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An anthropologist is a scientist who researches and studies sociohistorical, archaeological, linguistical and biological aspects of humanity, especially as they apply to the development of modern man. In deciphering and analyzing artifacts, ancient languages and past cultures, anthropologists gain a better understanding of how modern civilizations and behaviours came to be. Theories surrounding anthropological studies are then applied to social policies, public problems and even government and military protocol.
Anthropology as a science is divided into four distinct sub-fields: cultural anthropology (social anthropology), archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and biological (physical) anthropology. Depending on the sub-field, anthropologists' responsibilities vary widely.
Social anthropologists, for instance, research and study only social and cultural behaviours. They may be employed as social scientists for government or research laboratories, conducting surveys and analyzing data to develop new and more effective social policies. Census studies, for example, are often conducted by social anthropologists. These scientists also work in disease prevention and aid in the development of new crowd control techniques. In many ways, social scientists are sociologists who work to implement their theories in a variety of practical applications.
Policy and program analyst positions are also available for social anthropologists. In these positions, scientists study and analyze government or corporate policies and programs. They assess whether existing programs are effective and whether social reform plans can be improved.
In the field of archaeology, anthropologists uncover humanity's hidden history through the discovery of artifacts and structures left behind by previous civilizations. They contribute supporting evidence to historical documents, or even uncover stories from the past that have not yet been told. That which is learned from archaeologists' discoveries can aid in improving many aspects of modern culture, or avoiding difficulties encountered in the past.
While archaeologists generally work in the field, excavating artifacts and studying historical structures, some also find employment as university professors or museum curators. Both curators and archivists organize and analyze large collections of evidence brought in from the field. They help interpret information from these collections and bring it to the attention of the public and community. Additionally, they oversee technical aspects of preservation and the display of exhibits within the museum.
Linguistic anthropologists research language development and how it applies to modern cultures. For example, they might examine why the dialect of people in the southeastern United States carries a negative stereotype or why the Inuit have 15 different words to describe snow. The results of these studies are used to understand major concerns specific to each culture and develop more effective intercultural relationships.
Those employed in the science of biological anthropology study the development of the human species, especially theories that homo sapiens may have evolved from other primates. Biological anthropologists utilize fossil evidence to develop extensive data on human ancestry and how certain physical structures, such as the mandible or opposable thumb, may have developed. They also use this evidence to study how some behaviours may have evolved and, in the case of new fossil evidence, propose new species. To obtain non-fossil evidence, biological anthropologists study primates in their natural environment in hopes of uncovering data relevant to humanity.
Most anthropologists are employed by governments or universities, where they conduct the majority of their research or teach anthropology to college students. Researchers and professors work indoors year round. They traditionally enjoy a regular schedule of work hours, though at times more than 40 hours are required. Much of their time is spent writing reports based on research data and critical thinking related to their field. In addition to teaching and creating course syllabi, professors may also contribute on research teams at major universities.
Social scientists and other anthropologists employed by the government and major firms also benefit from a regular work schedule and light physical demands. They spend most of the day in an office, researching relevant information and preparing reports for their employers. Some social scientists also go into the field to collect data for their research on a given assignment.
Field work is necessary for some types of anthropologists. Archaeologists may travel around the world to uncover artifacts to aid in their research. Physical anthropologists will also travel far, studying primates in their natural environments. Scientists in these positions must have strong physical stamina and be accustomed to working in a variety of weather conditions and climates.
Almost all anthropologists hold a doctoral degree. In more rare cases, those with a bachelor's or master's degree in anthropology are able to secure administrative or research positions. Most individuals, however, must undergo the eight years of study required to obtain a doctorate in anthropology.
In addition to degree requirements, candidates should be trained in the specific skill sets relevant to their field of study. Archaeologists, for instance, should take courses in geology and geography. Biological anthropologists, however, should be as competent in the areas of human anatomy, genetics and general biology. Likewise, linguistic anthropologists should be fluent in several languages and social scientists should have a strong background in psychology and sociology.
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There is relatively little that can be considered "average" about the things I get to do. I am a scientist, a human evolutionary biologist, and I love what I do.
"Adding an anthropologist to a research team is like moving from black-and-white TV to color," says Crain. "We're able to observe shades of color that others can't see. Anthropologists understand complexity and can help devise answers that reflect that complexity."
Anthropology is a diverse and holistic field that studies historical and current human culture and societies. Some specific areas of study and research include linguistics, conflict and war, economic development and religion. Although a career in anthropology offers many specialties, consider the positive and negative aspects of the career before committing to your path.
It's a great time to become an anthropologist! According to the United States Department of Labor, "Employment of anthropologists and archaeologists is expected to grow 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations."