How Anthropology Works

Anthropology Careers and Controversies

Anthropology often requires its students to fan out and scour the globe for answers to their questions. Enterprising anthropologists can find work in many diverse business environments. Corporations that trade globally need people who understand other cultures and can help develop relationships with societies that may be very different from their own. For example, a pharmaceuticals company might want an expert on infant feeding routines or perhaps nutrition information specific to certain cultures.

Non-profit and public job markets also seek those with anthropological backgrounds. A medical center might be researching women's health issues and need expertise on the cultural acceptance of prenatal testing and family planning.

Yet no matter how well-meaning their research might be, anthropologists sometimes attract controversy. And one of the most contentious subjects regards the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon rainforest. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon visited this region in the 1960s to study these primitive people, and his writings and films turned the Yanomami into worldwide celebrities. Around the globe, people clamored for more information about the fascinating tribes, while others started fundraising campaigns to "save" the Indians from their low-tech jungle lives.

Then things became even more chaotic. A journalist and native-rights activist named Patrick Tierney accused Chagnon of manipulating his findings to misrepresent the Yanomami. Tierney wrote, for example, that Chagnon made the Indians out to be a violent people who spent a lot of time fighting amongst each other, in part by purposely staging conflicts for video cameras to record. Tierney also blamed geneticist James Neel for unleashing a measles vaccine on the Yanomami that killed hundreds or thousands of people.

Tierney's findings were supported by many people he interviewed but denied vehemently by others. Concrete proof of Yanomami exploitation and the epidemic hasn't been established. But this kind of situation shows the disturbances that can occur when scientists plunge headlong into another society -- with their newfound fame, the Indians were forever changed.

As you'll read next, beyond the safe confines of their offices, anthropologists actively engage very different types of people, often in tense or even dangerous situations.

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