Preparing Applied Anthropologists for the 21st Century

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

Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, 2008

Part of the Presidential Plenary in Honor of John van Willigen:
The Art and Science of Applied Anthropology in the 21st Century

A podcast (audio recording) is available at


Carla Guerrón-Montero (U Delaware) and Philip D. Young (U Oregon)


These two sessions, organized by Carla Guerrón-Montero and the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA), featured practitioners and academics who have contributed to NAPA Bulletin No. 29 (2008). Participants in these two sessions discussed, from a variety of perspectives, the theoretical and practical skills that anthropology students should develop during the course of their studies to prepare themselves for careers in applied anthropology, whether as full-time practitioners or as applied anthropologists within academia. Speakers also provided specific advice to undergraduate and graduate students on the benefits and challenges of careers in applied anthropology, in both the national and the international arenas.

NOTE: All of the papers presented in sessions I and II were condensed versions of papers that will be published in NAPA Bulletin 29. Not all of the authors of the papers in NAPA Bulletin 29 were able to participate in these sessions. The NAPA volume consists of twelve essays by fourteen academics and practitioners. It provides specific experience-based advice to students on the benefits and challenges of careers in applied anthropology in the national and international arenas.

NOTE: Please see at the end of this document a summary of the important points made at the close of Part I and Part II.

Preparing Applied Anthropologists for the 21st Century, Part I

Peter Van Arsdale (U Denver)
Learning Applied Anthropology in Field Schools: Lessons from Bosnia and Romania
The service learning concept places responsibility on the sponsoring university and the student, in concert with an agency in the field, to devise and implement a program of service that will benefit local communities. By contrast, the country team concept places responsibility upon a field team, which usually consists of an NGO and military or government organization, to devise and implement a training program to benefit the student while contributing to humanitarian field activities. Both broadly engage “applied anthropology.” Slides from field schools in both countries will be included.

Philip D. Young (U Oregon)
Practicing Anthropology from Within the Academy: Combining Careers
In this paper, I use my own career as a lens through which to view the challenges of combining an academic career with that of a (part-time) practitioner of applied anthropology. My main focus is on the particular variety of practice known as international development. Based mostly on my own experiences both in and outside of academia, but with occasional references to what I know of the experiences of academic colleagues who have also done applied work, I offer advice to students who want an academic job and would also like to do applied anthropology of one sort or another.

Luke Lassiter (Marshall U)
Moving Past Public Anthropology and Doing Collaborative research
In recent years, “public anthropology” has become one of the many labels used to describe a growing and ever-more ubiquitous concern with anthropological relevance, public engagement, and action. While there is little agreement about just what exactly “public anthropology” is, it nevertheless has come to have many different and overlapping meanings. This paper is about moving past these debates and engaging how students can realize public engagement via collaborative research. I begin with a brief statement about moving past public anthropology, follow this with discussion of collaborative ethnography and public engagement, and suggest some general advice for doing collaborative research.

Preparing Applied Anthropologists for the 21st Century, Part II

Shirley J. Fiske (Consultant, U Maryland)
Careers in Anthropology: Federal Government
The federal government is arguably the largest employer of anthropologists outside of academia. The career opportunities are diverse, and range from careers in international development and assistance where the anthropologist is stationed overseas to domestic federal agencies that review the performance federally funded programs at the request of Congress. This paper discusses trends in federal careers and the diversity in employment by offering a detailed account of career opportunities for anthropologists in the federal government and well as describing those opportunities in agencies with a critical mass of anthropologists.

Barbara Pillsbury (Int’l Health & Dev Assoc)
Anthropologists in Executive Leadership
Executive leadership is about managing and inspiring others to achieve goals greater than what can be accomplished through individual work. Leadership can be learned – and typically is learned over time. This essay features the careers of three anthropologists who came into executive positions of increasing responsibility. It assesses rewards and losses that occur along the way and discusses ways anthropology assists in executive leadership, emphasizing that leadership is seeing yourself as someone who mobilizes and empowers others. Finally the chapter summarizes advice to anthropologists interested in executive careers. The context is primarily the world of international development assistance.

