What is an Anthropologist?

Anthropology is the study of human beings. It's generally divided into two main branches, cultural anthropology and biological anthropology. Biological anthropology focuses on the physical evolution of humans and human ancestors. Cultural anthropology is the study of all aspects of human cultures, modern and ancient, around the world. Linguistics and archaeology are also considered fields of anthropology.

Cultural anthropologists study the languages, music, art, and architecture of communities. Biological anthropologists use physical and genetic examinations of human and pre-human remains to investigate our past. Their research sheds light on our origins and what it means to be human. It also helps us understand how cultures interact with their environments, and what we can learn from them.

What Does an Anthropologist Do?

Cultural anthropologists plan and conduct research to assess and compare the characteristics of different cultures, communities, and organizations, such as their economic systems, demographics, health status, languages, or religions. Their research may involve conducting interviews, observing behavior, and reading documents. Cultural anthropologists may specialize in a particular area of the world (i.e., the British Isles or the American Southwest), or a particular group of people (the isolated Western Irish or the Inuit). They explore what it takes to be successful in a given culture, how cultural characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next, what our similarities and differences are, and the reasons for them.

Many study cultures within the United States at the request of businesses and governments. Anthropologists use the information they gather to predict future development and behavior. For example, they may investigate diverse cultural beliefs that influence the use of available health care. They develop and conduct focus group interviews and observe interactions in the workplace. These skills are increasingly valuable to businesses and governments, and anthropologists are taking on advisory roles.

Biological anthropologists study human and pre-human remains. They measure the sizes and shapes of bones, skulls, and teeth, and note any markings or damage. They make endocasts, or molds of the inside of the braincase. Endocasts can help answer questions about brain size, organization, intelligence, and capacity for language. They also extract DNA from remains and conduct genetic analyses to determine how closely an individual is related to us. Their research helps determine how, when, and where an individual lived or died, and ultimately explains the biological origins of human beings and human culture. Biological anthropologists may specialize in a particular species (such as Neanderthals or Homo erectus) or a particular fossil site. They may also decide to help solve crimes as forensic anthropologists.

Some specialize in environmental anthropology. For example, anthropologists have studied how Native American cultures used fire to clear brush, maintain hunting grounds and trails, and avert disastrous fires caused by lightning. Some study how aboriginal and other cultures make the most of limited water resources, or use the land without degrading it. A medical anthropologist's research on medicinal use of a certain plant could lead to new pharmaceutical treatments. Biological anthropology can also teach us about the evolutionary context of human behavior, such as the development of art, tools, and altruism.

Where Does an Anthropologist Work?

While you may imagine anthropologists working in far-flung, remote destinations, these days they can be found in all kinds of fields and workplaces. Many of them work in traditional settings like colleges and universities, laboratories, and museums. Some do contract work at archaeological sites. But due to an increasing demand for social science research, new opportunities have opened up a range of new opportunities in other fields like business, health, and government.

Academics teach and conduct research. They share their research with others through journal articles and conference presentations. Their options are increasing; more and more anthropologists are finding positions in nontraditional academic departments like medicine, ethnic, cultural, and area studies, linguistics and neural science.

Anthropologists working for non-governmental organizations, such as health and development organizations, help design and implement projects. State and local governments also use anthropologists for planning and research. Many corporations seek out anthropologists for the insights and skills they can apply to market research. They're also an excellent fit for a range of social science research positions that may not mention the word “anthropologist” in the job description. Forensic anthropologists work with police departments may work in university and museum settings.

Most anthropologists and archeologists in government, research and consulting firms, museums, and businesses work full time during regular business hours. However, fieldwork may require travel and long hours.

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What Is the Average Anthropologist Salary?

The median annual wage for anthropologists and archeologists is $66,130. Those employed by the federal government earn the highest median salary at $79,270. Those working on research and development in the social sciences and humanities earn $52,240, while anthropologists in management, scientific, and technical consulting services earn a median salary of $62,680.*

What is the Job Demand for Anthropologists?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment of anthropologists and archeologists to grow by 7% between 2020 and 2030. Candidates with doctoral degrees and field experience will have the best opportunities.*

Much of the growth will occur in the private sector, as anthropological research is increasingly used to understand consumer behavior and preferences in a global economy. The availability of research positions based on federal funding will depend on federal budgets.

Anthropology Jobs & Job Description

Anthropologists are often cross-disciplinary experts, researching humans and the impact they have on an aspect of our culture, as well as how culture and environment impact humans. Candidates seeking an anthropology job may pursue teaching, research, or find work in the newest niche - business applications. Regardless of which role they choose, anthropologists require these sorts of skills in order to be successful in their field:

  • Commitment to examining the social and cultural meanings of their field of study
  • Dedicated to impartial and intuitive research
  • Capable of turning knowledge into action
  • Design and plan research investigations
  • Perform research activities like data gathering, analysis, and communication of findings
  • Aid in the design and testing of prototype models and methods
  • Contribute to scholarly endeavors
  • Design conceptual frameworks for data collection and subsequent analysis with the intent to find insights in their field

A second-tier anthropologist like a team leader, chief anthropology researcher, or manager may have these or similar additional responsibilities:

  • Apply and communicate understanding of culture to business units, partners, and the public
  • Lead by training groups, internal business partners and external parties
  • Work toward global recognition as a scientist with a defined area of expertise and the ability to communicate effectively with global teams
  • Oversee process improvements and data quality to help team meet research and communication benchmarks
  • Create and deliver presentations to work group(s), customers, and external business contacts
  • Lead teams in the design and testing of prototype methods and models
  • Facilitate partnerships and joint efforts with internal and external collaborators

What Anthropologist Careers Are Available?

Many anthropology students pursue graduate studies, either in anthropology or another subject. Anthropology is a good foundation for further study and training in international law, public health, and other social sciences.

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How Do I Get an Anthropologist Degree?

High school students interested in anthropology should take classes in biology, history, math, science, and languages. Undergraduates study archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and how to study communities. Entry-level positions as field technicians or laboratory assistants are open to graduates with bachelor's degrees. However, anthropologists generally need at least a master's degree in anthropology or archaeology to advance beyond entry-level jobs. Experience with fieldwork through internships, museums, and volunteer work is also important.

Graduate students learn more about research techniques and conduct fieldwork. Although a master's degree is enough for many positions, a Ph.D. may be required for leadership positions. Those who direct anthropological research projects in other countries are also generally required to have doctoral degrees.

Related Degree Options for Anthropology

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Anthropologists Have?

  • The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has over 40 subsections for cultural, biological, visual and other areas of anthropology. The organization sets standards for professional ethics, hosts a career center with job postings, and offers professional development through workshops.
  • The Anthropology and Environment Society, another section of the AAA, explores issues in international development, environmental justice, and sustainability. Its Facebook page is more active than its website, and a good place to network.
  • The National Association of Student Anthropologists is the student section of AAA. This student networking organization addresses issues of concern to aspiring anthropologists, like navigating graduate school, fieldwork, and finding jobs.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for anthropologists and archeologists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.