“You majored in what?” Making the Case for Anthropology

When asked “What can you do with a degree in Anthropology?” honestly, I cringe. The media spin scary unemployment statistics, changes in the job market, and relevance (or irrelevance) of college degrees on a daily basis. The other thing that makes me nervous about answering that question is the look of concern bordering on impending doom on the questioner’s face. Then, I take a deep breath and a smile lights up my face. I smile because I love the answer: “Everything.” Anthropology’s relevance is so integrally tied to human life that it will never cease to be important. Well, as long as we humans inhabit the Earth.

Culture is what defines us as “human.” This distinction is what drives us to seek understanding of ourselves and others. This quest has been a part of humanity since its inception and will remain the impulse of our species into the future. Because culture is an essential part of us, knowing ourselves and others depends on examining culture. A degree in anthropology provides practice in the art and science of understanding culture, these skills enrich ourselves as much as humanity.

Today’s need for cultural competence is greater than ever. The global nature of the world today is both an exciting and alarming prospect. Communication between people around the world is easier. Travel (both real and virtual) is faster. Our awareness of each other has increased. This interconnectedness highlights the fact that culture is not a static, isolated object, but rather a dynamic and integrated process. In this process, cultures collide. The alarming part is that this can lead to significant problems for society. The exciting part is that this increased cultural contact can lead to increased welfare for humans as we achieve greater awareness of ourselves.

Using anthropological knowledge to address the problems of a globalized society is the biggest contribution of Anthropology. Practitioners have shown that anthropological methods and theory can be applied to a range of human problems resulting from the dissonance of cultures colliding with each other, with technology, with the environment, with our biology/physiology, with our past, with our future, with time and space. These problems cannot be addressed in the vacuum of a laboratory or with the rubrics of academics; however, these issues can be solved by looking outside the paradigms in our own mind.

Breaking free from academic prescriptions and embracing worldviews outside our own is the aspiration of a practicing anthropologist. This technique can be applied in any occupation or workplace setting. This is the key. No degree can do anything in and of itself. However, your education can be applied to everything you encounter. Sure, you might not be getting paid a wage for your contributions to humanity through the understanding of culture, but you are nonetheless contributing. Maybe you’ll get rich, save the world, increase production, make your co-worker feel more accepted, or teach your children the value of diversity, or maybe you’ll only have improved your own wellbeing; nonetheless, your education means something as long as you are applying it to something.

The key to using a degree in anthropology is demonstrating its value. I feel that my BA in Anthropology has helped me land jobs that were not even in the anthropology field in the traditional sense. I just had to highlight the value of cultural competence and the relevance of anthropology to the position I was seeking to achieve. When I tried out for a Park Interpreter position, the theme of my presentation was Parks and People/People and Parks. I used my background in anthropology to show the role that parks have in our culture and also how parks exist because of the people who visit them. My point in this example is that you, as a practitioner, have to know what anthropology means in order to convey anthropology to anyone else, or to apply anthropology to any issues or problems.

Anthropology means many different things to each individual and has had varied public images throughout its history, but on the most basic level, seeking an understanding of ourselves and others is not only worthwhile, it is essential. Oh yeah, and I got the job.

Contributor Natalie Casey is an applied anthropology graduate student at MSU. She is interested in community development, cultural and natural heritage, resource conservation, sustainability, and youth outreach. As a National Park Service Intern, she will be directing a Youth Conservation Corp program in the summer of 2014. Visit Natalie Casey’s webpage for more information.

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