It's only human to ask questions

What better subject to take than anthropology, the study of humans going back to their evolutionary beginnings? It's interesting and employers like it, says Caroline Haydon

For those trying to avoid logjams in popular subjects such as history and English, and are prepared to think laterally about degree possibilities, anthropology is worth considering. It isn't often recommended by careers advisers, because it's not a vocational degree and there is no obvious career path. But its interdisciplinary approach engenders flexibility and a wider view of the world that is often attractive to employers, says Oxford Brookes University.

The university cites graduates who have succeeded in a range of careers: medicine, environmental maintenance, urban planning, personnel management, tourism, education, development aid. Thelist speaks to the subject's ability to inform thinking in many areas. It's a popular subject for those going on to work in aid organisations or development agencies.

What exactly is anthropology? Generally billed as the comparative study of humans, it is split into two: social anthropology, which deals with human society and cultures, with a historical dimension; and biological anthropology, which takes us right back to our evolutionary beginnings.

A large chunk of one programme in David Attenborough's The Life of Mammals series for the BBC came from a research programme into slender loris monkeys conducted at Oxford Brookes, for example.The subject can be attractive to those who do not subscribe to a simplistic view of the world and who view other subjects as too compartmentalised, says Dr Chris McDonaugh, the head of anthropology at Oxford Brookes. "It cuts across domains in a way that is true to life," he says. "For example, environmental problems have many aspects: economic, technical, political, cultural. Anthropology is holistic; it tends to bring these things together."

This is borne out by the fact that at Oxford Brookes, anthropology is studied with a long list of other subjects. It is available only as a joint honours degree in the first year. Anthropology as an interpreter of cultures can be paired with education, psychology, sociology or law. Anthropology with a social and biological emphasis is an effective complement to geography, ecology or politics.

At the LSE, which offers social anthropology, the difficulty in pinning down the subject is highlighted by the fact that they will allow you a choice of BA or BSc in the course you take – anthropology can be considered an art or a science.

Manchester emphasises that anthropologists try to show we need to reflect on what we take for granted in our cultural assumptions, particularly if "we" belong to a dominant group. People become accustomed to seeing their way of doing things as natural and normal. Failing to question that view may make it more difficult to solve some of the world's problems.

So those attracted to the subject can be adventurous and more maverick, believes Professor Peter Wade of Manchester's Department of Social Anthropology. They can be attracted to it because it is not an A-level subject, and it is therefore different and new – or because they may have been on a gap year. "People often travel to a non-Western country during a year off and develop an interest in how people are living their lives in the rest of the world," he says.

At Manchester, anthropology can be studied with linguistics, comparative religion, or archaeology, the last being a new joint honours started this year. And Manchester students can go away on a special gap year. You can go on a year's VSO course and add a year to your three-year degree.

Nationally, anthropology applications have declined in the past five years, though places may not be easy to come by in universities with good reputations. As an undergraduate subject, however, it will be different to anything you have studied previously.

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