You’ve probably seen them. Those reports, news articles, public comments questioning the usefulness of social science degrees like anthropology. They always make this three-anthropology-degree holder feel very warm and fuzzy. But I’d like to take a moment to argue a defense for anthropology. A strong one. As my students in Applying Anthropology are learning, there are so many ways anthropology can be used, an endless list of industries that can benefit from an anthropological infusion. I have a list here of excellent examples where a synthesis between anthropology and another field produces unparalleled results.
Whenever I read disparaging remarks about anthropology, I first feel anger at the author. How can they not see how useful it is to understand humans? Anthropologists dive deep into what it means to be a human-the cultural, biological, historical, and linguistic realities of humanity. But then I redirect my anger-to anthropologists. How are WE still not doing a better job of showing people how useful our field is? Of supporting the professionals out there doing the work that proves this? When SUNY Potsdam hired me and asked I focus on teaching applied anthropology, I was ecstatic. I have always been passionate about moving anthropology out of the university and into any industry that could benefit from understanding humans better (read: all of them). Right now has never been a better time to defend this field.
So what can anthropology be used for? Here are some uses my students are exploring this semester. For those unfamiliar with the field, these come from the four traditional ways to study humans: Biological Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, and Archaeology. Here is a sample of what we can do.
Entertain people! Check out this archaeologist baker who shows people how to recreate bread like the Romans, make cookies perfectly replicating cuneiform writing tablets, or recreate a pub meal served in ancient Pompeii. Her work was especially popular during the pandemic baking craze, when people needed a diversion from stress. People are fascinated by archaeology, there is a lot of room to grow applying it in the entertainment fields. Movies, books, children's literature, podcasting, experiential courses, themed travel packages for students, families or retirees...all of these are great places where anthropology and archaeology have designed innovative entertainment (...let’s do more!)
Produce better businesses. One of my students brilliantly connected primatology (the study of non-human primates) to his major in business administration. He was inspired by the conservation efforts of anthropologists working in primatology, saying they made him want to build better business practices in the future “I am majoring in business administration and a lot of times we tend to forget to look at our global footprint or where we are getting our resources from, but without resources, we wouldn't be able to create or produce anything…..as I continue furthering my knowledge in both anthropology and business administration I continue to gain a perspective on how important it is to look at green or environmentally friendly corporations. This is something that I can see myself focusing on.” It's not just the study of primate conservation that is useful, the synthesis between business and anthropology has long championed the benefit of understanding culture to transform globalized companies. With ESG (“Environment, Social, and Governance”) principles in focus throughout industry, anthropology is a strong partner for building better businesses.
Develop effective medical initiatives. As should be clear right now, people react differently to medical concerns. Their physical experience with disease, their definitions of health, their behavior in the face of medical threats, and the methods that best heal a suffering human are better understood with Medical Anthropology. Dr. Paul Farmer and his team made this synthesis between healthcare and anthropology famous in places under severe medical duress, but this is useful everywhere. Understanding how our culture and identity influence our experiences with health will produce better healthcare and better public health campaigns. Combined with this, the field of anthropological genetics is designing personalized and evolutionary medicine that will advance medical treatments to a whole new level. These biomedical uses of anthropology are taking off...I suspect they will continue to be powerful examples disproving those who question the usefulness of the field.
Improve education. Did you know your linguistic background, your ethnic upbringing, and the unique culture of your neighborhood can affect how well you do in school? Anthropologists do. The anthropology of education tries to find better ways to use what we know about the effects of our languages and the cultural influences that impact educational success. On the other side of this pandemic, we will need to look at how to build back education and help kids that fell behind. Anthropology can help.
Design heritage and science tourism programs. All around the world the archaeological wonders of our past are in danger. Archaeology and anthropology are at the front line designing ways to protect, share and teach the past. From managing UNESCO world heritage sites to designing science tourism programs that help you learn while traveling, anthropology is building a better way to move into the future while honoring our past.
Realize the potential and limitations of technology. Culture impacts technology. It impacts how you use it, how it affects you, even whether or not you will purchase the next product developed. For example, did you know the success of facial recognition software was heavily influenced by cultural factors in different markets? This anthropologist at Intel did. Anthropologists also study ways to combat the negative effects of technology. For example, this PhD student is exploring digital addiction and detox methods, one of many ways to use anthropology to improve our digital lives. Digital anthropology can tell us how culture affects technology, a synthesis useful in so many ways.
Figure out how to prepare people for climate change. Climate change will likely impact everything- the housing market, supply chains, agriculture, travel, urban planning, architecture, healthcare, health concerns, money markets, supply and demand, and so much more. If you think I am stretching, google climate change with any one of these words. Anthropology is poised to help us understand how these impacts will be felt differently in different cultures around the world...and by different sections of the same society. Additionally, archaeologists give us insight into how environmental shifts were dealt with in the past. Who failed and who succeeded when something in their environment shifted? As we grapple with what needs to be done right now to prepare, anthropology will help.
Identify the dead. The less fun but very needed applied field of forensic anthropology steps in when human identifications are needed. This might be just one person found whose body can’t be identified...or a mass disaster where identifications can reach into the hundreds or thousands. In these cases, people rely on those with a deep understanding of how identity markers present on human remains. That knowledge helps disaster relief teams connect a person with their family and their identity. Earthquakes, tsunamis, building collapses, fires, terrorist attacks, drownings, plane crashes, and violence all create the need for anthropologists who work alongside FEMA, law enforcement, humanitarian relief groups, the Red Cross and the United Nations. Ongoing research in this field is rapidly changing the success and speed to which we can identify the dead.
Those are just a few examples...there are so many more. The study of humans, whether it's biological, cultural, linguistic, or historical, can be used in every aspect of the modern world. But we need to continue to speak up. Some already do...so I am joining their voices. Speaking to fellow students, professionals, or advocates for anthropology: the next time someone asks you “what are you going to do with that degree?” or “why are you taking that class?”, have an answer ready. Give an example where anthropology built a better business, uncovered a vital fact about the past useful for managing the present, changed the course of a medical crisis, prepared a society to face an impending problem, or gave people a fun diversion during a time of stress. Together, we can build a defense for anthropology.
For those knowledgeable about the field, please feel free to add to this list of what anthropologists can do in the comments! Its very far from complete as is.
Update: Please read some of the amazing comments other professionals have left!
I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. This fall, I will be recording a research trip to Greenland as a virtual field trip for my students (and anyone else interested). Join us as we travel to the Arctic and learn about life in the far north.