Anthropology: Education for the 21st Century

  • So you want to study Anthropology?

    There are several important reasons why studying anthropology should be considered by undergraduate students. First, the material is intellectually exciting: anthropology students enthusiastically complete their courses of study. Second, anthropology prepares students for excellent jobs and opens doors to various career paths: the course of study provides global information and thinking skills critical to succeeding in the twenty-first century in business, research, teaching, advocacy, and public service.

    Finding a position, however, as an anthropologist, especially with an undergraduate degree will be difficult. Unlike some majors, computer science and biology, few jobs are listed under the heading anthropologist. This guide will help students identify their unique skills, provide advice on how to break into the job market, and list a sample of “career titles.”

    Anthropology includes four broad fields—cultural anthropology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Each of the four fields teaches distinctive skills, such as applying theories, employing research methodologies, formulating and testing hypotheses, and developing extensive sets of data. Anthropologists are careful observers of humans and their behavior, maintaining an intense curiosity: What does it mean to be human? Why do people behave in particular ways? What are the historical and environmental pressures that helped shape the experience and behavior of a specific group of people? What are universal facts of human life? Consequently, students approach problems in a more holistic fashion.

    Anthropologists often specialize in one or more geographic areas of the world—for example, West Africa, Latin America, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, North America, and Oceania. More and more western cultures, subcultures and institutions are becoming the focus of anthropological research including crosscultural domestic violence and criminal justice, birth technology, multilingual education, environmental resource management, and so on.  In addition, anthropology studies focus on particular populations in a locale or region. Some anthropologists study cultural practices, such as Pyrenees' Basques use of cooperatives in their economic system, which must be modified to fit the overarching Spanish or French legal structures, or Janine Wedel’s examination of the resulting economic crisis following the break up of the Soviet Union. Other examples include research on management of nuclear waste among Native American communities and advocacy with immigrant Asians involved with commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Physical anthropologists observe both biological behavior in humans and primates, attempting to understand ongoing human evolution and the human adaptations to particular environments, such as maternal physiological response to pregnancy, the effects of altitude on maternal and fetal well-being, perhaps performing comparative studies of physiological responses to short-term high altitude residence (e.g., Euro-Americans and African Americans in Colorado) versus longer-term high altitude residence (e.g., indigenous Quechua-speakers in Peru or Sherpas in Nepal). Historical archaeologists help preserve aspects of the recent past, such as settlement patterns in the western U.S. plains. Archaeological studies generally involve teams of specialists who work with domesticated plant remains, indicators of animal life, and the manmade artifacts produced or imported into a particular area.