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Applied Anthropology

Since René Descartes distinguished between theory and practice in his renowned work Discourse on Methods in the seventeenth century, all disciplines have been broadly divided into theoretical and applied aspects. There is a tight relationship between the applied elements of a theory or “systematic corpus of objective knowledge to interpret a range of occurrences.” A theory is enhanced by its application, and a theory is updated by expanding its applied components. They mutually feed off one another.

Applied Anthropology Anthroholic

The fact that anthropology comprises both a theoretical body of knowledge and application-based components makes it similar to other academic disciplines in this way. In some professions, such as physics or psychology, where there are several departments and locations where information is created and processed, this divide is highly evident.

As an example, several universities establish departments for applied geology or applied psychology. Since theoretical and practical anthropology are linked and reveal more similarities than divides, this is less clear in anthropology. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead claim that “all anthropology is applied.”[1]

This is especially true for Indian anthropology. The same anthropologist may engage in “theoretical anthropology” or “practical anthropology” depending on the circumstance. As the discourse progresses, it will become more apparent why this is the case.

Applied Anthropology Concept

“Applied anthropology” is stated as “anthropology employed to address an issue.” Anthropology is in use. Malinowski, the creator of modern anthropology, argued that all studies have their uses, and anthropology is no exception in his book “Practical Anthropology,” which was published in 1929. He fervently campaigned in favor of employing anthropological studies to grasp the pain of indigenous people and how skillfully the colonial authorities governed them. It was “applied anthropology,” as he defined it.

The gap between theoretical anthropology and its applications is bridged by the area known as practical anthropology. The influence of applied anthropology on affecting social interaction, behavior, or cultural systems has been investigated by anthropologists.

The Society of Applied Anthropology, the most well-known professional organization for applied anthropologists, was founded in 1941 by Margaret Mead, Elliot Smith, and others. Application of anthropological concepts via transdisciplinary scientific inquiry into human interactions for solving practical challenges is how this group defines applied anthropology. The following are stressed in the definition, which supports applied anthropology’s categorization as a science:

Earliest Dictionaries of anthropology

Charles Winnik classified applied anthropology as a form of “anthropological knowledge.” He defines applied anthropology as the application of anthropological knowledge to the needs of the people an anthropologist is working with. This may comprise supervising, counseling, or issuing commands. (1958: 28) In one of the early articles on the field, published in 1969, George Foster classified applied anthropology as the “professional activities of anthropologists concerned largely with adaptations of human conduct to answer a social, economic, or technological need.”

According to Foster, problem-solving is the main emphasis of practical anthropology rather than anthropological theory. His theory has come under critique for its constrictive aspect, which restricts the study of applied anthropology to merely “changing contexts.” Van Willigen, one of the most renowned practitioners of applied anthropology, described the issue in terms of how it transforms cultural systems. He views applied anthropology as “a series of interrelated, research-based, instrumental techniques that promote stability or change in specific cultural systems via the provision of data, the launch of direct action, and/or the creation of policy.” Depending on the topic, the anthropologist’s job, the aims, and the amount of engagement in the activity, this process may take on a variety of forms.

Development of Applied Anthropology through History

The history of applied anthropology and the growth of anthropology as a discipline are interwoven, and applied anthropology has always been a component of mainstream anthropology. As anthropology evolved during the nineteenth century, its principal focus was on human evolution [2]

The first complete paradigm to explicitly support the formation of anthropology as a separate area of study was the “progressive evolutionary hypothesis.” The major emphasis was on the development of human biology and culture. According to them, the development of modern Western civilization was the result of a long period of social structure growth.

They were compared to their earlier forms among the native and indigenous people of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South and North America. As a result, they were classified as “primitive cultures” in the introduction to applied anthropology, and their civilization was referred to as “primitive culture.”. Understanding them would help us better grasp the genesis of social order and the evolution of humanity. Thus, the study of anthropology developed from a desire to comprehend what Euro-American intellectuals referred to as “other civilizations.”

Physical Anthropology

While physical anthropology aimed to understand the biological part of human progress, archaeological anthropology strove to comprehend the prehistoric element of this civilization. The anthropological tales of tribes and indigenous people attracted the respect and admiration of others, despite the fact that the primary objective of anthropology was to reconstruct the past via the study of extant early civilizations, biological artifacts, and material cultural evidence.

