Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Working in the private sector: matters of contradiction, self-interest, practicality and personal values

This post began as a response to a question left by an anonymous reader of my blog on a previous post in which I reflected on the origins of my interest in anthropology and my training and career as an anthropologist. I thought it was a really good question, and wanted to be able to explain my answer in detail (in typical Amy fashion), so I decided to create a new post for it altogether. I also just came from watching the second presidential debate, so making sure I actually answer the question is top of mind. :)

I'll post the question here:
I read a lot of your Tweets/posts on anthropology-related matters. Always good reads, and thanks for sharing this interview. I, too, fell in love with anthropology in a similar way that you did. I want to challenge you on one point (because that's what we do, right?), though. I've noticed that a lot of your posts relate to "the 1%," corporate greed, and so on, but you say this in your above post: "There is also one more reason I have my current job. Private sector jobs (i.e. at corporations) are also typically more high-paying than public sector or non-profit jobs."

It seems a bit contradictory to me, that you took your current job with a large corporation, just because it paid you more money. I don't fault you, but it just seems as if that's the opposite of what I'd expect, although I don't know you personally. Just a point I noticed; I was surprised to see that you work for State Farm. I'd be interested if you could elaborate on your decision to for work for a corporate giant. I'd hope that it was based on more than greed, alone.
Again, no disrespect, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it. Keep up the good posts.
Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for your question. I don't think you're being disrespectful at all. In fact, you make a great point. I’m happy to explain more about my decision, and appreciate the opportunity for dialogue (because, you are right, that's what we do!)

I'll start with a little bit of background. After I graduated last year, I found myself with two job offers: one to go work at State Farm as a consumer research analyst, and the other to go to D.C. and work on health and education policy research. I was excited about both of these potential opportunities, but decided on State Farm for two reasons. First, I’m really interested in consumerism and the things people do with their money. It’s just something that I find fascinating and something I enjoy researching, and relates really well to my training in anthropology. I can take a critical eye to it or look at it purely as social phenomena, or both. One great thing is that practically everyone does it, so there will never be a lack of jobs where money is concerned.

However, the true driving force behind my decision is that I have an extremely large amount of student loan debt. Without going into details, it’s enough so that unless I win the lottery (I do not play, which significantly lessens my chances) or get a surprise inheritance from some long lost relative (I don’t think any exist), I will likely be paying it off for the next few decades.

This is something I have thought a lot about, starting with deciding which of these jobs to take in the first place. I had the choice to go live in D.C. and do something great, but make a lot less money while paying my student loan bills and just scraping by. This job offered a salary of $10,000 less than the one I have now, and would be located in a major metropolitan area where the cost of living was much greater than what I was used to or could realistically afford. Or, I could go to State Farm, make a good amount of money, and still be able to do interesting research. It might just not be research that would benefit humanity in the sense that I had hoped for in all of my years as a budding anthropologist.

As you can imagine, I would have preferred the non-profit job because of its good intentions and potential to positively impact humanity, and D.C. would have been a really cool place to live, but the State Farm job has allowed me to live comfortably and pay my bills with some money left over for travel, hobbies, and savings. Bloomington, IL isn’t the most interesting city, but the cost of living is relatively low compared to D.C. Not only that, but I also received relocation assistance, which was a big help because I had no money saved up during graduate school. The job in D.C. was simply unable to assist me in this way.

On the surface, my choice might sound contradictory, especially to those familiar with my interests in social issues, civil rights, politics, and other related topics, not to mention my penchant for taking a critical eye to the capitalist system. But it never came down to simple greed. It was all about circumstance. I like to think about it from a structure-agency perspective, in that there are structural forces that influenced my decision (paying for my own education, limited job options, the economy, etc.), combined with my own individual actions and choices. We all live within the confines of the world around us, yet we are all able to make decisions based on what we feel is right for ourselves given our options within a specific moment in time. Again, circumstance is key. Where did you go to school, and how much did it cost? Are you going to school to get a job or to become a better citizen or both? Did you get any scholarships or have to take out student loans? Were your student loans public or private, and how much are the interests rates? Did you not have to worry about paying for school because your parents paid for it for you? These questions could reach even further to those who don't have the opportunity to go to college in the first place.

To me, life isn't so black and white. Decisions are so much more complex and infinitely affected by variables that are both within our control and outside of it. While my decision might have been contradictory to what I personally tend to think about corporations and capitalism and “the 1%” as you put it, it was not contradictory to what I determined to be in my best interest at the time, which was to be able to make ends meet and enjoy life within my own means. It was also not contradictory to my perhaps naive hope that the company I was going to work for would somehow be different from the ones I have spent so long criticizing. Of course, this all leads to the question of the capitalist system as a catalyst for having to put oneself and one's own interests before those of others to begin with. If it were different, would everyone's needs be considered equally? How does the system reconcile personal values with making ends meet? Another post for another time, I suppose.

