Preparing Applied Anthropologists for the 21st Century

Panel Sponsored by the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA)

Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, 2007


Satish Kedia (University of Memphis) and John Van Willigen (University of Kentucky)


Social and economic realities throughout the world are altering at a dramatic pace, which accentuates the need to train our young professionals accordingly. With accelerated globalization, technological innovations, enhanced interdisciplinary work, and greater engagement in the program and policy arena, applied anthropologists are expected to be trained at multiple levels. Previous systematic attempts to explore this issue are almost a decade old. It would be prudent to reinvigorate this discussion and revisit our existing standards that serve as guidelines for departments whose missions include training applied anthropologists. This panel discussion will include well-known applied and practicing anthropologists who will facilitate further discussion among the participants.

Panelists and their academic affiliations

Linda Bennett (University of Memphis)
Ann Jordan (University of North Texas)
Sunil Khanna (Oregon State University)
Gina Sanchez Gibau (Indiana University-Purdue University, Indiana)


Prior to the discussion, Satish Kedia briefly mentioned a 1979 article, “Recommendations for Training and Education in Careers in Applied Anthropology: A Literature Review1” that discussed the need to prepare anthropology students for the demands of today; he commented that little has changed since the publication of the article, and the need to provide practical, current training for students persists. John Van Willigen recalled that in the mid 90’s, NAPA and SfAA organized a committee to develop standards. At that time, there was some talk of accreditation, and it was difficult to talk of accreditation without a list of goals. The standards developed by the committee became guidelines. The resulting document, “Guidelines for Training Practicing Anthropologists – Introduction2” was approved in 1995. John further mentioned that a great deal of effort went into crafting the document. There were “hidden political dimensions” involved, with people hiding their “self interest” behind principles. He chaired that committee and notes that it was an early instance of NAPA and SfAA collaboration. He recommends looking at the document again after 10 years.

Linda Bennett began the discussion by saying that when the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA) was established in 2000, the organization used the 1995 guidelines, believing they would be helpful in terms of undergraduate, master and doctorate level applied anthropology programs. COPAA wanted to have continuing conversations about the guidelines. Despite the changes that have occurred since 1995, particularly in the area of technology in education, some of the issues noted even in the 1979 article still hold true. She indicated “the point of tension” that exists between the need to add necessary required courses, especially in methods and practical types of experiences, and the need to retain a “reasonable array” of four-field approach courses as requirements. She suggested a slight separation be made between issues that affect undergraduate programs versus post-graduate programs, noting that the tension between adding requirements and retaining the four-field approach may be different, depending on the level of the program.

Linda further noted the importance of “cognate areas,” which were mentioned in the 1979 article. She discussed the medical and urban tracks at Memphis, explaining that the department has hired faculty to enhance expertise in those areas, which are a staple part of the department’s program. She mentioned the phrase “hybrid anthropology,” offering the example of a person in business anthropology having a degree in business along with an anthropology degree. Based on her experience in Memphis, Linda recommended educating students to work in teams. She concluded with the idea that students need to become experts in using new technology. For example, they need to know how to acquire published and grey literature. GIS is another important tool. Departments have fallen short in educating their students in how to use software packages for both quantitative and qualitative analyses. She would like to see training sessions at meetings to help both faculty and students become more well-versed in using the software packages. An education in applied anthropology requires training in engaged scholarship, which mandates community participation from the beginning of a research project as opposed to the community’s having a more passive role, simply receiving research results. The more students are involved in engaged scholarship, the more successful they will be as applied or practicing anthropologists.

Gina Sanchez Gibau shared about her program at IUPUI. The program employs a four-field approach and offers a survey course that exposes students to various areas of applied anthropology. This course is taught on a rotational basis by faculty or, occasionally, people outside the department. Seniors have a required practicum with emphasis on questioning contemporary social policies, especially social justice and advocacy. The program also emphasizes students’ accountability to the community; students are taught that they should have a true partnership with the community rather than simply conducting research, gaining information, and leaving. The applied course focuses largely on ethics, recognizing the critical need for undergraduates to grapple with ethical issues that have occurred in history and are occurring presently. Another emphasis is international and collaborative applied work. Gina believes faculty should have a greater role in internship placement areas. Faculty should be aware of what kind of work a student is seeking and what kind of impact a student hopes to make. Instead of simply supplying students with a list of relevant agencies, the faculty members should help guide students in their research. Additionally, students need greater opportunities for experiential learning beyond the practicum, including in the cognate fields. Course requirements for students should be reevaluated, with the possibility of adding courses such as a business course, a course in social work, or a course in public health. Encouraging students to get additional methodological training is extremely important.

