Anthropology, actually — Forging a social scientist career path

Photo of Ben Hanowell
Photo of Ben Hanowell

Ben Hanowell is an anthropologist, data analyst, and quantitative modeler. His research and entrepreneurship has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institute for Child Health and Development, a Fulbright Scholarship, and Upstart.com. After getting his Masters in Biocultural Anthropology at the UW and almost completing a PhD in the same, he has worked as a data scientist for five years at companies including Redfin, A Place for Mom, AWS, and Amazon.

What brought you to anthropology?

When I was a boy, I told my family I wanted to be the first Egyptologist to win an Academy Award. That lofty goal never came to fruition, but the gist of it stuck with me right until I took a physical anthropology course in my first year of junior college. The course had a unit on the four-field approach to anthropology. I saw that archaeology was among those four fields, and decided to learn more. Eventually, I found work as a laboratory assistant at the State Archaeological Collections and Research Facility run by California State Parks, where I curated artifacts ranging from stone tools found in pre-colonial sites to glazed ceramics from the Spanish and American colonial periods of California’s past. With State Parks, I participated in a few excavations, including one at Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, California.

Pursuing historical archaeology, I went to archaeological field school excavating sites on Eastern Pequot lands in Stonington, Connecticut as part of a project to help the tribe — which had historically inter-mixed with escaped and freed Black slaves — reclaim its sovereignty. Then I took a course in evolutionary anthropology from Roger Sullivan at Sacramento State and changed my focus away from historical archaeology. Sullivan’s course brought me to study biocultural anthropology with Eric Smith at the UW.

How would you describe your field of study/research to a friend who is not an anthropologist?

As a biocultural anthropologist, I studied how biology and culture interact to shape the many ways that humans look, act, interact with one another, and affect their environment. One thing that humans tend to do is share resources, especially with their kin. I wanted to know how the biological and cultural evolution of human sharing shaped the way that migrants make decisions about how much money and other goods to send to their families and friends back home, who to send it to, and how to send it.

What drew you to your topic?

The evolutionary anthropology course I took with Roger Sullivan at Sacramento State challenged my understanding of morality by offering a definition of the word “altruism” that was at odds with my previous beliefs. I was fascinated but also outraged that behaviors I’d once believed were “altruistic” might instead be enlightened self-interest or nepotism. I was rapt by the idea that evolutionary theory could be used to understand how “good” things like large-scale human cooperation sometimes come at the cost of “bad” things like inherited social inequality. I was also enthralled by the idea that you could study the transmission and evolution of cultural norms using similar principles and mathematical models as those used to study the transmission and evolution of biological traits.

I came to the UW anthropology department under a National Science Foundation fellowship to conduct interdisciplinary research that straddled the fields of anthropology and biology. The fellowship brought together the anthropology and biology departments of both the UW and WSU. Through that program, I met a WSU anthropologist named Rob Quinlan, who suggested that I do research in the rural villages on the island nation of Dominica where he worked. I came to understand that remittances — the money and other goods that migrants send home — were an important context for sharing.

As I learned about remittances in Dominica, I read work by Samuel Bowles and Dorit Posel, who had used data on remittances in South Africa to test hypotheses about sharing and kinship that arise from evolutionary theory. They found that, as predicted by inclusive fitness theory, migrants send more money to households inhabited by people who are both more closely related to them and who have greater expected future fertility. Yet their model didn’t account for how social dynamics within the household interact with kinship to influence remittance patterns. That is the problem my Master’s thesis and dissertation research sought to tackle.

How do you use your degree in your professional life?

Today, I am a data scientist at Amazon. Data scientists at Amazon and other companies combine computer science, statistical analysis, and business expertise to make predictions and generate insights — including about human and institutional behavior — that help businesses make decisions.

I became a data scientist because (1) I became increasingly interested in using applied statistics in inter-disciplinary work, (2) I got interested in technology and entrepreneurship late during graduate school, and (3) I had a two-year-old daughter (now nine years old) and needed lucrative employment faster than the academic tenure track could supply it during the longest economic recession in our nation’s history.

At Amazon, I work on a team that does research on how Amazon should expand its corporate presence globally in ways that are sustainable both for the business and for the cities we move into. In the past I’ve done research on how to hire the best real estate agents at a tech-powered real estate brokerage called Redfin. I also worked at a senior housing and care referral service called A Place for Mom doing research on the pricing of senior living and the impact of senior living on older adults and their family caregivers.

Unfortunately, many data scientists employ their formidable quantitative skills and business domain expertise in the absence of much social science theory, not to mention critical theories and post-colonial theories. I use my degree to do better research that not only makes better predictions, but helps us understand the implications of those predictions and the decisions that they facilitate.

How does your degree impact your life outside of your career?

Because I lived for a year doing research on a small developing island nation, I have perspective on the sharp inequities that exist in the world today, but also on the resilience of the communities that global superpowers (with which most of us in America are complicit) continue to marginalize. Because I studied humanity from the holistic perspective of anthropology, I think every day about the systems I encounter and participate in.

What’s next?

In the medium-term future, I want to lead a research team within Amazon that looks at some of the company’s most pressing problems using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research methods, combining expertise from economists, ethnographers, statisticians, and other social scientists.

What advice would you give a student today about a career in anthropology?

Many people argue that a degree in anthropology cannot (or even shouldn’t) lead you to a lucrative and fulfilling career outside of academia. Those people are wrong. Don’t listen to them. Chart your own path. As you study anthropology, learn some transferrable skills, such as interviewing and focus group techniques, qualitative data analysis techniques, foreign languages, project management, quantitative modeling, and computer programming. When and if you move out of academia, your grounding in theory and your experience designing research projects will set you apart.