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«Shirley J. Fiske Consultant and Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland The federal government is arguably the largest employer of anthropologists ...»

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Shirley J. Fiske

Consultant and Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland

The federal government is arguably the largest employer of anthropologists outside of academia.

The most comprehensive data on numbers of anthropologists are from the U.S. Office of

Personnel Management. These data and their limitations are described. This chapter argues that applied and practicing anthropology are at historic employment levels, with at least five agencies having “institutional presence” of in-house anthropologists. Much of the growth is based on statutes enacted in the 1960s and 1970s, and solidified by anthropologists who codified their use around agency missions. Five agencies with institutional presence are highlighted, as examples of careers in the federal government. In addition the chapter describes careers and career paths in the federal government for a number of specialty areas including international development, both as a consultant and as a full-time permanent government employee, cultural resource management, the legislative branch, forensic and physical anthropology, natural resource management, and defense and security sectors, by using interviews and career cameos of senior anthropologists in those agencies. The chapter concludes with specific information on where to find vacancy announcements and how to respond to them; collective experience of lessons learned in seeking federal careers; and the author’s views on the importance of engagement for anthropologists in policies, issues, and program management in the federal sector. Keywords: federal government, applied anthropology, anthropology careers, policy


The federal government is arguably the largest employer of anthropologists outside of universities if one includes regional and international posts such as foreign service. Not surprisingly, archaeologists account for the great majority of federal hires in anthropology, with cultural anthropologists next, and the number of biological, physical and linguistic anthropologists far fewer.

It is difficult to generalize about anthropological careers in the federal government.

Jobs range from work with consulting firms with contracts from the federal government, to employment in the foreign service, to archaeologists in cultural resource management, and social science analysts in the legislative branches. The work varies from managing offices of planners and policy analyst, to leading teams of scientists in reviewing programs, NAPA BULLETIN 29, pp. 110–130. ISBN 9781405190152. 2008 by the American Anthropological Association.

C DOI:10.1111/j.1556-4797.2008.00009.x napa 110 B u l l e t i n 2 9 / Wo r k i n g f o r t h e F e d e r a l G o v e r n m e n t assessing public health or social impacts, evaluating federal programs, and directing foreign assistance programs in-country.

The federal governmental sector, along with its allied institutions—consulting firms, contractors, universities—the partners and recipients of contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements—is an economic engine that provides a huge market for anthropologists who seek applied and practicing careers in public issues, management, and policy.


The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which tracks the federal government’s workforce, identifies 7,500 social scientists (job series GS-101) including anthropologists, behavioral scientists, geographers, sociologists, and planners working for the federal government in 2006. In addition, anthropologists are hired under the GS-190 job series, general anthropologist, and GS-193s, archaeologists. These two job series are specific to anthropologists, meaning that only anthropologists generally qualify. OPM data show 144 general anthropologists and 1,150 archaeologists working for the federal government (see Table 1).

Although OPM data are the most comprehensive data available, they vastly underrepresent the actual number of cultural anthropologists and archaeologists working for the federal government, because many are working in job categories such as social scientist, program analyst, planner, or behavioral scientist. In addition these data do not reflect part-time positions or those who work on contract to the federal government; nor do they include foreign service and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) civil service positions and contractors. Still, it is safe to argue that the number of job positions identified for anthropologically trained individuals in the civil and foreign service is far greater than at any time in U.S. history.

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Anthropologists have developed institutional presence in at least five federal agencies—a historical “first” for professional anthropology. By institutional presence, I mean a critical mass of in-house, permanent expertise from anthropologists working on public issues.

To give an idea of anthropology careers in these agencies, I highlight here examples from the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Park Service (NPS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and USAID.

These concentrations of anthropological expertise usually result from the hard work and bureaucratic wisdom of dedicated individuals who have devoted their careers to establishing an agency-codified basis for social science research and promoted the hiring of additional social scientists to fill agency needs.

At the U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce), anthropologists have played a critical role in identifying the causes of and recommendations for overcoming the

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B u l l e t i n 2 9 / Wo r k i n g f o r t h e F e d e r a l G o v e r n m e n t traditional undercounts of nontraditional households and populations in U.S. decennial censuses. They have also led to documenting the changes in family structure of marginalized or underdocumented groups (Schwede et al. 2006). The Bureau has used anthropological expertise to critique and improve its methods and approach to enumerating the national population, develop reliable methodologies for identifying marginalized and difficult-to-enumerate populations, including homeless, mobile populations (gypsies, migrant workers), urban American Indian households, and to recruit communityknowledgeable people to help conduct the census. The work of anthropologists and other social scientists within the Bureau (and contracted studies from outside) has led to the recognition that accurate enumeration is enhanced by local knowledge of communities and rural areas (see U.S. Census Bureau 2004).

