Applied Anthropology vs. Academic Anthropology

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Applied anthropology involves the use of the discipline to address societal problems and to facilitate change, whereas academic anthropology is primarily about the teaching of the subject of anthropology. Learn more about each field's application, challenges, and benefits. Updated: 10/21/2021

Two Paths

Arleen and Jackson both majored in anthropology at the same university. While at school, they became good friends. They have a strong passion for learning about human beings and culture. Both knew they'd picked the right discipline to study when they learned how it offered opportunities to impact the world in a positive way.

After they received their bachelor's degrees, they pursued graduate programs in anthropology and then went in different directions in their careers. Jackson found a job teaching as a professor, an academic anthropology role. Arleen found a job at a nonprofit organization where she monitors their program development, an applied anthropology role.

This lesson highlights the relationship between applied and academic anthropology. We'll also look at where they overlap with one another and how they are distinct.

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  • 0:08 Two Paths
  • 1:00 Applied vs. Academic
  • 2:29 Challenges and Benefits
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Applied vs. Academic

Applied anthropology refers to the use of the discipline to address societal problems and to facilitate change. The bulk of Arleen's time is used to directly tackle challenges that the nonprofit faces in creating effective programming. Her job is considered an applied anthropology position because she applies her knowledge to a role that is actively addressing an issue in society. This form of anthropology is also referred to as practicing anthropology because it puts knowledge into real-world practice.

Academic anthropology, on the other hand, refers to teaching the subject of anthropology and adding to the overall knowledge base of the field. Jackson's job as a professor is an example of an academic anthropology position. It is focused more on training others about the field, as well as researching and writing. His work still contributes to the discipline in a significant way, but the transfer of knowledge happens more in the context of an academic setting.

A person who works in academics may participate in applied anthropology work as well. For instance, Jackson periodically leads a semester aimed at addressing the issues faced by migrant workers in their community. A person who works in applied anthropology can also contribute to an academic environment. They can bring their experiences to the attention of the academic world through speaking or writing about it.

Challenges and Benefits

Since Arleen and Jackson stayed friends since school, one day they started texting one another about their experiences on the job. They share the challenges and the benefits of their roles.

Jackson wants to move to live closer to his aging parents. But unfortunately, leaving his current university might mean he will have to leave academic anthropology altogether since there are few jobs available for full-time professors in the field. Jackson sends Arleen a text: 'so few jobs in academic anthro these days. How's applied anthro?'

Arleen responds that she's happy to tell him about her experiences in applied anthropology. She writes that he'll face more ethical challenges in fieldwork than a student can learn about while in school. She also acknowledges that sometimes the actual impact is mixed, meaning that not all interventions and programs will immediately have the desired result of a positive improvement in society.

For instance, Arleen talks about how one of the programs implemented by their organization actually offended a small portion of the community. The group felt it violated their moral beliefs. Arleen found herself torn between defending her organization's stance and acknowledging the concerns of those offended.

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