Best Practices

In such a diverse field as anthropology, at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities, in which practitioners are found in occupations across multitudes of specializations, is it possible to derive a set of overarching and relevant “best practices?”

And what is meant by the term “best practices” itself? Many veteran anthropologists are uncomfortable with the term in reference to anthropological work. “Good practices” or “best procedures,” among other terms, have been proposed as better descriptors.

Our work spans sectors and activities, durations and outcomes. Whatever we call the standards or perspectives that guide the ideal way to do work in this broad-ranging discipline, they will often need to cover a potentially diverse group of activities as well as stakeholders.  For example, with work involving research and/or evaluation, stakeholders can include participants and collaborators in our research, various types of respondents, clients and funders, organizational staff, policy makers and decision-makers, colleagues, and the general public.   Work in project management or advocacy or in a multidisciplinary setting will have different stakeholders.

There are many issues that will not be easy to resolve. But we can try to find a common set of foundational elements to guide our work across the spectrum. Let us start with ethics, which have been discussed for many decades.

Ethical Considerations

To set the stage, one should first be familiar with NAPA’s ethical guidelines for practice, which were subject to deep review and revision, and then approval of NAPA members in 2018:
NAPA’s Guidelines for Ethical Practice

There are also ethical standards as put forth by the AAA and SfAA:

American Anthropological Association

Society for Applied Anthropology
The six-point SfAA Statement of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities

These guidelines help to enlighten the optimal approaches within the practice of anthropology. The following approaches build on these ethical guidelines.

Foundations of Anthropological Practice: A Starting Point

These foundational approaches and standards are the ideal for how we should apply anthropology in our work, no matter the sector(s). Some of these are rather unique to anthropology, while others could be applied in other disciplines just as easily.  They will overlap at times, and not all will be relevant in all contexts. But generally, these are approaches that set our work apart.

At the heart of anthropological work is the concept of culture. This can be the culture of a workplace, of a project, or a particular setting. In any case, overtly or covertly, we take nothing for granted, look beyond “face value,” and try to get below the surface to the underlying components and dynamics of why people behave the way they do, and how to most effectively navigate in that context.

Cross cultural
We recognize that different groups have different ways of behavior that make sense to them. When there is a conflict, we should be ready to serve as culture brokers to try to mediate misunderstandings.

Ideally, these perspectives ultimately complement each other. Emic is understanding the way a group thinks and how they behave under a given set of accepted rules; we take into consideration and negotiate the views, experiences and perspectives of stakeholders. Etic is the outsider’s analysis and interpretation of the group’s behavior. It is the anthropologist’s role to combine these two perspectives accurately toward the most effective ends.

It is very anthropological to look at all sides of an issue, and to consider all sources of information from all available sources, before rendering an analysis or interpretation. Individuals and issues are at the center of a web of connections, relationships, and influences, and we need to sort out all strands of the web.

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary
Given our frequent work across a broad arc of professional orientations, these two standards are understandable. In general, being interdisciplinary means integrating data, information, knowledge and/or methods from different disciplines, creating a synthesis of analysis. Multidisciplinary is learning about and working collaboratively with other approaches and professions, understanding their points and taking into consideration different ways of achieving goals.

Historical, contextual, comparative
Take into account all available information, past and present, and use it in its proper context to compare options and insights. The end goal is to derive the best results based on all available information. This is systems thinking: viewing a situation, behavior, or action in context and history, rather than in isolation.

Scientific approaches and methods
Even in purely creative endeavors, there is a foundation of science to guide our decisions and actions. Knowable facts, observations, and logic guide our actions rather that gut feelings and hopeful interpretations.

To be most accurate and effective, we need to know ourselves and our internal biases, and be transparent in our work. We must also keep in mind our effect on others, as well as relevant power dynamics, cultural blind spots, and other situational factors.

We should always match our programs or activities with the interests and needs of the funders or client/community. Similarly, we need to match the budgets with the programs or activities.

Our orientation is to try to create situations in which all stakeholders benefit, without resulting advantages and disadvantages across individuals or groups.

Findings and Results
In many situations we work with stakeholders to rapidly synthesize and co-construct analysis, information, knowledge, and direction, and to understand the translation of information and knowledge into decisions leading to action. It is vital to pay attention to the policy implications of our work. We rarely work in a vacuum.

These practices/procedures are under development through 2018-19. Please submit your comments, thoughts, and issues to include in this resource. It is recognized that consensus on all issues will be challenging. Below are links to more specialized areas of practice for anthropologists (under development).

Specialized Approaches and Procedures

To come:

  • Education, Instruction, and Training
  • Management/Administration
  • The Business Sector
  • Community Organization/Development

Additional Resources


A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology (2013). Riall W. Nolan, ed. Wiley-Blackwell
Over 30 practitioners have detailed how they go about their careers through the practice of anthropology. Included are working in business, government, and nonprofit sectors, and in various domains of health, international development, the military and security, marketing and advertising, design and product development, and other relevant and timely arenas.

Ethnographer’s Toolkit (2010-2016). Jean J. Schensul and Margaret D. LeCompte, eds. Alta Mira
This seven-book series provides an incredibly rich and detailed resource for how to go about working in applied and practicing anthropology. Individual titles include “Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research,” “Ethnography in Action,” “Ethics in Ethnography,” and “Initiating Ethnographic Research.”

Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters (2017). Steven Lubet,  Oxford University Press

Do ethnographers always get it right? What can others outside the discipline teach us about our work?  A legal scholar finds some disturbing results in an effort to verify the content of interviews from a number of ethnographic works. A very brief discussion of the book can be found on wikipedia.

Online Resources

Praxis Award Recipients (ongoing list of awardee abstracts, pdf).
Winners of the biennial Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists Praxis Award represent exemplars of the profession. The online list features only brief abstracts of their work, however. For more details, turn to the dated but valuable “Anthropological Praxis: Translating Knowledge into Action,” Robert M. Wulff and Shirley J. Fiske, eds, 1987, Westview Press. The book details the accounts of practitioners in 20 chapters describing their projects, including information projection, policy formulation, planning and implementation, and evaluation. It is available on Amazon.

How to do Ethnography Right (2016).
A compilation of six essays discussing various aspects of ethnography best practices.

APA Professional Practice Guidelines.
The American Psychological Association has published a number of guidelines for a range of contexts in which psychologists work, including psychological evaluation, child protection, record keeping, working with older adults, clinical practice, and quality improvement.

Business Anthropology

Ethics in the Anthropology of Business: Explorations in Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy (2017). Timothy de Waal Malefyt and Robert J. Morais, eds. Routledge

Standards of Practice for Ethnography in Industry.

Educating and Training Applied and Practicing Anthropologists

Resources for Anthropology University Programs.
This page contains nearly 30 links to “best practices and lessons learned” that serve as models and suggestions for applied anthropology programs. Also listed is the overarching “Guidelines for Training Applied Anthropologists” from 1995.

Welcome To NAPA

NAPA promotes human-centered work applied to practical problems by linking a network of professional anthropologists working across employment sectors.  We support all anthropologists in bringing real solutions to communities, organizations, and policymakers, by offering advocacy, information, networks, mentoring, and continuing education.


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