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Applied Anthropology

Page history last edited by Kara Gibson 13 years, 7 months ago

Table of Contents




Main Points




     Applied anthropology, also known as practical anthropology, can be defined as the application of anthropological perspectives, theory, methods, and data to identify, assess, and solve social problems.[1]


     Applied anthropology was first used during the colonial periods of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which anthropologists believed that cultural knowledge is learned from application. From a conqueror’s point of view, it is much simpler to rule a people if one knows their rituals, customs, beliefs, and general way of life. As such, many of the first people to apply anthropology were military commanders, governors, and missionaries.


     Applied anthropology is a broad field of anthropology, in that it can be tied closely with the four main sub-sets of anthropology; Cultural, Linguistic, and Biological/Physical Anthropology, and Archaeology. It both encompasses and is differentiated from those fields. Field research and data analysis for those fields is separate from Applied Anthropology, but once the knowledge gained is used to influence real-world social issues, it becomes Applied Anthropology.


     Since applied anthropology was first founded, it has diversified and pioneered many sub-fields of its own. Examples include developmental anthropology, bringing resources from developed nations to underdeveloped areas (eg the Peace Corps); medical anthropology (integrating western and eastern medical practices); Cultural Resource management; Forsenic Anthropology; and studies based on linguistic diversity in classrooms. [2]


     Some modern roles for applied anthropologists include helping local peoples change aspects of their environments; working with those peoples to design culturally appropriate and socially sensible change; and protecting them from harmful policies and projects that may threaten them.


     Applied anthropology can have a tremendous impact on medicine, education and business; anthropologists research and gather data from how different cultures implement these three groups into their everyday lives.

  • Medical anthropology focuses on how diseases affect diet, population density, economy, and social complexity of different cultures around the world. For instance, the disease known as Epilepsy is seen as a physical illness in the United States but in other parts of the world, it is seen as more of a spiritual illness and different precautions and medicines can be taken for same or similar symptoms depending on what cultural background you may come from. Theories of illness can be seen as personalistic, naturalistic, or emotionalistic; however, each illness can be perceived differently depending on cultural beliefs and values. [text]
  • Applying anthropology to business, anthropologists implement the use of ethnography and observation as ways of gathering data, cross-cultural expertise, and focus on cultural diversity. A key aspect to observing applied business anthropology is knowing and understanding how consumers use products. [3]The ethnographic method is one of the most valuable tools used in applied anthropology. This method means that applied anthropologists’ main form of research is done through field work in a particular culture.


     When looking at applying a developmental aspect to anthropology, economic development is observed by finding its social issues and cultural dimensions and therefore trying to figure out ways to help benefit a certain economic crisis. Development projects are ongoing all around the world, one example of which is the Peace Corps. The term ‘development’ can also be perceived in many different ways based on what kind of economic background one comes from. This does not always involve solving big issues like receiving better healthcare, in some cases this may simply mean importing in more “modern” products and selling them in local markets. 


    There are a few important figures in applied anthropology who are essential to its creation and successfulness. One is named Bronislaw Malinowski, a British anthropologist in 1929, who believed in a more inherited, ideological and material aspect on culture. He focused on migration issues with settlers going to the United States and how land should be distributed amongst them and the natives.


     One of the forefathers of modern applied anthropology was Julian Steward, a US anthropologist and cultural ecologist. He was a founding member of the Society for Applied Anthropology, formed in direct opposition to the American Anthropological Association’s applied anthropology branch, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.


Overall, applied anthropologists find new additions and generalizations about cultural change, and through these changes they recognize that one change may lead to multiple consequences, some of which may be unintentional. [4][96 text] 




Key Terms

     Increased equity: a reduction in absolute poverty and a more even distribution of wealth.


     Overinnovation: characteristic of projects that require major changes in natives’ daily lives, especially ones that interfere with customary subsistence pursuits.


     Underdifferentiation: planning fallacy of viewing less developed countries as an undifferentiated group; ignoring cultural diversity and adopting a uniform approach for very different types of project beneficiaries.       


