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date: 15 October 2019

Anthropology Between Academia and Practice

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Anthropology is often understood to be primarily an academic undertaking. A typical first exposure to the discipline occurs through undergraduate coursework, where the anthropologists that students know tend to be their professors. Without anthropologists in business, government, and nonprofit (BGN) fields to serve as role models, students may come to believe that if they choose not to pursue graduate study and academic employment, their interest in anthropology must give way to something more career related.

At the same time, there exists a vibrant community of “practicing,” “professional,” “public,” and “applied” anthropologists employed in a variety of non-academic settings. Anthropological skills and perspectives are of use to many BGN employers, and in a few industries, the value of anthropology is generally accepted: historic preservation, public health, and user experience research are prominent examples. The relationship between academia and professional practice is sometimes difficult, however, as some practitioners feel stigmatized or excluded by academics, while others inhabit professional spaces where academic anthropology is largely irrelevant.

While anthropologists often speak of a “divide” or “split” between academic and practicing anthropology, this view overlooks the fact that much work in applied anthropology maintains a presence in both higher education and BGN institutions. Not only do projects often involve collaboration among team members with diverse careers, but individual anthropologists may simultaneously maintain both academic and non-academic affiliations or move between professional spheres over the course of their career. While the social pressures to attend graduate school and seek traditional faculty jobs are real, anthropologists have responded to them in a variety of ways, and observers must account for all contexts of practice in order to reach a full understanding of the profession.