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What Anthropologists Do

What do anthropologists do?

Students can use their anthropology training in many ways. Whether you pursue a career in anthropology or use anthropology in another career or in your personal life, anthropology provides preparation for life-long learning and impact!

Some anthropology students find employment in careers that obviously fall within the field of anthropology. In this case, anthropologists are professionals with careers in the discipline, such as forensic anthropologists, anthropology professors, business anthropologists, and archaeology field technicians.

Some anthropology students find employment in careers where they use their training in anthropological concepts, methods, and theories even though “anthropology” or “archaeology” is not in their job titles. For instance, people trained in anthropology find work as museum curators, program administrators at non-profit organizations, park rangers, physicians, and wildlife biologists. 

Anthropologists are informed citizens who work to make positive impacts on communities. They are people who respect diversity, think critically, reflect locally and globally, and engage holistically.


Academic and applied anthropology

What are the main types of careers within anthropology? Careers in the discipline of anthropology fall into two broad categories: academic anthropology and applied anthropology. Academic anthropologists work in academia, serving as instructors and professors in community colleges, colleges, and universities. Applied anthropologists work in very diverse places outside of academia, where they apply anthropological knowledge, methods, and theories to address contemporary human problems.

Currently, in the U.S. there are more career opportunities in applied anthropology than academic anthropology. There are different degree requirements, prior experience expectations, and skill sets needed for the two major types of anthropology. Some positions require the anthropologist to relocate or travel, while other positions do not.

What do academic anthropologists do? The primary responsibility of academic anthropologists is to train future anthropologists and instruct other students in anthropological methods and theories. Academic anthropologists also raise funds so that they may conduct research on topics and in places that are of personal interest to them. Academic anthropologists are expected to share the results of their research with other anthropologists through conference presentations and publications. Teaching students in a community college requires at least a Master’s degree, and teaching at a college or university typically requires a doctoral degree. Most academic anthropologists teach in anthropology departments, but some are affiliated with departments such as sociology, social work, geoscience, biology, religious studies, and area studies (like Latin American studies or Middle Eastern studies), as well as with medical schools.
What do applied anthropologists do? The primary responsibility of applied anthropologists is to help solve problems – poverty, discrimination, genocide, environmental degradation, malnourishment, illness, loss of cultural heritage – affecting contemporary human communities. Like academic anthropologists, applied anthropologists conduct research, but the topics and places are related to the problem and are determined by the clients who hire the anthropologist and pay for the work. Applied anthropologists assess the needs of the people experiencing a problem, collect and analyze data, and make recommendations for programs and policies to solve the problem. Some applied anthropologists implement and administer the recommended programs and policies, and some assess the effectiveness and efficiency of those programs and policies.

Applied anthropologists are employed by government agencies like the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the National Park Service, non-government agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations, non-profit organizations like the American Red Cross and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and for-profit corporations such as General Mills and Walt Disney. Some applied anthropologists have long-term careers within a single organization, while others free-lance among multiple clients. There are entry-level positions in applied anthropology for students with a baccalaureate degree. Supervisory and upper-level positions in applied anthropology usually require a Master’s or a doctoral degree in anthropology.

Because applied anthropology is the most common type of career for anthropologists, let’s take a closer look at the types of things applied anthropologists do. This is not an exhaustive list of the opportunities in applied anthropology.

  • Development anthropologists help people in the developing or “third world” countries address problems associated with meeting basic human needs and becoming self-sufficient. Development projects can focus on economic opportunities, access to natural resources like clean water, access to nutritious food, sanitation, and urban development.
  • Human rights anthropologists work with people whose human rights have been denied and people who are victims of social injustice. They address problems such as human trafficking, extrajudicial detention and killings, child labor, forced marriage, sexual orientation discrimination, and environmental racism. 
  • Anthropologists who study human dimensions of global environmental change focus on problems associated with environmental changes (such as sea level rise), environmental degradation (like soil erosion), and natural disasters (such as hurricanes and earthquakes). They are interested in the human activities responsible for environmental changes, the socioeconomic forces underlying and driving those activities, the consequences of environmental changes for human systems, and the human responses to current and anticipated environmental changes. They also address issues of overconsumption and sustainability of natural resources. 
  • Agricultural or subsistence anthropologists address problems related to food production and food access. They investigate topics such as food deserts, inadequate nutrition, farmer debt, farm labor safety and worker exploitation, animal welfare, and energy/resource requirements for industrial farming. 
  • Anthropologists who study community health focus on problems associated with maintaining physical well-being, such as preventing illness, high mortality rates, unequal access to health care, poor quality of health care, culturally insensitive health care, and negative impacts of poor health on local economies. They often work with marginalized groups, such as the poor, the elderly, refugees and immigrants, and drug addicts. 
  • Business or corporate anthropologists address business-related problems and cultural collisions in private sector organizations. They conduct consumer analyses, help companies develop and market products and services, provide cultural competence and cultural sensitivity training in the workplace, assist with conflict resolution in the workplace, assist international businesses in navigating biocultural differences in other countries, and investigate economic crises. 
  • Design or engineering anthropologists help to develop machines and technology, infrastructure, and workspaces that meet the diverse cultural and biological needs of different groups of people. They have solved problems like assigning military personnel to appropriate tasks or jobs relative to standardized military equipment, designing products to maximize safety and minimize waste, optimizing the efficiency and comfort of workers, and incorporating people’s beliefs and preferred materials in building roads and bridges. 
  • Educational anthropologists help people solve problems related to knowledge acquisition and educational systems in different cultures, as well as cultural and biological barriers to learning and unequal access to quality educational opportunities. They investigate topics such as how children learn, where children learn, schools and school culture, multicultural and multilingual education, culturally insensitive or irrelevant education, and education assessment and evaluation.
  • Applied anthropologists who focus on cultural heritage, cultural identity, and self-determination address problems of the loss of cultural heritage and lifeways, maintenance of cultural traditions in the face of culture contact, and exercising the legal rights of marginalized groups. They study topics such as preserving and conserving ways of life that are threatened, revitalizing lifeways and languages that have been lost, land and territory claims, and ownership of cultural heritage like human remains, artifacts, arts, and crafts. 

Want more information about what anthropologists do? Most professional anthropology organizations have information about what anthropologists do on their web sites. This information typically includes career opportunities, job prospects, training expectations and opportunities, educational requirements, and advice for students, as well as profiles of anthropologists who do all types of anthropology. We recommend the following web sites for starters.  

American Anthropological Association

Society for American Archaeology

FAQs for Students
Careers in Archaeology
Archaeology Brochures for the Public (see links for several career-related brochures)

American Association of Physical Anthropologists

Society for Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic Society of America

LSA Career Development

LSA Major in Linguistics

Introduction to Archaeology

What Kind of Career Can I Have in Archaeology?


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 Last Modified 5/20/19