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Essay / Ask SAPIENS

What Do Anthropologists Do?

Anthropologists study humans in all our extraordinary history and diversity. Check out this overview of professional anthropology.
A group of people with white tunics and animal pelts on walk up a narrow street. One person holds a flare that gives off a red glow. A person wearing dark clothing photographs the event.

A person documents a centuries-old Basque carnival in Alsasua, Spain. Many anthropologists investigate cultural phenomena, such as rituals and religious traditions.

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What Do Anthropologists Do?

Anthropologists study everything about being human. Their work explores our origins as a species, our present-day cultures, and how humanity will survive into the future. Anthropology takes a holistic approach to humans as social animals. The field embraces the human experience as both deeply shared and wondrously diverse. After all, anthropology is often described as the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.

In the North American tradition, anthropology is divided into four major fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology.

In archaeology, researchers investigate material objects humans have left behind, including tools, jewelry, homes, money, food, and trash. Archaeologists examine human and animal remains, plant material, and soil to determine how people lived and died. In contrast, experimental archaeologists re-create objects or activities from the past to learn about ancient human capabilities.

Biological anthropologists study the biology of humans, ancient hominins (our extinct ancestors), and primates. They often focus on evolution, such as the advantages of darker skin and curly hair or the development of long-distance running skills.

Cultural anthropologists delve into everything related to societies and culture around the world and across time. This could include studying food, fashion, sports, and music or teasing apart how power works or the ways people make meaning. They might spend months or years living with a community and conducting interviews.

Linguistic anthropologists analyze how language reflects but also shapes culture and cognition. They may document Indigenous languages, explore the social effects of bilingualism, or probe the intersection of politics and words.

Occasionally, these four fields overlap. They can also be divided into numerous subspecialties, including forensic anthropology, paleoanthropology, medical anthropology, and environmental anthropology.

What Do Anthropologists Study?

Using the tools of science and the humanities—even poetry—anthropologists study a breathtaking range of subjects. Here is a brief sample:

Why Study Anthropology?

Anthropologists study topics that are essential to understanding human well-being and what it means to be human. Moreover, most anthropologists apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems.

For example, many anthropologists work at the intersection of law, policy, and ethics, considering such vital issues as migration. They help governments develop policies and advise businesses on analyzing human behavior using “anthropology intelligence.” Additionally, they can help illuminate the inner workings of politics and the nature of power. Further, they can spotlight how these power dynamics play out—for example, in the social construction of race.

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Anthropologists also address human-caused issues related to the environment, such as plastic waste, climate change, deforestation, and destructive wildfires. They can uncover tensions between carbon credit programs and Indigenous communities. Or they can highlight Indigenous methods of sustainable land stewardship. When archaeological sites lie in the path of development projects, they record and preserve objects found there.

When it comes to health issues, anthropologists can help design culturally specific strategies for combating epidemics, tuberculosis, and diabetes. They can offer insight into the evolution of exercise and the impacts of changes in human diets. They can provide guidance on controversies in genetics and medicine, such as the DNA-editing tool CRISPR or pig organ transplants.

Anthropologists can answer persistent questions about violence, the nature of war, and the enduring hold death has over our lives. They can even give people a more hopeful view of humanity’s ingenuity and imagination.

What’s necessary for Becoming an Anthropologist?

First, you should be curious about the world in general and about humans in particular.

Second, you should be a critical thinker. Anthropologists conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information and data gathered from around the world.

Third, you should be adept at communication. Anthropologists share their ideas through written, verbal, and artistic media.

Finally, each subdiscipline requires its own specialized skills. For example, archaeologists use mathematics, while sociocultural anthropologists need keen observational skills.

How Do You Become an Anthropologist?

Few people are lucky enough to grow up with anthropologist parents. And since anthropology is not taught in most places until university, it’s not too late to get your start in the field once you’re an adult. In most work contexts, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and most likely a master’s degree or doctorate.

Aside from their formal education, most anthropologists need experience in fieldwork or lab work. Generally, they specialize in one subdiscipline and then gain more expertise in specific topics or skills. These might include radiocarbon dating, hair analyses, Paleolithic cave art, language revitalization, or Black feminism.

How Much Do Anthropologists Make?

In the United States, average salary estimates range from nearly US$40,000 to over US$60,000. Other countries see a similar range. Assistant professors can earn an average of $80,000, depending on location. However, as you advance in your career and accept more senior positions in universities, museums, or government service—particularly in some fields, such as forensic anthropology—you can earn salaries well above US$100,000.

What can You Do with an Anthropology Degree?

Because anthropologists study everything human, you can find them in a surprising number of places.

Many anthropologists find positions in universities as professors and researchers. But most work in “applied anthropology,” which uses the knowledge and methods of anthropology to address real-world problems. So, you might be employed as a museum curator, a social scientist fighting diseases, or an ethnographic researcher for companies like Microsoft.

As a professional anthropologist, you could address a wide variety of topics, including development or economics. For example, you could investigate organic cotton farming in India or a DIY cellphone network in Mexico. Alternatively, you could examine the global market in human hair, the decline of the coal industry, or the billionaire space race. You could focus on disasters, such as how people survive climate change in India or live with an active volcano in Ecuador. Another possibility is to become a consultant on diversity or an adviser on decolonizing heritage in Rwanda.

If you’re fascinated by deep or evolutionary history, you could research the earliest people in North America or lesser-known ancient human species. You could even explore what chimpanzees’ self-medicating behaviors reveal about human health practices.

In conclusion, because humans are so endlessly and wonderfully diverse, the work of anthropology is equally varied. As an anthropologist, if nothing else, you will rarely be bored.


Correction: July 11, 2022
To further round out the estimates of average salary ranges in anthropology, a sentence related to assistant professors was added.

Chip Colwell

Chip Colwell is an anthropologist and the founding editor-in-chief of SAPIENS. He was the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science from 2007 to 2020. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana University and has received grants and fellowships with the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Fulbright Program, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Science Foundation. His research has been highlighted by the BBC, C-SPAN, and The Wall Street Journal, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Aeon, Foreign Affairs, and elsewhere. He has published 12 books, including Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture, which has received six national awards. Follow him on Twitter @drchipcolwell.

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