Why the world needs anthropologists: Report of a symposium

By Ina Keuper.  This blogpost  is based  on the reports of Dominique Steinebach, Sophie van der Heiden, Tessa Dierks, Dorenda ten Hoopen, Kirsten Muijden, Gaya Nikolsky, and Marit Timmerman. They are students of a first year seminar that provides training in writing anthropological texts, part of the Bachelor’s programme in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at VU University Amsterdam. Ina Keuper is one of the teachers of this seminar.

Why the world needs anthropologists

“The world needs anthropologists!” This statement provided the starting point of a symposium held in Amsterdam on November 29, 2013,  about the relevance of anthropological knowledge and skills in the world outside academia. The seminar was organized by the Social and Cultural Anthropology  department of VU University, Amsterdam, in cooperation with the EASA Applied Anthropology network,  the University of Ljubljana, the Dutch Anthropologists Organization (ABV), and the Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The ‘Soeterijn zaal ’ of the ‘Tropenmuseum’,  part of the ‘Royal Tropical Institute‘, provided the venue for this international gathering. Three anthropologists in heart and soul gave passionate talks about their work in the world of big corporations and organisations. The symposium was completed with a panel session followed by a discussion which ended in a heated debate about ethics. The meeting concluded with a clear statement that the world does not just need anthropologists; the world needs anthropological thinking to be applied.

Anna SpWAnna Kirah works for the Norwegian branch of the international consultancy firm ‘Making Waves‘, mainly advising public organisations.  Kira calls herself design anthropologist and has previously been employed by Boeing and Microsoft. She mentioned seeing the process of ‘connecting the dots’ as the main job of an anthropologist. By this she metaphorically referred to linking a wide range of interdependent people with different perspectives who are all somehow involved  in designing and consuming products like airplanes, airports and train stations. In her people-centred approach she tries to bridge gaps between various experts within organisations or between designers and the consumers of their products.  One of the many examples she presented was about a beautifully designed glass waiting room at a new fashionable train station in the outskirts of Oslo, which was not used by the commuters waiting for trains in the cold, however. When an anthropologist would have been involved, she or he could have warned the architect that Norwegian people don’t like to be on display for others when being in a waiting room. Kirah stimulated the audience  of anthropology students to offer their expertise to big firms and organisations, but also advised to ‘work on the edge’. Anthropologists should participate but also keep some distance in order to bring in different views from the outside and keep an open eye for diversity and variance. Another slogan she used was: ‘We are facilitators, not experts’, meaning that anthropologists can advise and support the work of others, but in the end the technical designers of products like train stations decide.

Jitske SpWJitske Kramer agreed with Kirah that facilitating is what anthropologists do. As an experienced corporate anthropologist she set up a consultancy firm in the Netherlands, called ‘Human Dimensions‘,which is formed by a large network of specialists offering advice and training to facilitate and manage (cultural) diversity and change within and between organisations, both profit and non-profit. Like Kirah, she stated that anthropologists  have special qualities and capacities to look at ‘others’ to learn about ourselves. Connecting the views and perspectives of  people at different levels of an organisation or between people from various cultural backgrounds can transform conflicts and fragmentation into a more inclusive corporate culture with space for diversity. She illustrated her statements with the metaphor of a song: combining various rhythms can become chaos or a nice song. Starting with clapping her hands she asked the public to join in. When clapping faster everybody clapped differently. Kramer explained that we have to listen to each other to organise harmony and overcome disorder. Anthropologists can apply their special knowledge of studying rituals, symbols, customs, kinship relations and rites of passage to analyse ranking, prestige systems and change in organisations. Stimulating dialogues and making diversity in organisations manageable by applying her anthropological perspective makes her proud of being an anthropologist.  She asked the audience to be proud as well and not hide their training in the discipline when they apply for a job.

Roberts SpW “I bring good news for students in anthropology because anthropology is more and more wanted in corporations!” With this statement Simon Roberts started his presentation. Roberts recently started at ‘Stripe Partners‘ as a business anthropologist after having worked for R&D of Intel and some other firms (e.g. http://www.ideasbazaar.com/ ). He explained his statement by stressing that anthropology can contribute much to companies. ‘Fish don’t know about the water until they are beached’. But anthropologists do know about this water, they ask questions when others think the work is done. Referring to Foucault, Roberts argued that anthropologists experience perpetual dissatisfaction and don’t stop posing questions, and that anthropology often produces counter-science. By doing so, anthropologists can contribute much to the continuing flux of transformations in the contemporary world because of their ‘abductive’ thinking: they imagine tentative solutions to social problems like growing obesity or aging populations and its implications for changing life-stage cycles.  He also pointed to the unique contribution of the ethnographic research methodology of anthropologists  by using the phrase ‘If you want to know how the tiger hunts, don’t go to the zoo, go to the jungle’. In doing so, he rejects a strict distinction between academic and applied anthropology. Roberts closed his talk with stimulating the audience of anthropology students to sell their capacities and knowledge, like Stripe Partners is doing.

In the panel session led by Dan Podjed, EASA Applied Anthropology Network coordinator from the University of Ljubljana,  five experts[1]) – two from Ljubljana and three from Amsterdam – informed the public about the use of anthropology in their current jobs. Wayne Modest made a plea for more anthropologists working in museums and Marina de Regt said that her anthropological perspective helped to gain knowledge about the power differences in development projects in Yemen. Towards the end, Podjed raised the question of ethics, inviting the audience and experts to ponder about the use and possible misuse of applied anthropology. The question raised various reactions from the key-note speakers Roberts, Kirah and Kramer, and from some people in the audience. It ended in quite an emotionally-driven debate about where and how to apply anthropology. Rajko Muršič, of the panel, responded that we can’t separate pure academic knowledge from applied knowledge: when knowledge is not used, then it is useless; the application of anthropology is important. An alumna of VU University in the audience remarked that the world does not only need anthropologists, but more wide-spread application of anthropological thinking is needed even more.


1. Rajko Muršič is Full Professor at the University of Ljubljana, specialised in the anthropology of music and popular cultures. He is critical of capitalism, but strongly supports practical applications of anthropological knowledge.
2. Marina de Regt is Assistant Professor at VU University Amsterdam. She worked as an applied anthropologist in development projects in Yemen, and became quite critical of the development industry.
3. Wayne Modest is the Head of the Curatorial Department at the Tropenmuseum. His work is driven by a concern for more historically contingent ways of understanding the present, especially in relation to material culture.
4. Nadia Moussaid works as a reporter and editor at AT5 (local Amsterdam TV station), reporting for the program ‘Wereldstad’ [World City] and presenting ‘De stelling van Amsterdam’ [a show with guests discussing a variety of topical issues].
5. Gregor Cerinšek is researcher and project manager at the Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana, and has worked as a consultant on HRM and competence development for various Slovenian organisations. He cooperates in EU research projects and delivers lectures at the University of Ljubljana on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation and competence development.
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