     Urban Anthropology:  anthropological study of cities and urban life


     Medical Anthropology: the comparative, bicultural study of disease, health problems, and health care systems


     Scientific medicine: a health care system based on scientific knowledge and procedures





Key Figures


British Colonialists


     The initial concept of "applied anthropology" was first referred to as "practical anthropology" by James Hunt, founder of the Anthropological Society of London, in the 1860's. "Practical or applied" anthropology was put to "field" use by the British colonialists in the 19th century. They were the first to recognize the benefit of employing anthropologists in the administration of the British colonies. This was done under the rubric of indirect rule, established by Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator.[5] Indirect rule, as posed and utilized by Lugard, was the ruling of natives according to their own customs rather than imposing alien ones on them.[6]


     Bronislaw Malinowski, associated most with the development of the theory of Functionalism, proposed that "practical anthropology" should focus on the Westernization of tribal societies. This view was used by the British, without regard to the legitimacy of colonialism.[7] This view was also supported by, the "father" of cultural anthropology, E.B Tylor who felt anthropology was a "policy science" that should be used for improving the human condition.[8]


     Anthropologists were used to aid in the colonialism of tribes by gathering information related to land tenture, land use, and research the best ways for the British to inundate themselves in the local culture.[9] They made recommendations, based on their observations, to the British on how much land the local people should be allowed to keep and how much the Europeans should take.
[10]This was the first application of applied anthropology, and looked at as to be the use for it my many.


Julian Steward



     Julian Steward, although known as the "father" of modern Cultural Ecology, played an important role in the development of applied anthropology. Born in Washington D.C in 1902, Julian Haynes Steward, spent most of his years in the American West. I n 1925 Steward completed his B.A from Cornell University, then went on to complete his graduate training at Berkeley under Kroeber and Lowie. In 1928 he became one of the first professor's of anthropology at the University of Michigan. From here he moved on and became a long time professor at the University of Illinois. [11]He also founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.


     During Julian Steward's career he made many contributions to the field of anthropology; most notably, his development of cultural ecology, and expansion of approaches is applied anthropology. Steward's work with cultural ecology focused on the link between culture and nature. This allowed for the expansion of applied anthropology into the natural sciences such as biology, demography, and chemistry. He also prompted some anthropologists to rethink their eclectic approach to anthropological explanations by suggesting a multilinear development in cultural evolution. Steward believed that evolution could branch in numerous directions as cultures adapted to different circumstances rather than evolve in a linear direction as often thought. [12]


     Although Steward's theory of multilinear is no longer accepted my many anthropologists some of his insights have remained a strong influence in the field of applied anthropology. These include the recognization of the central relationship between environment and culture, the search for patterned regularities and similarities between societies, and the importance of causal explanations of parallel developments over historical reconstructions.[13]






Key Texts


Cover Image




The Society for Applied Anthropology is the primary Applied Anthropology organization in the United States and has funded and produced two prominent anthropological journals. Practicing Anthropology, the primary journal, and Human Organization offer a collection of articles that address issues within individual anthropological disciplines as well as those with subject matter from them all. With a heavy emphasis on broadcasting new ideas and investigating connections and interactions between the different fields of anthropology, Practicing Anthropology has provided an arena for open discussion and debate[14]. The focus is to examine human interactions and use the findings to understand the past and apply conclusions to the present.



The Society for Applied Anthropology first published Practicing Anthropology in 1978 and continues to release four issues a year. With a goal “to promote the integration of anthropological perspectives and methods in solving human problems throughout the world,"[15] the journal has provided an outlet for anthropological research that can be presented both to the public and professionals in the field.

Society for Applied Anthropology


Recent Trends

     Recently, Practicing Anthropology has begun to focus on issues such as health care and education in developing countries, and how an anthropological perspective can begin to address some of the problems associated with these issues. In the Summer 2010 issue, there is a article titled "Gringita in the Waiting Room: Women's Reproductive Health Care in Quito, Ecuador." The article's author, Emily Wolf, researched cultural attitudes surrounding women's health in Ecuador by working in clinics and hospitals throughout Quito and interviewing women seeking treatment at these facilities. She also researched what different types of health care were readily available to women, and how treatment differed between people with private health care, and those on a public health care plan. [16] 