The NPS (U.S. Department of the Interior) has developed long term, in-house expertise and programs with archaeologists and cultural anthropologists, particularly the use of ethnography and rapid appraisals to ascertain local views and voices of traditionally associated people who have lived in, near, or used a park’s resources. The Ethnography Program was firmly based on statutory requirements from NEPA, American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The ethnography program includes park and regional ethnographers and a small staff in its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Anthropologists in regional offices and parks do research to ensure that program planning and park management respond to the voices of traditionally associated peoples and that national parks interpret the cultural meanings of park resources in appropriate ways. In addition, the NPS is also the cornerstone for the robust federal archaeology program—see the Archaeology/CRM section below. The NPS programs are among the most visible to anthropologists because of the long-term commitment of a number of individuals and the development of many training workshops, partnerships and networks of affiliates, contractors, and grant recipients, who share resources and views (Crespi 1999; NPS 2003;

Schafft 2004).

The NMFS (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]) has established a strong corps of social scientists including many anthropologists in regional and headquarters offices in addition to the more traditionally recruited economists and fishery biologists. The goal is to improve the ability to predict social and cultural impacts of alternative fishery management policies and actions on fishing families and communities. Like the NPS capabilities, NMFS’s social-analytic strength has developed through the perseverance of a number of individuals who have systematically supported the need for more social science data in planning documents, directives, and annual plans. In addition, NOAA has funded many anthropologists through universities on research and extension efforts (Fiske 1990, 1999). A boost to the NMFS program occurred when the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act included amendments mandating that NMFS take into account the effects of fishery management alternatives on fishing communities’ “sustained participation” in the fishery, and to minimize adverse effects on the communities to the extent possible (Clay and Olson 2007).

Funding for the growing network of anthropologists and social scientists in regional napa 114 B u l l e t i n 2 9 / Wo r k i n g f o r t h e F e d e r a l G o v e r n m e n t offices and science centers was at last included in the FY2001 budget (Colburn et al.


The mission of the CDC, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is to develop and implement programs for disease prevention and control, environmental health, and general health promotion and education. The agency’s mission expanded as the nation’s health profile changed from its early work on insect-borne diseases in WWII, to infectious diseases, chronic, and noninfectious conditions. More recently, the agency has taken on environmental health issues, as well as injuries and homicides. There are about 45–55 anthropologists working for the CDC, including contractors, student interns, postdocs and others who are not FTE (full time permanent) civil servants. About half to twothirds are FTEs. The number of anthropologists at the CDC has increased steadily since 1992, as have the areas of specialization where they are hired. The historical base for anthropologists at the CDC has been in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, but anthropologists now work in prevention research and methods, tuberculosis, diabetes, immunization services, health communications, and environmental hazards divisions, among others.

The CDC is a case where a critical corps of anthropologists developed without a national legislative mandate for social impacts (such as NEPA), in concert with public health issues and agency’s mission to promote health. The behavioral and social sciences at the CDC have had a notable impact on the public health agenda and programs in the United States (see Fiske 2007a).

USAID has developed a critical mass of anthropologists since the early 1970s. To date the majority of them work as institutional contractors, contractors in consulting firms, or NGOs. A handful of anthropologists have reached senior executive levels at USAID in both the civil and foreign service. A conservative estimate would be that there are 25 to 30 people with advanced degrees (Ph.D. or master’s) in anthropology who are USAID direct hires. In addition, there are an estimated 100 to 200 anthropologists on contract at any given time (Atherton, personal communication, May 2005). USAID is unique among federal agencies in the extensive use of contractor hires. Since 1992, the change in the direct-hire workforce, in both USAID Washington and overseas, has declined by about 1,000 positions (500 positions each), or a 31 percent decrease in Civil Service and 29 percent in foreign service positions (USAID, Quarterly Workforce 2006). Anthropologists tend to work in areas such as rural and agricultural development, as contract officers, in program evaluation, women’s initiatives, governance and democratization, and as mission directors in the foreign service, as examples.

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I considered two ways to approach this question: by federal agency and by specialization.

Hopefully the most informative and least confusing is to talk about federal careers napa B u l l e t i n 2 9 / Wo r k i n g f o r t h e F e d e r a l G o v e r n m e n t 115 by specialty such as development assistance, natural resource management, or cultural resource management.

In gathering information for this article, I conducted in-depth interviews with eight anthropologists about their careers working for the federal government. My hope is that including cameos of their work and lives as anthropologists working for the federal government will put a face on the diverse ways that anthropologists have developed careers in the federal government. This chapter also includes insights from my 24 years of experience in the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as with local and national professional associations.

Careers in International Development

Most anthropologists who want to do applied work have aspirations of working abroad in some aspect of international development or assistance. Following are two cameos illustrating different approaches to careers in international development and assistance, both of whom consider themselves to be working for the federal government.

International Development as a Government Employee. USAID comprises two different services, the civil service and foreign service. The majority of anthropologists have appointments in the foreign service, but Joan Atherton is a career direct hire (FTE) at USAID, who started at USAID in 1979. She has over 25 years of experience in rural development and agricultural policy, the Africa Bureau, and central policy units in the Office of the Administrator at USAID.

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