Aspirations to Practicing Anthropology are OK!

Rick Holden  is a practicing (non-academic) cultural anthropologist who is relatively new to the field. .  This is the first in a series of nuts and bolts blogs by Rick about ”leasons learned.”  He wants to encourage graduating anthropology students to think about how anthropologists go about making a living ouside of the academy. Tony Waters

Most of what’s written about getting into practicing anthropology is written by well established figures at the end of a successful career, most of whom describe falling into it after receiving their PhD’s and a brief stint in academia. But there are other ways to go. 

The trick is to understand that there are solid differences between practicing anthropology and academic anthropology in terms of outlook and the goals of your research.  In academic anthropology you produce knowledge for the academy, and the goal is getting published and pushing students through the graduate school.  In practicing anthropology you’re lucky if you even get to call yourself an anthropologist, and all that matters is how well you are able to produce, in a timely fashion, a predetermined set of “deliverables” for a client, agency, business, or non-profit.  In the grad school you have the luxury of studying whatever is interesting to you (or your professor), and you can make a contribution to the ethnographic record.  In the practice of anthropology, though, a client outlines your field site, and determines the parameters of study.  As a practitioner you will always have in your mind the question ‘how will this benefit my client?’ or, ‘how will this help them accomplish their needs and goals’? 

This is something that students should understand before applying to a graduate program. Schools that benefit future academics (U. of Chicago, Berkley, Columbia, etc…), are usually not the schools that will benefit a future practicing anthropologist.  When you enter into a prestigious graduate program, you soon learn that your professors’ job is to teach you how do replace them one day, even though the math indicates this probably won’t happen—after all each professor trains something like 20 Ph.D. students during their career, and logically, only one can “replace” them.  The others then win the booby prize by being sent packing off to a teaching U. (like Tony), or slipping into the “practice” route.  But, if you are bright enough to know up-front that you want to work as a practicing anthropolgist, and have no intention of becoming a professor, then the Chciago, Berkeley, Columbia route really isn’t going to help you gain the skills you need especially if you don’t plan on getting your PhD. I would recommend instead going to a well-ranked undergraduate institution with a theory-heavy program, and then to a high quality Master’s applied graduate program (U. of South Florida, U. of North Texas, U. of Maryland).  The undergraduate program will teach you anthropology (all four fields), and the graduate program teaches you the methods and techniques to actually practice anthropology.  This graduate program should include one course in advanced statistics, geographic information systems (GIS) techniques, human geography, and maybe population, and a minor in a relevant foreign language.  Other elective courses, and a possible second M.S. degree, will depend on what sub-fields you plan on specializing in.   These are worth far more to future practicing ethnographers than a summer dig, or memorizing primate nomenclature, which are things you’ll do in a good undergraduate program anyway. 

At the end of the day employers care about what you can do for them, which is what you need to concentrate on. This means having things on a resume like GIS, multivariate analysis, qualitative methods, and knowledge of software packages. If you are going overseas, indicate language skills, backed up with scores on standardized tests.  (Military recruiters are happy set up these tests for you free of charge, just don’t let them know you probably aren’t going to join). For example, very few people outside of the academy are going to care about your graduate thesis or dissertation on the linguistic patterns of cowboys, or the parenting strategies or the LGBT community in the Philippines. However, a resume that explains how your thesis consisted of a structured study for a public health dept., Samsung, or whoever, and how you were able to solve some problem for them is something that employers want to hear about.  If you have the right skill set then there are plenty of jobs out there, but it requires proper planning, training, and experience. 

 If you’d like to work in the non-profit sector, then intern or do your thesis for a non-profit.  Chances are you will be working with a future employer (this is how most professionals start out).  Don’t be afraid to dream big.  If you want to work in urban development like I did, then market yourself to a major city.  Chances are good that whoever you intern with, or do research for, will appreciate the anthropological difference and ask you to stay on.

 Another thing you will learn as an anthropologist is that nothing is more interesting to someone than themselves.  You will be amazed at how well prominent people doing jobs you want to do someday respond to an eager student when asked, “Please tell me about your job, and tell me how I can do what you do someday.”  After you graduate you’re just some person looking for a job, but as a student you are a non-threatening young student that they can mentor.