In the latter years of the 19th century, according to Barnett, applied anthropology began to develop in the United States and England. The initial field of application was tribal studies, when colonial rulers “managed the affairs of the tribes and indigenous people” using their understanding of anthropology. The evolution of applied anthropology may be broken down into four important phases and their related substages.

Applied Ethnology Phase

In 1896, an American anthropologist by the name of Brinton originally recommended the use of applied anthropology to govern indigenous cultures [3]. Rapid assimilation of Amerindians was viewed as a grave hazard to their ability to preserve their cultural identity, frequently at a great cost to their health. The Bureau of Ethnology was founded by the US government in 1879 to acquire information about the neighboring Amerindian people and alleviate their concerns

It was able to advise the federal government on renovations and alterations that would ultimately aid immigrants in assimilating into American society by depending on the understanding of anthropologists. Anthropological knowledge was also important to aid in the preservation of these civilizations’ quickly disappearing traditions, customs, and social behaviors Because of this, Native American civilizations established applied anthropology to chronicle their quickly dissolving cultural practices and serve as a management tool for governments.

The British Empire’s Colonial Office supplied an analogous role to the Bureau of Ethnology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anthropologists, with their experience of tribes, were necessary to aid in the administration of colonies in different regions of Africa and Asia Mooney refers to this period as “applied ethnology”[4] Radcliffe-Brown developed the “School of African Studies” at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The group’s main goal was to forge links between indigenous peoples and European colonizers. Malinowski believed that anthropologists should aim to increase the efficiency of colonial administrators. As had been established earlier, he dubbed it “practical anthropology”[5]

Colonialism and Practical Anthropology

The broad acceptance of applied anthropology in its colonial dictators saw the past years of applied anthropology as a helpful weapon that would aid in the administration and control of indigenous people. India has the same scenario. Anthropological knowledge considerably informed the early design of what is famously known as “the cultural technology of dominance.”

One should be aware that colonial domination and conquest depended on exploiting the indigenous population via social and cultural intervention and manipulation, in addition to superior military weapons. For the objective of undertaking enumerations, classifications, and censuses, the Indian Colonial Administration employed anthropologists’ expertise. Two eminent anthropologists, Herbert Risley and J.H. Hutton, were recruited to oversee the censuses in India in 1901 and 1931, respectively.

Anthropologists were sought by colonial rulers for assistance on how to handle revolutions and protests in indigenous lands. One argument in favor of applied ethnology is the fact that anthropologists and colonial governments seldom work together directly. However, anthropology’s journey to prominence was mostly due to application. Additionally, it generated “awe of their magnificence,” which transformed the public’s view of tribal people as being backward. Later, this questioned colonialism’s declared objective to “civilize the savages.”

The demand for multidisciplinary and applied anthropology

A terrible economic slump, market collapse, business closures, unemployment, and overall human misery defined the years 1929–1930. This was the beginning of a severe economic downturn.Business and industry need to gain a more humane viewpoint and pay more attention to the suffering and obstacles that people encounter on a daily basis in order to accomplish this.

The financial crisis had an impact on how business and industry functioned. In addition to the natural resources essential for production, industrial management needs to place greater attention on interpersonal relationships and see people as major resources. Due to their expertise in analyzing interpersonal contacts, particularly those with tribes as part of ethnological study, anthropologists have been able to contribute to contemporary achievements.

This is the first time anthropology has faced major challenges, and it has addressed these new boundaries successfully as well. Anthropologists who worked on multidisciplinary teams that examined labor relations and industrial management in the 1930s included W. Lloyd Warner, Fred Richardson, and Elliot Chapple, among others. Elliott referred to this new effort as “engineering anthropology[6]

This initial step went on to become an important topic in applied anthropology. Every problem, it was assumed, had a myriad of underlying causes. To confront social concerns, many casualties need a multidisciplinary strategy, and applied anthropology joined this group. Eventually, this branch of inquiry became applied anthropology, which is today mostly concerned with promoting transformation and enhancing human flourishing.

Applied anthropology and research focused on solving challenges

Anthropologists are now beginning to address the difficulties that the government and other organizations have raised. Numerous anthropologists were employed to undertake research on a wide range of issues, including national morality, surveys of the general public, national character judgements of inhabitants of hostile nations, the impact of food rationing and dietary preferences, etc. Ruth Benedict’s well-known book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which addresses the traits of the Japanese people, was released in 1946. In order to overcome the social challenges brought on by the war, Margaret Mead and other well-known anthropologists lent support to the administration.

