how anthropologists make a living

How_to_be_an_anthropologist_for_hir I am preparing to mount another blog compendium.  See the first one of these, eyes right, called Branding Now.  This second compendium will be called How to be an anthropologist (for hire) and it will draw together posts from this blog that treat the theme. 

What do anthropologists do to make a living?

1) Pit bulls in Chicago

The most common thing that anthropologist do is to serve as "eyes and ears" for someone.  The client (often but not always a corporation) needs to get in touch with the people who buy its products and services.  They have many ways of doing this.  One way to hire an anthropologist to talk directly to the consumer.  These are called "ethnographic" interviews

In the case of this post, I was in Chicago talking to people on behalf of a financial services company.  Normally, ethnographic interviews are done in undistracted circumstances, someone’s home, perhaps an office.  But in this case, we were talking about money.  And many Americans would rather talk about their sex lives then their financial circumstances.  (This is an interesting cultural puzzle all on its own.)  So it made sense to interview respondents in public.  This is where I met the pit bull.  (See the post here.)

In any case, this ethnographic interview is the standard thing an anthropologist does for a living.

2) How Fieldwork works

Here I am toughing it out in the field.  This post will also give you a sense of the mechanics of the ethnographic interview.  I have quite a few posts on this blog on ethnography, and I hope to create a compendium called Ethnography: how to do it.  In the meantime, treat this post as your introduction to what ethnography looks like.  (See the post here.) 

3) Decoding culture

A second way to serve the client is to x-ray a new development in the marketplace.  Quiznos might hire you to tell them about the artisanal trend in bread and chocolate.  Detroit might ask you to find out about the new trend in customizing autos.  The USA Network may ask you to figure out why Rachel Ray is such a big hit.  These questions have anthropological answers.  And in this case we supply them not be talking to consumers, but by examining culture.   (See the post here.) 

4) Building Brands

A third way to serve clients is to help them build the public image, the public face, the public meaning they present to the world.  I do not have a particular post here.  No, I have 40 posts here.  You will find them organized as a blog compendium at  Looking for the book covered with the title Branding Now.  This is the anthropologist’s view of what a brand is, how this is changing and now an anthropologist can help. 

5) Preventing the blind side hit

The corporation lives increasingly in a dynamic, unpredictable world.  In order to protect itself from the "blind side hit," it will sometimes hire an anthropologist.  His or her job is to figure out the points of vulnerability.  This exist where the corporation makes a Here’s another way for the anthropologist to serve.  Sometimes, the corporation won’t use him or her to talk to consumer but to identify risks or to solve problems.  In the case of assumption hunting, the anthropologist is hired to find out where the corporation is most vulnerable to disruptive change.  (See the post here.)

6) Ferret Mode

Sometimes, the corporation knows it has a problem but it can’t quite tell what the problem is.  This is the time to send the anthropologist in in "ferret mode."  The corporation says, "Have a look.  Let us know.  Tell us the best way to define and approach this problem."  This puts a premium on the anthropologist’s powers of pattern recognition.  (See the post here.)

7) Anthropology’s broadest responsibility?

This post is a very general treatment of what anthropology "brings to the party."  I think of this as a statement of the anthropologist’s biggest intellectual responsibilities: helping our culture and our commerce think see the new fluidity of the contemporary world, and helping to propose new ways for us to think about culture and commerce now that fluidity is upon us.  (See the post here.)

2 thoughts on “how anthropologists make a living

  1. Jamie Gordon


    Love seeing this dialouge. I practice anthropology for a living: and sociology and semiotics….all under the umbrella of Consumer Anthropology.

    I remember when i was in undergrad and grad school studying anthropology and sociology, and pragmatic relatives would barrage me with attacks of the “what the hell are you going to do with a degree like that” ilk.

    I have the foresight then to know that there was a distinct need in marketing and product development related industries to truly understand the nature and implications of consumer behavior, human organization and the direction of change in macro and micro cultural trends.

    It’s gratifying work to be able to help shape the future of consumer culture at the same time as we observe and decode it.

    I think your last article is also particularly important…we should keep in mind our responsibility as anthropologists to commerce and to culture.

    If you are ever in Atlanta, i would love to grab a drink and wax anthropological sometime.

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