The International Baccalaureate program at my daughter’s high school recently added anthropology to its curriculum.  The instructor kindly accepted my offer to be a guest presenter.

How do you tell high school students about anthropology when you are not a typical anthropologist?  You talk about normal anthropology stuff.  You use the discussion to identify the broader ways that anthropology intersects with the business world.

Step 1: Bring gifts

I started off by saying, “I work in the program management office at an aerospace company.”

One student asked, “Aren’t you in anthropology?”

I elaborated, “You know that a ritual in cross-cultural encounters is exchanging gifts.  Mine are headlines about business anthropologists and books about anthropology, technology, and business.”


Step 2: When I say something, you hear what?

I asked the students to tell me their thoughts when I say “traffic jam,” and when I say “real trucks do.”  Their answers referenced Indiana roads and highways. Then I showed the two photos below and explained how my 17 years living in Kenya shaped my answers. The photos make the point that words matter, that they are embedded in contexts we know, and that those contexts shape our experiences.  This is something that anthropologists can help others see.  Our curiosity helps us uncover interesting things about the the interactions we have with others.

Step 3: Tell an interesting story

In my case, “uncover interesting things” is a career which interests anthropology with engineering.  The journey had three important signposts.

Signpost #1: Undergraduate engineering classwork

I learned about Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) as an undergraduate engineering student.  DFMA teaches that product defects, and their associated lifecycle costs, can be reduced by getting all parties in the value stream—sales, design, manufacturing, and field service—together to understand assumptions, requirements, and constraints.  Good design requires expert coordination of people.  That is an overlap between engineering and anthropology.

Signpost #2: Aerospace, energy, and part-time grad school

Faced with an overlapping interest in engineering and anthropology and undergraduate student loans to repay, I entered the aerospace industry.  This decision let me think about the social context of contemporary technology. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), my first project, has had a host of complicated supply chain and multinational relationships that influence its construction and use.

My company’s employee scholar program funded part-time graduate study. Working on the JSF and doing part-time grad school introduced me to applied anthropology, and the opportunity to complete a PhD. I did fieldwork using my jobs in the aerospace and energy industries, continued part-time PhD coursework at the University of Connecticut, and kept a comfortable salary.

Signpost #3: Have PhD, will travel

I looked for applied anthropology jobs after finishing my PhD.  Economics and opportunity nudged me back to the aerospace industry, where I have worked since 2007.  My job titles—systems engineer, project engineer, program manager—have involved connecting people to do complicated technical work in different disciplines, countries, and companies. The work happens in complicated social and organizational contexts. My anthropology training helps clarify contexts, identify assumptions, and bridge diversities.

Step 4: Clearly answer students saying “So what”?”

My career path has unique details.  There are some general themes I offered at the high school.  These themes overlap with some topics made in other World of Work blogposts.

Dig into details.  As a new employee, little information that I needed for my job was in writing.  I had few people to guide me; many had left the company due to restructuring. Soon, I began to notice something; that the people in different companies working on the vertical flight controls for the JSF identified more with each other than they did with their company colleagues.  I discovered three common anthropological topics—oral knowledge transfer; interactions between novices and elders; visible versus invisible cultural identity—that correlated to three common business topics—new employee training; staffing turnover; integrated product development across the supply chain.

Become multi-skilled.  Build skill in disciplines that overlap with your anthropological interests.  I have expertise in Systems Engineering and Program Management.  Regardless of your career path, whether in anthropology or another field, you must also cultivate other proficiencies.

Learn about supply and demand.  Anthropologists offer insightful viewpoints and intuitive observations to businesses, but need customers with money to demand the value of anthropology.  Businesses get paid when customers have money, so see where you can contribute.  You must learn to phrase a value proposition which frames your skills in terms of customer demands.

You are not alone.  My career path has been shaped by economics and opportunity more than pre-planning.  It’s also been influenced by people.  Elizabeth Briody, Marietta Baba, and others voiced important encouragement.  Others bluntly told me that my proposition had insufficient value, my details meandered, or my ideas required maturing.  You need both positive and negative feedback, even though negative feedback seems defeating.  Take advantage of both.  Any feedback will help you frame your value proposition more effectively.

About the Author: Shawn Collins

Shawn Collins
Shawn Collins has spent almost 30 years working at the overlap of engineering and anthropology in the aerospace and energy industries for companies like Boeing, United Technologies Corporation, and Rolls-Royce. He has held a variety of systems engineering, program management, and process improvement roles across the full product development life cycle. He has published articles in Human Organization, the Journal of Operations Management, and IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. Shawn holds degrees in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Connecticut.