Anthropologists escape into the wider world

June 15, 2006

In the UK, around 100 social anthropology Ph.D.s are completed annually - a number that has more than doubled in the last 15 years - but only 10 or 20 permanent academic posts are advertised in this discipline every year. The others, though, are mostly doing very nicely outside anthropology departments.

A recent study led by Professor Jonathan Spencer at the University of Edinburgh's Anthropology Department tracked social anthropology doctoral students who completed their studies between 1992 and 2003 to see what they are doing now. The research, conducted with Dr. David Mills from Birmingham, and Dr. Anne Jepson from Edinburgh, and funded by the ESRC, found that holders of social anthropology Ph.D.s are highly employable and successful in finding jobs that draw on their anthropological skills. Three-hundred and nine Ph.D. holders completed questionnaires on a number of issues, including what skills they thought their Ph.D. gave them. The majority work outside academic anthropology, either in other disciplines within academia, or in various non-academic positions. Fifty-seven per cent currently hold academic positions, though one third of those are on fixed-term contracts with uncertain long-term prospects.

Those who escape a conventional academic career can be found in some unexpected settings, from international development organizations like the World Bank and DfID, where anthropologists have played key roles for many years, to high-tech companies like Intel. Others remain in academia, teaching and researching in fields as diverse as Religious Studies, Management, Health, and Education. What they bring to these settings are special skills of observation and critical analysis, born of Ph.D. projects based on long-term field research in challenging cultural locations.

Professor Spencer says, "We knew that social anthropologists have a real presence at all levels in the world of international development, but we were surprised by two discoveries. One was social anthropology's success as an "exporter" of skilled researchers and teachers to other academic disciplines. The other was its growing role at the cutting edge of business and technology innovation. Employers seem to be especially interested in the close-focus research skills that are central to anthropological fieldwork. Our findings raise serious doubts about the received wisdom that employers are only interested in the most 'generic' social research skills."

Gillian Tett, who carried out fieldwork in Tajikistan for her Cambridge Ph.D. is now a successful financial journalist with the Financial Times: "When I first started working as a financial journalist about a decade ago, after doing a Ph.D. in anthropology, I was a rare breed - most people in the banking and business world had no idea what anthropology was, let alone any desire to use it. But that has started to change in recent years. IT companies have increasingly turned to social anthropologists to help them understand how culture impacts on the use of technology, and this trend is now in other consumer industries as well. Separately, even some accountancy groups and financial firms are using anthropology to look at corporate culture."

Simon Roberts studied the impact of cable TV in the Indian holy city of Benares for his Ph.D. in Edinburgh. After setting up his own anthropological consultancy in London, he has recently joined Intel's Digital Health Group: "Anthropologists are one of the key tools we use to ensure we connect our technologies with human needs. In the Digital Health Group, we actually live with and observe aging people and people with chronic illnesses to understand how technology can help them live safer, healthier lives in their homes without having to go to long-term care facilities."

The results of the study present some interesting challenges for academic anthropology, according to Professor Spencer: "One thing is clear. Ph.D.-holders who work outside academia have often chosen to turn their backs on more conventional academic careers, which are perceived as being too insecure for many, and often miserably rewarded in the early years. In applying their skills in such diverse settings this generation of Ph.D.s is enriching the discipline in quite new ways. The challenge now is to explore ways to bring what they have learnt in their adventures back into academic training for the next generation of anthropologists."
Professor Jonathan Spencer, 0131-667-6376 or 0131-650-3944
Or Alexandra Saxon / Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793-413032/413119


1. The research project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Jonathan Spencer is at School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.

2. Methodology: The first phase of research included the compilation of a data-base of 765 completed Ph.D.s in British social anthropology. Three hundred and nine were contacted and completed questionnaires. In addition, a number of face-to-face interviews, workshops and focus-groups were conducted

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £135 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at 4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as "good."

Economic & Social Research Council

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