Emilia Gonzalez-Clements (Dev Systems/Applications Int’l Inc) and Carla Littlefield (Littlefield Assoc)
Creating Your Own Consulting Business: Small Business Start-up and Operating the Small Business
This paper acquaints the budding professional with the basics of starting and operating a small business based on the skills, educational background, and experience of a professional anthropologist. One practitioner focused on grant-writing, research and community development in the United States, the other on ethnographic applied research, policy research, strategic planning and group facilitation in the United States and internationally. While their projects differed in domain, location and type, they all 1) were grounded in anthropology, 2) focused on facilitating social change, 3) relied on a flexible toolkit developed over time, and 4) were successfully implemented through good consultant practices.

Gisele Maynard-Tucker (UC-Los Angeles)
Becoming a Consultant
This paper aims at giving students some advice for entering the world of development. In doing so, I will discuss the necessary skills required, such as a background in research, along with the knowledge of foreign and native languages, and how to get fieldwork experience. I will also give some advice about contacting development agencies and preparing for overseas work and will comment about what to expect while working in developing countries in the field of public health. Apart from giving counsel, I have attempted to show that being a consultant is a great opportunity to learn more about the human race and that the job is full of challenges and rewards.

Critical Points from Discussion
  • Internships and field schools are an important part of the training of applied anthropologists. Two varieties of field school designed specifically to train applied anthropologists were discussed: service learning and the country team concept. In service learning the student works with an agency in the field to design and implement a program that will be of benefit to local communities. The country team concept involves a field team usually consisting of a government or military organization and an NGO, who design and implement a training program that benefits the students while also contributing to humanitarian field activities. To illustrate the latter, segments were shown from a video that documented a field school in Romania designed to train people to set up refugee camps under hostile conditions.
  • Students wishing to engage in applied research and practice from an academic base need to carefully formulate a strategy for career advancement early on. The academy remains conservative and much applied work counts for little or nothing at many universities when promotion and tenure time comes around.
  • Collaborative research practice presents a special opportunity for students to move beyond counterproductive debates about public anthropology and engage in applied, publicly oriented work in many different ways. Students wishing to engage in collaborative research should become familiar with the broad range of such approaches, choose their methods with care, prepare for intense time (and other) commitments, expect project expansion, and start early, but proceed with caution. Not all academic environments are open to collaborative research approaches.
  • Federal careers in anthropology have increased from 1973-2007 to over 1,000 jobs in the anthropology and archaeology series, a consistent long-term increase.
  • Federal jobs include regional jobs outside Washington, DC, international jobs, and they increasingly include jobs contracted by the government, so that anthropologists are increasingly working in consulting firms or as independent contractors.
  • There is a good chance that you will be hired in a specialty or job category (for example, social scientist, policy analyst, or agricultural specialist, especially if the job is international) that is somewhat outside of anthropology.
  • Consequently you will need an area of specialization that becomes your calling card – your expertise in addition to anthropology – to get you in the door.
  • Being hired is recognition that you have something in your tool kit that is useful. Stay alert for possibilities and opportunities even if it is a “stretch” to use your perspectives, theory, and concepts.
  • Excellent free advice on all business and legal aspects of starting and operating a consulting business are found at and
  • Good consultant practice give clients project results clearly written with recommendations that are doable and timely.
  • Consulting fees are often negotiable and can be a daily rate plus expenses or a flat fee per project. Check rates on the USAID web site. Check the IRS web site for current lodging and mileage rates.
  • Being an independent international consultant requires mastering the skills of applied anthropology, having a strong research background and field experience, fluency in two or more languages (your native language and at least one other) and having a marketable skill in addition to anthropology, such as nutrition, administration, agronomy, or public health.
  • Benefits include being able to choose the country of work and the assignment.
  • Employers want people with experience. Agencies prefer those with broad experience who are able to adapt and perform in different situations. Acquiring numerous field experiences in various contexts and cultures will empower you and will facilitate your contract negotiations with international development agencies and firms.
  • Good consultants must have the ability to mediate among donor organizations, offices in charge of project administration, and local government offices and to articulate their sometimes varying goals and expectations into recommendations that will improve the lives of the intended beneficiaries.