What does it mean to be an anthropologist during a pandemic?

By Armina Dinescu

Two weeks into the lockdown in Denmark, I was fired from my job. It wasn’t personal—the whole Danish office of our intrepid, international startup was shut down. It sounds dramatic, but we were only four employees in Copenhagen. Four employees (out of 10) effectively managing every aspect of the operations and programming for a series of 24 annual film events around the world. So maybe, in a way, it was a bit dramatic, for the evolution of this startup, but only time can tell.

I mention this because it was around this time that I was asked to send a postcard from my work life. Naturally, it made me reflect on the (un)employment of an anthropologist in ways that I hadn’t in at least a couple of years. To be honest, I’ve been reflecting on the employment of the average anthropologist ever since I decided to study it abroad when I was 18. Back then, it was a more casual reflection, borne out of an inherent privilege of having grown up in a middle-class family (or whatever illusion of middle-class there was in the first decade after the fall of communism in Romania), with parents who had always encouraged me to “follow my passion”. It was a gentle, albeit somewhat careless move, in hindsight, to encourage one’s child to follow their passion just because things had “worked out” under communism (tune in next week for more on the concept of “things working out” under communism). My grandmother would ask me, concerned, what kind of work would anthropology lead me to (“digging for bones?”), but I would blithely shrug and answer something like, “Anything, anthropology is related to everything!”. My parents would smile and nod along encouragingly, “She’ll figure it out!”

No-one could have suspected a complete upheaval of the job market or the economy just as I was beginning my undergraduate studies, and I knew better than to care about the economy as I was immersing myself in the fascinating world of kinship and magic and incest taboos. 

“Follow your passion” is trite and a harmful cliché to the cynical post-graduate living in today’s world, but for a young, sheltered mind, in love with stories, this was the perfect excuse to spend 4 years studying anthropology and film in Scotland, and then another 2-3 years doing Aarhus University’s M.Sc. in Visual Anthropology. Surely, I spent all these years looking for ways to use anthropology in the “real world”, outside of academia, you might assume. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. I don’t think you can be an anthropologist and not be concerned with the “real world”. Even in your cozy armchair, you’re still curious about what’s happening outside your door. The problem, for me, at least, was that my version of the “real world” didn’t include offices and 9-to-5 jobs and wearing nice clothes and speaking corporate. My version of the “real world” included hitchhiking across North America and learning how to grow organic broccoli in Canada, or how to cook dinners for hundreds of tourists in Caribbean hostels, or how to talk about feelings with horses in the US. I thought to myself this is the most anthropological thing a young person can do—to get to know the world. 

So how did I end up from cleaning horse poop every morning in a New Mexican canyon to my 9-to-5 job where I had to speak corporate? And what happens now that this job is out the window?

Two things I discovered about myself early on in my university career: I liked being organized, and I loved watching and talking about films. That was my minor in my undergraduate degree, and I spent a long time debating which I loved more—films or anthropology. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have to choose. It seems comically commonsensical now, looking back with my grownup eyes, that the two were intrinsically intertwined. At the time, though, I had graduated with two seemingly unemployable degrees and I was trying to find a job in a country where I didn’t quite speak the language. All I could think about was, “What skills do I actually have to offer?”. 

Did anyone actually care about how other people think and interact with the world? Or how video can be used to understand each other? The short answer: they do. People and, more generally speaking, companies are very interested in what anthropologists have to offer, but—here’s the rub—anthropologists need to learn remember how to communicate with non-anthropologists. This is most easily fixed by doing an internship during your studies, with an organization, preferably outside of the academic fortress. 

You might think your fieldwork can be your internship. That’s what I told myself, after my wonderful time with Animals as Natural Therapy. I called my fieldwork an internship, even though my “internship” consisted mostly of me photographing and filming horses and therapy sessions. Not towards any measurable goal—just to learn and understand. Some of my peers, though, were conducting equally fascinating fieldwork with actual companies, learning the ins and outs of business and management. 

I kept coming back to this—why hadn’t I been more future-oriented throughout my degrees? What time I didn’t spend studying, I was either working part time hospitality jobs to support myself, or truly enjoying my life, getting to know different places and different people. To be perfectly honest, I don’t regret my choices. Not even after a full year of unemployment, a full year of literally countless job applications and rejection letters, did I really regret following my passion. What I felt I had learned with anthropology seemed too precious to be measured in jobs or certificates. That’s the sappy truth. I felt genuinely privileged to have learned about the kinship of mushrooms or about how a camera transformed a fieldwork. 

Of course, my level of joy at learning about the “real world” did not quite translate into the real job world. I still remember the feeling of dissonance in some job interviews, where I was asked casually what visual anthropology or my knowledge of horse therapies had to bring to the table. I enthused about Forest of Bliss and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and felt like a fish out of water. It wasn’t the right context for that, I would slowly learn. 

I guess that’s what it eventually boiled down to. Context. I was not quite ready to let go of the wonderfully esoteric world of academia, but I also wanted to understand or get the hang of this other, busier world of salaries, and networking, and getting things done. The mental struggle was the biggest hurdle. The concept of relating my sense of self-worth to a regular paycheck never quite sat right with me, but still, I needed that regular paycheck, and I understood that meant observing and eventually participating in this new, alien society. The skills I learned in my over one year of unemployment after my degree were nothing I could not have learned while at university, had I had the foresight to prepare myself for this ‘other’ context that awaited me after graduation. 

