Cultural Anthropologist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Anthropologists Career Video

Insider Info

dotThe word anthropology comes from the Greek language. "Anthro" means human, so cultural anthropology is the study of human cultures.

All human beings belong to cultures. There are many cultures around the world. A person raised in animal-skin yurts in Tibet is from a very different culture than someone brought up among third-generation Irish-Americans in Boston. But how deep are those differences? What similarities might there be beneath the surface?

dotA cultural anthropologist actually goes and lives with people in a different culture, learns all about that culture from the inside, and then tries to convey the interesting differences and similarities between them.

dotMichael Dean Murphy is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Alabama. He says there are traditionally three other subdivisions within anthropology:

Biological anthropologists study ancient fossil remains of human ancestors, looking at the biological roots of humans.

Archeologists are interested mainly in the pre-written, pre-history period of human beings -- from a million years ago to 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.

Linguistic anthropologists study and document languages.

dotBy far, the largest group is made up of cultural anthropologists. Fifty percent or more of all anthropologists in the United States are of the cultural variety.

dotBecause there are so many different cultures on the planet, there's a huge diversity of fields from which a cultural anthropologist may choose. Murphy, for example, has made several studies of people in southern Spain.

"I've been there since the mid-'70s," he says. "Recently I've been studying the people who round up the wild horses."

dotAllen Maxwell is an associate professor at the University of Alabama. His fieldwork has led him to Borneo, Brunei and Malaysia. In addition to teaching, he does a lot of writing.

"It's very common [for undergraduate students interested in becoming cultural anthropologists] to use the four-field approach. You have to do some of all of the different areas," he says.

dotMillie Creighton is a specialist on Japan, having spent over 17 years studying aspects of Japanese culture. "I lived there for four years, and did a dissertation on department stores. It all had to do with mass communication, consumerism and tourism in Japan and Asia."

Creighton has also studied the Ainu, the aboriginal people of Japan. "It's very enjoyable to have an area and to do research on it," she says.

"Initially, there was a big interest for me in the culture. But the longer you live somewhere, the more tensions and strains you see. It's not like going on a vacation trip. There's an ongoing obligation and relationships. There is a lot of reading and writing."

dotThere is no typical work environment for cultural anthropologists. A scientist might live with an Inuit community in the frozen Arctic or share a meal of roast monkey in the jungles of South America. The hours and conditions vary immensely. Even when working at a university, the amount of time one spends teaching and writing can vary from one individual to the next.

"Increasingly, folks are going out of the academic setting and working in what we call applied anthropology in professional settings outside academia," comments Susan Skomal of the American Anthropological Association.

"Where cultural anthropologists are becoming employed more and more is in places like corporations and consulting firms. We have a large number of people doing consulting work for corporations and human resources."

dotCultural anthropologist Geoff Bradshaw believes there are roughly equal numbers of men and women working in cultural anthropology today, although in the past there were definitely more men.

dotA person with a disability shouldn't be hampered in becoming a cultural anthropologist.

"The type of research one does as a cultural anthropologist depends greatly on where you study. Someone who does research in rural Kenya, for example, may find the physical demands of the environment very difficult -- high temperatures and few modern conveniences. Others may choose to study other areas that don't have such difficulties," says Bradshaw.

At a Glance

Study people in their natural environments

  • The trend is toward applied anthropology in the corporate world
  • There is no typical work environment
  • Get a degree and study languages, experts say