On the subject of working for corporations, I am not totally opposed to the idea. I do not think all corporations are evil, I just think that some are better than others, and most need to do a better job at respecting people and the environment, or we can consider ourselves permanently screwed. To make things more interesting, I recently submitted my resignation to State Farm, as I will be relocating to Portland, OR for family reasons. I do not currently have a position lined up, but I do have a continued interest in remaining within the field of market research for the same reasons I entered it in the first place. It’s hard to predict the path my future endeavors will take me down. Perhaps I will remain within this industry until I am able to take on a position related to what I enjoy professionally but that does not ask me to sacrifice my personal values for the sake of paying bills. Or perhaps I will one day work with a company whose values match mine more closely. I am sure they are out there somewhere.

I also want add that the reason I didn’t go into this topic in my previous post was that I didn’t feel it was a necessary or even appropriate point to discuss with the student for the purposes of his assignment (I probably gave him way more than he thought he would get to begin with! :)

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and for encouraging dialogue with your thoughtful question. Looking forward to more discussions in the future.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

About being an anthropologist: what I'm doing now and how I got here

The other week, a former coworker of mine (I'll call her R.) emailed me to ask a favor. The son of a woman she works with needed to "interview an anthropologist" for an assignment for his Forensic Science class, and R. wanted to put him in touch with me. How cool, I thought, to talk with a curious high school student about my chosen career path. So, of course, I said yes. 

The "interview" was more like a list of four questions he sent me via email. I noticed right away that the questions were very generalized, rather than focused on any specific kind of anthropology, which was fine. Second, since they were for a forensic science class assignment, I wondered if he was expecting me to answer from that perspective (I didn't, and don't claim to know the first thing about the field). I would leave it up to him to think critically and make the necessary connections himself. I enjoyed answering them though because it allowed me to spend some time reflecting on the past 10 years of my life, what I'm doing now, and how I got here. 

I wanted to share my response to the student on my blog, so here it is (with a few minor revisions/additions, but mostly in its original form).

1. What made you decide to be an anthropologist?  

When I was in 5th grade, one of my favorite computer games was Amazon Trail. It’s a lot like Oregon Trail, except it takes place in the Amazon Rainforest. The player is charged with canoeing down the Amazon River in search of the ancient civilization of the Incas. As you progress on your journey, you are taken further and further back in time. Along the way, you interact all kinds of people, from various indigenous peoples to Western historical figures including Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Russell Wallace. One of the characters I met was an ethnobotanist (ethnobotany looks at the relationship between culture and plants, and how people use plants for their everyday needs). When I met the ethnobotanist in the game, I wanted to know more about that area of study, which led me to the field of anthropology. 

Since I was already interested in people, culture and world travel, there was an instant connection. I began to research more about it, and went to the bookstore and bought my first anthropology case study by Napoleon Chagnon about the Yanomamo natives of Venezuela. Through reading this book and doing other research, I came to learn that anthropology is basically about understanding the human experience. So, to answer your question, it was both a video game and the appeal of what anthropology was all about that made me decide to pursue it as a field of study and a career path. By the time I entered 9th grade, I knew that I wanted to be an anthropologist. I am lucky because not many people can say they knew what they wanted to be when they were 14 years old.

2. How does one pursue a career in Anthropology? (How long did you go to school, what were your main studies?)

Even though I knew at a young age that I wanted to do anthropology, my understanding of it was still very basic. Little did I know that it was a lot bigger, broader, deeper and more interesting than I had ever imagined! The next few years were all about developing that understanding. I learned that there were multiple sub-fields under the larger umbrella discipline of anthropology, including biological anthropology (forensic anthropology fits under this one), linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology, which is my area of interest. And there are many, many sub-fields within those four. 

Initially I thought that anthropology was all about traveling to other countries and living with “exotic” peoples for a couple of years, and learning about their traditions, cultures, foodways, religions, and other aspects of their lifestyles. My college education taught me that there is much more to anthropology than simply documenting the lives of people who are different from me. That’s what the original anthropologists did because it was interesting to them and to the governments, organizations and universities they worked for. It didn’t go much beyond that, although we have them to thank for the records of various native groups across the world we use as historical resources (especially those who no longer exist due to cultural genocide). By the early 20th century, anthropologists were using their unique perspective to attempt to understand cross-cultural differences and similarities between groups of people, to theorize about why humans do what they do (from cultural, linguistic and biological perspectives), and to make positive changes in the world through development efforts both at home and around the world.

I took my first introductory anthropology course at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida (my hometown). My professor was Victoria J. Baker, who also served as my mentor at Eckerd (she is now retired). This class helped me to get a better sense of the fundamental concepts and theories of anthropology, like kinship systems and religion. I remember asking a lot of questions. The result was that my perception of how the world works was turned upside down by learning how to think about things differently, or to think like an anthropologist. Coincidentally, the book I mentioned earlier by Napoleon Chagnon was on our required reading list. We also read a number of other “case studies”, as they are often referred to, about different cultures and groups of people around the world, including one by my professor about her work in Sri Lanka

The intro course further intensified my interest in studying anthropology, so I took lots of other classes throughout my four years as an undergraduate, including classes on linguistic anthropology, cultural geography, health and minority populations, Latin American studies, film studies, Polynesian cultures, anthropological research methods, evolutionary anthropology, and others. I also studied abroad three times, which bolstered my global perspective. While I was completing my degree, I was also fortunate to be able to complete a senior thesis project on the gentrification and development of downtown St. Petersburg from the perspective of senior citizens, using both an ethnographic and historic approach.

After I graduated in 2008 with my BA, I took a year off and worked as a tutor for a local non-profit. I knew I wanted to continue studying anthropology in grad school, but I needed to make some decisions about narrowing my focus to something more specific within the field. In 2009, I returned to school to earn my MA in Applied Anthropology, with a concentration in Urban Anthropology, from the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. If taking courses as an undergrad rocked my worldview of anthropology, getting my MA did even more. During this time, I got a more in-depth understanding of how anthropology can be used to solve real-world problems and explain human phenomena. I studied subjects as varied and interconnected as education, cultural identity, power, health, history, poverty, racism, disability, homelessness, labor, development, governments, laws, corporations, the environment, social change and movements, the consumption of goods, and so many others.

My knowledge and understanding of anthropology (and the world) expanded immensely because of these courses, the books I read, the projects I worked on, and the wonderful professors who taught me and supervised my research. I also learned a lot from the other students in my cohort and their varied experiences. I had more opportunities for research in local communities on topics such as the relationship between neighborhood resources and health and the struggles of poor communities. I think one of the biggest things I learned during this time is that history has such a huge influence on the present. This was very evident in Memphis, which has its own struggles with various social issues. I was lucky to be involved with a number of local non-profits and community organizations that worked on issues such as wage theft, health, poverty, child development, homelessness, food deserts, disability rights, and many others.

Most of my studies and projects fit under the umbrella of applied community-based anthropology, but there were some that fell outside this scope. One of the last projects I did was on the social implications of fashion and ethical consumption practices. Perhaps you are familiar with TOMS Shoes. This particular project looked at what TOMS symbolize in the social world. When I say symbolize, I’m thinking of symbols, like a peace sign, a cross, the Coca Cola logo, or a middle finger. I wanted to know what it says about someone when they wear TOMS shoes. What do the shoes imply about their character or values? Do people wear them simply for fashion’s sake, or for comfort, or for other reasons? Through survey, interview and observational research, I found that people, college kids especially, like to wear the shoes because it shows that they care about others and that they care about others, since buying a pair of the shoes gets another pair donated to a child who doesn’t have any. This is important for a lot of people these days because many feel obligated to help others, and this is a way they can do it and be rewarded at the same time. When someone wears TOMS, other people seem to assign this meaning to the shoes. It’s a social symbol that many people are familiar enough with, like LiveStrong bracelets or wedding rings or any other clothing or accessory. 


I want to get back to your original question about pursuing a career in anthropology. At some point, you might have asked, what is an anthropologist doing working at an insurance company? Well, doing the TOMS project led me to become more interested in consumer research, which is what I do now at a large insurance and financial services company in the Midwest. As a consumer research analyst, my main focus is on understanding what our customers and competitors’ customers want with their insurance and financial products and services in order to help them do a better job at providing those products and services. How, when, where, why and with whom do they want to do business? What are their needs, expectations, preferences, attitudes and opinions with insurance and banking? Even though an anthropological perspective is super useful for asking these questions, I don’t get to do a whole lot of “anthropology” because my company tends to stick with more traditional research methods. However, I was hired because anthropology is a research-based discipline, and because I am trained in general research concepts and methods. And even though my projects are not directly related to anthropology or ethnographic research methods, I always have my anthropologist hat on and think about research questions and problem solving through that lens. 

