Jonathan Lau

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Confused looks abound, whenever I tell people I am an anthropology major. After the looks and explanation that I do not study bones, the inevitable "what are you going to do with that?" comes up.  I imagine recruiters who look at my resume go through the same process.

Bronislaw Malinowksi
Father of Social Anthropology

And I do not blame them!  It is hard to understand how anthropology is practical given the lack of hard skills in the major.   Unlike a computer science major, I cannot say I learned Java in class and I directly use that knowledge in my developer job.  The drawing of direct connections from the social sciences to practical endeavors is not as clear cut as doing so with hard sciences or engineering.   In order to appreciate anthropology’s practical use, there must be a recognition of the uniqueness of anthropology’s conceptual framework, which changes how every student views the world.

Below, are three examples of how an anthropological framework helped me do my job:

1) Holistic view

To be an anthropologist is to understand that people are the sum of their parts.  Analyzing people means taking into account multiple elements such as socio-economic status, culture and psychology.

This holistic mindset leads me to analyze data and problems from multiple angles.  I am highly skeptical of one size fits all solutions preferring instead to tailor solutions according to differences.  With globalization and mantras such as "think global, act local" on the rise, a holistic mind set will only grow in importance.

In my marketing campaign for the Undergraduate Investment Society's 7th Annual Financial Horizons Conference, I looked at the UCSD student body holistically.  This led me to see that economic students and Rady business school students due to factors such as age, work experience and socioeconomic status would have different motivations for attending a finance conference.  As a result, I tailored the ad copy towards the different students in an effort to appeal to their varied motivations for going to the conference.

2) Check biases

Logic is thrown around a lot as the catchall explanation for why people do or will do certain things.  What people view as "logical" and "rational" are often the result of ingrained biases, but few realize that.

Anthropologists are in a constant and ongoing battle to check their biases.  This is not to say that those who study anthropology have no biases, rather they are aware of them and take it into account in their analysis.  By being aware of their own bias, anthropologists allow themselves to be open minded while interpreting data.

While studying abroad in China, I found that checking my biases helped me discover the culture.  I had a lot of baggage coming into China, from what my family had told or rather warned me about and portrayals of China in the American media.  Being aware of those preconceived notions, allowed me keep an open mind while experiencing the country and led me to better understand not only Chinese culture, but also American and Chinese diaspora culture as well.

3) Insistence on social proof

 

Anthropologist hired by US Army in Afghanistan

Social proof has been a buzz word in the startup world ever since Lean Startup became the de facto philosophy for the industry.  The notion of going into the "field" and testing a hypothesis with customers/users/people has been a core tenant of Anthropology since its inception.

 

The study and practice of ethnographic fieldwork, has given me the sense of mind to take all my assumptions to the field. In addition, it has taught me how to find the relevant field site and effective methods to extract accurate information from it.

When the Lean Startup Circle lunch club roll out to cities across the country produced lackluster results, I took a bootstrapping business trip to figure out what happened.  Drawing on my previous fieldwork experience, I surveyed the Los Angeles and San Diego startup scenes, which included meeting up with organizers and entrepreneurs on order to learn what they thought would get their community come out to lunch together.

In closing

Studying anthropology has completely changed the way I think in a way that makes me different from most others.  The anthropological mindset gives me a fresh and arguably better way of using existing tools.  When I read IDEO's profile of the anthropologist in 10 Faces of Innovation:

"The Anthropologist is rarely stationary. Rather, this is the person who ventures into the field to observe how people interact with products, services, and experiences in order to come up with new innovations. The Anthropologist is extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way, humanizing the scientific method to apply it to daily life. Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to "see" things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places."

I just thought to myself “YES! They get it!”

One day everybody will too.

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