What do dinosaurs have to do with insurance? A lesson in advocating for anthropology in the workplace

Rummaging through some old folders recently, I came across an artifact from my last job that gave me a good laugh. It’s a “business card” that a colleague made for me one afternoon during what was apparently a really boring meeting.

ethnographer business card

I recall having number of conversations with this colleague about what exactly I, an anthropologist, was doing working at an insurance company. When I first started there, he couldn’t quite make the connection between my background in “studying dinosaurs” (as he liked to joke) and my job as a consumer/user researcher. I’m pretty sure he never actually thought that I studied dinosaurs, but it was clear to me that he was not at all familiar with the discipline of anthropology, let alone how it could be applied to the world of insurance and financial services. After the necessary discussions ensued, my colleague came to realize how the “understanding people” part of anthropology is applicable to figuring out what people want in the products and services they use (and ultimately to informing business strategy.) The whole dinosaur thing became a running joke between the two of us, which was OK, because I often teased him about his master’s degree in “meat sciences” (he studied marbling and fat content in beef cattle for his thesis project).

We need to get better at advocating for anthropology in non-academic settings

I kept the business card because it’s funny and because it reminds me of my transition between school and the workplace, and the adjustments I had to make to how I talked about my skills and training with other people. To me, it symbolizes the pervasive lack of awareness of the value and applications of anthropology in non-academic settings, something that most of us encounter more than once in their careers and must figure out how to deal with effectively.

Aside from my own experiences, the business card reminds me that we have our work cut out for us in undoing the misconceptions that continue to plague the discipline. We need to keep trying our damnedest to create value in our workplaces and build more of a solid demand for what we do, since this limited awareness is pretty much our fault anyway. Lots of people think it’s a good idea to hire anthropologists, but it seems they aren’t always sure why. Many people don’t realize that anthropologists are trained to use a wide variety tools, techniques, methods and approaches to solve real world problems in all kinds of contexts – anywhere there are human beings, really – because no one ever told them. How many organizations have never even entertained the idea of hiring one of us because they didn’t see any value in it? As such, organizations lose out on alternative perspectives, but Anthropology loses out, too. So do the hoardes of new anthropology graduates, from BAs to PhDs, who are coming out of school in need of gainful, non-academic employment.

Anthropologists can do all kinds of jobs, and we need to be more effective at communicating this to others. Aside from being researchers, we are also cultural brokers, policy makers, evaluators, communicators, project managers, teachers, program coordinatorsanalysts, facilitators, community activists, mediators, grant writersevaluatorsbusiness owners, and the list goes on. We know how to effectively ask the right questions, understand diverse perspectives, advocate for people’s needs and values, establish rapport, and interact and engage with stakeholders – skills for which any organization could find a use yet may not think to associate with anthropological training.

My experiences with trial and error in my career so far have given me a better back-pocket answer for when someone asks me “What are you doing here?” Still, I think we can do better at preparing graduates so they don’t have to rely as much on experimentation to figure these things out. If we want others to value us and our skills, if we want to create jobs for future generations of anthropologists, and if we want to create a sustainable path moving forward as a discipline, we will have to change our approach.

Some ideas for the advocacy of Anthropology:

  • Teach students how to be more effective at talking with others about anthropological application, especially during job interviews and with key stakeholders
  • Focus on turning anthropological research into useful information for decision makers in multiple formats – this should be a top priority of any training program
  • Train students in the art/craft of problem solving in addition to the other elements of traditional anthropology training
  • Be more strategic as a discipline about the anthropology “brand” (there’s no ignoring that we have a problem here) and have a more solid public presence
  • Build partnerships with organizations outside the academy where students can get real-world, hands-on training before they get jobs (as applied programs have been doing for decades); existing programs should strive to make internships, practica and applied theses LESS academic and MORE practical
  • Speak less anthropology jargon and more of the language of the public and its various institutions (communities, organizations, businesses, etc. – i.e., prospective employers/stakeholders)
  • Practice public anthropology and encourage alternative ways of actively communicating information and making connections (lots of awesome anthropologists now have blogs, websites and Twitter accounts so their work/thoughts are more accessible to the public)
  • Acknowledge the numerous employment opportunities provided by the private sector as well as alternative career paths in consulting and freelancing; help students explore these options in order to have more of a presence and influence in effecting positive change within them
  • Bring more practitioner voices into the picture – if students only hear from their professors, they are going to have a skewed perception of what “practice” is all about since even professors who do “applied anthropology” are still deeply tied to the academy – practitioners experience very different realities that students could benefit from hearing about
  • Remind students that there are 1,000 different ways of “doing anthropology” and that it’s not all just about doing ethnography, nor it is all just about researching stuff – arm them with the tools and language to go out and apply anthropology to anything and explore the connections between anthropology and their personal interests

What ideas do you have for advocating for anthropology and moving forward as a discipline in non-academic, organizational contexts?


