Definition of Applied Anthropology


Applied anthropology is an anthropological discipline that studies the characteristics that change and control human relationships. It relies on basic principles in human interactions, language and ethnography to solve problems faced by contemporary people and cultures. Applied anthropology is also called practicing anthropology because it applies theories in the field, not just in the classroom.


  • The concepts behind applied anthropology first appeared in the early 20th century, although the term was not coined until 1930. Oxford University was the first to offer a degree in the discipline, and British scholars were the first to apply their theories in the field. Applied anthropology made it to the United States in the 1930s as part of an effort by the federal government to study American Indian culture.


  • Applied anthropology uses cultural studies to improve the economic, social and technological conditions of the people studied. Operating through governmental and international agencies, as well as corporations and private foundations, anthropologists attempt these changes through community organizations, health care centers and schools. While aiming to remain sensitive to local customs, applied anthropologists often enact changes designed to improve the rights of women, children, the poor and the disenfranchised.


  • Applied anthropology is divided into two academic disciplines: ethnobiology and linguistics. Ethnobiology studies the connection among people, their biology and their environment. Its subdisciplines focus on religion, ecology, psychology, law, tourism, and feminism. Linguistics focuses on the interplay between language and culture, the influence of one upon the other. Anthropology's varied interests often require experts in different concentrations to cooperate to achieve their goals.


  • Although it's a discipline designed to be practiced in the field, only one-third of applied anthropologists with a doctorate work outside academia, and many of them are professors who use sabbaticals, volunteer programs and consulting positions to advance in their subject area. In 1997, doctorates in applied anthropology made up 7 percent of all doctorates in the United States, slightly more than half of which were in cultural anthropology. Only 1 percent were in linguistics.


  • Applied anthropologists in the field most commonly work in education, health care, legal planning, and evaluating or administering cultural and political programs. Efforts frequently focus on developing effective energy resources, housing, and welfare changes under the auspices of foreign governments, international aid agencies and advocacy groups.

Famous Ties

  • Margaret Mead is the best-known applied anthropologist. She rose to fame in the 1920s while studying the lives of women and girls in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Her work on their views on sexuality is partly credited for creating the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Mead was working on revising the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer at the time of her death in 1978 at the age of 77.

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