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What Does a Cultural Anthropologist Do?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A cultural anthropologist studies human societies and cultural traditions in an effort to understand regional and national differences. Sometimes this research is academic, designed to discover and present quantifiable facts. Other times it is designed to be more plastic, often applied directly to effecting cultural change or bridging gaps between disparate societies. Cultural anthropologists work primarily in nonprofit organizations, for government agencies, or in universities.

Jobs fall primarily into two broad categories: field-based and paper-based. A field cultural anthropologist typically spends a lot of time — often years or more — living in the cultures and communities that he or she is studying. In this way, the researcher is able to experience all aspects of the culture through direct immersion. He or she is then able to draw conclusions about how societies function at a very granular level as well as being able to pointedly identify cultural differences and disparities between places.

Much of a field cultural anthropologist’s work is subjective, as it is filtered through the lens of personal experiences, background, and beliefs. Subjective researchers frequently leverage their experiences to help bring aid to communities or to work in nonprofit organizations raising awareness of different cultural practices and phenomena. This kind of experience often also leads to the publication of expository non-fiction writing or memoirs of life lived abroad.

Not all field anthropologists work with living cultures. Some participate in on-site explorations of ancient ruins, often in conjunction with archaeologists. The archaeologists seek to recreate the physical characteristics of lost communities, while the cultural anthropologists look for clues about who the people were and how they lived their life.

Paper-based cultural anthropology is generally more academic in nature. A cultural anthropologist in this category is likely to spend much of his or her time studying cultural statistics, monitoring trends, and tracking behavioral shifts in certain populations. He or she will use prior research to draw conclusions about cultures.

These conclusions are particularly valuable in business settings. Corporations that are looking to expand into foreign countries often seek the expertise of a cultural anthropologist in order to make their transition smooth. Anthropologists are often also found in marketing departments, helping to craft advertisements appropriate for placement in different countries around the world.

Government agencies may also hire individuals with this sort of nuanced training. Cultural anthropologist duties in government settings often include the formulation of briefs on different global trends and structures. Anthropologists also make recommendations related to foreign affairs and intervention, particularly in times of conflict.

A degree in anthropology is one of the baseline cultural anthropologist requirements. Many schools offer general bachelor’s degree programs, though the majority of jobs — particularly those in business and government settings — require more advanced degrees. The typical cultural anthropologist job description requires the application of expert knowledge to different situations, which is usually best obtained with extensive schooling.

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