For whatever reason, it is very difficult to understand what other people do at their jobs. Ask a chemist at the pharmaceutical company what he does and he replies, “Oh, I synthesize proteins.” Ok, but what does that mean? We who undertake our own work (hopefully) understand what we do because we walk through it ourselves. It is sometimes difficult to explain what is natural to us to someone from a different background. Anthropology isn’t chemistry but it can be just as confusing for others to understand. There are so many sub-fields that anthropologists themselves may not understand what others in their field even do!
What is Applied Anthropology?
In this post, I want to tackle what is called Applied Anthropology. What is it? Simply, using anthropological methods and theories to solve real world, every day problems. Ok, but what does that mean? I learn best through stories so here is an example from my own life that shows how anthropology can actually help real people!
The Problem – Getting a Job
My city is home to a large number of refugees from many countries in the world. An apartment complex near my home is populated by around 70 families that have come from Nepal. I have worked with these Nepalese for several years now, trying to learn the dynamics of refugee life in America. During the course of my research and interaction with the refugees I came to realize that the most important issue in their lives was finding a job. In order to secure a job in the U.S., they needed to know English. Many of the refugees were attending various ESL classes in town through governmental and private agencies. However, even as the refugees’ English abilities improved, they still had trouble finding a job.
Here is where applied anthropology comes in. I asked the question, “What are the reasons these refugees are having trouble finding jobs?” As I was doing my ethnographic research through interviews and observations, I learned a number of important cultural traits of these refugees that directly related to their difficulty in finding a job in the U.S.
First, Nepalese come from a collectivist culture. The refugees I worked with were not comfortable thinking about themselves as individuals making their own way in the U.S. Their family unit and extended network took precedence over their own goals. Younger members of the family who had better English skills were having difficulty fulfilling the role of primary provider for their family. Their dads were suffering role deprivation as they sat at home feeling helpless to provide for their family while they learned English.
Next, these refugees were indirect communicators. Simple yes and no answers seemed too harsh. They would often answer as they wanted their culture to be perceived even if that was not their individual reality. At times, the answer to every question seemed to be “yes” even when I knew the person had a different view they were not expressing. Suspicion arose with those not familiar with indirect communication.
Finally, many of the refugees were soft spoken and reserved. Speaking loudly was a sign of rudeness and aggression. Eye contact is not viewed as essential in Nepali culture so many folks would appear disinterested or shy when I talked to them. The reality was they were listening and engaged, just not making the eye contact that communicates interest in U.S. culture.
These three cultural traits – collectivism, indirect communication, and reservedness – are all highly valued in Nepali culture. These three traits are seen as weakness and viewed with suspicion in U.S. culture. Hence the difficulty for the refugees to show employers they were good fits for the job. The solution? I used what I learned through anthropological research to offer resume building and interview workshops aimed at addressing these three specific cultural tendencies.
The refugees were not doing a sufficient job of “marketing” themselves in their resumes and job interviews. Remember, in Nepali culture it is rude to talk about yourself, tell others why you are the perfect fit for the job, how your skills are needed, and how you as an individual can contribute to the goals of the company you want to work for. In the workshops, we role played and helped the refugees to talk about their strengths and how their specific contributions would benefit their prospective employer. We practiced speaking more boldly and in the active voice. We rehearsed answering questions directly, clearly, and quickly. We reassured the refugees it is ok to disagree with someone and then communicate that disagreement in an acceptable way.
Finally, we printed a stack of resumes for each attendant at the workshop. We were proud to hand twenty resumes to the first refugee and wish him well in his job hunt. Only, we were horrified at what happened next. The person took his valuable resumes and tightly rolled them so they would fit in a pocket! How was he to know that in the U.S. we place so much value on silly things like how thick your resume paper is and what condition it is in when you give it to your employer! Back to the printer and another lesson learned!
I hope this little story shows how basic anthropology and cultural research can be applied to a real life problem – helping refugees get jobs in the U.S. That’s what applied anthropology does. A little interaction and research showed me the specific cultural traits I needed to address. The ironic thing is that the very traits that are esteemed in Nepali culture are viewed poorly in our culture. These resume and interview workshops were hopefully one small step to welcome and prepare these wonderful Nepalese to be productive members of our society. That is anthropology applied.
If you are interested in reading a short ethnography of the Nepali refugees mentioned in this post, I have linked the document below.