Tag Archives: applied anthropology

Appling Applied Anthropology in the Real World


            Applied anthropologists use anthropological methods and tools of research and data retrieval as professional consultants to solve real world problems and issues.  Applied anthropology involves applying the study of human culture, behavior, language, and biology.  Anthropologist’s help humans using observation, ethnography, and collecting research and data.  These tools of applied anthropology help people understand the “other”, an individual or group of people that are different then the observer, and provide comparisons, differences, and evolutionary information to gain a holistic perspective on a different way of human life.  The Society for Applied Anthropology has stated applied anthropology is the “scientific investigation of the principles controlling the relations of human beings to one another, and the encouragement of the wide application of these principles to practical problems ” (Griffith 2008). 

            Applied anthropology takes the four subfields of anthropology: ethnology (cultural), archeology, biology or physical, and linguistic, and finds ways to apply these subfields to societal problems in order to find possible solutions.  Applied anthropologists are involved in government, corporate organizations, social, political and economic fields, including world business, creating public policy, law enforcement, the communication field, and medicine (Nanda 2007, 10-14).  These types of anthropologists provide anthropological perspective to areas not previously considered relevant to anthropology.  Traditional anthropology focuses on tribal studies and extinct or dying peoples and cultures throughout history.  The skills and data retrieved through in-depth human studies using anthropologic analysis allows the developing world to realize what the affects might be, have been, and currently are from continued advancement and improved technology.  

            There are four different types of applied anthropology that are currently in effect; basic research for specified goals, corporate employee assignments, program development and administration, and consultants as cultural brokers (Mullooly 2007).  There are three approaches to anthropology when studying the human race.  The first is holistic, the analysis of human biological and cultural development, provides realizations giving an expanded perspective of the studied culture.  The comparative approach would take one of two different directions.  One example would be to examine the differences between two or more different cultural groups to show or examine external and internal differences between members of the same cultural group.  The last of the three is evolution approaches.  The basic concept of evolution culturally, biological and with language communication is the idea that humans are continually changing and adapting (Mullooly 2007).

            Anthropology has evolved.  The study of man for the sake for learning about cultures is basic anthropology.  The other is applied anthropology, which studies the human motivation from external forces or objectives.  This generally considered motives of improving, sustaining, and influences human life.  Anthropology, as Franz Boas has stated, is “documenting the diversity of human lifestyles” using cultural Relativity and Ethnography/Participant Observation (Mullooly 2007).  By “applying” anthropology, ethnographic techniques within the field of anthropology, anthropologist can evaluate the current world instead of the past.  This allows client groups to have a better understanding of their workforce and competitors.  In short, it allows anthropologists to enter the corporate arena as business consultants.

            The term “applied anthropology” was first coined by a man named Daniel Brinton in 1896 and by the 1930’s the term started to give rise to the ideas and concepts of applying anthropology (Sillitoe 2006, 6).  This form of anthropology came into practice during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and had a rocky ride into the next century for practical application.  The British were the first to apply anthropology skills for “Native American reservation administration and problems” based on their colonial control and conquest of savages and raw materials enriching the lands of Africa and the America’s (Bennett 1996, 26).  Anthropologists were used to help British colonial authorities to conduct “indirect rule”, while believing that they were of little use to the British government (Sillitoe 2006, 4).  The American background of applied anthropology however, is based off interdisciplinary research and ideas stemming from the origins of the Native American reservations, social cultural studies of industrial organization, economics, and rural agriculture (Bennett 1996, 26).  These avenues of anthropology gave birth to applied anthropologists’ way of assisting by researching and advising the impact of modernization on culture and humanity.

While the founders of the society for anthropology saw anthropology as a multidiscipline, they also believed “anthropology [to be] one single-but-multi-discipline” subject (Bennett 1996, 26).  Applied anthropology is able to uses other disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, and physiology within the anthropology umbrella of studying humans.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, anthropologists started to reject the multidisciplinary view causing more focus on classic fieldwork methodology (Bennett 1996, 27-28).  Lucy Mair, an anthropologists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, stated, “anthropology’s benefit is more likely to be felt as the indirect result of its gradual diffusion among persons having administrative responsibility, increasing their understanding of the situations with which they are dealing, than in direct recommendations on policy” (Sillitoe 2006, 8).  Moreover, anthropology was under scrutiny by other academic fields after the social blunder towards the Japanese-Americans and Jews from the world wars and during the civil rights movement because of the destructive results to those groups, the anthropologists had believed they helped them and the government.  Still, anthropologists applied their skills to societal problems, working to make a difference despite the adversity to their work and the lack of validation of the subject effectiveness of applying anthropology.             

            Understanding other people is necessary in functioning and interacting with others.  Applied anthropology benefits humanity by looking at diverse groups and finding commonalities amongst them.  The worlds’ numerous peoples change because of the influences of other cultures and changes in their environment.  Applied anthropology allows for an open-minded perspective into the unknown, shunned, or misunderstood cultural worlds of “others” – peoples and cultures different from one’s own.  Anthropological analyze has been turned onto the cultures of today, including urbanized environments where many sub cultures thrive. 

Anthropologists take a more active role in their own complex culture when utilizing applied anthropology it actively finds answers to hard questions, such as Philippe Bourgois, Claire Sterk, and Peggy Mclntosh’s work on drugs, prostitution, and racism (Podolefsky 2007, xv-xvi).  These anthropologists are a few examples of how anthropologists have delved into society’s underworld to reveal how the American dream is still attainable.  To understand our cultures complexity, anthropologists look at the subcultures to help understand the whys and history of the subcultures existence and perpetual longevity.  Research into the underground economy and American dream through the eyes of the socially rejected in civilized America is what anthropologists bring to the forefront of society’s attention (Podolefsky 2007, 122-137).

