Napoleon Chagnon about the Yanomamo natives of Venezuela. Through reading this book and doing other research, I came to learn that anthropology is basically about understanding the human experience. So, to answer your question, it was both a video game and the appeal of what anthropology was all about that made me decide to pursue it as a field of study and a career path. By the time I entered 9th grade, I knew that I wanted to be an anthropologist. I am lucky because not many people can say they knew what they wanted to be when they were 14 years old.
2. How does one pursue a career in Anthropology? (How long did you go to school, what were your main studies?)
Even though I knew at a young age that I wanted to do anthropology, my understanding of it was still very basic. Little did I know that it was a lot bigger, broader, deeper and more interesting than I had ever imagined! The next few years were all about developing that understanding. I learned that there were multiple sub-fields under the larger umbrella discipline of anthropology, including biological anthropology (forensic anthropology fits under this one), linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology, which is my area of interest. And there are many, many sub-fields within those four.
Initially I thought that anthropology was all about traveling to other countries and living with “exotic” peoples for a couple of years, and learning about their traditions, cultures, foodways, religions, and other aspects of their lifestyles. My college education taught me that there is much more to anthropology than simply documenting the lives of people who are different from me. That’s what the original anthropologists did because it was interesting to them and to the governments, organizations and universities they worked for. It didn’t go much beyond that, although we have them to thank for the records of various native groups across the world we use as historical resources (especially those who no longer exist due to cultural genocide). By the early 20th century, anthropologists were using their unique perspective to attempt to understand cross-cultural differences and similarities between groups of people, to theorize about why humans do what they do (from cultural, linguistic and biological perspectives), and to make positive changes in the world through development efforts both at home and around the world.
I took my first introductory anthropology course at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida (my hometown). My professor was Victoria J. Baker, who also served as my mentor at Eckerd (she is now retired). This class helped me to get a better sense of the fundamental concepts and theories of anthropology, like kinship systems and religion. I remember asking a lot of questions. The result was that my perception of how the world works was turned upside down by learning how to think about things differently, or to think like an anthropologist. Coincidentally, the book I mentioned earlier by Napoleon Chagnon was on our required reading list. We also read a number of other “case studies”, as they are often referred to, about different cultures and groups of people around the world, including one by my professor about her work in Sri Lanka.
The intro course further intensified my interest in studying anthropology, so I took lots of other classes throughout my four years as an undergraduate, including classes on linguistic anthropology, cultural geography, health and minority populations, Latin American studies, film studies, Polynesian cultures, anthropological research methods, evolutionary anthropology, and others. I also studied abroad three times, which bolstered my global perspective. While I was completing my degree, I was also fortunate to be able to complete a senior thesis project on the gentrification and development of downtown St. Petersburg from the perspective of senior citizens, using both an ethnographic and historic approach.
After I graduated in 2008 with my BA, I took a year off and worked as a tutor for a local non-profit. I knew I wanted to continue studying anthropology in grad school, but I needed to make some decisions about narrowing my focus to something more specific within the field. In 2009, I returned to school to earn my MA in Applied Anthropology, with a concentration in Urban Anthropology, from the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. If taking courses as an undergrad rocked my worldview of anthropology, getting my MA did even more. During this time, I got a more in-depth understanding of how anthropology can be used to solve real-world problems and explain human phenomena. I studied subjects as varied and interconnected as education, cultural identity, power, health, history, poverty, racism, disability, homelessness, labor, development, governments, laws, corporations, the environment, social change and movements, the consumption of goods, and so many others.
My knowledge and understanding of anthropology (and the world) expanded immensely because of these courses, the books I read, the projects I worked on, and the wonderful professors who taught me and supervised my research. I also learned a lot from the other students in my cohort and their varied experiences. I had more opportunities for research in local communities on topics such as the relationship between neighborhood resources and health and the struggles of poor communities. I think one of the biggest things I learned during this time is that history has such a huge influence on the present. This was very evident in Memphis, which has its own struggles with various social issues. I was lucky to be involved with a number of local non-profits and community organizations that worked on issues such as wage theft, health, poverty, child development, homelessness, food deserts, disability rights, and many others.