During this era, the Department of Agriculture employed anthropologists to do studies on issues relevant to rural development. It was at this time, in 1941, that the Society for Applied Anthropology was formed in the United States with the claimed purpose of “studying the principles of human action and the application of these conceptions to actual issues and problems.” At this moment, applied anthropology’s base as a science of progress had been securely established.

Postcolonial or developing stage

The second world also comes to an end at the same time as colonialism and the emergence of new independent nations. A new global order has arisen as a result of economic growth, the elimination of poverty, improving living standards, and international cooperation.

As essential factors. As pre-war anthropology’s paternalistic scientific and state-centric approach came under increased criticism, there was a yearning for more people-centric (rather than problem-centric) practical anthropology. Sol Tax previously stated that anthropologists should view people as both their subjects and their objects of study

Applied anthropology underwent many changes and attempts to be explored during this period. For instance, Sol Tax created the concept “active anthropology” initially. Action anthropologists worked directly with the communities to solve difficulties and enhance living conditions. Whether they are governmental or not, Sol Tax believes that the expectations placed on people who work for organizations severely limit their potential. This only allowed for a very limited degree of engagement. He argued for “active anthropology,” which he characterized as anthropologists reacting more promptly.

One of the key elements of this era was the application of anthropology to the subject of development. Critiques of modernization theory and the economic paradigm of development have brought attention to human, social, cultural, and sustainable development. With the shift from non-human to human components of development, the engagement of anthropologists in the domain of development studies entered a new phase. They began taking part at each level of creation, including the planning, carrying out, evaluating, and assessing of programs.

The study of anthropology was necessary for success since it was so fundamental to community development. During this age, practical anthropology dealt more firmly and directly with social issues.

Application of Anthropology in India

Studying Anthropology as Colonial Aid Research in anthropology was pioneered by the Asiatic Society of India.

Judge Sir William Jones, an indologist and orientalist, created Bengal in order to perform critical communal ethnological investigations. As was previously observed, anthropology’s roots may be traced to a type of applied ethnology employed by the colonial authorities in India to study tribes and castes and acquire information for the management of the colony[7].

The bulk of these writings were published by missionaries, government officials, judges, and military personnel who were either stationed in India or had an interest in Indian issues. The project’s informative concentration was on increasing system property, landholding, and inheritance so that administrators could better appreciate these features and improve tax revenue. In an attempt to prevent the swelling tide of nationalism from washing over the country and allowing the colonial method of divide and rule, studies have centered heavily on the variety, uniqueness, exoticness, splits, and categorization of people.

Applied Anthropology in Pre-Independence India

The pioneer of Indian anthropology, Sarat Chandra Roy, is credited with having founded applied anthropology in the fullest sense. He was moved to tears by the suffering of the Mundas, Hos, and Oraons who arrived in court with land-related issues. He was a practicing lawyer in Ranchi. They were tormented and punished with brutality by the colonial authorities. S.C. Roy started coaching them on legal matters and routinely contacted the courts[8].

Many of these indigenous people remained with him when they came to the city to deal with land alienation-related difficulties. Sol Tax’s and S.C. Roy’s ideas were similar in that they both committed to assisting tribe members with their legal problems. Despite not having any professional training in anthropology, S.C. Roy maintained relationships with some of the field’s most significant figures, including James Frazer and W.H. R. Rivers, and ultimately began teaching anthropology at universities in Ranchi and Kolkata. He created the first renowned anthropological magazine, Man in India, in 1921.[9]

Tarak Chandra Das (1898–1964), a historian by training who taught anthropology at Calcutta University, may have had a stronger effect on practical anthropology. He stressed how knowledge of cultural anthropology may be beneficial in the service of the individual and the nation in his talk as president of the Anthropological Session of the Indian Science Congress in 1941. He spoke on how individuals working in administration, trade, law, and agriculture need to grasp cultural anthropology.[10]

He was substantially ahead of his time in emphasizing the significance of cultural factors and the capacity of anthropologists to comprehend them. His groundbreaking studies on the Bengal famine of the 1940s and its effects on both urban and rural residents of Bengal Province are among the most notable examples of his attention to empirical understanding of social problems.

In order to better understand the causes of famine and its repercussions on the disadvantaged in both urban and rural locations, he launched an ethnographic inquiry in 1943 with the cooperation of his students and other staff members. He utilized case studies, questionnaires, interviews, and other standard ethnographic procedures. When the paper was submitted to the interim administration, the panel charged with examining the famine and suggesting methods to avoid it in the future adopted many of its ideas.

His entire story was published in the 1949 book The Bengal Famine by Calcutta University. In his major inquiry on poverty and hunger, famous economist Amartya Sen used the findings from the book as a launching point. In terms of its consequences for public policy and the growth of applied anthropology in India, the research was unique.

Applied Anthropology of the Post-Independent Period

Prior to the post-independence period, applied anthropology was not a well-known field that supported disadvantaged groups’ aspirations in the construction of society or greatly contributed to nation-building.

The significance of development for rural and tribal populations was highlighted. Despite adopting a solitary worldview, the British preserved and supported native communities.

Following the rebellion against the British Raj in 1857, the colonial authorities had become wary about broad sections of the Indian public. They aimed to prevent the growth of nationalism among the tribal people while still harnessing the natural wealth of the tribal regions.

To meet their purposes, they created a campaign against the indigenous tribes that was exclusive, prejudiced, and protected. With the dawn of independence, it became obvious that the isolationist attitude was ineffective and not in the best interests of the tribes. Indian culture has expanded tremendously as a result of the influence of tribes. The Indian government established a twofold policy of protectionism via safeguards to keep the people’s culture and identity and integration through development with this objective in mind. As a result, practical anthropology played a major role in this approach.

Institutions of the State and Applied Anthropology

Anthropologists have advised the government on subjects like variety and population estimates since the middle of the eighteenth century. The people of India are separated into various groups. Herbert Risley and J.H. Hutton, two excellent anthropologists who had previously been acknowledged, handled the censuses of 1901 and 1931, which were significant in Governmental categorization of the Indian people.

In order to support the government on tribal matters during the last years of British rule, the Anthropological Survey of India was created in 1945 with B.S. Guha as its first director and Verrier Elwin as its deputy director. The organization started consulting the government on themes like tribal difficulties and other obstacles damaging the biocultural diversity of the Indian people in the years following Indian independence, and this role grew increasingly relevant

. With eight regional centers located all throughout the country, it is presently the largest government organization devoted to anthropology. There are state-level networks of tribal research organizations in addition to the Anthropological Survey of India. They were created in 1953 as a part of the first five-year plan to eliminate the information gap impacting indigenous people and make it available to decision-makers. There are already 25 institutions attempting to establish festivals, events, and other activities to promote tribal traditions in different Indian states.

They also establish efforts to teach government officials stationed in local communities. Other government departments that deal with anthropologists include the Ministry of Culture, the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, the Commissions on Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, etc. In addition, anthropologists perform research on issues essential to public health with institutions like the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare and the Indian Council of Medical Studies.

Planned Change, Applied Anthropology, and Rural Development

Shyama Charan Dube gave this area its most major contribution[11] S.C. Dube, a well-known anthropologist in his day, also worked in academia and government. He was in charge of the Community Development Program, which was established in 1952 as a part of the first five-year plan with the objective of bringing about planned change and rural transformation via participatory development for a better life in rural India. The “philanthropic spirit” is rejected by this program. According to Desai, villages should be given “new wants, new incentives, new methods, and a new confidence” so that they may be employed for the nation’s expanding economic growth. [12]

The application of group research to social concerns was pioneered by S.C. Dube. He also enormously contributed to underscoring the significance of human resources for success.

Increasing Applied Anthropology’s Impact in India

In India, the discipline of applied anthropology has gained significance.

According to Van Willigen, the work of applied anthropologists in India has substantially assisted the following three application sectors. the succeeding

At the informational level, applied anthropology has traditionally served this role. Because of their emphasis on subjective, interactive, polyvocal, and reflective knowledge, anthropologists have proven to be the best at providing high-quality information inputs in any situation.

The supporting organizations have also gotten a clear message about the relevance of the regional themes. They are also specialists in evaluation, requirement assessments, and participatory appraisal studies, all of which have assisted policymakers by supplying vital information.

Anthropology has evolved fast in the realm of policy making throughout the 1990s, both in terms of its prospective applications and its position as a science of policy. Following that, there was a tremendous change in the landscape of policy-making, with the dominance of globalization, social problems, and environmental concerns. The dynamics of regional and local pressures, structural adjustment plans, and concerns about fairness and justice in connection with sustainable development, among other things, must all be taken into consideration in establishing policies. In this quickly expanding industry, anthropologists increasingly play a substantial role in influencing public policy, and many of them are related to the think tanks that have an effect on Indian public policy.