Still, I soon found out I was not alone in my struggle to transition to the non-academic world. It was actually a relief to meet so many post-graduates with Masters or PhDs who shared my internal conflicts. This was one of the main advantages of the unemployment system in Denmark, and for that I feel once again shamefully grateful. In addition to the regular advisory meetings and workshops, I found myself some kind of network of misfits. With not a small degree of consolation, I accepted that, while my degrees had equipped me with a wide range of soft or hard skills, it was up to me to do the translation work.

I also realized that, just because I didn’t have a fulltime job, it didn’t mean I couldn’t still do things with my time. And so I did. I filled my daily schedule with projects (paid or voluntary) and stopped wondering whether they would lead to a job or not. I started to embrace the idea of freelancing without actually being a fulltime freelancer. The more I busied myself with work that I enjoyed (translating, user research, shooting and editing videos), the less I cared about finding a stable job. In true fairytale fashion, it was around that time that I found a stable job. 

What was my main occupation, until very recently? Organizing film events. If you want to laugh out loud, I’ll allow it. My daily schedule had changed only superficially. Now I woke up early and went to an office most days of the week, from 9 to 5. I struggled to dress nice and imitate this foreign corporate language. In essence, however, I was doing the same kind of activities that I used to do when I was officially unemployed. I got lucky, I know, and it was never going to last very long. I knew that from the get-go. But I did enjoy it. It brought together my love for organization (see Fig. 3), my love for curating and sharing films and documentaries, and my love for research (except now I called it “customer research” and used surveys, gasp!). 

Now I’m finishing up my termination notice and feeling mixed feelings about the period to come. I’ve already started crowding my day with various projects (one of my favourites being a remote-research project about how people’s everyday lives are affected by the crisis). Keeping busy has become my go-to crutch when dealing with any kind of emotional instability. I feel much more confident in my ability to find a job (or a decent source of income) than I did a couple years ago. I also feel much more anxious about the objective state of the job market than I did a couple years ago. At the same time, I know I have an unusually supportive safety net (not only do I live in one of the most economically secure countries in Europe, I have a partner working in a stable field, and I also have that quasi-middle-class background waiting for me in my home country). There’s only so many hours in a day I can feel guilty about this, and there’s only so much good that can come out of it. 

The main way I try to turn my guilt into something useful is by using whatever skills I have to help people doing good work. That may not lead to permanent employment, but, then again, what is permanent nowadays? Perhaps one of the most useful things I learned in anthropology (out in the field) was to sit with negative feelings, examine them, and use them to move on. Arriving at your place of fieldwork—in many ways, an alien place you could never really prepare yourself for, from the comfort of your library—is like stepping outside your house everyday without knowing where you’ll end up. Learning to live with this sense of discomfort and anxiety (What are people saying? What do they mean when they say that? Why are they doing what they’re doing?), and maybe even thrive from it, are perhaps the most useful things during a state of global instability. 

Empathy and curiosity are, apparently, hot skills to have for the jobs of the future. That’s what LinkedIn tells me, occasionally, and I smile indulgently. I’m using LinkedIn almost daily now. I remember the person I was 10 years ago, actively puzzled by—if not even affectionately mocking—my classmates on LinkedIn, with their professional-looking headshots. Now we’re all here because that’s where the jobs are. I notice and embrace these different identities co-mingling inside me. Like any good anthropologist in the field, I can switch on my “corporate” self and adjust to whatever the job market wants me to be. Then, after working hours, I can switch that off, and return to my introverted analytical self, and continue working on my “passion projects” to get a sense of doing good in the world. Except there’s no sharp line separating these two selves—there’s a messy symbiosis of wants and needs. Much like the roles we have to play outside of academia, where we have to learn to zig-zag between jobs or even careers, in a way our parents or grandparents perhaps didn’t need to.

In typical me-fashion, I’ve overstayed my welcome on this postcard. You asked me how anthropology helped me in my work life, and my only short answer is: it’s a work-in-progress. I hope in a couple of years to have more stories to tell you about what it’s like to navigate adult employment as an over-thinking creature. By then, you’ll also have gathered experiences from this field. We could exchange postcards and compare findings.

For now, though, my main piece of advice, as you’re leaving uni and entering the most unstable job market of our time, is to trust yourself and to remember that your business card does not define you. The skills you nurture throughout your fieldwork and periods of analysis are invaluable in a wider range of fields than you might imagine. You simply need to find that red, motivating thread (or, if you’re like me, and feel like you have several red threads, try to weave them into a sturdier red rope!). The biggest challenge is not in learning some new fancy software or doing 100 online courses. Instead, I believe the biggest challenge for anthropology graduates such as yourself lies with your ability to communicate and empathize with your potential employers (or with whomever can help you pay your bills). And that’s pretty much Anthro 101. Once you’ve got your helmet on, it’s up to you to figure out what gets you out of bed and to, you know…“follow your passion”.

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