 Also, a practicing anthropolgist who has two master’s degrees is eminently marketable.  And two Master’s degrees can take far less time and cost less money than one Ph.D.  If you’d like to be a medical anthropologist, a degree in anthropology combined with a Master’s in Public Health gives you the skills you need, and increases your standing among your competition.  If you add a language like French to work in areas of Africa to that then you’ll be set.  Finally, I would recommend that those interested in working outside of the academy that you purchase Riall Nolan’s, Anthropology in Practice: Building a Career Outside of the Academy.  

 So, next time you tell someone that you’re majoring in anthropology, and they ask you, “what are you gonna do with that,” you can tell them exactly what you’re going to do “with that.”  All you need is a realistic goal, a solid plan, a good work ethic, and a hustler’s spirit.  Or, you can go to grad school, because you don’t want to pay back your student loans, and haven’t figured what do with your life like most students at your university.

Now Available for your Xmas giving, Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken!

chief culture officerI am pleased to let people know about a new book by fellow social science innovator, Grant McCracken.  Hi book ” Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities” was a major inspiration for me when I started my career in design anthropology and have have been reading his blog ever since.  (Grant, please..please go back to the old format!).  Below is the press release, and I will follow up after I give it a read.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and then realized I have left it at the office!

If you are interested in what anthropology has to offer business thinking and the practice of innovation, do your self a favor and pick up any of Grant’s books

In Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (Basic Books; December 1, 2009) anthropologist and consultant Grant McCracken argues that products and ads succeed when corporations capitalize on culture.  Not corporate culture or “high culture,” but the world outside the company—the body of ideas, emotions and activities that make up the life of the consumer.  Major corporations like Apple, Nike, Virgin, and Volkswagen study and cater to their customers’ behaviors and values—they found a way to read their audience’s culture and then speak to it.  We can also see the costs of misreading culture: Coca-Cola missed out on the demand for a diverse selection of drinks to the tune of $1.4 billion; Best Buy purchased Musicland just as people began downloading music online; and Levi-Strauss missed out on the hip-hop trend.  In each case, executives failed to notice what was happening in world outside the corporation, and they paid dearly for it.

Not only do corporations live or die by their connection to culture, but too often, many are completely dependent on big-name “gurus”—Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart, Silvia Lagnado—for insight and guidance. Or worse, they outsource the task to marketing firms, consultants, branding experts, or the office intern.  McCracken has consulted with an array of major companies, including Campbell Soup, Coke, L’Oreal, IBM, and the Children’s Television Workshop, always with an eye on the value companies can derive from culture.  In CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken argues that the American corporation needs a new officer in the C-Suite—a Chief Culture Officer, or CCO—who will harness the near-uncanny cultural insight exemplified by gurus like Jobs, and make it systematic and professional.  A company’s CCO would develop a deep understanding of culture—both its fast-moving trends and its deep, enduring waves—along with a strategy for applying this knowledge in a way that creates value.  With CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, McCracken hopes to reach those inside the company who want to make their company more intelligent, strategic, and responsive, as well as those outside the company who want to turn their knowledge of culture into a career.

In an insightful overview of pop culture, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER takes readers through major cultural movements of the past century—the hippies, the yuppies, the new avant-garde, the networked community—and examines the successful qualities of popular television shows and movies, analyzes the preppy culture of the 1980s, shows how teens today identify with not one but several groups, and describes how “cool” overtook status.  McCracken’s witty romps through culture demonstrate how successful brands listened to and interacted with their consumers, while other executives led their companies in the wrong direction, following “hunches” and intuition alone.  And with an aim to put culture in the C-Suite, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER profiles a number of figures—from gurus like Jobs and Stewart to real-life “stealth CCOs” who are already acting the part—and reverse-engineers their skills and strategies.  Through these insightful character sketches, McCracken demonstrates that cultural knowledge involves not just keeping up with trends, but active participation, as well.  Only then can the CCO discover what their consumers truly value—and what makes them tick.

To those inside the corporation, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides a bonus appendix with ten real-life candidates for the new CCO position—from a 17-year-old named Justin who loves military history, to Eric, who, while getting his physics degree at Stanford, also ran the FAQ and played volleyball.  And for the aspiring first generation of CCOs, the second bonus appendix provides a toolkit for understanding both slow culture and fast culture—from what to read, watch, and attend, to who to lunch, what to outsource, and how to transform others in the company into active, thoughtful observers of culture.  With authority, wit, and keen insight, CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER provides the description—now it’s time for companies to post the job.


