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Horizon Scanning Centre
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Category:
Science and Technology
Domain:
Keywords:
Environment and human behaviour - anthropology, applied anthropology, medical anthropology, design anthropology
Outlook:
The rise of applied anthropology is likely to challenge the traditional structure of the discipline.
Summary Analysis:
While social anthropologists have traditionally flocked to so-called exotic locations - studying sexual mores in Polynesia or examining ceremonial exchange in Melanesia for example - recently they have become more interested in issues closer to home: examining how people use technology for instance. Some anthropologists are helping businesses identify consumer behaviour from the perspective of the consumer, others are working in rural and urban areas finding out how people make health decisions. As information technology becomes more and more embedded in everyday life, anthropologists are helping designers develop new forms of engagement with users, interfaces, and use contexts.

Contemporary cultural anthropology speaks to at least two distinct audiences - one primarily academic audience focused on humanities and critical theory, and another primarily NGO, public health, and corporate audience focused on natural sciences, empiricism, and practical applications. There has been little overlap between the two groups, but as more and more anthropology PhDs, even those with degrees from elite universities that follow the theoretical model, are working in the applied field, universities are acknowledging the importance of applied anthropology and the opportunities associated with it. Fields which have successfully bridged the gap between theory and practice include medical anthropology (one of the fastest growing subfields within anthropology), and the study of science and technology. In the future, more and more applied fields of anthropology are likely to emerge.

Implications:

  • Need for universities to restructure the academic curriculum to provide their students with new skill sets
  • Growing visibility of new subfields within anthropology such as design and medical anthropology

Early Indicators:

  • Decrease in the number of anthropology graduates working in academics (in the UK, fewer than half of anthropology graduates work in academics)
  • In the US, employment of anthropologists by Microsoft, Intel, Apple, and Xerox, in projects such as Intel's 'People and Practices' group of researchers, who spend their time studying the cultural context in which technology is used
  • In the UK, employment of anthropologists by technology firms as well as the Ministry of Defence, Immigration Services, National Health Services, the Foreign Office, and nongovernmental aid agencies

What to Watch:

  • Anthropology departments are split up around the applied and theoretical divide.

Parallels/Precedents:

  • Offering of more applied courses in most social sciences, such as sociology and psychology, to meet increasing student demand

Enablers/drivers:

  • Growing demand globally for applied anthropologists
  • Diminishment of the number of unspoiled 'native' cultures left to study
  • Increasing realization by companies and governments that they operate in a global environment, where what is true for one culture does not hold true for another, and that they need anthropologists to provide them with cultural insights into people's behaviours

Leaders:
Institutions:

  • University of Michigan
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Cambridge
  • Intel Labs
  • Microsoft
  • Xerox PARC
  • LSE [link]
  • ESRC/AHRC Cultures of Consumption project [link]
  • ESRC e-Societies programme [link]
  • Goldsmiths College, London [link]
  • Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle [link]
  • Network of Applied Anthropologists [link]l

Figures:
Sources:

  • Interview with Henrika Kuklick, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
  • Interview with Don Brennis, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Interview with Jan English-Lueck, Department of Anthropology, San Jose State University
  • Tett, Gillian. 2005. "Office Culture." Financial Times. May 20.
  • Jonathan Skinner and Jeanne Simonelli, Applied Anthropology: the old and the new [link]
  • Anthropology of Britain Workshop [link]
  • Katherine Mann, Bingo Culture [link]
  • Cultural understanding of environmental risk in industrial settings in the UK and Germany [link]
  • Kate A Kane, Anthropologists go Native in the Corporate Village, [link]


At A Glance:
When:
3–10 years
Where:
Global
How Fast:
Months–Years
Likelihood:
Medium-High
Impact:
Low
Controversy:
Medium


Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.



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