  1. What I always find interesting is that despite the doom and gloom re employment in anthro related types of fields, primarily by anthropologists and politicos, I also see predictions of job growth (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Anthropologists-and-archeologists.htm) ditto in the museum field. I think you are on target that if we keep on educating for the same old, same old we will not be preparing students for those careers.

    Questions I ask include:

    1) What specifically should be changed about an applied anthropology curriculum to make it more functional.

    2) For example, I recently participated in a focus group of applied anthropology graduates who hire applied anthropologists. The number one deficiency in graduating students noted by all eight people sitting around the table was effective written communication skills. I am left to wonder why if we are preparing students for the job market do we not require rather than recommend students with writing deficiencies take remedial courses in same as a contingency for entry/continuation in a program? Is this in part because our curriculums are composed by academicians and not folks working in the very businesses/agencies that hire graduates?

    3) Should a student’s practicum be supplemented with internships? A practicum is product driven where a student is meant to apply skills learned in the classroom into the real world. Would prior internships better prepare students for this process?

    4) How do we get past “these are all nice ideas but we are pressured to graduate students in a certain length of time and we do not have the luxury of all these add-ons.” If such changes to a curriculum will better students for employment, how do we move past viewing them as add-ons to being as essential as current program core courses and electives?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dr. Connolly. I think one thing we can do as a discipline, or at least as individual departments, is to, as you once put it, “expand the box” of thinking about places where anthropology is/can be applicable. If we keep focusing on the “same old”, especially if that “same old” is all about academia and research and esoteric communication, graduates will continue to stumble in the real world and have a hard time selling their skills and finding jobs, and the presence/value of anthropology will continue to suffer.

      The questions you pose are important ones. As to the first, can you speak to some of what The University of Memphis Dept. of Anthropology has done recently/plans to do in the future to address the issue of preparing students for careers? I am only partially familiar with its efforts. Have any of them been successful? The focus group idea potentially sounds like a good one – was it for the department? If so, were you a participant in your role as a professor or as an employer of anthropology graduates? I am also curious about how the department is dealing with the pressures of making changes to its training program to meet changing student needs, remain relevant to employer sectors, deal with market forces, work under limited budgets, etc.

      Re: writing skills, when I entered the program, I was under the impression that a requirement for acceptance was good writing skills. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe exceptions were made. If students lack these but are overall promising candidates, should they not be required to take a remedial course as an elective? Time is limited, but this seems an important enough criterion, especially to be successful in courses that involve a lot of writing (I recall this to be the case when I was there). I also wonder how undergraduate programs can be held more accountable for preparing students in this way.

      I think there’s a second part, too, that goes beyond a general deficiency in written communication, which is that students seem to still be mostly taught to write for academic audiences. We get lots of experiences to practice written communication – through reflection papers, term papers, theses, conference papers – but the end products of our work still tend to be very “academic” and theory-heavy. Speaking from my own experiences, I had to adapt very quickly to writing for a business audience which prefers to consume information in PowerPoint slides and bulleted lists. In school, our professors train us and grade the quality of our work. Students, in turn, emulate their styles and standards. I have seen that professors “applied” programs are still very traditional in this sense, requiring so-called “applied” deliverables (e.g., client reports) to reflect traditional academic training in certain ways. For one, I wish I had seen more examples from my professors of what these sorts of things should actually look like in forms acceptable to non-academic audiences.

  2. Hi Amy, I think this is a great post. I’ve found myself trying to explain anthropology a lot in my work, and I wonder if this is also why people tend to box themselves into the role of “ethnographer” instead… because it’s easier to delve into that.

    One of the issues I’ve personally come up against is simply that the academic world of anthropology is so disconnected from applied anthropology, to the point where many look down on applied anthropology. So, it feels like a top-down thing to me, where those educating young anthropologists need to champion the cause also, and that isn’t happening.

    1. Eugenia – good point about “anthropologist” versus “ethnographer” – I have seen both used by people describing themselves online, e.g., on LinkedIn, in email signatures, etc., but have never worked directly with someone who labeled themselves with the latter. I wonder if either has more or less success in conveying information, building rapport, etc. You might be right that it’s easier to explain ethnography to someone than to explain an entire discipline.

      I have never used the term “ethnographer” myself since it’s a somewhat limiting title for those whose skills go beyond just ethnographic methods (I assume this is the case with most anthropologists trained in multiple approaches to research). However, if I were looking for work and I found a job opening for an ethnographer, I’d jump on it and not mind the title one bit! 🙂 I’ve come to learn that it’s been more helpful for me to use a title that describes my job/role more specifically and in a language that my colleagues or clients can identify with – e.g., design researcher, UX analyst, qualitative researcher, etc.

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