I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 EPIC conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last October. A hot topic there was the use of “Personas” in usability research, with the idea that it was an effective and quick way to communicate the results of the research to the client. Personas are fictional characters developed as a representative of the research subjects as a whole in order to identify the characteristics/patterns of the subjects and as a way to “get to know” the company’s “typical” customer on a more intimate level so that the company may make better operational decisions to fit the majority of their customer’s needs and wants.

This was a somewhat controversial item because, in my group at least, half of the anthropologists disagreed with the effectiveness of a personas. The argument was that personas are just characters, and although they are developed from real anthropological research, they are still fictional. Those who supported this viewpoint suggested that the actual research data should be reported to the companies in lieu of persona (confidentiality protected of course). After all, why should someone make up a fictional person when real living people had been studied and could serve as [more valid] representatives? They believed that the clients should view the data of the real consumers in order to get the most effective results.

I certainly understood the viewpoint of those anthropologists that supported presenting the actual data rather than a representative character, however, I personally support the viewpoint of the companies/researchers that use personas. I’ve heard, and although I have no first-hand experience with clients consulting with me for usability research, and from the explanations provided from the Copenhagen research companies I visited, I believe that personas are an important and effective mode of communication of the data from the researcher to the client. The reason I take this stance is that companies, and more importantly the executives with the ability to commission such research, usually have absolutely no time, or often desire, to read some long drawn report of findings or statistics. This is why they hire consultants to do the research so that they may gain the intimate understanding of their customers without having to expend their non-existent time researching it themselves. There are critical pieces of that data that they do need to take the time to review and I’m not saying they need not receive a full report of the research results, however, having a persona allows them to “get the point”, so to speak, of who exactly their typical target customer is and what their needs and frustrations are, in a very brief amount of time. And I believe the reality is that many of the executives will not read the full research reports because of time, disinterest, or other factors and therefore making the efforts of the whole project useless because without implementation it becomes only interesting [but operationally ineffective] information. As an Office Manager for a non-profit organization, I certainly understand, from experience, the lack of time available to do this research, even though it would significantly impact the quality of the operations or client services. Furthermore, personas are an easy tool to communicate research results to employees.

As a side note, the EPIC participants were able to visit multiple that do usability/business research projects. Copenhagen has many of them and they are highly respected. The ones I visited did projects for the Denmark hospital system, police force, and a variety of other organizations. There was also a wide variety of company types/projects that these companies were hired to do research for. That says to me there is great hope for the future of this type of research.

As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military –Part 1

Yes, I know. I rant about the AAA and yet I still download the PDF of the conference program. I wonder why we all do things like that? It’s not like I’m looking to change the stance of the AAA or the stance of people that get hysterical over anthropologists working in the military or intel communities. To me, those are all done deals, my mind is not going to change (at least not by the arguments presented so far) and I am not going to change someone else’s. Everyone may as well go to their separate corners and be done with it. But yet I still feel the need to raise a voice from time to time. Not to change peoples’ minds, but perhaps to let other people (students?) know that anthropology can be much more than what (I believe) a small group of people have been trying to limit it to. Political ideology and political correctness are not substitutes for doing the work and analysis in order to get to the clearest answers and insights… it’s not about hunting for a way to prove the other person right or wrong, or at least it shouldn’t be. Maybe you do harbor a secret desire to work for the CIA or NSA. Sure, given the oppressive political environment some anthropologists want to create, you may not want to advertise that fact, but know that there are others out there like you but they might not have the title “anthropologist.” It’s not news that I am ethically fine with people that have anthropology training working in all areas of the military and intel communities, not just contributing to the stabilization and community building kind of work that people we partner with are engaged in. Hell, I am fine if people want to use their skills to move forward the political agenda they are most passionate about. But use your skills and don’t just lay down in front of the agenda laid out for you. How many anthropologists that were against the invasion of Iraq actually used their skills, expertise and training as anthropologists to prevent or shorten the escapade? Lets count the hands up… anyone, anyone? Sorry, scribbling a poster to hold up as an anonymous face at a rally is not using your advanced training to change the direction of government and neither is a signed statement of protest. Use your skills to do fieldwork, use the fieldwork to generate insights, us those insight to create plans of action and recommendations. The reason why corporations and the military have been working with anthropologists for years is that they get value from the anthropologists doing what they are trained to do. Why is it when anthro’s decide to protest something they don’t bother doing any of that same work to further their own agendas? Creating real change requires doing real work.

