Anthropology: Best Major to Change Your Life

Update: I wrote this satiric post in 2012 as a counterpoint to the politicized and earnings-based attacks on the anthropology major. These earnings-based attacks have been debunked, but being an anthro major in 2021 can still seem an odd choice. In 2021, Gillian Tett (also discussed in the post below) has published Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life which should help to communicate the unique perspective of anthropology.

Anthropology Major

It’s official. In its 2012 college major evaluation, Kiplinger declared the anthropology major as the worst major for your career. Forbes followed suit: Anthropology is the worst major.

We’re #1!

From Florida Governor Scott’s we don’t need anthropologists to Frank Bruni singling out anthropology in the New York Times, I’m tired of playing defense. We’ve worked hard to get to #1.

Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool. If going to college is only measured by the job you will take immediately after college, then please choose one of Kiplinger’s 10 best college majors for a lucrative career or one of Forbes 15 Most Valuable College Majors. Please don’t become an anthro major!

Anthropology is the worst major for immediate career, but anthropology is the college major most likely to change your life–see What is Anthropology? And anthropology may help you change the world, although standard disclaimers about “starving artists” apply. But anthropology is also a great major to acquire lifelong learning skills–language, culture, thinking, writing, analysis–that enables success in several careers (see the update on Anthropology Jobs). Perhaps paradoxically, anthropology is a great major for analyzing corporations and capitalism. And you probably have just as much chance–if not more–of landing in the top 1% as an anthropology major as you do with any of those so-called lucrative or valuable college majors.

Anthropology is the major for changing your life. And changing the world.Click To Tweet
Let’s face it–most people come to anthropology out of pure interest. Many majors join specifically because they are not looking for the capitalist payout, or a “typical” life. People come to anthropology to learn about the world and about themselves. Whatever I write, in 2012 my most shared blog-post continued to be Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism, I hope because it strikes a chord about anthropological analysis and contemporary capitalism. I hope it is because anthropology offers a unique perspective onto public issues: like Anthropology on Immigration.

The College Major & Lifelong Learning

Of course, changing capitalism is an arduous task, and there are the practical realities of needing a job, of wanting to do something vaguely interesting, of repaying student loans. But here, a rigorous major should provide skills to navigate a changing world in which graduates will have several careers, not just one.

Back in April 2012, when we were at #9 in The Daily Beast most useless majors, Adam Van Arsdale put up a great and very relevant post about this, The usefulness of anthropology. In his follow-up, Thoughts on an anthropology curriculum, Van Arsdale outlines writing, language skills, analysis from multiple lines of evidence, comparative perspectives. In other words, in a rapidly changing world we can be sure that these kinds of broad skillsets will be applicable for a range of career settings. (See my follow-up on Are the Liberal Arts Relevant?)

Best Major for Analyzing Capitalism–And getting into the top 1%?

Somewhat ironically, although many people come to anthropology because they are wary of corporate payouts, there is a large contingent of anthropology in business and in advertising. Anthropology has produced some of the most lucid analyses of the capitalist financial crisis, as exemplified by Gillian Tett’s address to the 2012 Anthropology in the World Conference.

Then there’s the somewhat curious fact that looking at What Top 1% of Earners Majored In, there’s a very healthy assortment of liberal arts degrees in the mix. You need to scroll into the attached document to find Anthropology and Archaeology, but we find 3.3% of these majors end up in the top 1% of earners and these majors make up 0.4% of the top one-percenters. That may not sound like a lot, but compare Pharmacy–Kiplinger’s #1 best major for your career–and we find 3.9% of these majors in the top 1% and a total share of 0.7%. Is that so different? Or take Kiplinger’s #3 most recommended college major, Transportation Sciences and Technologies, which lands only 1.7% of its majors in the top 1% for a total share of just 0.1%. In fact, my rough comparison reveals five of Kiplinger’s top ten land more majors in the top 1% than anthropology, with the other five landing fewer. For the Forbes 15 most valuable, six of the majors did better than anthropology in the top 1%, but nine did worse.

Anthro Major & the Capitalist Lottery

One reason people don’t automatically shift over into the occupations Frank Bruni mentioned in April 2012, or into the majors Kiplinger and Forbes tout, is that most people know that capitalism has become a globalizing lottery. Majors in English, philosophy, history, and even anthropology get lucky and break into the 1%. Majors in pharmacy, nursing, and transportation can see their jobs globalized out from under them, without seriously improving their odds of getting the truly lucrative payout.

This is something anthropology has been talking about for a long time. Although not specifically anthropology, Susan Strange’s Casino Capitalism came out in 1986(!), with a title and analysis that is just as relevant today.

It’s also the case that this kind of lottery is part of academia, and part of anthropology. In a chilling piece, The closing of American academia, anthropologist Sarah Kendzior focuses on the 2011 meetings of the American Anthropological Association and the experience of adjuncts: “One after another, the occupations that shape American society are becoming impossible for all but the most elite to enter.” [Note that Kendzior wrote this article near the beginning of her journalism career and currently writes on the authoritarian kleptocracy.]

Anthropology beyond the capitalist lottery

Anthropology knows about capitalism, from the top and from the bottom (see Is capitalism the best economic system?). We’ve analyzed the capitalist lottery and know it isn’t good for individuals or for society. We strive to impart these lessons and skills in the undergraduate anthropology major. Yet our graduates are underemployed, working in retail. Our doctorates are underemployed, working as adjuncts. We need to figure out ways to go beyond the capitalist lottery, for our undergraduates, our graduate students, and our world.

Updates & Related Resources

  • The politicized and earnings-based attacks have taken their toll on the number of anthro majors, especially in liberal arts colleges. As Carrie Hough and Adam Kaul put it in Ambivalent Spaces in the (Neo)Liberal Arts:

    Anthropology is intrinsically valuable, but teaching in a career-driven context means that we feel the need to advertise our value, particularly when paired with other more career-oriented fields such as public health, environmental studies, or business. No doubt, this generates wonderful and rich learning opportunities for students, but the market value of these moves looms large, and it is increasingly difficult to focus on one over the other. (2018)

  • The 2017 figures in Who Majors in Anthropology, and Why? demonstrate that “after decades of solid growth, US anthropology bachelor’s degree completions peaked at 11,270 in 2013 and have decreased sharply since then. The year 2016 saw only 9,135 anthropology degrees granted, the fewest since 2009.” It is probably not a coincidence that the years 2011-2013 saw these attacks on the anthro major as the “worst college major” for your career. Nevertheless, the article also notes anthropology’s increasing appeal to a more diverse student body, perhaps indicating that anthropology can now better focus on its world-changing potential.
  • See Anthropology Jobs: Advice for Undergraduate Majors for specific ideas and suggestions related to anthropology degrees.
  • This post landed me in a 2012 issue of Science: Great Year for Anthropology! (At the end of the world, that is)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Anthropology Major: Best College Major to Change Your Life.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 21 August 2012. Revised 10 June 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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