Anthropologists on the job

Whether to design software or study eating routines, their academic skills are in demand

The Christian Science Monitor – Shira J. Boss

If your child announces he’s majoring in anthropology and you picture subsidizing him for life while receiving postcards from exotic locales, it’s time for an update. On the heels of the initial shock, the reassurances will start to filter in: Anthropologists are just as likely to be well-paid corporate consultants as they are to be hanging out with monkeys in the rain forest.

Even in this high-tech era, people trained to understand other people are in demand. But the field’s image is still playing catch-up.

“Nobody, still, relates anthropology to the real, contemporary world,” laments Cris Johnsrud, an anthropologist at the Southern Technology Application Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Nobody, that is, except the people doing the hiring.

MAKING IT PRACTICAL: Cris Johnsrud uses her anthropology training as a director of research at the Southern Technology Application Center in Gainesville, Fla. KIM BAULDREE

From environmental groups to dotcoms, employers are realizing that the competitive edge they’re after may come in the unlikely form of an anthropologist. Graduates find jobs designing software, developing breakfast foods, and helping to form one happy family after a corporate merger.

“Even most academic departments don’t know the range and variety of careers out there,” says Susan Squires, president of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

But colleges and universities are starting to adapt. As the University of Florida anthropology club’s motto reads, the field has moved “Beyond Bones and Stones.”

In the decade from 1987 to 1997, the number of anthropology majors more than doubled, according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), with the number of PhDs up by more than a third. But until recently, it was rare to see a job advertisement for an anthropologist. Most are trained for scholarly work, but academic jobs are practically nonexistent.

“The responsible departments are now admitting that there are no jobs in teaching,” says Bill Young, managing editor of Anthropology News.

Fortunately, private-sector jobs are more than picking up the slack. Sapient, a company that develops software and electronics, has more than two dozen anthropologists on staff. House anthropologists can also be found at such companies as Intel, Kodak, Whirlpool, AT&T, and General Motors. Hallmark, for instance, hired an anthropologist to go into people’s homes and study family relationships.

Detroit’s Wayne State University reorganized its anthropology department for survival during a 1980s recession. Now, doctoral students in its Business and Industrial Anthropology program are often lured away by high-paying jobs.

“A new PhD just got a job paying $76,000, working for a big tech firm,” says Marietta Baba, chair of the department. “That entry-level salary used to be unheard of for an anthropologist.”

What do anthropologists have that companies want? Is it, as the AAA says in one of its brochures, “social ease in strange situations”? When Dr. Johnsrud started working to find practical applications for new technology, she says, “Everyone would look at me and scratch their heads and say, ‘What’s an anthropologist doing here?’ ”

Three things set anthropologists apart: They’re trained to look at a larger context, they have a multicultural perspective, and they use a technique called “participant observation” (e.g. studying monkeys by joining their clan) that exposes what people do and want in a way surveys and focus groups do not.

“Engineers look at technology without looking at the broader social or cultural context, so they are often surprised when something fails” in the real world, Johnsrud says. “Anthropologists take a … more holistic approach. We help people make connections….”

General Mills had heard from moms in focus groups that they wanted to serve their families whole-grain breakfast foods. But when it hired a team of anthropologists last year to look deeper, it got quite different results.

The team went into homes to watch the breakfast routine. Instead of whole-grain foods, they found multicolored cereal. Or snacks eaten in the minivan on the way to school or work.

As a healthy and portable alternative, they came up with Go-Gurt, a yogurt packaged so that it doesn’t require a spoon and can be frozen or refrigerated. It has enjoyed national success, says Dr. Squires, who was one of the consultants.

FIELD RESEARCH: Anthropologist Susan Squires visits Lary Lawson at his home in Pescadero, Calif. As a former emergency-room nurse, he’ll give feedback on prototype equipment.

Ed Liebow, who wrote his dissertation on the urban Indian population in Phoenix, now runs a research and consulting firm that helps government agencies and private companies liaison with local communities. His firm has developed Web sites where the public can learn how contamination affects them, or where welfare recipients can see how their finances will be affected if they go to work.

“There’s this classic role to play as a culture broker,” Dr. Liebow says. “We know something about private industry and the local community and can bridge the gap.”

That cultural sensitivity has become especially important with the rise of the diverse workplace and global marketplace.

“Most business students have never taken a cultural course,” says Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. “Some of the stupid mistakes that corporations have made cross-culturally have raised an interest in people who understand those differences.”

The current wave of jobs for anthropologists outside of academia is not the first in United States history, as this selective timeline shows:

1930s: During a time of labor-management unrest and union formation, anthropologists try to help by using their people skills to reduce conflict within companies.

World War II: Anthropologists are called upon to help industry become more productive.

1940s-1960s: Working in companies as organizational consultants is an accepted part of the field of anthropology.

1970s-1980s: Applied anthropology falls out of favor with the rise of US involvement in the Vietnam War. “There was the fear that they would be used as spies in Vietnam, collecting data under the cover of being a researcher,” says Marietta Baba, chair of the anthropology department at Wayne State University in Detroit. “If we get the reputation of hurting people, we won’t be able to talk to the people any more.”

The mistrust of applied work extends to industry. The American Anthropological Association’s ethical guide includes a provision that any research performed by an anthropologist has to be public, which essentially bans working for a corporation, Dr. Baba says (the provision would later be removed). Most academic departments support that stance, sometimes warning students off jobs in the corporate sector.

1990s: The number of anthropology majors rises significantly. A split evolves between the academics who still discourage working at corporations and those who want to go where the problems (and money) are.

With a global business climate and a greater sensitivity to cultural differences, businesses recognize anthropologists as ideal “cultural brokers” who can help with product design, marketing, and communication with local populations. Major corporations employ staff anthropologists. University departments add more applied courses to their anthropology programs to better prepare graduates for work in the private sector.

2000s: Listings on the Internet job board for jobs in information technology include want-ads for anthropologists. Anthropology PhDs can earn starting salaries pushing six figures working for corporations.

What to see examples of what anthropologists are up to in their everyday work?  Looking for an anthropologist near you?  Check out the “This is Anthropology” website from the American Anthropological Association.