My journey in applied anthropology

From a graduate who thought it was a great idea to study cultural anthropology during an economic crisis to any anthropology student freaking out and wondering ‘…what’s next!?!’

By Joshua van Wijgerden

I decided to study cultural anthropology back in 2009, despite a seemingly dark (and unemployed) future looming ahead of me. Why? Because thought anthropology was fascinating. It offered me a refreshing perspective on the world, in which objectivity, self-reflection, compassion and interest in the ‘other’ intertwined in an amazing balance. Anthropology became a mindset for me. A way of viewing the world through a pair of goggles that might sometimes give a blasting headache, but that also shows spectacular things.

I became convinced that it would be beneficial for everyone if anthropological concepts and ideas would be shared beyond the academic ivory tower, and that applied anthropology has a lot to offer the world. Now, more than ten years later, I will share why I still think this is the case, and share my experiences during my journey in applied anthropology.

In the beginning of this journey, during my studies, I found that my interest in more ‘popular’ and applied anthropology could not count on unequivocal support of professors. Some were intrigued, but others scoffed, rolled their eyes and muttered how it was not ‘real anthropology’ or how it was even evil (!). When I asked what they meant with that, their reasoning was roughly: Applied anthropology is not academic, which means it is situated in the non-academic world, which is capitalism and capitalism is evil.

I did not agree, and this is why:
– The argument that it is not ‘pure’ is pedagogically classist, which I think is in itself an undesirable and outdated way of thinking inside or outside the university. 
-We anthropologists (understandably) have a tendency to anthropomorphize, but this isn’t always a good idea. Applied anthropology is not an individual with the agency to be evil. It is a tool and a tool can be used in a billion ways. Capitalism is also not inherently evil, for that matter.
-Statements like this create a moral high ground, especially when using words like ‘evil.’ They risk promoting a specific (political) ideal that obstructs the possibility for a healthy, open and unprejudiced debate or conversation on the topic that is based on fair arguments. 

Their comments caused a rebellious spark and made me even more interested in applied anthropology. I recall a specific moment, when I was listening to a lecture on Durkheim while simultaneously thinking about a paper I was writing about Second Life communities. The lecturer caught my attention when he explained that according to Durkheim religion was the predecessor of government. He listed characteristics and functions that applied to both successful religious and governmental organizations, and I realized that this list applied almost perfectly to several successful communities I was looking into myself. I still use this list and its practical application when explaining which characteristics a healthy community has.

Seeing how theories can be applied to such different contexts got me thinking further about how we can apply our anthropological skills and passions in the non-academic world. I therefore decided to dedicate one of my last presentations at the university to this topic. An entire world opened up! I found that many market research companies hired social scientists for qualitative research and longitudinal ethnography. Some even specifically asked for people specialized in visual anthropology, which I am very passionate about.

After graduating in 2013, I was lucky (and plucky) enough to get hired at one of those market research companies. If you want to work as an applied anthropologist, I would recommend making sure that the papers, articles or book reports you write have non-academic value for the specific field you are interested in. Furthermore, I recommend approaching the application process as a full time job. I can’t even count how many applications I sent out. Never stop applying because you are awaiting a response from a certain employer. I know it is hard sometimes, but keep going! 

In my case, my qualitative research experience combined with my passion for online communities made them hire me as a community manager, a job in which I could apply what I learnt during my studies. I have worked for several companies since then. Big corporate companies, but also NGOs and start-ups focusing on people and making the world a better place. The value of anthropological goggles was most clear to me when I worked at a start-up focusing on sustainability and the sharing economy. Topics such as climate change are in many ways human problems on a macro level, which we anthropologists know a lot about. As anthropologists, we can balance being scientists in the pursuit of knowledge with compassion for other people and understanding what drives them, and we can use this skill to do good. 

Which brings me to the final message I want to convey. I heard through the grapevine that the VU is part of an initiative that is a marriage between applied anthropology and sustainability. As most of you will probably not continue in academia, learning how to use everything you have learnt in the last 3+ years in a non-academic environment is absolutely invaluable. Not only for you, but also for this planet and everybody in it (and how can that ever be evil or impure).  

I am actually a bit jealous. Go get ‘em.

Joshua van Wijgerden is an applied anthropologist who still believes that studying cultural anthropology during an economic crisis was a good idea. If you have questions on applied anthropology, digital ethnography or anything else, please feel free to contact him through Linkedin.

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