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Why the world needs anthropologists? Because they make a difference!

By Barbara van Male – A freelance journalist, a UX-researcher, a policy advisor in radicalisation, a researcher in water management, and a senior officer at an NGO walk into a room. Their shared background? They all studied anthropology. After graduation, 98 percent of the anthropologists has a career outside the university. Where do they go? And how does anthropology matter?

‘What anthropologists are good at, is making complex and vague situations clear. Where are the relations, the threats, the hierarchies etcetera. These skills fit almost any situation that involves people’. Laurens Bakker is one of the speakers at the symposium Why the world needs anthropologists?* organized by the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, March 6. He addresses how anthropological skills matter out there, outside the academic domain. ‘Take the way we observe an office, for example: we notice how groups relate to other groups, what is hanging on the wall; do they have lunch together, and where? We look for where it is blurry between people. We ask different, unusual questions, and listen beyond the simple answers. So I think that, when it comes to social change, anthropologists can contribute a lot.’

Laurens Bakker, Masja Cohen and Walter Faaij are the authors of Anthropologists Wanted: Why Organizations Need Anthropology (2021). Masja, also present at the symposium: ‘This book is the result of what I missed during my studies. We were educated as academic researchers, and yet only a few students choose that path. So what kind of work can you do as an anthropologist outside of the university? How to present yourself in job interviews? I encountered many misconceptions. People still think anthropologists only work with “exotic”cultures… While we are specialists in group behaviour of people, anywhere in the world.’

The added value of anthropologists is underlined by Phebe Kloos’ contribution to the symposium. ‘The province of Brabant handed out free rain barrels to citizens, to work on water awareness and drought. In two months, people offered the rain barrels widely on second hand platforms. Had they hired an anthropologist, the chance of success would have been likely higher. As this, like most solutions, was approached technically, while the key is human behaviour.’ How to research that? ‘Instead of surfing through a database, we use a multi-voiced approach. We meet and observe what is in the background. Good news for introverts by the way, because modesty is a quality in that position.’

In order to find a job Phebe used her anthropological skills: ‘My main interest is the relation between people and water. So I approached a possible employer of the Dutch water authority Vallei and Veluwe to take a walk with me in the area where they worked. While walking I offered him my findings, described what I saw. So I applied the ethnographic method to get a job!’ And successfully: she is now a researcher at the same water authority. Already in her first week she made a small dictionary to be able to communicate in the language used. ‘Language is an important matter, anthropologists know… In dealing with farmers I had to learn their language, and to unlearn certain words.’

When it comes to career opportunities, investigative journalist Ingrid Gercama and policy advisor Kostas Brejart share a similar view: ‘The skills we have in translating theory into practice, are multi-applicable, you can use them everywhere.’ Ingrid publishes in newspapers and magazines such as the NRC, De Groene Amsterdammer, Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Guardian on environmental and social conflicts and sustainability. Ingrid stresses the value of storytelling, especially in journalism. ‘And it is such a significant part in our education.’ Though in her line of work she notices some friction: ‘Anthropologists see the value of journalism, the other way around is not very much the case yet. As we have learned to write from doubt, from not knowing for sure, newspapers are not very keen on that.’

After having worked for years at the municipality of Rotterdam Kostas starts a new job in March. He will become a trainer at Rijks Opleidingsinstituut tegengaan Radicalisering (a national training institute working against radicalization). ‘What is clear to me is that governments, local or national, really need anthropologists to develop a more profound foundation for social changes and policies.’ His fieldwork and Master thesis were about the reasons why people on the Greek island of Corfu were attracted to the extremist, neo-nazi party Golden Dawn. ‘I met many people who believed in conspiracy theories, and that is very useful in my current work. We are trained to put ourselves in the shoes of the persons we research.’

That anthropologists can be connectors between policy and people’s lived experience is pointed out by Linda Fokkema. She worked for various NGOs including eight years in Cameroon and is now senior programme coordinator at ActionAid Nederland. ‘My role is to connect between a ministry here and projects or colleagues in the Global South. And the anthropological approach with “what is the impact of policy and decisions on human lives?” makes a difference.’ This mediating role relates to Marthe Lem’s experiences. As a UX-researcher (UX: user experience) she uses anthropological methods, such as participant observation, to ensure that the product meets the needs and solves the problems of its users. ‘Software developers are just coding in their own room. Another one is the technician. And I am the voice of the users in the company, applying storytelling: these are the people – persona’s in my line of work – for who we make our products.’

All the speakers at the symposium encourage anthropologists in the making: ‘Follow your interests. Choose a subject that makes your heart beats faster. No worries about your career now, your value will be substantial.’ So, when you play the game in family parties Why the world needs anthropologists?, you can prove them that anthropologists are everywhere. Because they make a difference.

* Why the World Needs Anthropologists is not only the title of the symposium on 6 March, it is an annual international event with the aim to connect academia and non-academics. See this link.

Barbara van Male is an independent senior editor. She works at projects that aim for a more just world. Temporarily part of the SCA-staff at the VU

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