Students: There is good and honorable work out there in non-profits, political groups, all levels of national, state and local governments, military, corporations, and more, no matter what your convictions but rarely is it called anthropology and would benefit greatly from the mind set of an anthropologist. Anthropologists have a lot of opportunities for a seat at these tables, they just have to be willing to get off the high horse and take it.

Headed to Denmark…

The EPIC conference is fast approaching and thanks in part to I’ll be on my way to Denmark at the end of next week to attend the EPIC conference at the University of Copenhagen. I am excited and nervous about the trip! It is my first time traveling to Europe and only my second international trip. I’m excited because this is the first conference of this kind that I will be attending, and I expect that I will learn a lot about new and different ways that ethnographic research is being used, how people are successfully presenting their ideas and research, and of course I hope to learn a thing or two about the Danish. I look forward to being around creative and innovative people. Being in a creative environment always helps spark ideas in my own mind. I am nervous because travel plans just never seem to pan out the way they are supposed to! *knock on wood* After the conference I’m heading over to Paris, France to check out the sights there and to visit a friend who is currently working on her Masters in French History.

I’ve obviously been a bit absent from posting on so I guess a bit of an update might be due for those who were wondering. I graduated with my degree in anthropology and history in May, and have continued to work as office manager of a non-profit organization. I thought I’d have more free time after classes were over, but it has been one project after another! My latest project has been submitting my applications for a Master in Business program.

I look forward to blogging my EPIC experience! If anyone else is attending please contact me!

Hurry, Deadline July 25th! Scholarships Announcement

I just received this from the EPIC folks!

Scholarships Announcement 2008 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

We [EPIC, not] are pleased to announce 3-5 scholarships for the EPIC conference in Copenhagen, 15-18 October 2008. Any student (undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D.) can apply! Scholarship recipients will receive free registration, in exchange for working 12-16 hours before or during the conference.

Deadline for applications: 25 July 2008

Application process: Please submit a curriculum vitae and a cover letter to In your cover letter, indicate whether you will be presenting a paper or organizing a workshop. Also, explain how you will benefit from attending the conference. Thirdly, we want to make sure that the scholarship recipients carry out their conference tasks in a responsible and effective manner, so you should describe any relevant experience of this type.

Scholarship recipients will be chosen by 4 August. Priority will be given to

  • Those who are presenting a paper or organizing a workshop
  • Those whom the conference would benefit the most
  • Those who seem most likely to be responsible and effective in their work for the conference

Questions? Contact Christina Wasson, Scholarships Committee Chair, at

Anthropology & Business

It has been an interesting experience becoming involved with entrepreneurship, business, and learning the do’s and don’ts of this type of environment in contrast to the skills and information I have learned in the social sciences. It seems as if there really are two vastly different types of thinking in these two worlds. I’ve come to realize that it is possible to learn the traits valued within each discipline and to ‘wear’ them when the situation calls for it.

With the study of anthropology, we learn to be trained observers. We also learn to be careful about knee-jerk judgments in order to be sure that we’re seeing the entire picture (or as much of it as possible) and not simply placing our own opinions or values onto the others. The research process focuses on the importance of analyzing the data carefully and being sure not to draw conclusions that are unfounded. In business and entrepreneurship, on the other hand, quick decisions and risk taking are necessary. This field calls for constant innovation and a trial-and-error type approach in order to move the venture along as quickly as possible. More than one entrepreneurship teacher has used the slogan “If you are going to fail, fail fast”, and then move on to the next idea.

Although these two different disciplines seem so very different, and in many ways are, common ground can still be found in some aspects. Anthropologists and business people must both step outside their comfort zones often and must be able to gain strangers’ trust. The anthropologist must gain the trust of his or her informants or research subjects, the business person must gain the trust of his or her customers. The anthropologist steps outside their comfort zone in order to submerse themselves within a completely new environment and culture, and are often confronted with beliefs, practices, or actions that conflict with their own values. The business person steps outside their comfort zone by doing what it takes to make the networking connections necessary for the success of their venture.

Personally I have found it a valuable learning experience becoming so actively involved in another discipline. When I first began last September, I was only able to see the differences between the two disciplines. A much deeper understanding has evolved since I am now able to see the commonalities.