Applied anthropology has also been very active in terms of direct interventions. Now more than ever, anthropologists are helping to carry out activities. Additionally, they have begun interacting with neighborhood advocacy groups. Working with people is often tied to conducting self-help groups.

In recent years, applied anthropologists have broadened the scope of their study to cover the administration and evaluation of complex institutions like hospitals, the public sector, and other relevant ones. Early works in applied anthropology, such as The Social Framework of Indian Industry by N. R. Sheth and Culture Change in an Inter-Tribal Market by D. P. Sinha from 1968, had a tremendous effect in this field. One of the earliest studies on applied anthropology in urban settings and the challenges encountered by city dwellers was made by D. P. Sinha, who was also a pioneer of urban anthropology[13]

Situation right now

There are career opportunities in the increasing area of applied anthropology in contemporary India. All of Van Willigen’s efforts are done by applied anthropologists[14]. Tasks including policy analysis, planning, research analysis, advocacy training, cultural bridging, effect assessment, need assessment, and evaluation are performed by them.

Counselors, change agents, and administrators Prior to this century, anthropology was largely utilized to explore exotica, but it is now increasingly being applied to tackle pressing concerns like

Pollution, poverty, disaster preparation, sustainable development, chronic illnesses, public health concerns, ecological crises, agricultural difficulty, business, and industry are all becoming increasingly visible in all of these locations.

Thus, we conclude the history of applied anthropology with a historical review of its evolution and how it notably became a distinct area of expertise in India over the course of many decades, evolving and extending to answer people’s difficulties.


[1] Mead Margaret. (I975). “Discussion” in Anthropology and Society. Edited by Bela C. Maday, Washington, D.C.: Anthropological Society of Washington.

[2] Ingold, Tim. (1994). “General Introduction”. Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Edited by Tim Ingold. London: Routledge.

[3] Foster, George M. (1969). Applied Anthropology. Boston: Little Brown

[4] Ferraro G. and Sussan Andreatta. (2014). Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective . Stamford: Cengage Learning

[5] OʼDriscoll, Emma. (2009). “Applying the ʻUncomfortable Scienceʼ: The Role of Anthropology in Development”. Durham Anthropology Journal. Volume 16(1) 13-21.

[6] Bennet, J. W. (1996). “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects’ ‘. Current Anthropology. Volume 36, February, Supplementary. pp. 23-54

[7] Dirks, Nicholas B. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press, 2001. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rq9d.

[8] ibid., 18

[9] ibid. 20

[10] Guha, Abhijit. (2018). “In search of nationalist trends in Indian anthropology: Opening a new discourse”. Occasional Paper 62. Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata


[12] Desai A.R. (1958). “Community Development Projects—A Sociological Analysis”. Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 2 , pp. 152-16. Sage Publications, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42864541 Accessed: 12-04-2020 12:35 UTC

[13] Saran G. (1976). “Status of Socia Cultural anthropology in India”. Annual Review of Anthropology pp 209-225.

[14] Van Willigen, John. (2002). Applied Anthropology: An Introduction. Westport: Bergin & Garvey

See Also

Action AnthropologyAmerican AnthropologyAnthropology of Art
Anthropology of DevelopmentApplied AnthropologyAuto Anthropology
British AnthropologyCognitive AnthropologyCorporate Anthropology
Cyborg AnthropologyDigital AnthropologyEconomic Anthropology
Environmental AnthropologyEpidemiological AnthropologyFather of Anthropology
Forensic AnthropologyFrench AnthropologyGerman Anthropology
Indian AnthropologyJapanese AnthropologyLegal Anthropology
Media AnthropologyMuseum AnthropologyNutritional Anthropology
Philosophical AnthropologyPolitical AnthropologyPsychological Anthropology
Public AnthropologyRussian AnthropologyTheological Anthropology
Transpersonal AnthropologyTribal AnthropologyUrban Anthropology
Visual AnthropologyKinanthropometrySociology
Historical AnthropologyCultural AnthropologyArchaeology
Drishti Kalra - Author at Anthroholic
Drishti Kalra

Drishti Kalra is an Assistant professor at DCAC College in the Department of History, at Delhi University. She is also a PhD Research scholar at the Department of History at Delhi University. She has also been employed as a Research Assistant on two projects at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and JNU. Currently, she is also working as a Research Associate at the DU Centenary Project on the "History of Delhi University". She has lately held positions with institutions such as The Telegraph, Médecins Sans Frontières, Intern, and Hindu Business Line.

Articles: 58

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