The usefulness of anthropology

The Daily Beast published a list this week of the “13 Most Useless Majors.” Coming in at #9 was Anthropology and Archaeology. The information they publish alongside their ranking is as follows:

Unemployment, recent grad: 10.5 percent
Unemployment, experienced grad: 6.2 percent
Earnings, recent grad: $28,000
Earnings, experienced grad: $47,000
Projected growth, 2010–2020: +21 percent

First, the last I checked, the US U3 unemployment rate was 8.2%, while the broader U6 measure of under/unemployment was at 14.5%. So the cited figures for employment rate for recent and experienced grads are pretty much in line with, if not below, U.S. averages. The earnings are on the low-end of college degree recipients, but one can safely assume that individuals pursuing Anthropology are not doing so for the money. The final stat is what I find remarkable, though…isn’t a 21% projected growth fairly large for a useless major?

My bigger issue with the list is simply that any knowledge (or college major if we want to view knowledge as a commodity) is useless unless you put it to use. Anthropology, particularly keeping in mind current trends in society, actually appears to me to be extremely and increasingly useful. The difference being that anthropology does not possess the kind of well-worn academic to career path and infrastructure as, say, an undergraduate business degree and entry-level banking positions or an undergraduate biological sciences major and the slave labor of graduate medical training. There are no business models developed around exploiting the labor of recent Anthropology graduates (unless you count coffee baristas…I kid). I am still relatively new at this, but in my 5+ years of teaching undergraduates my students have gone on to the following pursuits; medical school, nursing school, public health, law school, grad school in anthropology, peace corps, Teach for America, Fulbright awards, international NGO work and countless other jobs that I could not possibly keep track of. The “related occupations” (as described by the Daily Beast list) for Anthropology are much broader than “Anthropology and Archaeologist.”

In my courses I teach students on research and theory in the following areas: evolution, population genetics and genomics, the fossil record, human behavior, food and health, ethics, anatomy and osteology, quantitative methods, computer programming and the integration of scientific and humanistic knowledge structures. Additionally, any student pursuing anthropology at the graduate level is very likely going to get trained in at least one non-native language, spend considerable time abroad or in a novel environment, collaborate with peers across an array of international institutions, work between government, public and private institutions and spend copious amounts of time diligently thinking about how it is we come to know what we know about what it means to be human. I, for one, do not find those topics lacking relevance in contemporary society. Rather, I see them as skills likely to become more important as the world becomes more urban, more technological, more populated, more resource constrained and more international.

The challenge, as I see it, is not the “uselessness” of Anthropology but the difficulty in equipping students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, with the tools and perspective necessary to use the knowledge and skills developed in Anthropology effectively. A lot of the changes I have made to my teaching over the past year have been directed towards this issue. One of the goals for my classes these days is not only to convey the theory and knowledge base of Anthropology, but to do so in a way that imparts skills, techniques and models of application of that theory and knowledge. The model of go to college, do well, get a job, if it was ever true, has never been the model for Anthropology because of the diversity of careers and work that anthropologists engage in. Students should, if they are not already, be made aware of this, but this is not a condemnation of the value of the discipline. In a world in which the meaning of the word “career” is undergoing rapid change, the development of individually developed and applied knowledge that goes hand in hand with anthropology is a strength, not a weakness.

So perhaps The Daily Beast should look at #8 on their list, journalism, and do a little self-reflection (though I think more than ever we need more and better journalists).

About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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4 Responses to The usefulness of anthropology

  1. megan says:

    There’s an article in the NY Times today that also scoffs anthro, but gets its data from an Associated Press study that says Anthro is one of the 5 majors that has the highest rate of students who not only don’t get jobs, but who are getting those non-BA Barrista jobs you mentioned. I want to blow it off, but I can’t. My thoughts on it:

    1) are anthro students connecting with career services? Or are they going to and looking for ‘anthropology’ – if the latter, they won’t find a good-fit job. But I don’t know yet what the students do, I’m too new.
    2) are anthro faculty connecting with career services staff to discuss what we see as the skill sets of our majors, and the types of jobs they are qualified for and seeking out?
    3) Are anthro majors un-interested in the types of careers they can get jobs in (i.e. the hippie in your class who would rather talk about life at the coffee bar than work for the man)?
    4) Is anthropology, due to its broad nature, one of those majors that a student can manage to skate through at some colleges, therefore it ends up with some of the less-engaged graduates? I don’t think that’s the case where I teach, but where I got my BA, after your intro course in each subfield you took 4 upper level courses ‘of your choosing’. So we had a huge cohort of engaged anthro majors who were in the anthro club and doing our best to be well trained, but if you didn’t want to engage, you could probably get Cs in a few upper level courses and still graduate and not really be ready for the employment world. You can’t do that in physics (I tried).

    I wonder if the AAA has done any studies on this?

    • Adam Van Arsdale says:

      These are all good questions. Based on my experience, I would suggest the following.

      1. The students I have spoken with about their experience with career counseling services/people don’t get any help. These people have no idea what skills anthropology students are equipped with and what careers they might pursue, aside from suggesting they “look at museums.”

      2. I think no…and we probably should. Or we should just do more direct intervention with students. Some of this should come in the form of in-class pedagogy, and some of it in the form of individual guidance.

      3. and 4. I think there is probably a selection bias that factors into any quantitative follow-up data on Anthro students. Anthro majors can take on a variety of forms across institutions. At my undergraduate institution (Emory), there were two main tracts for Anthro students, the B.A. in “Anthropology” and the B.S. in “Anthropology and Human Biology”. I chose the latter, a path populated largely by pre-med students who did not want to major in Bio or Chem. At my graduate institution (Michigan) there were even more options for Anthro students, but most of my students with interests in Bio/Physical Anthro were technically “Anthropology and Zoology” majors. A lot of the students at Emory and Michigan that I crossed paths with were in some form students interested in pursuing sciences but not through a traditional natural/physical science tract (some of which means avoiding intensive and time-consuming lab courses). At Wellesley, we only have a single major for Anthropology, but students naturally drift towards their own area of interest (socio-cultural, archaeology, physical). Given the diversity of paths in Anthropology developing a curriculum that accommodates the openness and flexibility of the discipline, while also imparting a very specific set of skills is challenging. And in the end, I’m not sure it is really feasible in the same way an undergraduate curriculum in Economics might work. Econ is the largest major at Wellesley and students go through a very regimented set of 100 level courses (concepts), 200 level courses (methods) and 300 level courses (application). The same progression does not really work for Anthropology, especially with multiple sub-fields in play. And nor should it be, I would say. But that does not relieve us, as instructors, from imparting skills and perspectives on potential job and career paths.

      • Megan says:

        All good thoughts, thanks. I know several good folks in career services here and at other institutions – I think the key is to find one person there, develop rapport with him/her, and then direct students to that individual. In part that’s because I realize I’m a career anthropologist and I don’t actually KNOW what employers are looking for from a BA Anthropologist, in terms of how a resume should look and what skill set lingo is appropriate. It’s a good way to work on correcting the misconceptions they might have about our degrees also. And while I certainly do work with students one-on-one, I figure if we’ve got someone whose primary job is to help my students get jobs, I want to let them take care of that so I can focus on teaching. The perk of this, for me, has been that our career services person now uses ‘anthropology’ as an example in almost every presentation I see her give – free advertising!

        I also agree about speaking about careers in class – I try to do this every term, and actually seek out information on what kinds of jobs people are doing with their Anthropology degrees at different levels (BA, MA etc…). Since the path can be less obvious, I think discussing these things can a) bring in more majors and b) help our majors see the breadth of opportunities.

        I like your point about skill sets – I think perhaps I’ll try to be explicit in my syllabi next term, rather than just saying the topics students should have mastered by the end of term, I’ll include a list of skill sets demonstrated. This will help me evaluate WHAT I’m actually preparing them to do.

  2. megan says:

    Right the article!
    NY Times:

    And if your selection of free NY Times articles is used up for the month, here’s the article about the AP study that they use:

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