Monthly Archives: December 2012

What is an applied anthropologist?

What is Applied Anthropology?  What do Applied Anthropologists do, anyway?

Applied Anthropology is the “use of anthropological data to offer practical solutions to modern problems and concerns” experienced by societies and communities, both individually and as they interact on a global scale.  These “solutions” cover a quite extensive range, in terms of what they’re concerned with.  From the hurried, systematic preservation of ancient Native American burial grounds in anticipation of intensive and land-bruting infrastructural needs such as dam-building to improving the relations between immigrant Muslim populations living in the United States that wish to maintain cultural practices that many Americans have ultimately come to find inhumane, distasteful, or merely “tapu” (taboo).

Applied Anthropologists are actively present and participating in each of the 4 main subfields or realms of Anthropology.  It makes sense, considering that each of the 4, physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and ethnology have a significant amount of practical applications within their respective areas.

Physical Anthropology, or the subfield that is primarily concerned with that of the biological aspects of man and primates and their environment, is perhaps one of the most commonly thought of of the subfields when it comes to applied anthropology.  This is because in recent years, an incalculable amount of television programs have premiered, fiction and documentarian alike, that focus on forensics.  Forensic anthropology “can be defined as the application of physical anthropological data to law.  Physical anthropologists in this area of specialization are often called to assist police when unidentified human remains are found.”  This highly scientific aspect of police work focuses on the assesment of cranial (and other) bone structures that entail a great amount of identiary information.  Also, the “applied physical anthropologist” often takes the form of medical anthropologist.  These anthropologists “may study disease, medicine, curing, and mental illness in a cross-cultural perspective.”  In many instances, the medical anthropologist works in parts of the world that still maintain a level of traditional folk medicine alongside modern, western medicinal practices.  In such instances, they seek to promote the optimum balance between these two systems that ultimately fosters the best rate of health for their respective populations.  The physical anthropologist also may choose to specialize in the study of drug abuse and its implications throughout a society or community.

Applied Archaeologists apply their expertise in a number of ways.  In many cases, archaeologists work alongside government agencies that deal with development and infrastructure.  Their work with such agencies is primarily concerned with safeguarding archaeological sites undiscovered or unstudied that may be affected, disrupted, or lost due to the works of construction or other human activity.  These constructions and human activities are largely unavoidable and to an extent, very important to the functionality of a bustling, progressive society.  Thus, the applied archaeologist is in constant demand to stave off the loss of significant historical and archaeological resources within developing and ever-changing realms.  Another aspect of applied archaeology that is snowballing in terms of prevelance and relevance is the study of garbage.  In this mode, the applied archaeologist works closely with a municipality, government, conservation organization, private contractor, or even university, to systematically survey landfills and their contents.  This offers a wealth of information for their clients that can be used in a number of ways, including, but not limited to remaining space or time for a parcel, costs to citizens, the impact recycling programs are having on tonnage of waste, how much curbside garbage service should cost, or what social and cultural implications neomiddens may have, respectively.  Perhaps the most culturally important aspect of the applied archaeologist is concerned with cultural patrimony, “that is, who owns the human remains, artifacts, and associated cultural materials that are recovered in the course of research projects.”  This work has resulted in the repatriation-“or return-[of] human remains and cultural items in…collections at the request of…descendant populations”.  This has become a common practice among Native American communities and the discovery of their respective peoples’ remains as they are discovered.  This come to a head in what is known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Applied Cultural Anthropologists are also often employed by government and private agencies.  They prepare social-impact studies, “research on the possible consequences that change will have on a community.  …[These} studies involve in-depth interviews and ethnological studies in local communities to determine how various policies and developments will affect social life in those communities.  Improving life for indigeneous (or industrialized for that matter) people is a significant aspect of the applied cultural anthropologist.  This may be done in a number of ways, after specializing in the study of a particular people and weighing the needs of their society with the consequences of the anthropoligist’s outside influence.  For instance, it may be determined that diversifying the diet of a native people does little in terms of consequences, but does a significant amount of good nutritionally and may help the respective people in times when they would otherwise face food shortages, ultimately because of the need to leave more parcels of land fallow.  Taking on the role of advocate is quite common amongst the field.  In this way, interactions between industrialized states and that of band societies, for instance can be mediated by the applied cultural anthropologist.  In keeping with the role of spokesman, advocate, and activist, these anthropologists often make arguments that consider the concept of “human rights”.  Such anthropologists should do a great deal of background work before taking on this role of “interventionist”, as it can have serious implications for a people and for their practices, inter-community relationships and ultimately, the anthropologist him or herself.  There have been a number of schools procured on human rights and the global community, including cultural relativism, ethical relativism, and the idealic concept of universal human rights.  Surrounding these realms is a great deal of controversy.

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