Most of my studies and projects fit under the umbrella of applied community-based anthropology, but there were some that fell outside this scope. One of the last projects I did was on the social implications of fashion and ethical consumption practices. Perhaps you are familiar with TOMS Shoes. This particular project looked at what TOMS symbolize in the social world. When I say symbolize, I’m thinking of symbols, like a peace sign, a cross, the Coca Cola logo, or a middle finger. I wanted to know what it says about someone when they wear TOMS shoes. What do the shoes imply about their character or values? Do people wear them simply for fashion’s sake, or for comfort, or for other reasons? Through survey, interview and observational research, I found that people, college kids especially, like to wear the shoes because it shows that they care about others and that they care about others, since buying a pair of the shoes gets another pair donated to a child who doesn’t have any. This is important for a lot of people these days because many feel obligated to help others, and this is a way they can do it and be rewarded at the same time. When someone wears TOMS, other people seem to assign this meaning to the shoes. It’s a social symbol that many people are familiar enough with, like LiveStrong bracelets or wedding rings or any other clothing or accessory.
I want to get back to your original question about pursuing a career in anthropology. At some point, you might have asked, what is an anthropologist doing working at an insurance company? Well, doing the TOMS project led me to become more interested in consumer research, which is what I do now at a large insurance and financial services company in the Midwest. As a consumer research analyst, my main focus is on understanding what our customers and competitors’ customers want with their insurance and financial products and services in order to help them do a better job at providing those products and services. How, when, where, why and with whom do they want to do business? What are their needs, expectations, preferences, attitudes and opinions with insurance and banking? Even though an anthropological perspective is super useful for asking these questions, I don’t get to do a whole lot of “anthropology” because my company tends to stick with more traditional research methods. However, I was hired because anthropology is a research-based discipline, and because I am trained in general research concepts and methods. And even though my projects are not directly related to anthropology or ethnographic research methods, I always have my anthropologist hat on and think about research questions and problem solving through that lens.
Anthropologists are also equipped with a tool kit of various research methods such as in-depth interviewing, focus group moderating, participatory research, and others, and I do occasionally get to use these to better understand customer needs. Although I don’t usually get to “do anthropology” for consumer research, I am always doing anthropology by observing and analyzing what is going on around me as an employee of a big, complex company. Sometimes that is even more fascinating! There is also one more reason I have my current job. Private sector jobs (i.e. at corporations) are also typically more high-paying than public sector or non-profit jobs. After I graduated with my MA, I had two job offers and took the one at State Farm because it paid more and would allow me to live comfortably while paying my student loans. I really would have liked to take the job at the non-profit doing health policy research, but this seemed like the better choice for my financial situation.
3. What are the main things an Anthropologist does during a day in the workplace?
I’m going to use this space to answer both your third and fourth questions about a day in the life of an anthropologist and the most interesting thing about being an anthropologist. I bet you’ve noticed by now that my story is pretty unique. Therefore, I can’t really speak to what it’s like for all anthropologists, since each and every one of us has such a unique story and life path. Being an anthropologist isn’t as cut and dry as other careers. The difference is that we have unlimited options for where and with whom we “do anthropology.”
And that is one of the most interesting things about being an anthropologist – putting one’s training and skills in understanding the human experience to use with any problem or job out there. Essentially, our perspective is useful in any context or situation that involves human beings. We come from a discipline that is very broad and deep in the subjects it explores, as evidenced by the courses I have taken and the projects I’ve worked on in school and at work. We work for corporations, governments, community centers, non-profits, schools, hospitals, churches, universities and research institutes. If anything, most of us never stop exploring, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing, and trying to understand and explain the things happening around us. We are observant. We are curious. We share an insatiable desire to know more and to understand better, and more often than not, to make the world a better place. Many of us probably started out where I did, thinking anthropology was about living in mud huts in faraway jungles, learning along the way that it is something much greater and something that can be shaped and defined in any way that we want it to be.