Ann Jordan explained that the UNT program has a series of cognate areas: medical, environmental, business, education, and migrants and refugees. Students are required to take courses in these cognate fields. Referencing a 2004 study of working anthropology graduates, she noted a need for training in report writing and other types of writing, public presentations, and general computer skills. She also noted that students often lack training in higher level skills necessary for career advancement, such as personnel/supervision skills. She stressed the importance of students’ abilities to work not only in teams, but in virtual teams. Students should know how to construct and manage web pages and how to use presentation software to make virtual presentations. Faculty need to incorporate theory on globalization, with an eye toward training students to work in a global world. Students must be able to apply their anthropological skills toward understanding multiple ethnicities and cultures in new contexts.

Sunil Khanna shared that while working to develop a PhD program, he and his colleagues at OSU developed some “broad ideas” about adding new skills to existing programs. These ideas included the notion of collaborative work; developing models for outreach; disseminating findings; writing a research paper for a peer review journal; writing a 1,000-word piece for a newspaper; policy engagement; recognizing what polices exist, such as state polices on health care; and public speaking, including preparing a professional presentation that a person would give to a skeptical audience. This research design course was developed into a proposal- and grant-writing class, which covered such topics as community based organizations, non-government organizations, state agencies, local agencies, and international agencies. In the research methods class, Sunil and colleagues explored responsible Internet use, especially with regard to data clearing houses, where large sets of data may be available. SPSS and GIS training were also included in their methods course.

Satish Kedia noted that many anthropologists assume that students are being trained in skills needed for collaboration, engagement, and partnership. A major goal of anthropological programs should be to help students value their work in the community. Students should gauge whether they are empowering the community and whether there is a sense of social justice in their work. The anthropological community should strive to raise students’ social consciousness. He posed an important question, asking if there were a common philosophy of applied anthropology that has not been expressed in a scientific or pedagogical manner. He stressed the need to incorporate those issues into their curriculums. Upon leaving graduate programs, students must face issues including program development, program implementation, and program evaluation. To what degree are students prepared to face these challenges? Are students adequately trained in grant writing? Such training should be incorporated in applied anthropology programs, as students must be able to function effectively in practical settings following graduation.

One participant pointed out that most students graduating with PhDs are not trained in SPSS or qualitative software and are not familiar with various techniques for analysis. These methodological tools are critical to applied anthropology in a whole range of contexts and are necessary for practicing anthropologists to be able to engage in the discourse of the discipline, let alone conduct research. If a program emphasizes only theory, then graduates will be limited to strictly academic jobs. Another participant reflected on an expression she once heard, which said that “Anthropology is all theory and no method, and epidemiology is all method and no theory.” She said she had found this idea to be true over the years. Discussion also addressed the importance of understanding the concept of multiple voices and entertaining a variety of perspectives. One person recommended making service learning an integrated part of graduate programs. Discussion followed as to how these topics could be realistically taught in anything but a superficial way. One participant related that her department and the local anthropologists have a good working relationship, and they call on those locals to speak to their classes. Several participants commented that at some point students must take responsibility for acquiring certain skills themselves, either by using computer tutorials or by seeking out campus resources.

Several people lamented that anthropologists do not seem to be as skilled as others in communicating with the media “off the top of their heads.” One person recommended coming up with “a press tool kit.” Another emphasized the need to carve out a niche where anthropology is able to communicate information in a kind of one-page news article. Two main points that seemed to generate the most discussion were the need for more diversified training in cognate areas and the need to make anthropology more visible to the public.

As for making the field more visible to students, one person remarked that anthropology would be a great high school class. Someone suggested an introductory undergraduate class to pitch anthropology and the many possibilities that an anthropology degree offers. Another idea was to have about 15 students from different departments have roundtable discussions once a week about a certain topic and examine how different disciplines can be applied to that topic. Another participant mentioned a newsletter featuring a program from a different university in each issue, highlighting that program’s unique qualities. Students responded well to developing a job hunting strategy that required a résumé. Preparing a résumé would force students to think through their skills and background. Teaching resources to help enhance many of the needed skills sets are available, and anthropology faculty must identify and promote the use of these resources.

1van Willigen, John. 1979. Recommendations for Training and Education in Careers in Applied Anthropology: A Literature Review. Human Organization 38(4):411-16.

2National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA). 1995. Guidelines for Training Practicing Anthropologists – Introduction. Electronic document,