            One of the possible weaknesses of applied anthropology is how deeply involved the anthropologists become in their topic.  Anthropological data could be contaminated by possible assimilation of the social scientists into the culture they are studying, distorting the information being collected.  Another weakness of this form of anthropology is that a person is not researching information for long periods of time, building up trust.  Instead, they are trying to prove a client’s product or work has an affect on a group of people.  This outcome driven focus could make the anthropologist’s data unreliable because of the pressures of the conclusion driven client.  The applied anthropologist must balance both the client’s interest as well as the group being studied, which may be in conflict and may place the anthropologist in a compromising position.  World War II Japanese concentration camps are an example of how the client and the group’s needs conflicted, and how the applied anthropologists’ research was used less scientifically and more for the government’s security demands.  This resulted in many Japanese Americans losing their homes, propriety, and dignity through applied anthropologist’s advice on how best to help the country protect themselves from Japanese spies during the war.  The governments and American society’s stigma against the enemy caused a lack of cultural understanding to be applied that might have help all parties involved and prevent the Japanese concentration camps in America.  Such acts reflected poorly on the field of applied anthropology and the credibility of those reports (Embree 1945, 635-637). 

            One of the biggest criticisms of applied anthropology is from the academic world in that as a discipline, it contains no true theories of its own.  This harms applied development as an academic field, as it is often overlooked or completely ignored in academic circles and institutions (Bennett 1996, 28-32).  Another critique within anthropology, ethics is a complex issue that applied anthropology struggles to address.  The responsibility to the group being studied and the demands of the applied anthropologist’s client put the applied anthropologist in an ethical quandary.  This ethical dichotomy is left to the anthropologist to sort out.  To help minimize harm of any unanticipated consequences, applied anthropologists strive to avoid taking any jobs that would result in such an ethical predicament.  The responsibility to the employer of an anthropologist is to maintain considerable independence allowing the anthropologist to criticize a boss or the company and to defend study groups against negative consequences.  (Bennett 1996, 32-33)      

Other concerns over applied anthropology is that the definition has continued to morph over the decades making it challenging to argue applied anthropology truly exists and has practical ability of the discipline to contribute to society and anthropology (Sillitoe 2006, 9).  Yet, there are currently applied anthropologists in action, if not in defining their anthropologic title as applied, that contribute to society, the businesses they work for and the needs of the populace groups they study.  Doctor Bonnie Nardi’s job as an anthropologist at AT&T is to help researcher’s pioneer new technology of the future by examining consumer’s behavior in the home or office for their next technology need (Podolefsky 2007, 218).  Applied anthropology “translates cultural relativism into conservation of local ways and adaptations … to make sure that change is not overly punishing or that any induced change has a beneficial effect” (Bennett 1996, 28). 

Scarlette Epstein’s classic monograph reported on the difference in response of two almost identical villages regarding an irrigation system, and the affects on these two groups.  The study showed one village was affected positively in growth and advancement in the economic and agrarian world.  The other village had almost no change in their traditional life style.  The study Epstein conducted showed “that no one factor- social, cultural, or economic- could tell the whole story” (Bennett 1996, 28).  Anthropologists delve into all these aspects in a studied group to provide holistic understanding and to provide a clear picture of a particular society’s reactions to change. 

            The world is becoming more complex and globalizing with the worlds diverse cultures coming closer than ever before, applied anthropology seems to be the next step to understanding peoples needs better.  Anthropology studies human societies as a whole unit of individuals and groups trying to provide answers to social questions and concerns of others.  The harm of applied anthropology is that the anthropological advisors to the people that hired them can come into conflict with the people being studied.  The anthropologists’ goal is to help ensure the targeted populations are not negatively affected by the continuing encroachment of the modern worlds drive for evolvement and expansion.  Dealing with people on any level to be successful in understanding their perspective, and a form of anthropology analysis and observation and intervention, occurs with meeting and working with other people.  Any field of expertise a person chooses to master, applying anthropology skills can raise the success, and all humans benefit from a higher level of efficiency and effectiveness.  Applied anthropology might not be completely recognized by the scholarly world different or viable, but people that apply themselves find more success than failure in the work they achieve. 






Bennett, John W. Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.              “Current Anthropology”, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public, vol. 37, 1    (February, 1996) s23-s53.


Embree, John F.  Applied Anthropology and Its relationship to Anthropology.  “American    Anthropologist”. New Series, Vol. 47, 4 (October –December, 1945) 635-637.


Griffith, David, Jeffrey C. Johnson, Jeanne Simonelli, Bill Roberts, and James Wallace eds.        “Mission statement”. Society for Applied Anthropology, 2008.  Retrieved on 3 February     2008 from http://www.sfaa.net/.


Mullooly, James. What is Applied Anthropology?: Humanity has problems We Find             solutions.  PowerPoint Presentation lecture notes (Fall 2007). Received 30 January 2008.


Nanda, Serena and Warms, Richard L. Cultural Anthropology Ninth Edition.  Thomson        Wadsworth (United States of America, 2007) 528.


Podolefsky, P. and Brown, P. Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader Eighth Edition.       McGraw-Hill (New York, 2007) 360.


Sillitoe, Paul. The search for Relevance: A brief History of Applied Anthropology.    “History and Anthropology”, vol. 17, 1 (March 2006)1-19.