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.
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 coordinators, analysts, facilitators, community activists, mediators, grant writers, evaluators, business 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?