     Another article that appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Practicing Anthropology entitled "Pulling Up Myths from the Root: Designing and Implementing a Anti-Racist Curriculum About the African Heritage for Third Grader in Puerto Rico" details two anthropologists attempts overturn an inherently racist aspect of Puerto Rican schooling. Normally, according to the authors, third-graders in Puerto Rico are taught a racial hierarchy consisting of "roots," with Tainos and Spanish people comprising the first and second root respectively, and those of African heritage occupying the inferior third root. The researchers spent five years studying the impact of this curriculum on the third grader's racial perceptions, and also interviewed parents, teachers, and students in order to discover the best way to combat growing racism in Puerto Rico. Eventually the researchers came up with a new curriculum that was more racially accepting and were able to implement it in a Puerto Rican school.[17]
     Overall, this journal serves as a forum where practicing Anthropologists can share their experiences in the field, and how they are using their anthropological skills to solve real problems worldwide. Below is a link to the online database of Practicing Anthropology, where you can find old articles and issues of the work, as well as links to the Society for Applied Anthropology's homepage. 

Practicing Anthropology Online





Narrow Focus 

     Applied Anthropology is not without its critics. One common critique is that this school of anthropology focuses the bulk of its research on only one issue at only one point in time. This behavior is believed to undermine the remaining entirety of the researched culture as it ignores any historical or contemporary changes within that culture's group(s) for the benefit of a singular research topic. A related concern is a critical conclusion that such ignorance of the culture's historical background allows researchers to miss or misunderstand the cause(s) of any problems present in the target culture and, subsequently, in the researcher's own findings.[18]


ETIC Approach 

     A large factor to this argument relies on the additional infringement of anthropologists bringing their own views and the views of their culture into situations of another. This process is known anthropologically as an Etic approach and is very possible to induce bias in regard to the work of the researcher.[19]


Corporate Interests 

     Additionally, corporate, or otherwise private endeavors into applied anthropology are often seen as malicious or indifferent to the target culture. Companies hiring anthropologists or using anthropologic methods of research are almost always criticized heavily for using this discipline to maximize consumerism while not necessarily improving any problems a culture may have.[20]



Potential for Ignorance

This cartoon by Gary Larson  can be said to exemplify general interpretations of anthropology as a discipline, but can also be more applicable to applied anthropology. Critics may suppose this is mostly caused by applied anthropologists ignoring the contemporary advancements of the culture they seek to help. Additionally, one may posit the researchers sometimes end up helping one problem while ignoring another. This cartoon can be seen as an example of he natives "hiding the goods" so the visiting anthropologists have a problem they feel needs to be solved.



Another critique of applied anthropology is that what this field of anthropology is designed to do (i.e. problem solving) as outlined in many of the articles in “Practicing Anthroplogy.” However when solving a problem, many discussion topics arise that check and balance this field. For instance, applied anthropologists often solve one problem while forgetting about other problems that will arise further do the road. An example of this is the various ways that different cultures view their health. “Assessing and Responding to a Community Health Risk: Second-Hand Smoking in Puerto Rican Households,” By Merrill Singer, Claudia Santelices, G. Derrick Hodge, Zahíra Medina,and Marisa Solomon is one such article where the western forms and ideals of health come into play. Researching anthropologists have noticed increasing concern towards an assortment of health concerns in Puerto Rico. Smoking is one of the most prominent in their research. The people demonstrate an understanding that they need to change their lifestyle, however there has only been a small number of funded research projects. Also the “existing efforts to protect children from exposure to second-hand smoke in non-public places have had only limited effect on Latinos, and may not reach or be culturally and socially appropriate for certain populations, especially people from low-income, non-English speaking households” [21]This creates a problem or critique for applied anthropologists. One the one hand, they wish to help Puerto Rican children avoid the effects of second-hand smoke and cut down on the total number of smokers in this society. However, one criticism is that the issue the anthropologists are addressing is the effect, not the cause, of the problem. They want to educate parents on the effects of second-hand smoke on their children but they aren’t coming up with programs to educate the parents about not smoking. 



See this for more information regarding the school of Anthropology.




