Should you major in Cultural Anthropology?

A first-year student in my Anthropology 101 course emailed to let me know that they found the class readings intriguing and that they loved to learn about cultural values, stories, and traditions from around the world. Their email ended with a question: Can you tell me what kind of jobs there are for graduates of (cultural) anthropology?

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a student ask me this and I thought my first post on this blog (see the editor’s post about bringing a cultural anthropologist to the group) might address this question for anyone thinking of majoring in cultural anthropology.

There are lots of great resources out there that discuss careers for Anthropologists: such as the American Anthropological Association’s page on advancing one’s career, but few discuss tangible skills gained by students graduating with an Anthropology BA.

As a cultural anthropologist, I think anthropology graduates can do any job that requires  someone trained in the social sciences; that is, an anthropology graduate can think critically, wade through lots of data and identify the important information, they can communicate, they can problem solve, and have had experience working toward time/project deadlines. While cultural anthropologists study similar topics and fields to sociologists, we tend to receive more qualitative data analysis training, with a focus on ethnography, rather than quantitative training.

From my work experience in for- and non-profit organizations, I find anthropology graduates have the unique ability to appreciate difference (they can identify and acknowledge that there are different ways of living, leading, and learning, etc.) and, they have learned how to be self-reflexive – both skills are features of ethnographic methodology.

These skills have been discussed elsewhere as facets of a ‘Tolerance of Ambiguity’ (TOA). Psychologists DeRoma, Martin and Kessler (2003) define TOA according to Budner as “an individual’s propensity to view ambiguous situations as either threatening or desirable” (105). Put simply, if you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will not be comfortable with situations or people who are different that you. Likewise, sociologist Donald Levine argues that tolerance, and intolerance, are learned, context-dependent and something experienced ‘between people’. These theories signal the importance of being open to difference and acknowledging one’s own cultural context.

Important for our anthropology graduates, employers have identified the benefits of flexibility and adaptivity in their quest to hire university graduates with transferable skills. Minocha, Hristov, and Leahy-Harland 2018 argued that acquiring such traits create a global-ready workforce. In the recent study by Fewster and O’Connor, the authors found that “individuals who ha(d) a higher tolerance of ambiguity (would) be more productive and responsive in the volatile, uncertain and complex world of work, and experience increased job satisfaction, and overall well being” (2017: 2). In this report, the authors identify ‘cultivating curiosity’ as a trait individuals could focus on to develop their level of TOA. Cultivating curiosity is defined as:

“Cultivating curiosity in the workplace was also found to be a trait that people could focus on to develop their TOA. These behaviours centre around interacting with others and include effectively communicating and listening to co-workers; when problems arise, asking questions that encourage curiosity and if confronted with resistance from others, asking questions that lead to identifying possible solutions rather than dwelling on the past. Collaboration is also important including behaviours such as encouraging  participation from others, posing questions, creating strong professional relationships and networks for diversity of thought, sharing ideas and being open to connect the ideas of different people” (Fewster and O’Connor 2017: 9).

Anthropology graduates have spent their entire undergraduate careers cultivating such curiosity in their search to understand the ways in which human beings live their lives similarly and differently around the globe. Taking a holistic and comparative perspective comes naturally for our graduates, as these skills have been honed over time.

In The Teaching of Anthropology, Cora Du Bois argues that TOA is one of the attitudes that anthropologists as teachers need to foster in their  students (1963:37). She describes this attitude as “a capacity to entertain uncertainty, to cope with paradox, to allow for the indeterminate” (Du Bois 1963: 37).  There are many opportunities for anthropology instructors to facilitate and develop such skills in their students through in-class activities (e.g. through discussions that entice self-reflection) and through both summative and formative assessment strategies (e.g. comparative analysis, field prep tasks, etc.) throughout students’ undergraduate careers.

So what do Anthropology graduates have that other undergraduates might not? In addition to all those skills gained from a university degree, they have the unique ability recognize and appreciate difference, to critically reflect on internal logic (systems in place) and, to adapt to situations that are different from what they or their company may be used to.

But there is one caveat.

Cultural anthropology as a sub-discipline is pretty terrible at its Public Relations and it suffers from a bit of self-doubt among other established social science disciplines. Applied anthropologists (a group that I also identify with) tend to run in separate circles from cultural anthropologists (although I believe there is more of an overlap between applied and archaeology and biological anthropology) and therefore, not all cultural anthropologists working in academia are skilled at telling their students what their transferable skills are and how they can capitalize on an anthropology degree.

Employers want their next employee to have a university degree, and our graduates will need to tell them why a degree in anthropology has made them the better/best candidate.

Editor’s Comment: The Cultural One, Jennifer Long will write a future reflection on her experiences as an applied anthropologist in the areas of program evaluation, market research, and as a qualitative researcher-for-hire.

If any reader wants to know more about what applied anthropologists do, they could visit these websites:

These links provide a brief overview into the work of various applied anthropologists.