Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Harmony Farner, Staff Associate at Econometrica, Inc.

As part of a new series at Anthropologizing, I’ll be posting some interviews with practicing anthropologists about their professions, backgrounds, and how they’ve been able to apply their anthropology training in the workplace. This week’s Anthropologist in Practice is Harmony Farner, a Staff Associate at Econometrica, Inc., in Bethesda, Maryland.

Tell me a little bit about the company you work for. How did you end up working there? 

I currently work for Econometrica, Inc., located in Bethesda, MD (about 30 minutes north of Washington, DC). Econometrica, Inc. is a private research and management consulting firm committed to providing high-quality, cost-effective analyses, modeling, and economic evaluations for clients in the public and private sectors. The firm serves governmental and commercial clients with a broad range of requirements in the energy, health, homeland security, housing, and transportation markets.

I ended up working at Econometrica by networking. I met a woman at an event for an organization we both volunteer for (completely unrelated to anthropology) and we began talking. As it usually does, the topic of employment came up. At the time I wasn’t looking for work, as I was working as a research program coordinator for Johns Hopkins. But, I can never pass up the opportunity to give out my resume, so we exchanged contact information. Months later, she contacted me saying she had passed around my resume and that she and her colleagues were impressed by my skill set and experience. Since the grant I worked on at Johns Hopkins was wrapping up, I interviewed and got my first job in the private sector! 

What is your role/title/job description? Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform. 

My official title is “Staff Associate II” – vague, I know. In a nutshell, I provide research support for a number of HUD- and HHS-related Federal contracts. I am one of two anthropologists employed by Econometrica, Inc. We are known as the “go-to qualitative people”. I don’t have a typical workday, which is something I actually like – it keeps work fresh and interesting! 

Currently, I am working on the following project for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: Post-Reform Consumer Landscape Market Analytics and Implementation. For this project, I provide research support relating to the establishment of new competitive private health insurance markets, or Exchanges”, which are being created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I contribute to various modeling efforts examining the effects of the act on the demand, supply, access, and pricing of health insurance and health care nationally and in ten specific states. 

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, experiences as an anthropology student? Do you have a favorite anthropologist (past or present)? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology? 

I received a B.A. in anthropology from The University of Memphis in 2007, followed by a M.A. in anthropology with an emphasis in medical anthropology, from the same university in 2009. Looking back, I would have to say the most useful courses I took were Anthropological Research Methods and Biocultural Epidemiology. The research methods I learned are ones I use nearly every day in my job. And, Biocultural Epidemiology offered an introduction into the terminologies and methodologies used by those in the public health sector. In my personal experience, I’ve found that being able to speak the same language (although rudimentary) as those in the world of public health goes a long way in terms of networking and credibility.

As far as what I’m post passionate about when it comes to anthropology, I would have to say it’s bringing a different viewpoint to the table and getting people to question the way they look at or think about things. The thing that brings me the most joy as an anthropologist is having someone pause and say “Huh…I hadn’t thought about it that way”.

My favorite anthropologist is, hands down, Michael Agar. He has a new book that just came out entitled The Lively Science

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?

In my current position, I perform a wide variety of tasks, some of which include qualitative data analysis, needs assessments (knowing how to talk with people, as opposed to at people, is imperative), and proposal writing. The skill that makes me the most marketable and valuable to my employer is the ability to write grants. Grant writing and proposal writing are, in many ways, similar; so, whether you choose to work in academia or in the private sector, this is a skill that is highly coveted. 

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? I.e., What has been the reception of your coworkers/managers/clients to your “anthropologist” identity? How do you define yourself? Have you taught others about what anthropology can do at your organization? If so, what has this process been like? 

I have always defined myself as a medical anthropologist. In my personal experience, I’ve found that 99% of people have little to no idea about what I do – and that air of mystery oftentimes commands some degree of respect. My more functional and less theatrical definition is usually something along the lines of “medical anthropologist working in public health” or “qualitative researcher”. And “no, I’m not like ‘Bones’”.

Currently, I work with a lot of economists and legal types. To be quite honest, they don’t care about what I do and I don’t care about what they do. But, we respect one another’s work and areas of expertise, and realize that we’re all different little cogs working together to run one big machine.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

My biggest piece of advice is when marketing your skills, do so in their language! For example, people outside of academia don’t know what a “research program coordinator” does, but they do know what a “research program manager” does. It’s one small word, but it makes a huge difference. Second, I highly recommend learning how to write grants, proposals, or both. No, it isn’t glamorous work, but it makes you much more marketable and may be the deciding factor in you getting the job over another candidate. 

My last piece of advice is one that I wish I had heeded in graduate school. Learn a statistics program – whether it is SPSS, STATA, or SAS, just learn one. There have been many occasions when I’ve felt hindered by my lack of knowhow in the world of statistics. I realize the vast majority of anthropologists loathe math, but the reality of it is that in today’s world, such a skill is a necessity. 

Note: I am looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series, so if you are interested in participating in an interview, please get in touch!


  1. Enjoyed the post. Thanks very much. These types of interviews are a great resource for folks making the transition from being students to practitioners. Please do more.

  2. @rcnnolly – Thanks for reading, and thank you again to Harmony for taking the time to share these very thoughtful responses! This is the second interview I've posted so far (see Stacey Burgin's from last month for the first). It's my hope that sharing the stories, experiences, and practical advice of practitioners working in different fields and industries will be a source of information and inspiration to students considering majoring in anthropology as well as current graduate students who are about to transition into the working world. I also see it as an opportunity to inform the wider world (including prospective employers of anthropologists/people trained in anthropology) about the skills, competencies and perspectives that anthropologists can bring to the [email protected] – So far, the interviews have been email-based. If given the opportunity to do them in person, I would likely record them, which would give me the capability to upload them as a podcast. Thanks for the suggestion!

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