Beyond Academia: what else can you do with your anthropology degree?

The notion of what ‘the field’ is in anthropology has been expanding over the last few decades. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famously quoted saying: ‘The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages.’ (1973, p. 22). Even studying in villages is a bit antiquated in anthropology these days—many anthropologists study communities of practice that occur in many locations or studying the webs that link people and non-human beings across many locations.

But what do anthropologists do if they aren’t researchers in academia…? Not surprisingly, the work that anthropologists do is similarly diverse and expanding.

I interviewed (with Lani’s help) four anthropology graduates and asked them what kind of work they are doing now and how their anthropology degrees have helped them. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it says something about job opportunities available to anthropologists but two of the five people interviewed worked in user experience and two of the four worked in product design. Meet the interviewees:

Katie

Studied: a Masters in design anthropology (applied anthropology)

Works as: a consultant at a small consultancy Elabor8 on internal employee culture and engagement and product design.

Previously worked: doing user experience at Australia Post

Pasquale

Studied: Anthropology (Honours) and a post grad diploma in IT.

Works as: a user experience consultant at an IT company

Previously worked: in television

Isabella

Studied: Anthropology and Media & Communications

Works as: a freelance digital marketer doing marketing and product design

Paulina

Studied: Anthropology and Social Theory

Works as: a journalist, writer, university journalism teacher and a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences working on an argument about contemporary food culture

Previously worked: as an ESL teacher and freelance journalist and as a reporter for Fairfax Media (before it was taken over by Nine), the Polish Press Agency and the Guardian

A side note: I realise this is a bit of a long article, but the following are answers from each interview (either in audio format, transcribed, or notes that I took from a conversation that wasn’t recorded) and edited by myself to answer some broad questions that any job seeker may have. Feel free to skip through and follow the thread of a particular person who you find relatable to your interests, or read all the answers to a particular question that interests you! I hope you enjoy and feel a bit more comfy in your outlook for the future–I know it can be scary wondering what you will do after you finish your degree.

Why is anthropology useful in your work?

Overview: Generally anthropology was seen as useful to people’s work because it has taught them to listen and empathise with other people, to try to understand their behaviour and their lives. This understanding enables the interviewees to solve problems that their customers or clients identify themselves.

Katie:

Pasquale: ‘Anthropology is really about learning how to understand people, how to understand behaviour, how to understand what’s happening. And more and more organisations now really want to know what’s going on, because they realise now that they haven’t been listening, that they haven’t understood about their clients, their customers, their users. They haven’t even really understood their business all that well. And the great thing about anthropology is it gives you tools like ethnography, and, you know, the way you think about bias and what you are bringing to the work, which I think actually helps companies a lot.’

‘The first step in a design thinking model is you’ve got to empathise with the people who are the target of your project. Well, how do you do that? That’s what people learn when you do anthropology: is how to empathise, how to understand what’s going on, how to make sure you’re not bringing your biases to your work, how to make sure you can get information even when you may not have proper access to people. All of that, they’re all things that anthropologists learn to do and work out on a regular basis…It’s also important at other points in the model when you are trying to define the problem. You want to define the problem with the people, not just make it up as you are going along. When you try to come up with other ideas, you want to bring the people along, so that you can brainstorm those ideas. When you are actually prototyping things, you want to make sure you are including them so they can give you a sense that this thing is going to work or not. So throughout that whole design thinking methodology there’s just anthropology at various points, as far as I’m concerned.

Isabella:

Paulina: ‘I think what anthropology taught me was to always analyse the categories we take for granted. Not everybody lives the same, not everybody eats the same and not everybody dies the same. I see over and over again how normative some journalism/writing/academia can be — constantly reaffirming the same structures and the same processes without looking for the differences and contradictions. I grew up bicultural and bilingual, so I already knew this on some level, but anthropology gave me the necessary disciplinary training to analyse it.’

Are there many other anthropologists in your field?

Overview: As anthropology graduates, the interviewees generally felt like they were quite unique in their fields, with the exception of user experience, IT, and marketing being growing fields for anthropologists because companies are seeking them out for the skills and knowledge that they bring. People with social work, legal, psychology, sociology, politics, and history backgrounds often do similar types of work to anthropologists. An anthropology degree can bring an advantageous edge that others don’t have because anthropologists ask different kinds of questions, use different sorts of methods and get different results.

Katie:

Pasquale: ‘Early on I would have said there weren’t that many, but I think what’s happening now particularly in areas like IT, people are looking at anthropology and ethnography and they actually like what they see, because they want people that can be comfortable in planning and in going in and investigating what’s going on somewhere, or what people are thinking…There is a fast growing area of user research…or UX research (which is slightly different)’

Isabella:

Paulina: ‘I think most people writing about Poland for English-language publications — if I restrict it to this example — are politics or history majors. Many of them seem to have done PPE-style degrees at OxBridge-type institutions. They do really good work, but again, some of them seem to reaffirm structures instead of questioning them (reporting on the state and its institutions as if liberal democracy is the only thing to have ever existed), which during this period of political meltdown is more than a little problematic. Anthropologists ask different questions and I think the more they participate in public discourse, the better we will all be. So get to it!’

What are some thoughts and advice for finding the right work using your anthropology degree?

Pasquale: ‘In the mean time you may have to take up jobs that aren’t that funky. But I think once you’ve realised you want to go in a certain direction then you just keep trying to get into that area.’

Paulina: ‘While I was freelancing, I worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Australia, which was a great fall-back job (actually, teaching is probably the most useful thing I have ever done). And what better place to flex your anthropological muscles than in another country, in a cross-cultural context.’

A note on writing from Paulina: ‘Writing, on the other hand is a lifelong pursuit with no certain outcome. Being instrumental about it can kill it, being too idealistic about it can kill it too — you shouldn’t do it unless it’s something you feel you need to do. Definitely don’t do it if you want people to like you — they won’t.’

Some final advice from Katie


See more:

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

[Images my own from my travels around this continent – I hope they make you feel as calm as they make me feel.]

3 thoughts on “Beyond Academia: what else can you do with your anthropology degree?”

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