  1. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 13 August 2010.
  2. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. p. 81. Print.
  3. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology:Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: mcGraw Hill, 2009, p. 95. Print.
  4. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. p. 96. Print.
  5. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/applied.htm, accessed 12 September 2010
  6. www.answers.com/topic/frederick-lugard-1, accessed 18 September 2010
  7. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. p.82
  8. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/applied.htm, accessed 12 September 2010
  9. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. p. 82
  10. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. p. 82
  11. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  12. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press
  13. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press
  14. http://sfaa.metapress.com/app/home/main.asp
  15. http://sfaa.metapress.com/app/home/main.asp
  16. Wolf, Emily R. "Gringita in the Waiting Room: Women's Reproductive Health Care in Quito, Ecuador." Practicing Anthropology 32 (Summer 2010): 18-22
  17. Isar P. Godreau and Hilda Llorens. "Pulling up Myth's from the Root: Designing and Implementing an Anti-Racist Curriculum about the African Heritage for Third Graders in Puerto Rico." Practicing Anthropology 32 (Winter 2010): 26-31.
  18. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology,8 September 2010.
  19. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 1 September 2010.
  20. http://archives.cnn.com/2001/CAREER/dayonthejob/05/23/corp.anthropologist.idg/
  21. Volume 32, Number 1/Winter 2010, "Practicing Anthropology"

Comments (12)

Kara Gibson said

at 3:38 pm on Sep 13, 2010

hey guys, so i couldn't find much information on the history of the journal. i put down what i could find but i'm going to ask Marnie if there is anything else.

kelcy.schamehorn@... said

at 9:04 pm on Sep 13, 2010

so for the main points, i just put in what i wrote, but i havent heard back from my other partners yet, so that is why the citing is not correct and basically nonexistant. once i get their parts of the main points, it will be more organized and up to par. sorry.

Joshua.Small@Colorado.EDU said

at 10:22 pm on Sep 13, 2010

Put up what little I could. Sorry for being more than 3 hours behind the draft deadline, misplaced Mon for Tues when writing the due day in my book.
Go on now and give critique to my critique. Or is it critiques?

Ruth Harrell said

at 10:57 pm on Sep 13, 2010

I tried to give examples to go with the definition ofa critique for applied anthropology. I hope that these examples work for everyone. Please let me know what changes (additions or subtractions) I can make.

kelcy.schamehorn@... said

at 12:46 pm on Sep 14, 2010

still confused in how to upload pictures...

Luke Nelson said

at 1:12 pm on Sep 14, 2010

Ok everybody so I put my spiel up, Kara you did a great job with the synopsis and if we do need to add anything else it shouldn't be a big deal. I also couldn't find a cover image, so we can talk to Marnie about that. Also my font changed size halfway through and I don't know how to fix that, but i'll figure it out eventually. And whoever is doing Key Figures needs to get on it and put some stuff up today so Marnie can go over it and make corrections

Casey Shea said

at 1:43 pm on Sep 15, 2010

Hey everyone
I'm doing Main Points, and didn't get my stuff up on the site til today. Sorry for the delay; I got ridiculously stressed out about another class...

For whoever is doing Key Figures; there's a couple of paragraphs under the Key Figures overview in Main Points that you could use for filler text, if need be.


cristina.gannon@colorado.edu said

at 2:31 pm on Sep 15, 2010


I'm slightly confused as to what you did to the main points section. Why did you break out the key figures, key texts, and critiques when it was already done? Makes the pages slightly confusing. Just my thought.

Luke Nelson said

at 7:18 pm on Sep 19, 2010

Great work everyone, I like the new main points section and its organization. Key figures needs to be updated to include Jullian Steward, and have the citations added. And critiques is looking much better and the citations are excellent! Good work everybody
P.S. I couldn't find full versions of the articles I summarized, just the abstract. Thats why I haven't included their findings and such.

Luke Nelson said

at 7:21 pm on Sep 19, 2010

Also i think we can get rid of that link at the end of the critiques, because i already put it in the key texts portion

cristina.gannon@colorado.edu said

at 8:01 pm on Sep 19, 2010


I upload the information on Julian Steward. If you get a chance let me know what you think.



Luke Nelson said

at 10:06 pm on Sep 19, 2010

Great work Cristina! It looks really awesome now! The whole page is looking great good job everyone!

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