An Open Letter To Anthropology Students From The Business World

Dear anthropology student,

Thank you from taking time away from your studies and reading Anthropology Major Fox. I write to you to offer some advice. Many of you have dreams of working at universities and museums or out in “the field” studying exotic cultures. Instead I’d like to recommend you look for a job in Corporate America. Yes, those guys.

This thought may be foreign for you and some of you may have gone into anthropology for the exact reason of not working in business and dealing with all the bureaucracy, but we need your help. There are only so many jobs at museums and universities and if you think the business world is full of bureaucracy, many of you will have to take jobs in government and social services where they invented bureaucracy.

Anthropology is vastly undervalued in the business world. This could prove to be detrimental to their success. I believe that if companies want to continue to stay competitive in an increasingly networked and culturally evolving future, they need to start looking to the filed of anthropology for answers to the challenges that lie ahead.

As we come out of the recession we will be entering a world that businesses aren’t familiar with and have to work with customers, institutions and other companies in collaborative ways they aren’t prepared to deal with. They’ll be stepping into new territory and many of them will be stuck looking at the ruins of the old world trying to figure out what went wrong and what they need to do differently.

To prove this point, and in what I’m sure was an exercise in trying to communicate effectively with businesses, the American Anthropological Association even put together a PowerPointHow Hiring an Anthropologist Will Make Your Firm More Competitive in the New Economy.

Businesses need anthropologists.

There was a great article this on the Economist’s Democracy in America  blog, More anthropologists on Wall Street please, quoting The Financial Time’s Gillian Tett - who has been one of the best analysts covering the recession (emphasis mine):

Tett began looking at the subject of credit five years ago. “Everyone was looking at the City and talking about M&A [mergers and acquisitions] and equity markets, and all the traditional high-glamour, high-status parts of the City. I got into this corner of the market because I passionately believed there was a revolution happening that had been almost entirely ignored. And I got really excited about trying to actually illustrate what was happening.”

“I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance,” she reasons. “Firstly, you’re trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City don’t do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.

“But the other thing is, if you come from an anthropology background, you also try and put finance in a cultural context. Bankers like to imagine that money and the profit motive is as universal as gravity. They think it’s basically a given and they think it’s completely apersonal. And it’s not. What they do in finance is all about culture and interaction.”

Some will surely point out that much of what’s been said could also be said about most of the social sciences, but I believe anthropology is uniquely qualified at looking at communities, how they form, how they behave and how they interact with other communities and the environment around them. I know this because while my degree wasn’t in anthropology I was fortunate enough to pick a major and research methodology that taught me just enough to be dangerous. I’ve had to learn the rest on my own.

My undergraduate degree is in communications theory. Communication theory is a wonderfully diverse discipline because being one of the younger social sciences it pulls from almost all of the others.  When the first school of communications were formed from funding by the US government as a way to combat (or replicate, depending on who you talk to) the propaganda efforts of the Nazi’s (see  Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960 for more detail) there was already plenty of research and theory about communication from the other disciplines.

From all of this diverse social theory I found anthropology to be among the most interesting and useful. Over the last 5 years I’ve found myself pulling more and more from the little anthropology I knew and have continued to seek out books and resources that strengthen my own understanding and use of anthropology. Even with my limited training in the field my employer, colleagues and clients have quickly come to appreciate the unique perspective this brings. It’s invaluable.

But most importantly for the anthropology students out there I can’t imagine a greater puzzle, with more complexities and rich cultural nuances than the business world in today’s ever-changing world. So study hard and then please join me on the dark side. We have cookies.

About Tac Anderson

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.
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  • Michael Burlin

    This is great. Thanks, Tac.  

  • tacanderson

    Thank you Michael. 

  • Patricia Cashen

    Hey Tac, I’m a Anthropology major graduating from undergrad this spring. I found your article from the Anthropology fox website :) I’m very interested in getting involved in anthropology in business, but have yet to figure out how to get into that market. Do you have any contacts or advice for me?

  • tacanderson

    Patricia, Happy to try and help, just a few questions: Where are you graduating from? What type of anthropology degree are you receiving? Do you have any interest in any specific industry or field of business?

    My top level recommendations would be to check the job listings for employers looking for anthropologists (usually pharma, industrial design and research) or for job openings like marketing or HR where they list social sciences or liberal arts degrees. This will give you a general place to start, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t find anything that seems like an obvious fit. 

    Next I’d walk over to the business department, specifically the economics and/or marketing programs and talk to some professors/advisers over there to get an idea of what might be of interest for you. If there’s any flexibility on when you”ll graduate I would also suggest taking a few classes from the business department, maybe summer school? Or if you’re thinking about post-grad, look at some business classes or an MBA. 

    I’d also highly recommend you look for some summer internships. These are absolutely the best way to get your foot in the door and gives you a chance to try something out before you commit to it. 

    Hope that helps.

  • hautepop

    Nice post – found it from your Top 10 of 2011 round-up. 

    Anthropology outside the academy is something I’ve been thinking about recently too. Talking with a post-doc anthropologist friend (@metaleptic:twitter), we speculated that within the field of media & tech anthropologists can be able to do more commercially than they can in universities (where research projects take too long and move too slow). It’d be good to put together an event gathering together those of us in this field to share notes!

    The other thing I’d like to recommend for anthropology students reading is to look at the field of qualitative research and insight. This uses anthropological thinking very intensively, and it can be a varied and creative field to work in. “Market research” may not sound glamorous, but co-creating new products or ideas, or doing an insight piece on the internet (or home, or job) of the future… Pretty cool. Planners in ad agencies also get to think in a similar way too.

    So yes, there are many opportunities and I am not regretting not doing that PhD!

    FWIW for anyone wanting to map how anthro develops into a career: BA Anthropology at LSE, MSc at UCL, now @facecocreation:twitter

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