Anthropologists are also equipped with a tool kit of various research methods such as in-depth interviewing, focus group moderating, participatory research, and others, and I do occasionally get to use these to better understand customer needs. Although I don’t usually get to “do anthropology” for consumer research, I am always doing anthropology by observing and analyzing what is going on around me as an employee of a big, complex company. Sometimes that is even more fascinating! There is also one more reason I have my current job. Private sector jobs (i.e. at corporations) are also typically more high-paying than public sector or non-profit jobs. After I graduated with my MA, I had two job offers and took the one at State Farm because it paid more and would allow me to live comfortably while paying my student loans. I really would have liked to take the job at the non-profit doing health policy research, but this seemed like the better choice for my financial situation.

3. What are the main things an Anthropologist does during a day in the workplace?

I’m going to use this space to answer both your third and fourth questions about a day in the life of an anthropologist and the most interesting thing about being an anthropologist. I bet you’ve noticed by now that my story is pretty unique. Therefore, I can’t really speak to what it’s like for all anthropologists, since each and every one of us has such a unique story and life path. Being an anthropologist isn’t as cut and dry as other careers. The difference is that we have unlimited options for where and with whom we “do anthropology.”

And that is one of the most interesting things about being an anthropologist – putting one's training and skills in understanding the human experience to use with any problem or job out there. Essentially, our perspective is useful in any context or situation that involves human beings. We come from a discipline that is very broad and deep in the subjects it explores, as evidenced by the courses I have taken and the projects I’ve worked on in school and at work. We work for corporations, governments, community centers, non-profits, schools, hospitals, churches, universities and research institutes. If anything, most of us never stop exploring, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing, and trying to understand and explain the things happening around us. We are observant. We are curious. We share an insatiable desire to know more and to understand better, and more often than not, to make the world a better place. Many of us probably started out where I did, thinking anthropology was about living in mud huts in faraway jungles, learning along the way that it is something much greater and something that can be shaped and defined in any way that we want it to be.

4. What is the most interesting thing about being an Anthropologist?

See above.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Wordled resume

Creating a Wordle (word cloud) out of my resume really whittled it down to the essence of my academic and professional experience so far. To create the image, I selected all of the text within my resume and pasted it into the Wordle app. Then I messed around a bit with the layout, font style and colors. 

It's neat to see what words come up most often (the larger the size of the word, the more frequently it occurred in the text). Pretty much everything I've done has been research based in anthropology and qualitative methods, in both non-profit and community settings. Both of the colleges I've attended are also prominently featured. Of course, there were lots of projects and writing involved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

2012 American Anthropological Association Meetings - NAPA Workshops

If you are planning to attend the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, please register now for workshops sponsored by the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA).  NAPA members and students receive discounts!  Register early to guarantee a seat!
Learn and build your skills in the following NAPA workshops.
  • NAPA Workshop On Pattern Recognition In Evolution and In Ethnographic Analytics - Brigitte Jordan and Chad Maxwell
  • NAPA Workshop On Rapid Research In Public Settings - Mike Youngblood
  • NAPA Workshop On Issues In International Consulting Eva Friedlander PhD and Pamela J Puntenney PhD
  • NAPA Workshop On Project Management - Patricia Ensworth
  • NAPA Workshop On “First Impressions for a Lasting Impact: Using Elevator Speeches and Strategic Network Ties to Strengthen Your Networking Success” - Sabrina Nichelle Scott and Edward Liebow
Increase your knowledge and “how-to” in these two workshops:
  • NAPA Workshop On Ethnographic FIELD Schools: HOW They Work and Why They ARE A MUST for Anthropologists and Students – Tim Wallace and George Gmelch
  • NAPA Workshop On Heritage Tourism: Theory and Praxis - Quetzil E. Castaneda and James Tim M Wallace

Explore funding and career opportunities in the following workshops:
  • NAPA-NASA Student Workshop: Funding, Fellowships, Transferring, and Admissions - Organizers: Sabrina Nichelle Scott and Alexander J. Orona, Presenters: Nancy Romero-Daza, David A. Himmelgreen, Valerie V. Feria-Isacks, and Nicole Ryan
  • NAPA Workshop On Marketing Oneself As An Anthropologist In a Variety of Interdisciplinary Settings - Amy Raquel Paul-Ward
  • NAPA Workshop On Developing An Anthropological Career for a Lifetime - Sherylyn H Briller (Wayne State University)
Workshop descriptions and registration can be found here

[ via AnthroDesign listserv post by Sabrina Scott ]